(Read the series.)
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 in 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.”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
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.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 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.
1 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York, Oxford University Press: 1980), p. 137.
2 As quoted in Richard Mayhue, “A Biblical Call to Pastoral Vigilance”, The Master’s Seminary Journal Volume 7, No. 1, p.49.
3 As quoted in Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided ( Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), p. X.
4 As quoted in Larry Pettegrew, “Evangelicalism, Paradigms, and the Emerging Church”, The Master’s Seminary Journal Volume 17, No 2, p.175.
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.