Discernment ministry (2)
Despite the clear mandate given in Scripture for biblical discernment and critique (see January ET), most people continue to be critical of the whole concept of this ministry.
Ironically, those who preach most tenaciously the need for tolerance are themselves intolerant of any who seek to faithfully follow God’s directives in this matter. Let’s analyse some common objections.
What right have you to judge others?
Answer: Some claim the best known verse of Scripture in the West 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 read it in context. If they were to do so they would see 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 (Matthew 7:1-5). ‘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, he demands that we get involved – not as self-righteous hypocrites, but as those who recognise their own sins and weaknesses and have honestly confessed and dealt with them first.
Jesus continues by telling us to beware of false teachers and examine their fruit (Matthew 7:15-16), which is a reference to their lives and teachings.
Aren’t you following in the footsteps of the Pharisees?
The idea behind this accusation is that any who dare critique the beliefs of others are clinging to the letter of the law but missing its spirit.
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 then became legalists who followed the letter but missed the real point of spiritual transformation. They kept all the rules by concentrating on outward appearance, 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 someone seeks to be a ‘biblical’ Christian living out the teachings of the Word, the more that one is likely to be accused of being a Pharisee.
Answer: While many think Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their literalness and strict adherence to the Old Testament law, a careful examination of the Gospels reveals he never spoke against these things as such.
He certainly condemned them for their hypocrisy (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 pretence, posers.
But Jesus reserved his strongest rebuke for the Pharisees because they added to the Scriptures. In Matthew 15 Jesus asks them, ‘Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’
After giving them a concrete example, Jesus 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 contend that the real Pharisees today are not those who insist on following Scripture but those who add to the Scriptures. It is those that replace the commandments of God or supplement them with their own precepts who are living out the legacy of the Pharisees.
Jesus makes clear that 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.
Aren’t you simply trying to prove yourself superior?
To challenge the teachings of others implies you think you have all the answers or your view is the only correct one. This attitude appears arrogant.
Answer: A common criticism cast at those who ‘dare’ to discuss publicly the teachings of others relates to their supposed motives. Surely, they say, the only reason anyone would take such action is to try to prove himself superior?
But when some attacked Paul’s motives he made it clear that no one 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 Corinthians 4:5).
It is wrong to judge the hearts of others; we must leave such work to God.
Aren’t you assuming that everyone else is wrong and you only have the correct answers?
Answer: First, we 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 God has communicated is there for reading and analysis by every child of God.
Next, we must understand that our views are unimportant; what matters is God’s view. We are not to spout our opinion but carefully study the Scriptures and then shine its light on the teachings of ourselves and others.
Therefore, it is our obligation to scrutinise God’s Word and ‘cut it straight’ (2 Timothy 2:15) so that we are able to teach the Lord’s truth (2 Timothy 2:2), which is able to equip for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
This is to be done not to appear superior but to humbly aid the spiritual life and growth of one another.
Critiquing the beliefs of others is unacceptable in our postmodern era. Even benign assessment is intolerant and mean-spirited.
Answer: 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 world views. When the Corinthian believers seemed to hunger for some meaty Greek wisdom to be mixed into their 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 Corinthians 2:1-5).
We make a fatal mistake when we 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.
A discernment ministry turns its practitioners into critical cynics.
Answer: While this is a danger to be guarded against, 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 always looking for error under every rock or something about which to complain.
Even in our discernment we are ‘to do all things without grumbling or disputing’ (Philippians 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 Timothy 1:4).
At the same time it is impossible to really love God’s truth and not want to defend it (Jude 3). 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 observed at the height of the Modernist-Fundamentalist battles of the early 1900s: ‘What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires’.1
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’.2
Princeton 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’.3
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’.4
These men understood, as we must, 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 insight to fight for truth to cause us to cower from this important, God-given obligation.
1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American culture (New York, Oxford University Press: 1980), p.137.
2. Quoted in Richard Mayhue, ‘A biblical call to pastoral vigilance’, The Master’s Seminary Journal; Volume 7, No. 1, p.49.
3. Quoted in Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism divided (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000); p. X.
4. Quoted in Larry Pettegrew, ‘Evangelicalism, paradigms, and the Emerging Church’, The Master’s Seminary Journal; Volume 17, No. 2, p.175.