Posted in back to basics, discernment

Back to Basics: What discernment is

We in the body of Christ are not to judge those outside the church, (1 Cor 5:12). That is because, as Barnes Notes explains, “I have no authority over them; and can exercise no jurisdiction over them. All my rules, therefore, must have reference only to those who are within the church.” However, we inside the church are to judge for ourselves whether a teaching is true or not. (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

Romans 12:9; 1 Cor 14:29; 1 John 4:1 also reminds us that we are to judge, discern, test, etc., the teachings we  receive. The Bereans searched whether Paul’s teaching was consistent with the bible, and tested what they heard against it. Paul applauded them for that. Given what we see from Christians today, even if they DO go so far as to test it out, if they find the teaching failed the test, they then remain silent so as to pursue a sense of unity. This is a wrong-headed approach. Any unity arising by silent believers suffering under a teaching they know to be false is a false unity. We are not told so many times in those verses above to test out the teachings we receive just so we can stay quiet about the false ones. We are to speak up.

We don’t use the heart to judge a teaching. Just because someone says their teaching is “from their heart” or it looks to us that it is heartfelt, or it touches our heart, we are liable to hear Jesus chastise us through His word, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” (John 7:24). Anyone can look sincere. Joel Osteen looks very heartfelt, his speeches come across as being from his heart. But are they consistent with what the bible says? No. Being discerning means looking deeper.

We are being gullible if we fall for the old “from the heart” standard. Why? Because the “heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick, who can know it?” (Jer 17:9). The heart is the WORST standard to judge anything. Joseph Smith’s teaching is from the heart and his religion consigned many millions to darkness (Mormonism). Muhammad’s teaching is from the heart and many millions following Allah are likewise consigned to darkness. Oprah is teaching New Age ecumenism from the heart and also many who follow it will end up in eternal darkness. Being heartfelt has nothing to do with whether a teaching is right.

If a person’s standard to determine if a false teaching is

–from the heart
–the teacher seems like a religious person
–they are prospering so it means God is blessing them, so it must be good

then I submit that person is dangerously misled as to what biblical discernment is.

Those standards are exactly the opposite of what we should be using as a barometer for determining if a teacher is true or false. Discernment is not a “nudge from the Spirit,” because that calls for subjective decisions and as per the verse about the heart, subjective assessments on any given situation are not valid. The only way to practice discernment is to test against the bible. (1 Thess 5:21).

Tim Challies wrote a book about Discernment. He defines it this way:

” ‘Discernment is the ability to think biblically about all areas of life.’ A longer, more thorough definition might be something like this: ‘Spiritual discernment is the God-given, Spirit-empowered ability to understand and interpret truth, so that we can apply truth to our lives, thus bringing glory to God and furthering our enjoyment of Him.”

“The Hebrew word for discernment is used 247 times in the Old Testament. The word has been translated variously as understand, discern, and distinguish. The Greek word is used similarly in the New Testament. It too refers to a process of separating or discriminating whereby truth may be set apart in relief from that which is false. In short, discernment is a filtering process by which a person distinguishes and separates good from the bad, right from wrong, and truth from error.” (source: Tim Challies, “Defining Discernment” )

If a person does that, they are being led by the Holy Spirit. I pray you come to this understanding as well, and be unafraid to discern a good teaching from a bad, and to speak up about both. Praise good teaching, point out false teaching, and as always, pray ceaselessly. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Don’t fall prey to one of them. Be discerning.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.