The Priorities of Jesus by David Pennant

152 pages, A5, Paperback, Silver Lining Books

This is the story of my fifteen year search into the nature and role of the church and its findings.

From the Back Cover

The moment of truth. Picture me sitting at my desk, pencil in hand, with a blank sheet of paper before me. I have completed my training and my first curacy, and have just been appointed to oversee not one but two daughter churches. Now that I am finally in charge of a church, how can I set about running it in a way which would satisfy me, let alone satisfy God? What should my guiding principle be? Can I express it clearly, ideally in just one sentence?...

This book tells the story of my search, which has taken fifteen years. The answers I arrived at were a complete surprise to me. The conclusions are far-reaching, and need to be shared and discussed. This book is the result.

Reactions and Feedback from Readers

My responses are in italics


1. I am very grateful that you gave me the opportunity to read "Priorities of Jesus".It is very readable and compelling.  I have now read it twice and although some aspects are very difficult for me to cope with (eg talking in tongues), it has left me with a great desire to explore further. There is so much I don't know. KG Thanks for this. I was feeling downhearted about the project, but what you wrote has encouraged me again and made me feel I must press on with it. I am most grateful.

2. Do you wish to suggest that the more accurate understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ words comes from a personal hermeneutic of a twenty-first century cleric than from those people closest in time and apostolic commission to Jesus himself? I don’t think that you do, but that is the tendency of your method. Rather, on historical and cultural grounds, I urge that they are closer to Jesus and what he intended for His Church than either you or me... Your narrow grid for Jesus’ will out-restores the 20th century Restorationists like Wallis, Coates and Virgo and their 21 century successors. GA Yes, I struggle with these things too. Nevertheless, there is a place for looking carefully at what Jesus said to his disciples, which is what I have tried to do.

3. Jesus was a person of his time. If he were around today I suspect he would be dismissed as a crank. MP

4. You have put into words what I have been increasingly feeling about the Church for a long time, and some years ago, might have been heard to say something along the lines of wondering whether Jesus would recognise himself, what he had said, and what he might have hoped for in what was called Christianity now.   Actually I think it went badly wrong quite early on but I am no historian and it is only a feeling. CP

5. I am left with quite a bit of food for thought. Experientially, the challenge of the book must be taken at face value, it seems to me.
I think that theologically, one of the questions for discussion has to be whether the whole of the Bible is the Word of which case, the question becomes how we hear the challenges of the Red Letter element (as in  Red Letter Bible) while at the same time working out where the weight of the whole of Scripture lies.
I think you are absolutely right not to be satisfied with the status quo. And I also think that we are all children of our cultures, with the blindspots of our own cultural heritage. So we need to allow scripture to challenge us in the areas where we need to be shaken and unsettled, as you have said and written.
The challenge is how to do that while also acknowledging that the incarnation itself places even the second person of the Trinity in a particular culture at a particular time. I am not sure how we remain enculturated and incarnated while at the same time being counter-cultural.......being different and yet fully "normal", as it were. Definitions of "normality" may well need challenging on the one hand and yet Jesus does not seem to have been described as looking different or of being eccentric. He seems to have been a mainstream 1st century Palestinian Jew, in one sense.
And my whole exegetical framework is a relational/community based one. That is also part of the question that I am left asking, after reading the book.
Anyway, I am left with lots of challenging questions, as you can see, so thank you for that! G S-R

6. Apart from needing to sleep last night, I have read the book without stopping... compelling reading. While I was out running, the reference Leviticus 4 verse 13 came to mind. Worth reflecting on. Fuller response later.  AG

7. What an interesting idea to go back to first principles regarding how the church should operate. JP

8. I read your book, which arrived this morning, with great interest.  I found it a wonderful account of your journey of exploration as a clergyman, and there are several stories and observations which I can really relate to. For example; "for many years I had understood the Gospels to be accounts of the life of Jesus.  These were informative, but if you wanted to find Christian teaching  you needed to turn to the letters of Paul."  That was my own experience for a number of years.  It seems absurd when you look back now doesn't it?  But that seems to be the experience of so many! I love the way that you tackled so many important themes too. For example - communion - the idea that it should be more of a meal... Teaching, and how it is so often someone from the front airing an opinion rather than a model of a community learning together.  JB

9. The Woking News and Mail published this. It may not stay on line indefinitely, so for the text only click here.

10. I really haven’t found a Christian book over recent years that I have wanted to read from cover to cover. Your book is the only one that I have ever sat down and read and finished – all 152 pages in this case – in an evening. It is such an honest account of your search for the priorities of Jesus and you speak so clearly and understandably about your thoughts, hopes and fears as you explore the subject. I found it compellingly readable, without lofty theology which would have put me off. The teachings of Jesus are serious and important, but they are disarmingly simple and direct – a quality which your book highlights.

