A time for everything…

John Frame writes in his essay, A Theology of Opportunity, about “Prioritizing God’s Commands”:

There is a bit of complication which enters at this point, however. We want to obey the commands of God. Sometimes, however, we must choose which command of God to obey at a particular time. That sounds a bit strange; I’ve explained it rather fully in my book Evangelical Reunion. Let me just say here that we cannot obey all of God’s commands at once. We cannot pray, evangelize, teach our children, help the poor, seek social justice, all at the same time. We have to postpone some of them in order to do others. That means that we have the responsibility to prioritize God’s commands. That sounds very suspicious, doesn’t it? We want to say that all of God’s commands are absolute; all are of ultimate importance. How can we dare to arrange them on a scale of relative importance?

Well, some distinctions need to be made. God’s negative commands must, of course, be obeyed instantly and for all time. “Don’t commit adultery” means stop it now if you’re doing it, and never do it again. Some positive commands are also to be obeyed instantly and for all time, like the command to believe in Jesus. But sometimes God commands us to do things that take definite periods of time to do, and he doesn’t tell us when or where. Praying, evangelizing, teaching, giving to the church, helping the poor are examples of such commands. With those commands, we must prioritize. We must decide what we are going to do, when and where. We must decide what emphasis we will place on these.

Every believer should pray, for example; but there are differences among us here. Scripture tells us that some people have (or had) the “gift” of prayer. Evidently there is something about the prayer life of such people that is different from the prayer lives of those who don’t have this particular gift. We are told that Luther prayed for three hours every day. If he did, I have no doubt that God honored that. But does that mean that it is sinful for someone else to pray for only two hours a day, or fifteen minutes? Not necessarily. Some people spend ten hours a week evangelizing neighborhoods; knocking on doors to make basic gospel presentations. Luther did not do that, to my knowledge. But I have no doubt that God honors those who do.

So even with regard to applying simple divine commands, there is a place for sanctified human wisdom. We must not only look at the scriptures, but also look at our own individual gifts and callings, and the needs of the church in a particular situation. There is, therefore, a place for using extra-biblical knowledge to determine where we can best expend our energies at a particular time. And there is a need for the wisdom of God’s Spirit to enable us to make godly judgments in these areas. Like Paul, we must be aware of where we are in space and time, and we must seek to do there what God calls us to do.

If there are such differences among individuals, there are differences among churches as well. In Evangelical Reunion I make the point that at least some of the differences between churches and denominations are not over doctrine, but over priorities. In Presbyterianism, we can sometimes distinguish among churches according to their relative emphasis on evangelism, doctrinal orthodoxy, or procedural regularity. We all believe in all three of these things. But some churches give relatively more time and energy to one, time that is necessarily not given to the others. Some analysts of the Dutch reformed churches say that these are divided into “piets, Kuyps and docts.” The piets, or pietists, emphasize personal piety; the Kuyps or Kuyperians emphasize the transformation of culture; the docts emphasize conformity to the Reformed Confessions. These emphases are not contrary to one another. The problem is simply that we are finite. None of us can do everything, so practically our emphases will be different.

Here we need to have more love and understanding of one another. People who emphasize doctrinal orthodoxy tend to look at those who emphasize evangelism as if the latter group were not interested in orthodoxy, and vice versa. There is, of course, room for us to stir one another up to more complete visions of God’s purposes. But our main attitude in such situations should be one of thankfulness to God that he has equipped others for tasks different from ourselves. Remember the New Testament metaphor of the body with many parts. The parts do different things; but none is absolutely superior or inferior to the others. The head cannot look down on the foot, nor the heart upon the liver.

What we should not do, certainly, is simply to insist that everybody do things in the precise way we have been doing them. Here again, it is important for us to recognize that sola Scriptura is very different from blind traditionalism. Under sola Scriptura we allow scripture to identify those areas in which we must all be alike; beyond those areas, we recognize those spheres in which we are free to be different. And under sola Scriptura, we are free sincerely to honor those who differ from us in such matters of emphasis.

And, if you can bear another point from Evangelical Reunion: it seems to me that when we learn to honor such legitimate differences of emphasis, we will come closer to breaking down the sinful denominational barriers that today keep Christians from working together. God intends for his church to operate as one, not as many denominations. Our lack of oneness, I am convinced, is one important reason for the church’s powerlessness in our time. For a church to be powerful, it needs to have the full variety of the gifts of the Spirit, and that means that it must have a wide variety of different prioritizations among the commands of God.

Wise words from a wise man, I think.