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discerners discerning discernment

Recently, one of my favorite blogs, ParkingSpace23 (a fantastic, doctrinally sound blog I’d encourage everyone to subscribe to), published an excellent article by John Chester called Still Be Discerning about Discernment Ministries. It’s all about John’s thoughts on discernment blogs and podcasts and why he has chosen to swear off of them.

John seems like a thoughtful guy and he handled what can be a touchy subject evenly, calmly, scripturally, and with grace. As someone who frequently writes on discernment topics, it gave me some good food for thought and an opportunity to biblically examine both my writing and reading/listening habits. It’s a great article, I was thankful for it, and I agree with a lot of his points.

But while John has decided not to partake of discernment blogs and podcasts, I still find discernment ministry to be an important aspect of this blog as well as my personal spiritual “diet”. Does that mean I think John, or any other Christian, is wrong for not wanting to regularly read or listen to discernment material? Absolutely not! But I’d like to present a bit of a different perspective regarding the value of discernment ministry.

In the first few paragraphs of his article, John draws a distinction between two different types of discernment ministries- a disctinction which I think is both astute and important. John differentiates between what I would call “propositional” discernment sites like CARM, and, if I’m understanding him correctly, mine – which generally post single, position paper-type articles on a given false teacher or false doctrine – and what I would call “daily news” discernment ministries such as Berean Research and Fighting for the Faith – which report on the shenanigans du jour of false teachers and apostate churches.

John’s position is that the propositional discernment ministries [PDM] can be helpful when needed, but he is not fond of the daily news discernment ministries [DNDM]. I think both can be beneficial, assuming they’re done biblically. Take a look at John’s points and my counterpoints, and then you can prayerfully decide whether or not it would be profitable for your sanctification to include discernment media as part of your spiritual fare.

John’s point: “[DNDMs] often spend much time dissecting sermons or blog posts that someone with even a rudimentary sense of discernment would have stopped listening to or reading within the first few phrases.”

Michelle’s counterpoint: “Someone with even a rudimentary sense of discernment” is the crucial phrase here. Perhaps John is blessed to pastor a body of believers who are good bereans and most of the Christians he knows are discerning. I hope that’s the case. It should be the case that every believer has “a rudimentary sense of discernment” and immediately rejects false doctrine when she hears it. Nothing would bring me more joy.

But, sadly, that’s not the case. In fact, in my experience, the exact opposite is true, especially among Christian women. The vast majority of Christians are very undiscerning when it comes to false teachers and false doctrine. Often, people lack discernment because they’re false converts. But because most churches don’t proactively teach discernment, there are also plenty of genuninely born again believers who take at face value that anything which wears the label of “Christian,” is sold at a Christian retailer, or is proclaimed by a Christian celebrity is biblical and trustworthy.

I know, because I used to be one of those undiscerning Christians who hadn’t been taught any better by my church. Sure, I could pick out charlatans like Benny Hinn or Todd Bentley, and I probably would have described people like Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis as “wrong” or “that’s not what Baptists believe” without really knowing why. But the Beth Moore Bible studies that every church I’ve ever been a member of has pushed on its female membership? I had no idea she was teaching false doctrine, especially since my own church was endorsing her books.

It wasn’t until I Providentially “stumbled across” Todd Friel’s TV program, Wretched, one night several years ago that I began to understand what false doctrine was, why it was wrong, biblically, and how it could hurt me and the church. And it wasn’t until I discovered Chris Rosebrough’s Fighting for the Faith that I learned how to compare everything to Scripture – to listen to sermons with a discerning ear and read Christian books with a discerning mind. Todd and Chris taught me the discernment no church ever bothered to mention to me. And from the myriad of discerning Christians I’ve known, heard from, and read about, people like me are the rule, not the exception.

It’s not right that the church isn’t teaching Christians how to be discerning. I think every biblically responsible discernment ministry would agree that it is the church’s job, not a discernment ministry’s, to teach Christians to be bereans. But that’s not happening. And I thank God for those ministries who are standing in the gap- who have helped thousands of Christians like me.

