Our Priorities

People who are considering a church naturally want to know something about its particular character or direction. That is why this document is here. Keep in mind, however, that we do not imagine that we have some special remit that is unique in the history of the church. If we did, we would be thinking more like a cult or sect than a church. With that said, we summarise the church’s priorities as love and faithfulness.

It is important to see how these priorities are taught and defined by the Bible. Most people believe in love, but things get more controversial when we ask what that actually means. Left to ourselves, we would prefer that it remain undefined so we could just do as we please (which would, of course, be profoundly unloving). Yet Scripture makes it absolutely clear that God decides for us what love is. He has defined love as faithfulness to Him in terms of what we believe and what we do. This is seen in the very passage that speaks of the primacy of love:

Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’ (Mat 22:37-40)

What this means is that all the extensive doctrinal teaching and moral instruction in the Old Testament are not some legalistic alternative to love but that which ‘hangs’ upon these two great commandments of love.  This is just what the law says when it speaks of loving God and obeying Him in the same breath: ‘…I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments’ (Deu 30:16).

Of course this idea is not confined to the Old Testament.  Jesus Christ makes the intimate connection between love and obedience even more straightforward in John 14:15: ‘If you love Me, keep My commandments.’  Our love to Christ will be demonstrated by our willingness to do what He says, whereas our lack of love will be demonstrated by our refusal.  So likewise in 1 John 2:5, ‘…whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him.  By this we know that we are in Him.’  Love and faithfulness go hand in hand, just as they do in a marriage relationship (the apostle Paul draws this beautiful parallel in Ephesians 5:22-33).

In the Book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus had the apostle John write letters on His behalf to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3). In these letters, Christ encouraged the churches in the things they were doing right and corrected them in any failings. The content of these letters provides us with the ideal opportunity to check our understanding regarding the priorities that Christ Himself has for His churches.

What we find there is surprising. Contrary to what popular leaders are teaching today, none of the churches are affirmed because they have ‘transformed’ the culture of their city or rebuked because they have not done this. None are corrected because they do not preach a ‘contextualized’ message. There is not as much as a single reference to the concepts of ‘relevance’ or ‘influence’ that many think are critically important. Jesus does not really seem to care about any of this.

The things that Jesus does seem to care about are whether the churches love Him and demonstrate this by faithfulness to His Word. The very first thing a church is rebuked for is because they have left their ‘first love’ (Rev 2:4). The recurring questions are, do you manifest your love to Me by doctrinal faithfulness in what is being taught or tolerated (Rev 2:2, 6, 14-16, 20; 3:8 )? Are you being faithful in terms of resisting all compromise with the world (Rev 2:3, 9, 19, 21-23; 3:2-3,15-19)? And, are you willing to undergo the ultimate test of love and faithfulness—are you willing to suffer and even die for Me (Rev 2:10, 13; 3:8-10)? Similarly, some of the key exhortations are ‘Be faithful until death’ (Rev 2:10) and ‘hold fast what you have till I come’ (Rev 2:25). If these are the criteria by which Christ measures His churches, then we are on the right track in focussing on love and faithfulness.

Finally, and especially in the context of those who are considering which church to go to, Jesus has given some characteristics or ‘marks’ by which true churches can be known. The overarching characteristic is love. Jesus says in John 13:35, ‘By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’ True churches will have the mark of genuine love for the brethren as well as for strangers. This will be seen in loving attitudes and holy affection for one another (Rom 16:16), but it will also be seen in loving people enough to tell them the truth (Eph 4:5). Moreover, Christians will care for one another in practical as well as spiritual ways (James 2:14-17). Jesus goes as far as to say that, inasmuch as Christians help ‘the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (Mat 25:40 NKJ)

Of course, our love and faithfulness must be to God above all; a church that loved people but hated Jesus would be a perverse failure. Now Christ is not here physically for us to love or to hate directly, but He is represented most directly by His Word and the sacraments. Our attitude towards these things exactly parallels our attitude towards Him. Thus, the traditional marks of a true church begin with the faithful preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. Finally, much like a loving family that upholds right boundaries, there is church discipline. Our priorities of love and faithfulness reflect these marks.

