Discernment Ministry – A Biblical Defense
(October/November 2009 – Volume 15, Issue 6)
We live in an environment in which it is most difficult to stand for the faith. Not only will those who attempt to be on the front lines of discernment face the guns of those in opposition, but they may be hit by “friendly fire” as well. For example: I recently wrote what I thought was a rather innocuous article expressing a high view of Scripture including a belief in its sufficiency. I was nevertheless surprised to receive a quick e-mail rebuke by a pastor who also claimed to believe in the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Bible and who ultimately accused me of taking what he called a “biblical charismatic” view. When I inquired as to how that could be since I believe God speaks to us today only through Scripture and charismatics believe God speaks through means beyond the written Word, he did not reply. I did not mean to imply to this pastor that I reject general revelation in which “the heavens are telling of the glory of God…” (Ps 19:1-6), but that specific, authoritative revelation for this church age is confined to the Old and New Testaments. God is not adding new revelation or inspired texts to supplement the canon of Scripture. I believe that such revelations are unnecessary today because God has promised that the Scriptures are “adequate [to] equip [us] for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). Our task is not to seek “fresh communication” from God, either in the form of prophecies or tongues (as most charismatics do) or through our inner feelings and hunches (as many non-charismatic evangelicals do), but to rely on the “sure word of prophecy” (2 Pet 1:19), the Holy Scriptures. This understanding leads us to be followers of Christ who are “diligent to present [our]selves approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:14). Our assignment is not to search for secret communication from God but to observe and live out the things revealed by the Lord (Deut 29:29). Truth emerges from the inspired text, and that text can be trusted to reveal God’s will in all matters “pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3).
But even at the risk of being misunderstood by those in our own camp, one of our privileges in light of this understanding of revelation is to examine all ideas, teachings and thoughts through the lens of Scripture. The apostle Paul modeled this approach for us when he wrote, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Since much, if not most, of the ideas, worldviews, and philosophies that we encounter in a fallen world would be in competition with truth, we are obligated to take all of these things and run them through the grid of Scripture. Those ideas which make it through this biblical grid intact can be embraced, for by God’s grace mankind is enabled to end up on the right side of truth. But those ideas that lack biblical foundation must be disposed of as “lofty thing[s] raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5).
For these reasons, one of the qualifications for an elder is that he understand the Scriptures well so that he can both “exhort in sound doctrine” and “refute those who contradict” sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). A pastor or elder is not equipped to lead the church of Christ because he makes an excellent CEO, has an MBA, knows how to win and influence people or has a sunny personality – although none of these things rule him out either. But the Holy Spirit did not mention any of these criteria when laying out the requirements for church leaders, although an intimidating list of personal and spiritual qualifications is given (Titus 1:5-8; 1 Tim 3:1-7). Instead the Spirit focused on the need for elders to know biblical truth and be able to communicate and defend it against false doctrines and teachers.
Unfortunately for the Christian leader in the twenty-first century, what God considers essential many consider optional at best and often a real detriment to what is considered “ministry.” Rare is the church today that attracts large crowds because of the careful, systematic teaching of the Word. People will flock to churches with great programs for all ages, a well-organized sports schedule or to hear professional level music (of almost any genre), but sound doctrine holds little attraction for most Christians. Yet, it is sound doctrine that God mandates. Lives are not changed by programs and entertainment; they are transformed by the renewing of our minds which can only come about through exposure to the truth of God’s Word (Rom 12:2).
If the teaching of sound doctrine is unappetizing to many, to expose false doctrine is utterly repulsive. Discernment is considered unnecessary, unwanted, and down-right mean-spirited in a relativistic age. To spend even a small fraction of time critiquing false teachings (as our Lord directs us to do) is to invite charges of negativism, division and worse. Yet we must decide whether we want to please the Lord or men and, since the Lord commands us to “refute those who contradict” sound doctrine, we have no choice. This is not to say that we spend the bulk of our teaching time on issues that don’t measure up to Scripture; for to do so would throw us out of balance very quickly. I believe that the vast majority of teaching from the pulpit and other forums within the church should be “exhortation in sound doctrine.” But we must be willing to handle issues that threaten the spiritual health of the body of Christ, and we must not shy away from teaching on such subjects as we work through the Scriptures.
