Discernment ministry might not be as fashionable among Reformed women as it was two or three years ago. People began listening to the critics who often correctly nailed our sarcastic demeanor and our preoccupation with digging up dirt on evangelical celebrities. Those critics had a valid point.
As I’ve thought further about the objections to discernment ministry, as well as the legitimate reasons Christians must engage in such ministry, I’ve begun to consider the fact that true discernment encompasses a great deal more than “heresy hunting.” The apostle Paul, as a matter of fact, indicates a relationship between discernment and everyday obedience to the Lord.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. ~~Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)
Here, Paul presents a lifestyle of transformation into people who worship a holy God as the reason to exercise discernment. He had just finished praising God for His wisdom in allowing Gentiles to participate in salvation (Romans 11:28-36), and he was about to outline practical principles for Christian living (Romans 12:3-15:13), so his transitional paragraph established that believers need these principles in order to discern God’s will in varying situations of everyday life. In this context, discernment means the ability to have Scripture as the guiding influence for our lives.
To put it simply, discernment enables Christians to tell the difference between good and evil for the purpose of living in ways that honor and please the Lord. Paul wasn’t alone in advocating this use of discernment, however. The person who wrote the letter to the Hebrews definitely made that correlation:
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. ~~Hebrews 5:11-14 (ESV)
Christian maturity demands an increasing understanding of God’s Word so that we train ourselves to distinguish between good and evil. Clearly, the Holy Spirit Who inspired both Paul and the writer of Hebrews made the point that discernment has the ultimate purpose of influencing how we manage our thoughts, attitudes and behavior. Discernment aligns us with the values and will of our heavenly Father.
Certainly, that alignment also involves identifying and renouncing false teaching. The Hebrew Christians addressed in this letter, for example, had reverted back to Old Testament laws to secure their salvation, which was evil in that it rejected the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross. They needed discernment to tell them that their false doctrine of adding human efforts to His perfect sacrifice exposed their damning trust in themselves. Their warped theology, if they continued to follow it, would demonstrate that they never really had saving faith.
So yes, spotting and repudiating false teaching (and those who propagate it) plays a vital role in exercising discernment. Bible-believing Christians most assuredly have the responsibility to identify theological error and boldly confront it. But, my dear sisters in Christ, we ourselves err when we reduce discernment to little beyond calling out false teachers and exposing deviant practices. If we truly want to engage in discernment ministry, we will press toward the goal of personal holiness, and we’ll encourage others toward that goal for God’s glory.