Practical Outworking

Having confidence that our priorities are those taught by Scripture, we consider the various ways in which these are worked out in the practice of our church.

Christ made it perfectly clear what He wants His church to do in the world: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.’ (Mat 28:19-20) Very simply, the church is to ‘make disciples’ of Jesus. A disciple is one who has turned his back on his previous masters—the world, the sinful nature, and the devil—and has decided to follow Christ. The church’s mission of making disciples is not confined to any one nation or race but, wonderfully, extends to the entire world.
Likewise, the Lord does not leave us in any doubt as to how this mission is to be accomplished. Faithful Christians are not pragmatists; we do not adopt whatever methodology we think might ‘work’. This is because God is glorified just as much by the means that He uses to do His work as by the end result. So God did not leave it to us to figure out how best to make disciples but specified the means in the very same breath: we are to make disciples by ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching.’ We call these means the ordinary means of grace. Our Westminster standards say it this way:

the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation. (Westminster Larger Catechism 154)

The word, sacraments, and prayer.  These are the means of God’s own choosing, these are the means that we can rightly expect God to bless through His Spirit, and these are the means that we employ at GPC.

Our mission and methodology demand preaching; the question is, what is the message we should preach? Very simply, it is the verbally inspired Word of God given to us in Scripture. More specifically, it the whole Word, without any additions or subtractions. When Paul summarises His faithful ministry among the Ephesians, he said ‘Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:26-27). The implication is that, had he failed to preach this ‘whole counsel’—the difficult doctrines as well as the attractive—he would have been guilty of the people’s blood! Serious consequences indeed. Yet we can see why this might be; if you remove select portions of a message or add other things you will quickly distort the message into something else entirely. Just because the gospel is the only thing that can save sinners headed for eternal hell, far from being ‘loving,’ any meddling with the message to make it more attractive or cowardly failure to preach it entirely would be a criminal act.

Not surprisingly, the warnings against doing such a thing are very severe:

For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book (Rev 22:18-19)

For this reason we uphold the Bible in its inerrant integrity and are committed to preaching ‘the whole counsel of God.’ We are greatly helped in this by the excellent summary of the doctrinal content of Scripture that we have in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, to which our elders and deacons are held accountable.

Years ago, the question that Christians who have moved to a new location might ask is, ‘where is the good preaching?’ In our day, the question is, ‘where is the good worship?’ Now rightly understood as ‘where do they worship God faithfully’ this would actually be a good question to ask. Normally, however, the question means something like, ‘where do they have skilled young musicians playing music like the world plays?’ or ‘where can I sing or move about the way I want?’ Ironically, both of these ideas are explicitly denounced by Scripture. After cataloguing all the various practices of the nations around them, the Lord commands His people, ‘You shall not worship the LORD your God with such things’ (Deu 12:4; cf 12:31). God is Holy, and it would not be right to worship Him in ways that imitate the unbelieving world in the celebration of their idols. Likewise, although some people think that the ideal is for everyone to worship however they want to, this idea is also specifically prohibited: ‘You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes (Deu 12:8). The essence of worship is for creatures of dust to bow down before their infinite Maker; the idea that we would insist on doing so in the way that we chose for ourselves is preposterous.

So we neither imitate the world nor do what is right in our own eyes, how then are we to worship God? The answer is, the way He tells us. ‘Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it’ (Deu 12:28-32) This is called the Regulative Principle. It is not the Normative Principle, in which we do whatever is not explicitly prohibited by Scripture. No, in the Regulative Principle, we worship God only in the ways that He has instructed us. The elements that we are commanded to include are prayer, singing (Psalms as well as hymns that faithfully articulate biblical truth), reading Scripture, preaching, the sacraments (we have the Lord’s Supper monthly, and baptisms as the happy requirement arises), the collection of tithes and offerings, and a benediction.

Conclusion

So these are our priorities—love and faithfulness—and some of the many implications involved. We are not there yet, but we cry out to the Lord to enable us to live up to these things in His gracious blessing. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.