Sadly, in our pluralistic, postmodern age, even gracious critique is often viewed as negative and critical. Why not tolerate the theological and philosophical views of others, even if those views are seriously flawed and unbiblical? After all, since we are brothers and sisters in Christ, aren’t we just airing our dirty laundry in public? This short paper is for the purpose of showing the necessity of biblical discernment and critique and to respond to those who disapprove.
As we survey the Word of God it is impossible to miss the prominent place that God places on truth and the deep concern that our Lord has when His people err in doctrine or in living. The Old Testament is permeated with calls to live on the basis of God’s truth and warnings about those who stray and teach anything else. For example the heartbeat of God is evident in Jeremiah 23,
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!”’ declares the Lord… “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord… The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth… Behold I am against those who have prophesied false dreams… I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit…” (vv. 1,16, 28, 32).
Earlier God revealed the double-edged problem facing Judah when He had Jeremiah prophesy, “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and My people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it” (5:30-31). Not only were the prophets, priests and kings leading the sheep astray, but the people loved it. Rather than being appalled by the falsehoods pouring out of the mouths of their leaders, the people of Israel gravitated toward their teachings, no doubt because it was already in line with what they wanted to hear and how they wanted to live. But the Lord cautions, “What will you do at the end of it?” That is, after these false teachings have robbed you of true life found in God, after they have brought you into bondage instead of freedom, after they have led to counterfeit living rather than authenticity – what will you do then? Such is the true consequence of counterfeit theology.
When we come to the Gospels we find that Jesus continued this theme, being very clear about the danger of false teaching. In Matthew 16:6 Jesus warns His disciples, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Later the disciples “understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:12). And just in case anyone thought that Jesus always preached a meek and mild, positive and upbeat message, I would invite them to read Matthew 23:13-36. There the Lord pronounced eight “woes” on the Pharisees, repeatedly calling them things like hypocrites, blind guides, fools, sons of hell, whitewashed tombs, serpents and brood of vipers. It is hard to miss Jesus’ righteous anger toward those who taught lies in the name of His Father.
The book of Acts, chapter twenty, verses twenty-seven through thirty-two, speaks of wolves, often coming from within the church, who will do great harm to the flock. Paul could not have been more passionate when he wrote, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (v. 28). But caution was not enough; the true safeguard is found in verse 32, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Exhortation and warning are both vital parts of proper care for the sheep.
Even a superficial reading of the New Testament epistles reveals that large portions were written to combat false teachings of various kinds. Some of the more direct passages include:
- Jude 1:3-4 and 2 Peter 2 both exhort us to contend earnestly for the faith against those who would distort it.
- Galatians 1:6-9 pronounces a curse on those who pervert the gospel. One of the strongest admonishments in all of Scripture is reserved for those who offer a different gospel from the one Paul had given the Galatians. Paul wishes these false teachers to be accursed – that is, damned for propagating their false gospel. Perhaps only the final warning found in Scripture rivals this one. In Revelation 22:18-19 John warns anyone who dares add to or subtract from the prophecy of the book of Revelation will have added to him the plagues written in the book.
But in addition to these direct statements, the epistles devote much attention to areas of false teaching and living. The Corinthians misunderstood the sign gifts and tolerated numerous sins in the congregation; the Galatians twisted the gospel; the Colossians were replacing godly wisdom with human philosophy; the Thessalonians had been discouraged with bogus claims about the end times; Timothy had to battle “strange doctrines” and “myths;” the letter to the Hebrews was written to combat a movement back to the Old Covenant, and on we go. To ignore these cautionary themes is to ignore much of the New Testament, which is perhaps why topical preaching has virtually replaced expositional preaching in most pulpits today.
