Originally published February 2, 2018
“There’s no place for Christian blogs and podcasts. Preaching, teaching, and encouragement should only be done by pastors and teachers in the local church.”
“Open air preaching ministry needs to go the way of the dinosaur.”
“Pro-life ministry organizations just cause too much strife. Lost people are going to reject the gospel because of them.”
“The Bible nowhere mentions Christian legal defense organizations.”
You’ve probably never heard someone give one of these statements as a reason for doing away with podcasts or street preaching or the ADF, but these days it seems like everybody – including doctrinally sound, discerning Christians – is screaming, “Off with its head!” about parachurch discernment ministries for these supposed reasons, and others. It’s become the bandwagon du jour. The popular whipping boy for Christian social media. The here-today-gone-tomorrow zeitgeist of online evangelicalism.
Among those who wish to amputate discernment ministry from the Body are good, solid, loving, godly brothers and sisters in Christ. I just wish they realized that there are many of us on this side of the discernment fence who are also good, solid, loving, godly brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is a sad irony that the genuinely good guys who are clamoring for the death of discernment ministry are, in some cases themselves doing the very things they accuse discernment ministries of doing. While they may give a brief hat tip to “some discernment ministries aren’t so bad”, in calling for the disbanding of discernment ministry across the board, they effectively lump everyone who does any sort of discernment work – regardless of how infrequently or how biblically it’s done – into the same category as those who indiscriminately lob a constant barrage of truth-bending, vitriolic grenades at everyone from the rankest heretic to the reputable, doctrinally sound brother who has a slightly different take on their eschatological view. And in the same way it wouldn’t be fair to throw these brothers and sisters who speak from biblical love and concern for the church into the same bin as “Christians” who scream like banshees about discernment ministry because they just want to worship their idols in peace without their consciences being pricked, it’s not fair to unilaterally declare that discernment ministry should be banned, either.
Rebuke those doing discernment work whose character, behavior, and handling of Scripture is so egregious it disqualifies them from any ministry whatsoever (and, unfortunately, they do exist) but encourage those who do discernment ministry right.
Just like you would with any other ministry.
Because if there were ever a dire need for discernment ministry done right and biblically, it’s now. Banishing the discerning altogether would be neither biblical nor beneficial to the Body.
Discernment: A Major Theme of the New Testament
The Old Testament is rife with idolatry, syncretism, and false prophets. Every book of the New Testament except Philemon deals in some way with false doctrine or false teachers and the importance of keeping them out of the church and away from Christians. It is a major issue throughout the Bible, but particularly in New Testament theology and ecclesiology. Jesus dealt with it. Paul dealt with it. So did Peter, Jude, John, and other New Testament figures. Part of the reason the 21st century church is so steeped in false doctrine and enamored with false teachers now is that we have been brushing discernment aside for so long instead of bringing it front and center like the Bible does. If the Holy Spirit – the author of Scripture – considers discernment to be so vital, shouldn’t we?
Amputating Body Parts
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit…the ability to distinguish between spirits…All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills…But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
1 Corinthians 12:4-8a, 10b, 11, 18-21 (emphasis mine)
Discernment (distinguishing spirits) is just as ontologically valid a spiritual gift – a manifestation of the Holy Spirit – as any of the others listed in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a biblically legitimate gift, service, and activity given for the common good of the church and empowered by the same Spirit, Lord, and God who gives and empowers the spiritual gifts of those who would do away with discernment ministry. Spiritual gifts are given by God and arranged in the Body as He sees fit. It is not for one individual body part to say to another, “I have no need of you.” Selah.
Check Your Privilege
If you’re a discerning person who goes to a discerning church, has a discerning pastor and elders, and hangs out with discerning friends maybe you don’t see that there’s much of a need for discernment ministry.
And if you lived in Hawaii, you wouldn’t see much of a need for snow shovels, either.
But if you lived in Alaska, you would.
We each exist in our own little bubble of personal experience. And if your bubble is one where pretty much everybody is discerning, make sure you thank God profusely for that every day, because you are extremely blessed. You’re also an extremely rare anomaly, because the vast majority of the rest of Christianity has no clue what that’s like. The 99 per cent-ers live in a bubble that looks like the shelves of your local Christian retailer – some good stuff (if you know where to look) and a whole lot of skubalon. And most of them don’t know the difference because they’ve never been taught. Don’t assume your experience is the norm for everyone.
Of Course Pastors Should Be Leading the Way
One of the most common arguments I hear against discernment ministry is that it’s the job of the pastor, not discernment ministries, to teach discernment. And with that statement, I could not more heartily agree! Discernment work is half of a pastor’s job description:
He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Titus 1:9 (emphasis mine)
So let me ask you 99 per cent-ers: when was the last time you heard a pastor rebuke someone who contradicts sound doctrine? Or call a false teacher by name? Or teach about a currently popular false doctrine and warn against it? I am honored to know several pastors who aren’t afraid to faithfully perform this part of their job, and God bless them for it. We need far more pastors like them. Yes, pastors should be spearheading the work of discernment in their local churches. But by and large, they’re not. And the Bible doesn’t say that only pastors have the gift and responsibility of discernment. It is insanity to tell ready, able, and willing laymen with garden hoses to stand down and watch a building burn to the ground while they wait…and wait…and wait…for the professional firemen who may never show up.
But Lost People Will Reject the Gospel!
Lost people already reject the gospel. That’s why they’re lost. They don’t get any lost-er by seeing a discernment ministry critique a false teacher. In fact, I’ve known of lost people who have expressed their thanks to discernment ministries for denouncing the blasphemies of false teachers. Even in their spiritually blind state many unbelievers know a wolf when they see one. Sometimes – to our shame – even better than those who call themselves Christians. When someone rejects the gospel, it is no more the fault of a discernment ministry than it is the fault of a pro-life ministry, a ministry that disciples newly saved homosexuals, or any other type of biblical ministry. God is sovereign in salvation. He will save who He means to save, and no mere mortal is going to prevent Him from doing so.
Your Comfort Versus Their Souls
Whatever it is that bothers you about discernment ministries, is your state of botheration as important as the spiritual condition of the person that discernment ministry is reaching? Maybe you’re worried about those lost people out there who might reject the gospel because of discernment ministry conflict. Are you just as concerned about the lady in the pew next to you at church who’s every bit as lost as those people “out there” because she listens to false teachers who preach a false gospel that’s made her a false convert? What if a discernment ministry could help her understand the truth of the gospel? It’s happened. I’ve heard many stories of false converts Providentially “stumbling upon” a discernment ministry, hearing the unadulterated gospel for the first time, and getting saved.
What about the Christian woman who spends her quiet time in tears every day because she’s been falsely taught that God will talk to her if she just listens hard enough and has enough faith, and she’s in despair because she’s not hearing from God? What if a discernment ministry could set her free from that burden by teaching her what the Bible really says and steering her away from those who have deceived her? It’s happened. I know it has, because something similar happened to me. Is your annoyance at discernment ministries more important than her spiritual health?
There is absolutely a place – a good, God-ordained, nobody-puts-Baby-in-a-corner place – for discernment ministry in the Body of Christ. Inside the church, online, in parachurch ministry, from pastors, elders, and laymen alike. Yes, those who abuse their position of ministry – in any ministry – should be rebuked and removed. But we don’t do away with entire spiritual gifts and areas of ministry because of a few bad apples. Instead of amputating, maybe we should be excising gangrenous tissue instead. Otherwise we’ll just be shooting ourselves – the Body – in the foot.