What you say will – or should – shake the church to the core.  At the very least your book should be the start of some very radical thinking and debate about what we do in the church.  If it has any basis at all, it calls for robust action.  You challenge so much of what is firmly established in the church that there will undoubtedly be much opposition.  The wake-up call may be unpleasant, but we surely need to heed it. DA

11.  I found your book very readable and interesting, especially as your theme developed. I am sure it would provide a stimulating topic for discussion amongst Christians, though they may not be too comfortable with your conclusions for obvious reasons. I feel that many of your points are valid. On the other hand and in contradistinction to yourself, I very much dislike, as you know, this whole idea of 'casting out demons' and 'speaking in tongues', both of which I believe to be harmful notions (because, for example, they can trigger mental disfunctionalities in certain vulnerable individuals). The idea of being 'possessed by demons' is surely the natural interpretation by people of relatively primitive societies, with little scientific understanding, of symptoms now understood to be strongly related to chemical imbalances in the brain (i.e. mental illness) and other physical/environmental factors. I also have found in the past (and this isn't so relevant) that the practice of these so-called 'spiritual gifts', including spiritual healing, tends to attract control freaks / people on ego trips. You know something about my experiences already! In addition, It seems to me that terms such as unbelievers and Gentiles, as used in the biblical references to which you refer, have a certain pejorative feel to them. As regards unbelievers, the assumption is, I think, that such people wilfully turn their backs on God, preferring to indulge in pleasures of the flesh rather than following the commands of Jesus. (This term appears frequently in the Koran as well.) There seems to be no toleration of the fact that many, if not most, unbelievers would actually like to believe in a more meaningful existence, a kindly, infinitely wise and all-powerful parent figure who provides a happy afterlife in which we are reunited with our loved ones. Such people disbelieve because they simply cannot believe, no matter how much praying, asking Jesus for help, etc. they may have done. For them, life's experiences point remorselessly to a more barren conclusion: there is no compassionate God, and that they might as well extract as much pleasure as they can (which may include acts of kindness), while being sensitive to the needs of others. The pleasures of life help one to keep one's head above water. FR Many thanks!

12. Great book! AM (on back of envelope containing payment). Thanks!

13. There are lots of things that I would like to discuss at some stage but for now, maybe just one. I am not sure about the way you take Jesus commands as the basis for your new church program. Jesus was a great teacher and surely great teachers don’t just issue commands. First and foremost they show the way by example and so any church that wants to follow the priorities of Jesus needs to follow his example, using his commands and other teaching to clarify this where possible. I don’t think that this would change a lot of the critical conclusions of the book but it would give a more coherent vision for what the church should actually be like instead. JP This recalls Jesus' words in John 20 "As the Father sent me, so I send you." It would be an interesting study to find out what following Jesus' example closely would mean in practice. It would not be a soft option, to my mind.

14. I agreed with every word! I have been involved with prisoners for thirty years, and I have been through all these struggles myself. I loved your final idea of turning a den of thieves into the father's house. I wish my husband could have seen this book, but sadly he died last year. JH

15. Two readers commented that I would be good at writing biography. One suggested I try writing children's stories, as my style is clear. Some have done very well in this field, he pointed out. Speaking as one interested in biblical studies, is this perhaps a coded encouragement to me to study ancient phoenician, I wonder?

16. I was very moved by your story. M

17. A friend staying with me read it overnight. PR

18. I sent a copy to the Church Times and had this reply: "Thank you for sending us the enclosed book. I'm sorry to say that we have decided not to review the title. We do receive an enormous number of books each week and have to carefully select the titles we feature, as we only have limited space. I thought you would like the copy back." United Christian Broadcasters made the same decision, and also kindly returned the book. Ecclesiastes 12:12 is fulfilled daily it seems. It is hard to get attention.

19. Thank you for writing the book, David. It is provoking and as Ann said, having read your book in one sitting: “But how will he achieve this?” David, having read your book from cover to cover, not necessarily in that order, and looked at your web site, I have concluded that the final statement in An imaginary conversation is a very telling one. Let’s not tie ourselves up in unnecessary knots. It seems to me that the difficulty lies not in understanding what we are called to do, but in doing it. Let us quietly aim to carry out the challenge presented to us. It made me think of Isaiah 42: about our LORD: 1) "Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. 2)  He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street.

