Individual Priorities

From John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (emphasis his):

Because we are finite, we cannot keep all of God’s commandments simultaneously. Often our inability to do this produces false guilt. One sermon tells us to spend hours in prayer, another to feed the hungry, another to study the Bible intensively, another to evangelize our neighborhoods, another to catechize our children, another to become politically active. All of these seem to be based on biblical norms, yet we often feel overwhelmed by such huge demands on us. There simply are not enough hours in the day to do all that we are exhorted to do.

It is helpful to remember that when God commands us to pray, to evangelize, to help the poor, and so forth, He is speaking primarily to the church as a whole and only secondarily to each of us as individuals. These are works that the church must do. Each individual in the church must contribute toward their fulfillment. But how the individual contributes will depend on his gifts and calling. Not all of us are called to pray six hours a day or to ring doorbells in our neighborhoods or to start political movements. Each one of us, then, must prayerfully, under the guidance of Scripture, devise his own set of priorities among these communal norms. That sounds dangerous. How can there be “priorities” among ultimates? And how can a human being choose for himself what priorities he will give to God’s law? He can, because Scripture says that he can and must.

…So a study of priority structures in Scripture itself may not be sufficient to break through the impasse, but in such debates, it is often helpful for each party to consider (as, unfortunately, they rarely do) that the other is simply trying to follow priorities that are in part dictated by his own gifts and calling. If we were more aware of the need for such personal priority structures, it would help us to understand one another better, and it would help to foster church unity.

It seems to me that this statement, which I find very compelling, needs to be expanded to balance the notion of individual prioritization in the context of corporate goals. That is, as Frame states, the community is to be a certain sort of community, but the individuals will have a more limited function. One person is a foot, another a hand, and they all add up to the body. But the implicit line of thought in the quote above is that the individuals all individually determine which body part they will function as in the larger community. Yet if the community is the level at which the goals are met (e.g. be this sort of community even if every individual does not live out every aspect of the community), why is the setting of individual priorities strictly an individual activity? That may be the case, but it seems likely to me that there will a be corporate dimension to the very act of setting priorities.

3 Comments

  1. Andrew
    Apr 21, 2003

    Jay, the only alternative that follows from your setup seems to border on socialism; I know you’re not trying to categorize the church’s hierachy as simply a political structure, but there is that element that needs to be addressed. Personally I am not completely against socialism because of the system itself, but rather I am against socialism because of the state of fallen man — I wonder if the Kingdom in its perfection won’t resemble something close to a socialist societal structure.

    So are we to mirror in the church body on earth the completed Kingdom to come? I believe so. It appears then that there is a need for a sort of “corporate dimension” for the setting of individual priorities (not that there isn’t individual participation, but the extreme of complete personal separation from the decision on what to prioritize wasn’t the direction that I believe you were going).

    I dunno, maybe I’ve missed the boat completely.

  2. Jay
    Apr 22, 2003

    I think your reference to socialism is very relevant. In my opinion, most of our world’s non or anti-Christian structures and ideas are attempting to gain the benefits of God’s reign while denying his lordship.

    With that in mind, we can see that socialism, though wrong and damaging, is seeking to achieve a blessing of the kingdom, that of a united body where people look out for one another. The huge push for diversity in our culture is another such grab for kingdom blessing. We are a body, but we are diverse parts.

    I really liked Frame’s explanation that everyone does not have to be the entire body in and of themselves. My comments were aimed, however, at keeping this notion in balance with the corporate/individual nature of the church. That is, even in the individual priorities that lead to the recognizing of the various body parts, the body probably has a role to play.

  3. Greg
    Apr 22, 2003

    Tim Keller points out in a sermon of his I heard recently about the implications of so many admonitions in the NT as being addressed to “ya’ll” or “ye”. Thus, it is not you individually who must “rejoice always”, but the imperative is to *ye”, that is the church. I’ve always thought that faith in Christ itself is in many ways a corporate animal. I can go to church and worship in faith when my own personal faith is weak on a given Sunday.

    On another note, it’s been awhile since I read this of Frame, but I have a couple of thoughts. There are a couple of implications that we would want to avoid while affirming what Frame is saying. One is to be aware that this idea could provide a trump card against *any* admonition of having “correct” priorities. There are indeed good directions to take in studying priorites in the Bible. The “greatest” of faith hope and love is love. For whatever reason, what Mary was doing seemed to be more appropriate that what Martha was doing. The doctrine of resurrection seems to have a high priority, for without it, Paul calls what he does pitiful. Taking care of family is higher priority than “mere” religious activity. I wouldn’t mind at all if a brother called into mind my “priorities.” (In fact, that might a good corporate realignment of gifts usage!) A second concern I have is that this idea can end up being individualism again. Say a preacher preaches on being merciful to the poor and how his church needs to focus more on that. An individual might easily write that off thinking, “that doesn’t really my individual gift profile.” The funny thing is, everyone could actually agree with the preacher without anyone being individually convicted. An odd result.

    Still potential for abuse is no reason to nix the idea, which I appreciate. Thanks for passing it along.