By Elizabeth Prata
All believers possess the ability to make a judgment as to genuine teaching from the Bible or moral behavior as God expects and what is not. It’s called discernment, or distinguishing between spirits. This ability grows as the Christian matures.
Some believers have been given an extra dose of discernment, or “distinguishing between spirits” as a gift given by the Holy Spirit, allowing them to discriminate between what is truly of God from or what is of demonic spirits or merely the human spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:10). The verb for “discerning” diakrino, means “to pass judgment” or “make a distinction.” Today’s essay is mainly about the believers who have been given the gift for the church, as opposed to all believers who are supposed to train in discernment for their daily lives.
People train up in the skill, as I showed yesterday. This skill is important for extracting wisdom from the word of God and then knowing how to apply it in practical matters of daily Christian life.
Just as a person gifted with mercy can spot someone who needs them to come alongside earlier than others notice, or just as someone gifted with administration gifts can spot trouble ahead in the budget earlier than others, a person with discernment can detect ‘something off’ and searches out the cause. It could be something off in the person’s life or their doctrine. They compare to scripture, and they announce there is trouble.
Quite often, even though discernment has been given to some believers as a gift of the Spirit for the edification of the saints and the purity of the church, sometimes the discernment warnings are not heeded. Currently (August 2021) there is a brouhaha about Mark Driscoll, the former pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle. An article titled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” keeps asking how so many people missed the obvious signs, wrote Tom Buck. However, Buck also notes that “If we are to learn from the Driscoll fall, we must ask: Why were those who kept warning about the obvious signs ignored or shamed?” John MacArthur and Phil Johnson, among others with discernment, alerted us to the issues brewing with Driscoll, yet they were shamed or ignored. Then Mars Hill blew up, and blew up spectacularly.
Discerning believers are often ignored. People with the gift sometimes are seen as outcasts, black sheep, naysayers, or critical. When I warned about Beth Moore ten years ago, my pastor at the time said I had a critical spirit and was led by the devil. It isn’t an easy gift of the Spirit to possess and employ. While many people desire to be teachers, or administrators, or are known for their comfort and mercy, discernment people often are the bearer of bad news.
“Discernment bloggers” get a bad rap, oftentimes justifiably so. If discernment is all someone does in life, their perspective will become skewed. We need to be well trained and well rounded. Just as all believers should train up in discernment (Hebrews 5:14), all discerners possessing the gift should be alert to opportunities to show mercy, older women should teach the younger, and so on. We should all nurture our specific gifts but also not neglect opportunities to grow the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. We are part of a Body, not one body part doing its own thing.
In true discerning communication, there is always an attempt to point toward the good, not simply to highlight the bad. Throwing rhetorical hand grenades is pretty easy. Building a positive and convincing position is much harder.Discernment bloggers, Truth, and Christian Witness
Discernment blogging, or rather writers who occasionally write about discernment topics, is not new. The medium is new, but not the practice. It could be said that when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the Church at Wittenberg’s door, he was adhering to a normal medium of publication for his discernment questions. He was attempting to come to some conclusions by distinguishing between good and bad, error and truth, so that he could then confidently apply any wisdom gained to everyday life.
Professor Andrew Pettegree, an expert on the Reformation from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. “The castle church door was the normal noticeboard of the university. This was not an act of defiance on Luther’s part, it was simply what you did to make a formal publication.”Time.com
Sadly sometimes when new Christians ask questions along discernment lines they are told that it’s just the devil trying to get them, or their questions are seen as tangential, unrelated to real Christian life. But understanding God’s word and how to apply it IS real Christian life. Here is an example:
In the 1950s John R. Rice’s publication The Sword of the Lord had a circulation of 100,000. Other heavy hitters in the Christian circular world were J. Frank Norris’ The Fundamentalist, and Carl McIntire’s The Christian Beacon. When it became apparent to Rice that Billy Graham’s increasing liberalism and alliance with ecumenical parties wasn’t going to stop, there ensued a very public discernment conversation in Rice’s and the other newspapers. Rice eventually split from Graham, which caused The Sword of the Lord’s circulation to drop to 67,000.
These public discussions are important, and sometimes those discussions include issues of discernment. That’s the way it was, the way it is, and the way it needs to be.
Nowadays there has been a shift away from print to online, with conversations centering on biblical interpretations, Christian celebrities, doctrine, denominational bylaws, cultural problems, and other matters of life in the church. We have organizations & people such as Wretched, Steve Kozar of ‘The Messed Up Church’, Tim Challies, Chris Rosebrough (Pirate Christian), Justin Peters, and also individual bloggers raising discernment issues all the time. Reviewing books is a discernment activity. Remarking on false teachers is a discernment activity. Reviewing movies is a discernment activity. So public discernment isn’t a new activity, but one that is rather old.
