I am thinking more about setting priorities these days, particularly since I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma six months ago. (If you are interested in my blog on that journey feel free to visit kenslymphomaadventures.wordpress.com.)
But in reality, whether we are aware of it or not, we are all setting priorities every day. What do we do with our time, our money, our efforts?
This same general requirement also operates at the institutional level. Even a gargantuan institution such as the American Federal government that spends unfathomable amounts of money and manpower on a myriad of programs and projects, never seems to have “enough,” and thus must prioritize its activities and focus. A church must do the same. Prioritizing is done so that the most important things are accomplished and the things of lesser importance await another day when their importance may have improved relative to other alternatives.
This process of prioritization is not just some recent management fad. We can see that the first of the Ten Commandments is an act of prioritization, for example. Jesus said we should seek first the kingdom of heaven. As we approach the San Antonio General Conference Session later this year I offer this editorial in light of another prioritization principle given to us by Jesus. Specifically I want to focus on the process underway to review Fundamental Belief #6. An action such as this, of course, requires activity now and will potentially require actions at the General Conference. My question is whether we have accurately prioritized our concerns given where we are today.
When we address any specific situation we immediately bump up against the reality that what one person sees as hugely important another may have much further down their list. Can we expect otherwise in any diverse group made up of people who all have had different backgrounds and life experiences? How are we to responsibly balance and differentiate among all of these potentially disparate views. In the secular business world that I mostly inhabit the most common benchmark is probably the concept of “return on investment.” We compare required investments with anticipated results and usually try to select the one which provides the “biggest bang for the buck.” But what are we to do in the spiritual arena? Here we face upside-down economics: The poor widow's mites are valued more than the thousands given by others; the one lost sheep or coin requires more effort than the remaining 99 but is worth it. Thus, we may have to look for another prioritizing principle and hopefully one that can also be widely adopted in the church.
I believe that Jesus has provided us with this other benchmark as we approach the need to prioritize our activities, energies and funds. The ministry of Jesus here was coming to an end. He had taught and healed and blessed the people inside and outside the boundaries of the Jewish nation. Now He spoke more forcefully to draw the contrast between the true Kingdom of God and what was actually going on around them. His words are recorded in Matthew 23 and I would call out verse 23 in particular: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin; and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law, justice and mercy and faith” (RSV). These words of Jesus clearly tell me that there is a priority even among good things. If the highest priority matters are not kept as the highest priorities then we will major in minors and we will be subject to the denunciation of Jesus for overlooking the weightier more important matters. In short, we will not have prioritized properly.
Ellen White also added her commentary on this scene: “The Jewish rulers recognized the obligation of tithing, and this was right; but they did not leave the people to carry out their own convictions of duty . . . They occupied men's minds with trifling distinctions, and turned their attention from essential truths. The weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and truth, were neglected” ("The Desire of Ages," 616-617).
Now to my chosen application. The first two sentences of Fundamental Belief #6 are these: “God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic account of his creative activity. In six days the Lord made 'the heaven and the earth' and all living things upon the earth, and rested on the seventh day of that first week.” The proposed changes add that this was “a recent six-day creation” and that it was “creative work performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted a week as we experience it today.” In other words, each day was a literal 24 hour time period coinciding with one revolution of the earth just as we have today. In short, revised Fundamental Belief #6 would in essence say: “In 144 hours the Lord recently made 'the heavens and the earth.'”
The question about prioritization I have is this: How much energy, attention and time of the world church should be expended on this potential change? Are there weightier matters that will by definition get less attention? There is no doubt in my mind that if we are going to have Fundamental Beliefs (something our church founders did not uniformly agree upon) then there certainly could be times when it would be a high priority to make amendments. For example, let us hypothesize that somehow Belief #6 currently stated that an anonymous being or even an angel had made the heaven and the earth. I would be actively promoting an amendment to specify that it was God as identified in the Bible that had done this. It seems to me the Bible takes pains to unequivocally state that God is different from all other gods in at least this creative respect.
But it is not this sort of amendment our attention and energy are being expended on. I am perfectly happy if the six creation days concerning a habitable earth were in fact 144 current hours in duration (and I believe God could have created everything in one minute or one day if he had chosen to). The actual Hebrew language used in Genesis, however, is apparently not so specific and unambiguous. (See “The Six 'Creation Days,'” by Bull and Guy in Spectrum, Volume 38, Issue 3, 2010.)
Thus we would have a peculiar outcome if the proposed amendment were adopted: We would take out the English word “day,” that carries an ambiguity apparently somewhat similar to the Hebrew word actually used in Genesis, and substitute one of the several possible interpretations of that Hebrew word as the absolutely definitive and only truthful view. This presumably will have been done, if at all, by a majority vote of the General Conference in session. What we know for certain is that truth is not determined by a majority vote or even consensus. The earth goes around the Sun whether a conclave votes otherwise or not. Thus, we could be falling into the same Pharisaical trap that Ellen White described as “not leav[ing] the people to carry out their own convictions of duty.”
Now let us return to my overarching issue of priority. In the question of Origins it seems to me that we have two essential alternatives: (1) The universe and life we see around us are the result of accidental, impersonal and purposeless events such as might be described as “quantum fluctuations,” “spontaneous quickening,” and “multiple universes,” or (2) They are largely the result of an intentional and intelligent design by a fantastically creative actor. The Bible certainly sides with the Intelligent Actor position. Our current Fundamental Belief #6 as written clearly states this as well. Thus, on the fundamental issue of Origins Belief #6 already draws the critical dividing line related to the big picture. In the scientific community this line itself is extremely controversial as we know, but to be true to the overwhelming picture painted in the Bible we must stand as Christians against random purposelessness. In fact, without taking this position how can anything else in the Christian viewpoint make much sense? In other words, this position is High Priority and helps to explain why we find it in the very first words of the Bible. In fact, in my view concepts such as justice and mercy are essentially meaningless (other than “might makes right”) if there is no purpose, design or creative Intelligence forming the moral backdrop to existence.
But when we go beyond this to force a debate on whether to continue using the words “six days” or change them in essence to “144 hours,” we have passed from High Priority to something else. Now the words of Jesus in pronouncing the series of woes on his institutional contemporaries jabs at my conscience. Are there not weightier things that should absorb my attention? What about justice and mercy and faith? Have we exhausted our understanding and effective action in these areas? Are we exercising these attributes in our individual and corporate lives to the maximum extent? Do we have comprehensive plans for taking our understanding and actions to the world in a winsome and effective way? If not, then I submit that to focus the time and attention of millions of church members and thousands of delegates on “six days” versus “144 hours” is to lose sight of the weightier matters. Woe unto us.
Ken Peterson is a member of the Spectrum / Adventist Forum board.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6692