Are Quakers Christians?
It has come to my attention more than once that there are many people who actually think that Quakers are not Christian. Why they think so I can only guess because when I ask them they cannot say. Can it be that our faith and practice is just so different from what they experience in their churches that we don’t “feel” Christian to them?
Surprisingly, hearing this usually makes me somewhat indignant, even though I am very comfortable calling myself a Quaker and not just a little uncomfortable calling myself a Christian. Indeed, why should I be indignant when I am so delighted that Jews and Buddhists and pagans and atheists worship with us and struggle with us for peace and social justice?
Perhaps I am indignant for the many Quakers who are very conscious of being Christian and who, like the early Quakers, try to live their lives according to good gospel order. When George Fox discovered the one who could “speak to his condition,” it was Christ Jesus, not Buddha, or Shiva, or the Great Spirit, or even Jehovah. One would think that if a faith is based on the teachings of Jesus it has to be Christian. Apparently that is not quite the case. The rub comes from the multitude of understandings of those teachings.
Now, Quakers do not have a catechism or a dogma that we learn by rote, so it is not just a little difficult to say what it is Quakers understand the teachings of Jesus to be. The task is further complicated because so many of us are Convinced Friends who learned most of what we know about Christianity in other Sunday schools. In fact, it is characteristic of Quakers to be very tolerant of differences in belief, not only the beliefs of other Christians, but the variety of belief among ourselves as well.
However, it does seem fair to say that on the whole Quakers devote far less attention than other churches to a last judgment or to the fear of hellfire. Perhaps that is due to our bedrock belief that there is “that of God in everyone.” Although I’m not sure we’ve ever fully articulated the theological implications of that most simple belief, it seems to me to speak to universal salvation, which is a very different thing from a sorting of the worthy from the unworthy.
Is it that which makes Quakers seem to so many to be outside the Christian fold? Or is it something more concrete: not having an appointed minister or a prescribed liturgy; not passing a collection plate, or praying out loud; not having a creed. Ah! That may be the crux of the matter. Theologians define Christianity as a creedal religion and George Fox saw no need for creeds.
Not having a creed is risky. It can open us up to the indwelling spirit. It can challenge us to change our beliefs and attitudes. It can lead us to value our own experience at least as much as that of our ancestors. Christianity was certainly a risky faith to follow in its early centuries and it may still be risky for Quakers, who insist on following as best they can the living spirit.