It would not be accurate to say that Wretched or Tim Challies or Chris Rosebrough etc. are “discernment bloggers” or “discernment podcasters,” because that is not all they do. They discern, sometimes very frequently, but as part of a larger ministry teaching and preaching other doctrines from the Bible.
WHEN IT ALL GOES BAD
Andrew Spencer speaks of this in his Ethics & Culture blog. Discernment bloggers, Truth, and Christian Witness he writes,
In many cases, internet “discernment” has become nearly entirely about hurling abuse at the disfavored parties. Biblical discernment looks much different.Discernment bloggers, Truth, and Christian Witness
As with any spiritual gift, the person can use it well or misuse it. The one gifted with Mercy coming alongside over time could become an intrusive busybody. The person with a gift of Service can become territorial. A person who focuses solely on the negative parts of discernment, can become an abrasive rumormonger. But I don’t read of people decrying ‘those service people!’ or saying that ‘we don’t need those mercy folks!’ Those gifts/skills aren’t thrown out with the bathwater. Any gift or skill can ‘go bad’ in a person but it’s usually only the discernment that’s disparaged. In fact, when a teacher teaches error, he or she is sometimes protected. When the discernment folks comment on them, it’s the discernment folks who get the outrage. Goes with the territory, sad to say.
HOW DOES DISCERNMENT WORK?
If I may share a visual for how I see discernment working. Picture a pot of water set to boil on the stove. Initially, the water is placid and looks all the same.
As the pot heats up, bubbles form on the bottom of the pot. These are sins. They exist in all of us and we work to slay them. With false teachers, though, they indulge them. They stir their pot. They pet their bubbles. No one can see secret sins, but sins will always find you out, because either they will become noticeable on earth or the worst of all, laid bare at the throne of God.
At a certain point some bubbles rise to the surface. People with discernment notice these few bubbles on the surface, while others don’t. They’re still there, just not noticed by a majority of people. Discerners can detect them. They spot trouble bubbling up pretty early.
At this early stage, people or organizations that announce with evidence something is off with a teaching/person/organization are often seen as the lone voice in the wilderness, and unfortunately ignored or criticized.
As the pot heats up more bubbles surface. More discerners see the thing that is off about the person/teaching/organization, and say so. Now it’s not a lone voice or two anymore, but a chorus.
Finally, all the water is boiling. A scandal has erupted. Undeniable facts are widely circulated. We want to avoid this because of the damage to lives, ministries, and the faith seen by outsiders. But scandals do happen, because unaddressed sin happens. People begin to say things like “Ohhh, NOW I see what you meant three years ago about social justice & CRT.” Or “NOW I see that Beth Moore is wildly heterodox.” “Now I see that Ravi wasn’t all he made himself out to be.” Critical Race theory was always bad, Ravi was sinning for years, Beth Moore was heterodox from the beginning. It was always there, but people clue in at different boiling points. But your discerners told you. That is why the Spirit dispenses this gift. If a discerner has proven to be fair, biblical, and wise over time, he or she should be listened to.
WHY DO WE DISCERN?
- Because the Holy Spirit gave people the gift, so it is meant to be used “for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:7),
- To warn, to help people guard against deception (Romans 12:2),
- To help people train their own discernment. (Hebrews 5:14),
- To chronicle heresy’s impact, for historical purposes and future generations. We know about heresy-bringers Sabellius, Arius, Pelagius, and others from the writings of church people past because of discerners.
- To chronicle the impact of disgraced immoral leaders. In our time we know of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Tullian Tchividjian, Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, and in the 1800s Henry Ward Beecher, Minneapolis preacher Rev. Malchior Falk Gjertsen and so on, because their deeds, impact, and legacy were chronicled by writers.
Here are some resources about discernment. For those who say it isn’t necessary to have discernment bloggers, I agree. But there’s a difference between the abusive and abrasive person who proudly isn’t even a member of a local church screaming uncharitably about this or that person, and the people and organizations like Challies, Wretched, Pirate Christian, Justin Peters Ministries, or individuals like me, who remark on issues, review, and discern for the betterment of the church, amid other activities too. I want to be balanced in my activity. I am not ONLY a discerner. I am a Christian, a believer, a child of God, with ALL that entails. My activities in real life and online should reflect that, as it should for all people or organizations who write on discernment topics.
Three Rules for Discernment by Todd Friel
Drive By Discernment, a series of lectures in Mp3 format, Wretched
This is an excellent article. Discernment bloggers, Truth, and Christian Witness
What is Biblical Discernment and Why is it Important? from Q&A at Grace to You
Tim Challies: Defining Discernment
What is Discernment? Sinclair Ferguson at Ligonier explains. Here’s an excerpt
We are on our guard against being led astray by false teachers. But there is more to discernment than this. True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.