What is the main priority of the church?

A couple of days ago, I published this article from Evangelicals Now. That seemed to lead to some gross misunderstanding, to the point where I was being accused by some of saying that there is too much evangelism going on in some quarters. I didn’t say that, or anything close to it. To try and clear that up, I published this article yesterday.

But it strikes me that much of the misunderstanding emanated from different views of what the priority of the church ought to be. It should hardly come as a surprise that those involved in parachurch missions organisations set up for the purposes of evangelism should see evangelism as effectively the only priority. But there are plenty of churches who – as per my previous two articles – effectively take this view too.

Of course, there are those who take the opposite view. They see no need to do any evangelism and don’t see it as the domain of the church at all. We just preach the Word, they insist, and the Lord will do the rest. He will bring in those whom he wants to save and they will respond simply by a work of the Holy Spirit. I have met my fair share of Gospel Standard blokes who would make the case. The view emanates from an understanding that evangelism is not a priority of the church (which, as I have already pointed out, I think is clearly wrong).

Others still want to insist that there are different priorities that they base on other things altogether. Aren’t those with a gift of evangelism supposed to prioritise evangelism? Only if we think those with a gift of prophecy should only prioritise that and those with the gift of Apostleship should only prioritise that and those with a gift of… well, you get the idea. Of course, the Apostles didn’t just apostle (probably because apostle isn’t a verb). But they definitely did, with their gift of apostleship, do plenty of evangelism and preaching and other things. Similarly, Timothy was commanded to preach the Word but also to do the work of an evangelist. He didn’t seem limited by any sense of gifting. And, the fact is, it is difficult to get around the fact that everybody is commanded to do some stuff irrespective of how ‘gifted’ they feel. Which leads into a whole other discussion about what spiritual gifts actually are, but what most people mean by ‘spiritual gifts’ i.e. special abilities is not how the Bible ever uses that term. But that is another discussion for another day. What is pertinent here is that the question of priorities comes up again, which some insist rests in the question of giftedness.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I think these understandings of the priorities of the church are wrong. In fact, I think they tend to lead to an out of kilter approach to church life when some things are emphasised to the detriment of others (whatever those things happen to be). Because the Christian life consists of more than just evangelism, or discipleship, or praying, or reading the Bible, or whatever other legitimate and good thing you want to make into the ultimate priority. The problem with making any of these things the main priority is that none of them can ever be said to be done or enough. You will never have prayed enough, or read the Bible enough, or done enough evangelism or whatever. Which means, if you make any of those things the main priority, everything else will get pushed out in favour of it. Which might well mean you are doing excellently in that one area, whilst failing to do a whole load of other things Jesus calls all of us to do too.

As far as I understand the Bible, there is, indeed, one priority of the church. It is the same priority for every single Christian, past, present and future. It has always been the priority of every believer and it will forever remain the priority of every believer. And if we properly prioritise it, we will find a bit of balance in all the excellent, many and varied things that Jesus calls us to do. That priority is faithfulness. Specifically, faithfulness to Christ.

Jesus does not ask us to rank his commands in order of priority and work out which one of them we want to keep most. He doesn’t tell us to figure out the most significant ones and pour all our time into that and not to worry about the lesser ones (however we work that out). He simply commands things and calls us to do them. Jesus said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’. Note he doesn’t say, ‘rank them and mainly keep your favourites.’ In other words, Jesus calls us to follow him and to be faithful to what he asks of us. That is the priority of the church.

And when we are faithful to Jesus and his commands, we will find that we don’t end up artificially ranking what he asks of us. I can’t neglect my family because I’m too busy in the work of evangelism nor can I never do any evangelism because I’m too busy with my family. Jesus doesn’t expect me to pick my favourite; he expects me wisely work out how to do both. It means that he doesn’t ask me to figure out whether I disciple the folks in our church or I reach out with the gospel; he wants me to do both. He doesn’t ask me to discover my spiritual gift and pour all my time and effort into that, he asks me to do all the other things that he asks every believer to do as well. He doesn’t force a wedge between my Bible reading and my prayer life, he wants me to do both. All of these things are things that Jesus calls me to do. If I am being faithful to him, I will work out how best to do them all without claiming I must not do some of his commands so as to fulfil others.

It is only when we make faithfulness to Christ our priority that we are freed to live balanced Christian lives. The Lord Jesus doesn’t want me to spend all my time doing any one particular thing, he wants me to wisely use all of my time to glorify him by remaining faithful to him and keeping his commands.

How does the Westminster Shorter Catechism put it:

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Q: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A: The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

Q: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A:  The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

We glorify God and enjoy him by reading the scriptures, believing what they tell us about God and doing what he commands of us. In other words, our priority is to be faithful and, in so doing, we glorify God and fulfil the purpose for which he made us.