The goal of exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting false teaching (Titus 1:9) is not to develop critical and negative people who are looking under every rock for someone who has slipped up. Rather it is to “equip the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12) and thus leading God’s saints to maturity (Heb 5:11-14). I believe the apostle John reflects the heart of God when he tells us that he has no greater joy than to hear of his spiritual children walking in the truth (3 John 4).
Objections to Discernment
Despite the clear mandate given throughout the Scriptures concerning the necessity for biblical discernment and critique, most continue to be critical of the whole concept. Ironically, those who preach most tenaciously the need for tolerance are themselves intolerant of those who seek to faithfully follow God’s directives in this matter. Let’s briefly identify and analyze some of the most common objections often heard protesting the need for discernment:
1. What right do we have to judge others?
Some claim that the best known verse of Scripture in America is Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” Most who recite this command do so without the advantage of having ever read it in context. If they were to do so they would see that the Lord is not calling a moratorium on examining the lives and teachings of others; He simply wants us to do it the correct way. The Lord tells us to first judge ourselves. When that has been done properly we are in a position to help others with their sins and false beliefs (Matt 7:1-5). In verse five Jesus is recorded as saying, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Far from telling us not to be concerned about the life of our brother, Jesus demands that we get involved – not as self-righteous hypocrites but as those who recognize their own sins and weaknesses and have honestly confessed and dealt with them first. Later, in the same context, Jesus continues by telling us to beware of false teachers and examine their fruit (7:15-16) — which would be a reference to both their lives and their teachings. Rather than ignoring “false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (v. 15), we are to watch out for them and examine the product of their doctrine and lives (vv. 16-23). We are to do so in order to avoid being deceived by them and living false lives ourselves.
2. Aren’t you following in the footsteps of the Pharisees?
Those who recognize the importance of discernment are accused of being Pharisees by clinging to the letter of the Law but missing its spirit. The idea behind this accusation is that any who dare critique the beliefs of others are following in the footsteps of the Pharisees. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we are told, loved the Word of God, were serious students of the Old Testament and sought to wrap their lives around God’s truth. The problem was that they became legalists who followed the letter but missed the real point of spiritual transformation. They kept all the rules by concentrating on outward appearance and show, while having no true relationship with God. The modern disciples of the Pharisees are inevitably slated to be those who cling most robustly to the Scriptures. The more one seeks to be a “biblical” Christian (a person of “the Book”), living out his life according to the teachings of the Word, the more that one is likely to be accused of being a Pharisee.
While many believe that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their literalness and their strict adherence to the Old Testament Law, a careful examination of the Gospels reveals that Jesus never spoke against these things as such. He certainly condemned them for their hypocrisy as we see in Matthew 23. But hypocrisy has nothing to do with love and devotion to the Scriptures and everything to do with sham. These men were reprimanded by Jesus because they knew the Word but did not live what they knew. They were men of pretense. They were posers.
But Jesus reserved his strongest rebuke for the Pharisees because they added to the Scriptures. In Matthew 15 Jesus asks them, “Why do yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” After giving them a concrete example Jesus then goes on to state, “By this you invalidate the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” He then calls them hypocrites and accuses them of “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (vv. 3-9). Based upon Jesus’ words I would contend that the real Pharisees today are not those who insist on following Scripture but those who add to the Scriptures. It is those who dismiss the commandments of God and replace or supplement them with their own precepts who are living out the legacy of the Pharisees.
By this definition, based on the words of Jesus Himself, it is not those who believe in the sufficiency of Scripture and seek to live their lives within its boundaries who are Pharisees, but those who believe the Bible is inadequate and must be enhanced with men’s traditions, philosophies, and ideas who are the real Pharisees.
3. Aren’t you simply trying to prove yourself superior?
To challenge the teachings of others implies that one thinks he has all the answers, or that his view is the only correct one. His attitude appears arrogant.
A common criticism cast at those who “dare” to publicly discuss the teachings of others goes to the issue of motive. Surely, some think, the only reason anyone would take such action is to try to prove himself superior. But when some tried to attack Paul’s motives he made it clear that none of them was in a position to know the motives of others. He tells the Corinthians to stop “passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Cor 4:5). It is wrong to judge the hearts of others; we must leave such work to God. Therefore those who insist on trying to expose others’ motives end up doing nothing more than disobeying God.
