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A Question of Priorities

chicken-egg.jpgIt’s the old “nature/nurture” debate; the chicken or the egg; the “catch-22”, the irresistible force versus the immovable object. It has seesawed countless times throughout our human dialogue, whether in ecclesiastical circles or society at large. Some clever person frames the question so as to elicit a certain answer, and when the respondent coughs up the reply, he immediately becomes a fool, or worse, an infidel.

Take the question: Do you love souls or do you love God? Or, how can you befriend the sinner without contaminating your relationship with God? Or, should the church strive to be relevant or separate? Or, should we sacrifice vigilance on the altars of a mega-revival vision? Most often, such unresolved conundrums pool up like standing water at a swamp bottom, offer no healthy release, and polarize people into opposing factions.

I’m speaking of progress as opposed to regress; outreach to the sinner versus holiness for the saints; the choice between evangelism and discipleship. For too long, the debate has been posited as one or the other. One school contends for full-bore evangelism, bringing as many of the “great unwashed” as possible into the confines of our steepled edifices, ignoring all the attendant sights, sounds and smells. The opposing view maintains that the overarching principles of true discipleship make purity imperative, and throttle any growth that challenges holiness teachings. The question has no easy answer because variegated perspectives cast it in different lights. Either holiness precludes revival, as the argument goes, or else evangelism simply excuses unrestrained worldliness. Both sides see the other as the agent of destruction.

Unfortunately, these entrenched views mark the beginning of the present dialogue, not the end. With minds made up, with two and three generations invested into one particular side, with years of freely expressing disagreement—-sometimes infused with inflammatory terminology—-the contention turns hot and cold, but never off. For the militant, “compromise” is a vile word, and thus every attempt to reach an understanding or to orchestrate a truce fails before it starts. Absent this understanding, withdrawal and isolation emerges as the preferred path. Yet, these intransigent attitudes need not rule the day.

Evangelism and growth do not negate holiness. If I understand the mission of the church, our number one mandate is to reach the lost. In his gospel, John wrote that Jesus “must needs go through Samaria .” (John 4:4). In his parting words for the fledgling band of disciples, ”Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15 ). The compelling burden for Paul to reach the world drove his entire ministerial career. But if increased numbers watered down the doctrines and practices of the church, then the primitive church would have miserably failed in its mission. We know that didn’t happen. The first church maintained high and stringent standards, even with meteoric growth.

Holiness teachings do not stop evangelism. Clearly, God’s people must be graced with inward and outward holiness. “… and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14). Liberal leanings, which erode biblical holiness, must never characterize the church. At the same time, neither can we succumb to an unreasonable fear of zealous evangelism because it may potentially poke holes in our wall of separation.

It comes down to a question of priorities. This does not mean establishing priorities between evangelism and holiness, but of timing and need. For the lost sinner, holiness means nothing if he is not evangelized. Even if we clean him up to look like a saint, but he still has an unregenerated heart, he remains lost. On the other hand, the church that loses its holiness distinctive has nothing to offer to the lost world. Whatever evangelistic thrust it makes has no meaning beyond the generic programs of countless other church groups and denominations.

For the lost, our priority must be evangelism. In discipling the saint, the priority must be holiness. Contention only erupts when we see the two goals as mutually exclusive. When we achieve the proper balance and timing between the two, the contention subsides. That means that saints and sinners must sometimes rub elbows, and it means we must exercise wisdom in every situation, but it produces the end result of a church that is both growing and healthy.

Jesus provides us with the pattern. “And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7). Love without compromise. Jesus had his priorities in order.

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