I believe Christianity is a quiet revolution, and believe that should I ever get to heaven, I would meet many people there, who I would not have expected to be there. These are the doers following Jesus, being where he is and doing his work.

How could you operate a church as you are crying out for? I think it already exists: GOD has always kept a remnant for himself. After all, Jesus’ ministry was a quiet doing ministry, and he went as a matter of fact to the synagogue on the Sabbath, where he would be teaching also. So, if we are to follow him and do the things that he did; and, even greater things, as he went to be with the Father, this is what we must do. We have to move amongst the weed as well as those in need. In many ways the situation of church life in England and many other countries is like that of the synagogues in Jesus’ time. NH 1 Kings 19:18 comes to mind.

20. I was reading Harry Potter, but I've put it aside to read yours instead. LC

21. I would have preferred to have an overview at the beginning of the book so that I could see what was coming. That is the format I am used to in reading reports, etc. As it is, I had no idea how radical the book was until I got into it. Take the idea that there is by definition no such thing as a Christian funeral for example. AW The thesis is a radical one, I agree. My concern was that if I were to sumarise my conclusions baldly and briefly, people would draw the conclusion that I was a crank and not read any further. Similarly, if I could have presented the argument in a shorter form, such as an article, I would have done. That would have tended to raise more questions than it answered, to my mind. I felt on reflection, however, that it was better to tell my story and let the argument unfold in the way it had come to me. Although it increases the length, it is not out of hand. But I can see the case for doing it in the way you suggest. Life is full of decisions!

22. Great book so far - really speaks to me. Thanks. NG

23. When I read a religious book, I expect to feel attacked, but I got to the end of your book without feeling that. Thanks! AH

24. I think your position is close tothat of Francis of Assisi. I enclose a biography of him for you to read. PR Thank you - most interesting. I enjoyed it. I noted Francis' deep frustration with people who signed up as his followers but who did not take the whole package on board in their lifestyle. I could identify with that!

25. My interview on BBC Three Counties Radio at 0805 on Sunday 27th July went very well according to the interviewer John Radford and the Producer Simon Jenkins, and also a cousin of mine in Brighton. Sadly, no recording was made, and the automatic logger at SCR was on the blink over the weekend, so I cannot put it on this website after all. Sorry! Three people wrote in for a copy as a result of it.

26. The encouragements to me to continue writing have had an unexpected result. I have begun a science ficiton novel! So if you will excuse the dreadful pun, watch this space!... The plot is coming easily. I began on July 30th. I wrote 12,000 words in the first three days. By August 18th, I had written nearly 30,000 words, by September 1st nearly 60,000 words. I finished the first draft on September 9th, toatlling around 80,000 words.

27. For this six page letter from AP, including a delightful poem, and my reply, click here.

28. I'm sure that you are right that many of our churches are simply not acting as the Body of Christ and are not fulfilling the commandments of Jesus.   The gap between the church and the population in Britain, I fear, is growing wider as the cultural gap between Christianity and a secular society increases.CH

29. Your list of Jesus' commands is very interesting. However, you assume that this is a complete list, but John's gospel tells us that Jesus said many other things beyond what he recorded, so your list can hardly be seen as complete. To give an example, Jesus was so well versed in the Old Testament, that he must surely have endorsed it in conversation with the twelve. VDG Thanks for this. Interesting. My response is that if there is anything else of importance that Jesus said, but which was not recorded for us in the gospels, then it would have a lesser status than what he know he did tell the twelve to do. Surely the gospel writers put his main emphases into their writings? My concern is that any attempts to widen the net of what Jesus wants his followers to do, as it were, will tend to distract us from what we know Jesus majored on in his teaching. This is unhelpful, to my mind.