John’s point: “[DNDMs] are unbiblical. What I mean is that there seems to me to be no biblical model or mandate for this kind of ‘ministry’.”

Michelle’s counterpoint: John may hold more closely to the regulative principle than I do, which would, understandably, account for my difference in perspective from this point. We do a lot of things, both in church and in parachurch ministry, that there’s no specific biblical model or mandate for. There’s no biblical model or mandate for vacation Bible school or crisis pregnancy ministry or handing out gospel tracts or even writing for a Christian blog. Yet these, and many other ministries, can carry the gospel to the lost (I’ve heard of many people who have read/listened to DNDMs, realized they were false converts, and have become believers.) and edify the saved – just like discernment ministries can. And there’s certainly a biblical mandate for that.

John’s point: “Did Jesus ever engage in a point by point take down of a particular Pharisee’s teaching that is recorded in Scripture? How much do we know about the Nicolaitans…in Revelation 2:15?… Or… the Colossian heresy…in Colossians 2:8?”

Michelle’s counterpoint: Jesus didn’t do sermon reviews (that we know of) the same way Chris Rosebrough does. But He did publicly enumerate and correct many of the Pharisees’ false teachings in Matthew 23. He publicly clarified Scripture and corrected unbiblical beliefs and false teachings – “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” – in the Sermon on the Mount. He publicly warned people against the false teaching of the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. And every time those scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees confronted Him with questions or after a miracle, He set them straight for the whole crowd to hear.

As to the Nicolaitan and Colossian heresies, Colossians and Revelation 2 were addressed to particular churches. Just because we may not know much about these heresies doesn’t mean the Ephesian and Colossian churches weren’t thoroughly familiar with them. Perhaps that’s why John and Paul didn’t elaborate- because their intended audiences were already knowledgeable about those heresies. And perhaps the reason they might have been familiar with those heresies is that they were constantly being warned about them. Every book in the New Testament (except Philemon) warns against false teaching or false teachers.

Not so with the church today. Christians are not only not being warned about the heresies and false teachers running rampant in evangelicalism, undiscerning pastors are actually embracing false teachers, inviting them to speak at their churches, simulcasting their conferences, sharing their social media posts, and ordering their materials for the church’s small groups. And the church at large is so biblically illiterate that Christians have no idea they’re being fed false doctrine.

John’s point: “Curiously many discernment mavens will quote 1 Peter 3:15 as a text that supports what they do. But to be blunt, it doesn’t, not by a long shot…. This is about being ready to proclaim Christ to those who would persecute you.”

Michelle’s agreement: I could not agree with this point more. This verse isn’t about discernment. (I usually hear this verse more frequently in support of apologetics ministries, and it isn’t about apologetics, either.) It’s about evangelism.

One of the main features of today’s false doctrine is the twisting of Scripture and ripping it out of context. How can we who do discernment work rebuke false teachers for taking Scripture out of context and then turn right around and do the same to justify our own ministries? We know better. Specks and logs, anyone?

There are plenty of other passages of Scripture (such as the ones I’ve cited above and others) that speak of the importance of warning against false teachers and removing false doctrine from the church. We should not be using a verse that has nothing to do with discernment to justify discernment ministry.

John’s point: “Don’t get me started on the lack of gentleness and respect [from 1 Peter 3:15] that permeates many of these blogs and podcasts.”

Michelle’s agreement/counterpoint: John is right, here. Some of the discernment ministries that (incorrectly) claim the first part of 1 Peter 3:15 as justification for their ministry are not following the second part of the verse which says to “do so with gentleness and respect”. There are discernment ministries whose articles I absolutely will not share or link to because their snideness and name calling are so over the top it overshadows the valid point they’re trying to make, sometimes even damaging their own credibility.

At the same time, we do see instances of Jesus using harsh language and calling false teachers names, and Paul, Elijah, and others couldn’t always be characterized as gentle or respectful.

