Before I type one more word, I want to state that I am NOT an authority on discernment. Nor do I presume to hold any “gift” with regard to discernment. I’m just an ordinary Christian who reads God’s Word and who, through considerable time and study have come to some “common sense” conclusions about the need for discernment and practises that one should be mindful of, when entering into making judgements about Biblical doctrine. My “recommendations” are not carved in stone. I’m sure there are many who could do a much better job of what I am attempting to do here. Also note that not all of the following information is mine, I have made some use of a number of external sources.
In its simplest definition, discernment is nothing more than the ability to decide between truth and error, right and wrong. Discernment is the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth. In other words, the ability to think with discernment is synonymous with an ability to think biblically.
1st Thessalonians 5:21-22 teaches that it is the responsibility of every Christian to be discerning: “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” The apostle John issues a similar warning when he says, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
In short, discernment is the ability to think biblically about all areas of life and it is indispensable to an uncompromising life. Without it, Christians are at risk of being “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).
According to my understanding of the New Testament, discernment is not optional for the believer – it is required.
And it’s important to differentiate between disputable practises and indisputable doctrine. And it’s also important to know what the standard is, in short, what everything that is being questioned is examined against.
Romans chapter 14 provides an overview on disputable practises and how we are to exercise the liberty we have in Christ, when dealing with the brethren. And the three scripture verses below are just some of many verses that expound upon the necessity of adhering to the doctrines that have been delivered to us.
Acts 17:11 NIV states “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV also states “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Galatians 1:8 NIV “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”
So, if we encounter teachings online or in a book or in a direct quote or in a video where we think our understanding of God’s Word is being contradicted, what should we do?
Before we even begin to go through the processes or recommendations outlined below, please note that there is an absolute requirement to be well versed in the Scriptures. There is no short cut for Bible study. It takes time, prayer and dedicated continued effort. This is the critical element that is so often missing and the prime reason why so many are so easily led astray. The long and the short of it is, that if you are not very familiar with God’s Word, you will not be able to discern error when you encounter a doctrine that is contrary to God’s Word, because you won’t have a reference point to compare it with.
In my studies of the Scriptures I have come to appreciate a couple of Bible verses which basically details the process of coming to understanding God’s word. They are as follows:
2 Timothy 2:15 KJV “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Isaiah 28:10 KJV “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:”
Learning to “rightly divide the word of truth” is a lifetime process. The reason for this is relatively straight forward, the process of understanding God’s teaching on a given subject or doctrine is indeed based upon all of God’s word, where line upon line is evaluated with precept upon precept and it encompasses searching the Scriptures from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation.
Hebrews 5:14 NIV “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
My caution would be, be aware of your level of Biblical understanding and then prayerfully proceed if you are guided in that direction.
There is a second option available, in that we can scour the available resources, both pro and con, that are available on the Internet and by reading books that have been authored by the individual who we suspect is propagating a doctrine contrary to generally accepted orthodox doctrine. Bear in mind that there are many gifted Christian theologians and teachers who adhere to sound orthodox doctrine available on the Internet. Make use of their documentation. Doing so can be a huge time saver. I have compiled an ongoing list of recommended websites of trusted Christian theologians and teachers on my “Christian Resources” page that you may find beneficial.
The following recommendations are applicable to look for at the source you may be using via a gifted Christian theologian or teacher, or if you are doing your own research on an author who you suspect is propagating false doctrine.
The first thing to determine is as to whether you wish to invest the considerable time and effort it will take in following up the observed departure from generally accepted or orthodox Christian doctrine. That basically means doing your homework. You will need to research and examine how this particular doctrine you are questioning deviates from the generally accepted orthodox doctrine. Document your observations for future reference.
1. Check out the author – look to see who is writing. Do they have a track record? Do they have credentials? Not that credentials are of sole importance, but sometimes it counts. In short, obtain an understanding of their background and history.
2. Primary Sources – Does the author use primary sources and if so, are they identified and accessible? If further research is required on a given topic or doctrine, do the follow-up so that what you are objecting to is not a misunderstanding of one isolated statement. Document your observations for future reference.
3. Secondary Sources – does the author quote secondary sources, are they specifically identified and accessible? Do a background check on the secondary source authors, credentials, background, history. Secondary sources are very important in establishing an association with regard to acquired doctrinal development and pattern. Document your observations for future reference.
4. Source Doctrine – is this a relatively new doctrine that hasn’t appeared in Church history before or can the roots of this particular doctrine be traced back in Church history? If the doctrine is not new, document the history of the doctrine for future reference.
5. Context is king – Discernment research is actually investigative journalism, and the same ethics apply. Has the writer used ethical standards and looked at the situation/quote/issue in context? Context is always critical. Document your findings for future reference.
6. Time/Age – Another important factor to look at is, is the author cherry picking non-representative statements? If the author made a statement long ago, does the statement fairly represent his/her opinion now? How old is the material being used to “prove” their case? How narrow is it? How representative is it? Has the author under investigation or the teacher being scrutinized developed over time? Point is to avoid singular statements that have not been repeated previously so as to avoid possible misunderstandings that do happen. Document your findings for future reference.
7. Weasel Words, Hyperbole, and Tenuous Connections – Three items that you will definitely encounter. Weasel words are used when the speaker wants to make it seem like they’ve given a clear answer to a question or made a direct statement, when actually they’ve said something inconclusive or vague. Hyperbole are wildly exaggerated statements, or, deliberately overblowing things to make a point. Tenuous connections. Sometimes, an author will try to insinuate guilt by association. Don’t get lazy. If there are dots to connect, make sure they are clearly associated with the doctrine in question. Document your findings for future reference.
8. Separation Issues – Separation is serious. It means when a teacher or author is publicly advocated to be separated from, that they are in effect being declared as a false teacher. We don’t do that lightly in real life, and advocating separation must be clearly based on doctrine which is heretical (documented) and thoroughly condemned within Scripture (documented). There is no room for short cuts here.
9. Anger – This particular trait is undoubtedly one of the most difficult mannerisms to avoid. Human nature being what it is, we all have a tendency to be defensive and to hit back when we are attacked. The key element here is human nature opposing walking in the Spirit. We, as Christians, are not called to return evil for evil. Be mindful to be charitable, even-keeled, fair, and point to Christ. Use primary sources, embeds things in context, be willing to review a teacher over time, doesn’t push for instant separation from everyone, and use appropriate proofs to support your contentions. And last but not least, adhere to a commonly understood interpretation of the Bible verses in the discernment realms.
Worthy is the Lamb! Blessings!