As we discover the amazing presence of Christ that dwells within us and among us, we are witnesses not only to the love of Jesus, but also to the cleansing and guiding power of his Light. Like his early disciples, we experience him walking alongside us, our ever-present Guide and Friend. Like the early Church, we are witnesses to his ongoing power and teaching through the Holy Spirit.
When Quakers speak of having a living relationship with the Risen Lord, we do not say this as a euphemism for encountering Christ in the Scriptures. While we certainly are spoken to powerfully by Christ's witness in the Bible, our friendship with Jesus is not dependent upon any created thing - not even the Scriptures that he inspired. Faith in Christ must ultimately be based in a real relationship with him.
The inward witness of Christ is present in every heart, and Christ dwells in all who open themselves to his healing, cleansing power. When we submit ourselves to him, he dwells not only in individuals, but also in the Church as a whole. Because Christ is over all and within all, we can listen together for his will for us as a body. The Holy Spirit is present to lead us into all truth, if we will obey its promptings.
In practice, God's leadings usually emerge initially through an individual or a small group. While everyone is capable of hearing the voice of Christ in their heart, some of us are chosen by God to deliver certain messages. Paul was personally commanded by Jesus to deliver the message of salvation to the Gentiles. George Fox was called to preach the good news of the indwelling Christ to an unbelieving generation. God led John Woolman to expose the evils of slavery. All of these causes were eventually taken up by an entire community, but the initial spark came through one person who was called to prophetic ministry.
Prophecy did not cease with the closing of the biblical canon. On the contrary, one of the signs of the coming of Christ's reign is the prophetic witness of women and men.(1) Prophecy is not primarily about telling the future - it is above all about expressing God's will for us today. The individual shares Christ's message with the group, and this prophecy must be weighed by the entire community. If the message is truly from God, the present witness of the Holy Spirit will confirm it.
Testing the Spirits
While each person has access to the Light of Christ, we are easily confused. There are so many competing impulses within us, each vying for our attention, and it is easy for the still, small voice of Christ to be drowned out by a cacophony of other, louder voices. Selfishness, fear, pride, and other malevolent influences threaten to hold sway over our lives, even posing as the voice of God. It is crucial, therefore that we test the spirits, discerning whether the leadings that we feel in our hearts come from God, or from another source.(2)
We do well to test our sense of leading personally, waiting on God for greater clarity and searching the Scriptures for guidance. If, after a period of waiting and settling, we still feel clear that God has laid a concern on our heart that affects people beyond ourselves, we owe it to our brothers and sisters to bring the concern to our church community.
In community, we have a better chance of rightly discerning the will of God. There are more hearts to listen, and a wider variety of perspectives to bring to bear on the concern. The Church is the community in which we are covenanted to one another in submission to Christ; and, in this setting of mutual trust and commitment, we are able to see more clearly together than we could have own our own. By bringing the discernment of the entire community to bear on a question, we are more likely to determine the truth of the matter.
Scripture and Tradition
Unfortunately, despite all our good intentions and desire to serve God, we are still quite capable of twisting God's will in order to make it match our human expectations. Even as communities, we frequently get lost in our own particular set of group dynamics and shared assumptions. Because of our seemingly endless ability to misconstrue the voice of God within, we are greatly aided by outward checks to our inward discernment. These checks go beyond our particular community and connect us with the wider Church, both now biologically living, and throughout time.
One very important outward check is the Bible. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are foundational to our life as a Christian community, and we should test any sense of leading by the teachings of the Bible. For example, if a portion of the Church believed that God called them to participate in a military effort, we find in the testimony of Scripture a serious caution against accepting such a leading as genuine. Christ is very clear in his example of self-sacrificial love, and readers of the Sermon on the Mount will come away with deep reservations about engaging in any kinds of war or fighting under the pretense of Christian conviction.
Of course, though this interpretation of Scripture seems very clear to Quakers, Anabaptists, and some other Christians, it is - strangely enough - the minority viewpoint among professing Christians. Interpretation of Scripture varies a lot, depending on the tradition a community stands in. Furthermore, many of the hot-button issues that currently fascinate (and divide) the Church today are not specifically mentioned in Scripture; and many matters are not addressed at all. It has long been clear to Friends that the Bible cannot be used as a rulebook or a constitution. Ultimately, nothing can substitute for the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Coming to Unity
Carrying out our discernment in the context of the Church does more than make it easier for individuals to hear and obey Christ's leading: When we come together to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, we can be united for action as a body. While some of Christ's leadings are meant specifically for a certain individual, many are intended to be enacted by entire communities - and, in some cases, the Church as a whole. When we stand together in covenant with one another in Christ, we create an environment where God can be invited into our midst. And when we submit ourselves as a community to the prophetic witness that Christ sends among us, we will be united and empowered by the Spirit to do God's work in the world.
1. Acts 2: 17-21
2. 1 John 4:1