4. Aren’t you assuming everyone else is wrong and you have the only correct answer?
First, we all must humbly admit that none of us has an inside track to the thoughts of God. There is no esoteric knowledge for a special class of elites. Everything that God has communicated is there to read and analyze by every child of God. Next, we must understand that our views (what we think) are unimportant; what matters is God’s view. We are not to spout our opinion but to carefully study the Scriptures and then shine its light on the teachings of ourselves and others. Therefore, it is our obligation to scrutinize God’s Word and “cut it straight” (2 Tim 2:15) so that we are able to teach the Lord’s truth (2 Tim 2:2), which is able to equip for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). This is to be done not to appear superior but to humbly aid in the spiritual life and growth of one another.
5. The flip side to the above objection is that by challenging the teachings of others we are judging their motives.
As was mentioned in regard to the last objection, it is not within our ability to judge motives since we cannot read men’s hearts (1 Cor 4:4-5). We are, however, called to examine their lives (Matt 7:15-16) and their teachings (Matt 16:6, 12); we leave their motives to God.
6. Critique of the beliefs of others simply is unacceptable in our postmodern era. Even benign assessment is viewed as intolerant and mean-spirited.
God’s truth has never been accepted by unbelievers in any age; this age is no different. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 we learn that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but it is the power of God for those being saved. Nor should Christians capitulate to the whims of secular worldview. When the Corinthian believers seemed to hunger for some meaty Greek wisdom to be mixed with New Testament theology Paul refused to accommodate them; he preached the simplicity of Jesus Christ in order that their faith would rest in the power of God, not in the wisdom of men (1 Cor 2:1-5). We make a fatal mistake when we begin to adjust our teachings and methods to appease the sensitivities of the spiritually dead and spiritually compromised. It should be the Scriptures that determine our methods and message, not those who do not know Christ or His ways.
7. A discernment ministry will turn people into critical cynics.
While this is a danger, the focus of our lives and ministries should be on the greatness of God and His wonderful truth. We must be careful that we do not deteriorate into people who are looking for error under every rock or for something about which to complain. Even in our discernment we are “to do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil 2:14). And we must take seriously Paul’s admonition to Timothy to not get tangled up in useless arguments and speculations (e.g. 1 Tim 1:4). At the same time it is impossible to really love something (God’s truth) and not want to defend it (Jude 1:3). And we must not allow the criticism of those who refuse to obey God to pressure us into living unbiblically.
Past generations of Christian leaders have seen the importance of defending the faith. For example, J. Gresham Machen made a great observation at the height of the Modernist-Fundamentalist battles in the early 1900s: “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.” Early Church Father Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies,
Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.
Princetonian theologian B. B Warfield commented,
The chief dangers to Christianity do not come from the anti-Christian systems. Mohammedanism has never made inroads upon Christianity save by the sword. Nobody fears that Christianity will be swallowed up by Buddhism. It is corrupt forms of Christianity itself which menace from time to time the life of Christianity. Why make much of minor points of difference between those who serve the one Christ? Because a pure gospel is worth preserving; and it is not only worth preserving, but is logically (and logic will always work itself out into history) the only saving gospel.
And Thomas Oden offers this word of wisdom:
Although I concede that there are other tasks more important than the exposure of heresy, I warn: if there is no immune system to resist heresy, there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy.
These men understood, as we must today, that the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” is worth defending. We must not allow the objections of those who lack the courage or the insight to fight for truth to cause us to cower from this important God-given obligation.
 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, (New York, Oxford University Press: 1980), p. 137.
 As quoted in Richard Mayhue, “A Biblical Call to Pastoral Vigilance”, The Master’s Seminary Journal Volume 7, No. 1, p.49.
 As quoted in Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided ( Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), p. X.
 As quoted in Larry Pettegrew, “Evangelicalism, Paradigms, and the Emerging Church”, The Master’s Seminary Journal Volume 17, No 2, p.175.