“Only” or “Primary”

Don’t confuse the “primary” with the “only”.

One of the most frustrating logical fallacies is the “false dichotomy”, seeing two ideas as mutually exclusive and pitting them against each other, instead of seeing them as potentially complimentary, or at least non-contradictory.

Setting up false dichotomies can have disastrous consequences. In his book, Haiti After the Earthquake, Paul Farmer described how public health workers engaged in long debates about how to deal with the infectious disease crisis that came about after the earthquake. On the one side were those who wanted to focus on treatment and on the other side those who wanted to focus on prevention. Farmer expressed frustration over the fact that these two “sides” were often pitted against each other. Farmer argued that the two were complimentary and that some level of each would be necessary to get the disease under control.

It’s political season now and, it seems, politicians feed off of false dichotomies like no one else. How else are you going to paint your opponent as a villain? War is not a time for finding common ground (apparently). And so false dichotomies abound. According to my Facebook wall, if you oppose Planned Parenthood then you hate women, if you want some level of gun regulation then you hate the Constitution, and if you want some level of care for Syrian refugees then you must not care about the needs of homeless veterans. Etc. But false dichotomies don’t start and end in the political arena, they just seem more concentrated there.

They’re present in the church as well. “We need to preach about grace, not judgment.” “We need to preach Christ, not personal holiness.” “We need to preach the gospel, not worry about physical needs.” (Why polish the rails of a sinking ship). “We need to concern ourselves with the sins of the individual, not about systematic injustice.” “We need to worry about the church, not about the world of culture and politics.”

One thing that trips us, I think, is that we get confused about the “only” and the “primary” tasks of the church.

The primary mission of the church is to proclaim the good news that Jesus, God incarnate, came to earth, lived a perfect life, died on the cross for our sins, rose again, and is coming again to reign and that sinful people can have eternal life if we put our trust in the work of God in Jesus. Our primary task is to go out and make disciples, calling people to faith and repentance. We proclaim Christ and Him crucified. The gospel is our priority and our aim is to put no stumbling block in the way of those who would come to Jesus.

But this doesn’t mean that the gospel is our only task. Or, at least, that the gospel so narrowly stated above, is the only word we have for the community of faith and the world. The full gospel, the entire counsel of God, speaks into every area of life. When the gospel becomes our primary task many other missions naturally spring up.

When we see people as God sees people in the gospel we learn to care about the vulnerable – babies in the womb, those who are desperately poor, refugees, wounded veterans, and single moms.

When we see that God is redeeming not just our spiritual souls but also our bodies and the entirety of the cosmos, we understand the need to provide for others physical needs and to care about the physical world.

When we see that we are saved by grace, we begin to understand that the motivational force behind holiness is gratitude and a desire to honor the God who not only made us, but also redeemed us from death.

Paul says in Acts 20:24 that his “only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” But if you look at his letters he speaks to a wide range of issues. He calls out sin in the church and in the world. He speaks about judgment and grace. He talks about how we should live as employees, bosses, husbands, wives, children, citizens, and church members. He talks about how we should think, what we should value, and what we should and shouldn’t do. His task of “testifying to the good news of God’s grace” started and ended with salvation by God’s grace, but it had a word of warning and encouragement for every area of life.

Priorities can be tricky. On the one hand we could live our lives as though every good thing was of equal importance and so required an equal amount of time and energy. This would be a foolish way to live. Since we are bounded by constraints, prioritizing one thing always means saying “no” to a hundred other good things we could be doing. On any given Sunday I preach about a single topic, and not about many others. In this way, the church prioritizing the gospel means that it must say no to other good things. Yet saying that the simple gospel is the priority shouldn’t mean that it’s the only thing that we do – it’s just the most important.

Let’s take a practical application from daily life. In regards to my physical resources, I have the primary responsibility to care for the needs of my own family. But if I use all of my money on my family I am ignoring many commands to care for the poor and needy around me. If I then conclude that I must spend the majority of my money on the needs of other people’s kids to the exclusion of my own then I am disobeying the command to care for my own family. How much our family should divert to the needs of the poor is a question of stewardship, wisdom, and discipleship.

Priorities matter because sometimes we have to decide between two or more good things. Sometimes one “good” can even get in the way of another “good.” For instance, as a local church we are on purpose not very political. We have made this conscious decision because we recognize that being dogmatic in certain areas will detract from our gospel mission. We also recognize that in aligning ourselves with an earthly kingdom we risk taking away from our more fundamental citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. However, we can’t ignore the fact the gospel does have political implications. Again, we must learn to prioritize the gospel, without reducing the gospel to only what it says about saving lost souls.

Life is complex and requires wisdom. Don’t confuse the “primary” with the “only”.