30 Here is your book in two paragraphs, I think. Do you agree ? It is a quotation from 'Kings of Albion' by Julian Rathbone (2000).  I presume you knew that you are a follower of Wycliffe :--            'Father John Wycliffe believed that the central thing in every man's life was the immediate dependence of the individual Christian upon God, a relation which needs no mediation of any priest, and to which the very sacraments of the Church are not essentially necessary. Indeed, he went so far as to assert that round the sacraments, which are but signs and symbols, a dreadful and harmful habit of superstition has grown up, later hardened by the closed minds of the so-called fathers of the Church into dogma and doctrine. And by these means, by making the sacraments the prerogative of the priesthood, to grant or withhold as their fallen natures dictated, power and dominion over the gates of heaven and hell were seized by the Church. Thus no one can go to heaven unless they have received the body and blood of Christ and only the anointed priest has the power to magic the bread and wine into the body and blood. Brethren, I tell you, following the teaching of our father John, this doctrine of transubstantiation is a blasphemous folly, a deceit which despoils the people and leads them to commit idolatry. If sacrament there must be, then let it be the sacrament of sharing the good things of life, the bread and wine, in good fellowship, as we have just done in our Easter Communion, and remembering as we do so the teachings of Jesus and his example, as he bade us. Brethren, these doctrines of the sacraments as laid down by Rome, deny the true Church that is in all of us and especially when two or three are gathered together in His Name. That is the Church our Lord left us with, the Church Jesus lived and breathed for. The true Church consists solely of the community of the righteous, and its only authority is the teaching of our Lord as left to us in the New Testament. The supreme authority, the only authority, is Holy Scripture and particularly the actual words of our Lord as recorded in the Gospels. Which is why John Wycliffe devoted so much of his life to translating and disseminating the Gospels in our own tongue. It is for these and like reasons that after his death his bones were dug up and burned for a heretic, as if this mean, malicious act could in any way diminish the power of his thought. SP Many thanks for this. I note the fate of Wycliffe's bones with less than enthusiasm.

31. Your writing is stimulating; thanks. However, you ignore the coming of the Holy Spirit after jesus left. You could say that Jesus was operating in no man's land, an era between the old covenant and from Pentecost onwards. MD I think this is in danger of side-lining Jesus' own teaching ministry. Thanks for the feedback.

32. Following major struggles, I recently left my church after 27 years of active involvement. I found your book a real help in my loneliness. Anon

33. I read your book, and my reaction was "look at the mess you got into for refusing to compromise, unlike the rest of us." R

34. Yours is the only book I have ever read cover to cover. It has a number of interesting points in it, and deserves a wider audience. DS

35. The book made me angry. It was so negative. NP Sorry about that! I tried to write in a positive vein. I very much appreciate you telling me your reaction. Thanks

36. I skim read the book and enjoyed it very much. I was reminded of the Jesus Army which I belonged to for ten years. You have a similar emphasis. C Thanks. I have heard of them before. Interesting.

37. I couldn't put it down. Very interesting. My mother read it and said he was wise to have left the ministry. AP

38. Thank you for showing me your book. Striking... I get the impression you like to hear what people think in case there is anything to be gleaned....

One. The present church is imperfect. It has lost its first love - that of the Lord himself (whom, in any decision making, it largely treats as though he were dead) and so of his coming back to be present with us in person - and the means he gave it to keep it united and on the right lines (apostles).

One result is that it is not everywhere doing all the things he commanded us to do, as you say. But in seeing this and addressing it, you have been, in the strictest sense, heretical. You have taken some parts of Jesus' teaching and ignored others. As you say, however, the aim of the church is to do "the whole will of God."

Jesus' commands are contained not only in those which are recorded int he Gospels as imperatives. Other sources include His recorded teaching otherwise expressed: matters ongoing at the time which did not need to be stressed (such as regular attendance at temple and synagogue 'services'): instructions to the eleven not recoreded in the gospels but in part in letters: instructions to Paul recorded, in part, in letters (Jesus personally chose and instructed all His apostles, including Paul, to keep us of one mind in doctrine, in fellowship, in breaking of bread and in prayers): and in what - as Tertullian put it - the early church everywhere did in common as having been so instructed by the apostles.

When you look at Jesus' commands as so recorded for us, I think your eclectic picture changes. There is much more he is telling us to do.

Two. Also, when you look at the very imperfect church today, you will find some of the things you think it should be doing being done in some parts (e.g. prophecy and healing among charismatic churches). But it is bitty. So in that aspect too you are not seeing the whole (even though that whole is still imperfect).

