Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"testimonies" or "distinctives"?

Here in Northwest Yearly Meeting you'll sometimes hear people describe the Friends' peculiar stances on things as "distinctives." I thought this was normal until I was speaking to Friends in Boston and someone told me they knew to which branch of Friends I belonged because I referred to the Friends testimonies as "distinctives."

In meeting for worship the other day, Paul Anderson spoke about the testimony of equality, and said something really helpful regarding the meaning of "testimonies" and "distinctives." (You can find that message on our meeting's podcast here.) He said that the testimonies are all Christian testimonies--meaning they are found in the Bible (although one can practice them without being "Christian").  Testimonies are for all time. They are things that are a good idea for all people, everywhere. These are things like equality of all people, living peaceably and doing intentional reconciliation work as needed, fostering community, etc.

"Distinctives," on the other hand, are the particular way we each (or each generation) feel led to live these things out. So where the testimony of good stewardship, for example, might be a good idea for all times and all people, the "distinctive" of Friends today might be aimed toward stewardship of the environment, because that is the area with which our particular time and place struggles. Likewise, the testimony of equality is important for everyone, but during the nineteenth century in the United States, Friends lived this out distinctly by advocating for abolition of slavery and the right of women to vote, among other things. I really liked this way of defining these two terms and I thought it was helpful, so I thought I'd pass it along.


Paul Anderson said...

Thanks, Cherice, the distinction is an extremely important one (timeless truths versus timely applications), and I'm afraid I have contributed unintentionally to the confusion. In the first edition (Barclay Press 1982) of the Meet the Friends pamphlet series, I titled the second essay "Quaker Distinctives" as a means of getting at "thee and thou" language, chocolate and root beer as alternatives to more addictive substances (Sylvester Graham was actually a Presbyterian, though Quakers did make biscuits and digestives), and the establishment of care facilities for the mentally ill (the Retreat in England, etc.). These are examples of distinctive contributions as alternatives to the norm, seeking to make a redemptive difference within society--living out our Christian Testimonies.

The next four essays cover the Christian Testimonies of Friends regarding Worship, Ministry, Peace, and Sacraments. I like these better than Brinton's SPICE acronym, as they deal with core Quaker convictions more centrally. However, some folks have wrongly come to regard these central convictions as "distinctives"--which I do not. So, I call for any who have done so, or might be tempted to do so, to "repent and believe in the Gospel" (smile). The Gospel is not a "distinctive" it also is a Testimony to God's breaking into human history and making all things new--and Quaker understandings of God's time-changing work is what the Testimonies signify.

So, if you have a chance to look at the latest editions of the Meet the Friends Series (Barclay Press 2004 and 2011), the revised title for the second essay is "Quaker Testimonies and Distinctives"--distinguishing the two terms.

Below are the revised first three paragraphs of the essay, hoping to make the distinction clearly. Let me know if it comes through.


Paul Anderson


(from Meet the Friends, revised editions)

Early Friends sought to recover the spiritual vitality of the first Christians, and this led them to raise several Testimonies to what it means to follow Jesus. While Testimonies are timeless convictions, they were applied in timely and distinctive ways. This is why Friends’ Testimonies and distinctives should not be confused.

Friends’ Testimonies include the convictions that worship should be in Spirit and in truth; that ministry should be universal and Spirit-filled; that sacramental reality is inward and directly mediated; that peaceable means to peaceable ends should be prioritized; that plain speech and simple living are normative for all Christians; and that Christ can be trusted to lead his followers directly if they will attend his present leadership.

But Testimonies are not mere “options” for Christians to embrace if they care to or discard if they don’t. They are upheld as direct implications of Christ-centered living. Note, however, distinctive applications of these timeless convictions.


Gordon Bennet said...

Thank you. I find this distinction very useful; I have never come across the term "distinctives" here in Oz. I often think of Quaker history (in terms of social action) as a series of rather remarkable insights into systemic injustice; the spiritual equality of women and native peoples in 17th century, slaves in 18th, "criminals" in 19th and enemies in war in 20th are well known. This helps me to think about the challenge we all face of how to live out the testimonies in our own time. My own view is that it is economic inequality, and the associated inequality of opportunity, that is the stand-out for the 21st Century and this is intimately bound up with environmental destruction.

cherice said...

Thanks, Paul, for posting your article!

I agree, Gordon--God gives us these "remarkable insights into systemic injustice," and we should be paying attention to the one(s) we're called to address in this century.