The thing is, their cultural context was a little different from ours, and these are descriptive passages, not prescriptive. Sometimes different cultures call for different approaches. Additionally, one woman’s “gentle and respectful” is another woman’s “harsh and unkind.” I’ve written discernment articles that were characterized as hateful by some Christians and too nice toward the false teacher by others- both about the same article!

Although I fail miserably at it – often – I try to use 2 Timothy 2:24-26 as my guideline when I write:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

It not only reminds me of how to contend for the faith (not quarrelsome, kind, patient, gentle), it reminds me who I’m contending for (those being held captive by Satan’s snare of false doctrine), and why I’m contending (that they might repent, know the truth, come to their senses, and escape captivity).

John’s point: “[DNDMs] are unhealthy…’you are what you eat’…A diet of constant critical speech and reading is naturally going to produce a critical spirit.”

Michelle’s agreement: This is absolutely true. I don’t know whether it makes me over-critical or not, but when I OD on discernment media it certainly makes me feel angry, frustrated, depressed, and that there’s no hope for the church. It takes my eyes off Christ and the very real salvific and sanctifying work He is still doing in churches across across the globe, and causes me to focus on the monster of false doctrine instead.

It’s exceedingly important that we not go overboard on discernment or any other single aspect of theology or or spiritual life. In order to be spiritually healthy, we must have a balance of all the good things: discernment, Bible study, prayer, evangelism, fellowship, worship, service, etc. When I find myself spending too much time in Discernment Land, I know it’s time to step back and readjust my focus.

John’s point: “They are not very helpful…I don’t think very many Christians, especially the kind who read theological blogs, are going to be taken in by [blatantly obvious false teachers].”

Michelle’s agreement/counterpoint: I’ve already shared my thoughts on the helpfulness of discernment ministries for Christians who are not discerning, but, if I’m understanding him correctly, I think what John is saying here is that Christians who are already discerning aren’t going to be taken in by false teachers, and, therefore, have little need for regular consumption of discernment media. I generally agree with that. I still subscribe to a few DNDMs and peruse their daily headlines, not because I need to learn discernment, but because I like to know what’s going on in the church, just like people skim section A of the newspaper because they like to know what’s going on in the world.

I might add, though, that just because someone is the type of person who reads theological blogs doesn’t mean he’s on top of things, discernment-wise. Thom Rainer writes a theological blog (and books, and has a seminary Ph.D), yet persists in allowing false doctrine onto the shelves of LifeWay despite the many rebukes he has received from pastors, seminarians, lay people, and, yes, discernment media. Not long ago, I took a class via video from a conservative Southern Baptist seminary president who positively (albeit in passing) cited Beth Moore and Rick Warren in one of the sessions. And these are just two isolated examples. There are many more.

John’s point: “[DNDMs] often have significant blindspots…In their rush to expose the errors of others, often discernment bloggers/podcasters can overlook real problems with themselves or with their theological allies, especially in the areas of tone and conduct.”

Michelle’s agreement: This is so true. There’s no way I could disagree with this, because I have been guilty of it myself far too often. I would only add that this is not a problem specific to discernment ministry. Every ministry has blind spots because every Christian has blind spots. We’re all guilty of hypocrisy, myopia, failure, and sin. And, because we’re believers, when a brother or sister points out our sin, we repent, we receive God’s wonderful, cleansing, restorative grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and we move forward in obedience to Him and His word.

John closes out his insightful article with this thought:

I am not saying that you must swear off “discernment” blogs and podcasts, but I am saying I did, for the reasons above along with others, and I think I am better off for it. I would challenge you to consider what I have written and to think deeply about your spiritual diet. I am exhorting you to be discerning about discernment ministries.

I am not saying you must partake of discernment blogs and podcasts. But I am saying I do, for the reasons above along with others, and I think I am better off for it. I would challenge you to consider what John and I have written and to think deeply about your spiritual diet. I am exhorting you to think about it, study about it, pray about it, and discern what God would have you do about consuming discernment media.

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