What Should Come First?

What should come first in the Christian’s life and work? Anyone would quickly answer; the necessary things in life! Though food, clothing, shelter are necessities in life, but not the absolute first things to strive for, these material aspects are not to be included in this discussion of “first things.”

So what are the necessary first things for a Christian? One can distinguish by asking; what is most necessary? and what is least necessary? To find the answers to these questions has raised much discussion in times past and present. It is not my intention to give You a list of items in the order they should come. Frankly, the longer I live, work and try to do my part in God’s work on earth, the more I realize that the making of “lists of priorities” has done more damage than good, This I do know, that those who took Jesus’ words seriously “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” found that they didn’t need a list of necessary things in the order they were to be realized. God constantly gave surprises and providentially led men in the working out of the various aspects of God’s programme for men on earth.

I suppose it would be helpful if I stated what I consider not only wrong but damaging in this whole business of “priorities” and/or talk about “the most important things to work for” or “the first things to stress are…”

As I wrote these words I heard a Melbourne University Professor of Sociology say (via transistor) that in the future political parties would be more influential and of greater service to the masses than the Church. In other words, here is a man who sees political parties and action as the most important avenues of service and influence and therefore political organizations and programmes require our interest, support and participation more than the Church and its activities. Others have stated the case more comprehensively: “It is time for Christians to stress and work for social programmes, i.e., in labour, politics, welfare, rather than to spend so much time and energy on evangelism. Again others say the necessary way to do evangelism is by way of social action rather than witnessing or teaching. And have you not heard again and again the arguments pro and con as to whether or not the home comes first, before the church and school, or that the church is more important than the Christian school? or Christian education is more important than missions? or primary Christian education is more necessary than a Christian high school or university education?

From another area we hear some folk insist that in the situation of today it is more necessary to stress the doctrine of sanctification in preaching than justification. Others, if not by word, then by deed, insist that it is most important to preach repentance, forgiveness and justification. They assume sanctification and Christian service will quite naturally follow.

God’s Kingdom is the only and all-important factor in our life. Recall that John the Baptist and Jesus primarily preached the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom brings to our attention the King, the Lord, our Saviour and His poured out Spirit. It places before us His revealed will and plan of redemption and action; the Infallible Word, the Scriptures. The Kingdom places us immediately in the whole domain of Christ the King. Our Saviour is not just the “Saviour of souls,” he is the Saviour, Redeemer, Restorer of every part of his domain, indeed, over all things he has made and over which he continues to rule! And, if I, or anyone else, say that a part of the truth of the King, his Word and/or his domain is more important than another, then I may well be setting myself up as wiser than God. I do this in word and deed if I select certain aspects out of God’s Word and out of life. But, if I take the whole of God’s Word and the totality of life as God has given it, then and only then are all aspects in proper perspective. Then I see how all things are related and I won’t fall into the danger of stressing one thing at the expense of another. Then I won’t make a list of priorities to suit my particular interests, concerns or pet projects. To make a personal list of priorities is to create imbalance in the Christian life and work. To do this can result in a caricature of God’s programme for men on earth. To do this can result in working for one’s own specific purposes. Thus an aspect of God’s work can become a self-centered activity.

The practical consequences of establishing priorities and of being controlled by these can be unwholesome if not disastrous. Consider the following:

The Church can be considered the most important aspect of the Christian life. That the Church, with Christ as Head and believers as the body is important no Christian believer would deny. But a concentration on the Church can, as it actually has happened, result in an emphasis on the institution as such. Offices and officers, formal worship and ritual, organization and planned activities receive the emphasis. The Church becomes an “establishment,” not a living, worshipping serving body of the Lord Jesus its Head.

The Church can be considered the most important agency in the Christian life for Christian service and action. The ministers, in this context, stress social concern and compassion, social action in areas of welfare, social relationships, government, labour and industry. When the Church becomes a social organization by making an aspect of the Christians’ calling the prime factor for the Church, God’s plan and purpose for the Church are altered. The Church is caricatured. Is it a wonder many people turn from the Church which has lost its main characteristics and does not carry out all its duties?

Again and again one hears and reads: “Evangelize or perish.” Now it certainly is true that the Church’s task is to bring the gospel to all men. Every church member has this duty. However, to stress this at the expense of the ministry of teaching, mercy and fellowship has serious consequences for the cause of Christ. By means of evangelism men hear the Word of God and by God’s Spirit are born again. Thus babes in the faith become part of God’s family. But by a strong predominant emphasis on evangelism, the babes are either constantly re-evangelized or they are left to starve. An evangelizing ministry which does not have a coordinating teaching ministry, has had, and does have deeply and pervasive unfortunate consequences. In like manner, an emphasis on Christian education in the church and school can lead to disastrous consequences. If men are not first of all introduced to Christ, what are they to be taught? Indeed a dominant emphasis on education at the expense of evangelism and Christian service can result in few people to teach and no specific goal for teaching.

Of late there is much emphasis on Christian social concern and a ministry of Christian compassion. But is it possible to carry out such a “Christian ministry” if Christ is not presented, i.e., if Biblical evangelistic work is neglected? Is it possible to carry out such work if men and women do not know Christ personally and have been instructed in the truths concerning him as Saviour and Lord of all?

I wish to point out that a stress on one aspect of our total Christian life calling and task can and does lead to disastrous consequences. The causes of Christian missions, Christian education, the Church, Christian social concern and activity do not have the enthusiastic support they require and deserve. I have been trying to point out that a main reason for this lies with the Christians themselves. They have become single eyed, concentrating on what they have set up as a priority. At the expense of other equally necessary factors, one thing has been singled out. Christ commanded his followers to “go out,” evangelize. But he also commanded them to teach and to carry out his work of Christian mercy. The early church workers, e.g., the Apostle Paul was as concerned to teach men, train them for service, to have the church show concern for the poor and persecuted as he was to preach the gospel to every man. James strongly emphasized the “total character” of the Christian life by his stress on works as the expression of a living faith. Social concern, caring for widows and the fatherless were equally important as presenting Christ the Saviour of the widows and the fatherless.

The fact is that there is a tragic fragmentation of the cause of Christ. Too many Christians have taken a fragment of the whole and gave it the place of the whole. This means they took a fragment of the Scriptures instead of the whole. Does this not also readily lead to having only a little part, if any part at all, in Christ, his Church and Kingdom?

The call that must go out to all Christians -yes evangelicals -is: take the whole of Scripture! Obey Christ in all things. Open your eyes and your heart to the Sovereign Christ of the Scriptures Who is all: Creator, Redeemer, Teacher, Lord and Friend. Don’t be satisfied with your personal limited view of him. Become interested, a supporter and involved in the entire, full-orbed programme of Christ’s cause on earth. Evangelize, teach, train, be active in Christian social activities. Live and work in the full sphere of Christ Jesus’ domain. Don’t set up priorities and thus fragment Christ’s work for his people on earth. This does not mean a given person should not specialize in a given field. Men certainly should and will do that. But their specialization should not be separated from the whole and thus become an isolated fragmentary endeavour.

The crying need of the day is not a new direction, a new road or a relaid highway. The need is to enter upon, walk and work in the entire, well marked way of life that Christ has placed before us.

Rev. Van Groningen is professor of theology at Geelong Theological Seminary, Victoria, Australia.