Three. On one or two particular points.

a). The purpose of the church is not to meet once a week for worship. It should meet much more often and the effect of that should influence our lives every minute of every day. This happens only imperfectly, but the answer is not 'not to meet' on Sunday mornings.

b). Ths spiritual gifts. The church should have them today. It has largely - but not wholly - lost them because it lost apostles and the five-fold ministry, Jesus' means of ministering to us.

c). 'Nobody should consecrate bread and wine'. Nobody does. Only God does.

d). The 180 commands. Is not the church trying, imperfectly, to obey most of these? It is only a very few which are ignored, like raising the dead (and I have heard of even this happeneing in modern times.)

e). It is a pity you were put off by understandable but mistaken opposition to infant baptism and requirements to be baptised a second time.

f). The church is people not buildings - but having buildings to meet in is not wrong..

g). Holy Communion is a spiritual feeding. The question you raise about the quantity of food consumed is not important.

h). Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets, and these contained directions about worship. Many times (?32) it is stressed that Moses did only and exactly as God commanded him in making the tabernacle and that (as Hebrews in part tells us) is a pointer to the reality of which the church's worship on earth should be a reflection. The command to worship is there (and elsewhere).

(i). Worship, as you say, involves 100% giving of ourselves to God and that should result in service to people. But it does not consist solely to service to people (and indeed the latter will not trul;y result unless there is first the turning to God in prayer and worship). You are throwing out the baby with the bath water. DP

I am so grateful for this! Very many thanks. Some responses.

Jesus' instructions to his church are not limited to his commands to the twelve. (My brief summary of your well-expressed point under One). I reckon your alleged wider circles of his instruction to us are debatable, personally. Where do you draw the outer limit, I wonder? Take current environmental concerns, for example. Might we say that God is speaking to us about these, and that therefore it is part of the church's role to protect the environment? If not, why not?

I would love to see a church that focussed its aim narrowly on obeying Jesus verbatim. Where most readers part company from me, I guess, is that I think this is the only way in which church can legitimately be done. I recognise that mine is a minority view, but I still believe it to be right. I don't believe it is heretical.

I think the reason I feel so strongly about all this is that I have seen the beaten-up man lying in the gutter for too long. Where is the Good Samaritan in our country? Why are the so-called Christians all hurrying past on the other side to get to the meeting? In other words, my plea is in part a reaction to what I have observed. I suspect that all new ideas arise in this way.

I agree that there are good things going on all around, in part. I don't weant to decry these. My aim in writing was to point out that our idea of the nature of the church is wrong; our current Christian climate focuses on the wrong things.

I agree that Moses was faithful to God in fitting out the sanctuary. Worship in those days meant bringing sacrifices. This was many hundreds of years before Christ. Why should the church that Jesus founded be comitted to following a 1000 year-old pattern that Jesus never referred to? Would you expect the government of today to be committed to political thought of the time of Chaucer?

Within your view is the assumption that the church should promoting the whole Bible. I think Jesus' words "As the father sent me, so I send you" (John 20) sets the agenda instead. He never asked his followers to promote the Bible.

I am not against worship, incidentally. I do it myself. What I am against is the idea that meeting for group worship is part of the church's calling. Let the people worship on their own at home! Group worship meetings are a distraction from the real task, to my mind.

39. I loved it. However, I am only a member of a church, so what can I do? I felt a lot of sympathy with you.

40. After reading your book, I decided to do an Alpha course, and it is helping me.Thank you. K

41. Have read your book - fabulous. It is really uplifting, as it feels right what you say, but also sad; you are so full of God, no doubt, but face 'practical reality' difficulties, as we all do. I think that one about having to hate your family and friends is true - always had difficulty with that - but to do what we should do is so all - encompassing, that you cannot be bound by earthly obligations. Far, far easier said than done, and also very difficult to understand. JD

42. An invaluable resource! BH

43. Thanks for the book. Loved it - strengthened my resolve to continue 'doing church' even more differently! Could you please send me 25 copies to distribute to my Leadership Team. LB Certainly. 30 is easier, as they come shrink-wrapped in strong polythene in bundles of thirty.

44. "The Priorities" have been a huge blessing and an even bigger challenge. KM

45. It's so easy to read! It's so open, so honest. You're extremely talented. S

46. BRAVO!!!   I loved it.  In fact, if I could challenge you on any part of it, it's only that it's not available in the U.S. in our bookstores.  I've told several people at the Mission about it and they asked where they could get a copy.    If I order any more from you, I insist on paying your something, and particularly for the postage.  Let me know.   Really, David, your thinking parallels what I've been thinking about for some time.  Now that you've done all the "hard lifting" I could just sit back and say "YES!"   Good for you, and I have to believe God wants to use you in a very special way.  MM Thanks for the great encouragement.