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Undiscerning Discernment

One of the ways you make your mark in the online discernment ministry world is by “outing” a popular and generally reliable pastor or Bible teacher. This promotes you in the eyes of discernment devotees, because you are supposedly spotting error in a teacher that “everyone else unquestioningly follows”, and are willing to be the lonely voice of Elijah, exposing apostasy. Once you denounce an ostensibly conservative teacher, you have shown that your discernment eyes are even sharper than having 20/20 spiritual vision, for behold, no one else has seen clearly enough, or been courageous enough, to out this prominent Bible teacher.

In the world of online discernment ministries, by finding the flaw in the respected-but-flawed, you show ourself to be a pure and uncompromised zealot for the two cardinal virtues of discernment ministries: 1) test every man’s doctrine, no matter who he is, and 2) militantly contend for the truth at all costs. You are a Phinehas for the truth, a true independent with loyalties to none but God.

Even better, you now occupy a virtually impregnable position. When objectors begin voicing their discomfort with the sense of disproportion in your critique of the conservative Bible teacher, you can point to either one of the cardinal virtues and show that the objectors are disrespecting either one or both. “Listen, just because he’s a big name doesn’t mean we shouldn’t check his doctrine or criticize it if it’s false. We’re God-followers, not man-pleasers, you know!” Or: “Truth cannot be compromised for the sake of false unity. Love and unity can only be built upon truth, and this man is in error.”

Of course, like Job’s three friends, what the discernment Phinehas says is true in itself, but false when misapplied. Indeed, the two cardinal virtues of discernment ministries are entirely biblical; it is their clumsy and often vituperative application that sensible Christians quibble with.

That becomes the great irony of so many online discernment ministries. In the attempt to distinguish themselves from the undiscerning, they often exhibit a wholesale lack of discernment in whom and what (and how) they criticize. The richness of the irony can hardly be overstated: when the single factor that a ministry makes its primary focus―discernment― becomes its most glaringly wanting attribute.

Lumping together generally reliable Bible teachers and complete apostates is the definition of indiscriminate judgment. Indeed, explaining carefully the difference in severity of error between apostasy and unwise associations or errors of ministry philosophy would be the mark of discernment. To implicate faithful gospel-teaching ministers as guilty of apostasy or severe compromise is as close to the behavior of Diotrephes (3 Jo. 9-10) as I can tell, and makes the truly discerning wonder about the discernment ministry’s discernment. But some online discernment ministries routinely run stories showing why even the most trusted Bible teachers are actually untrustworthy, alongside critiques of true apostates.

Of course, like a politician denouncing the self-aggrandizing nature of politicians, Phinehas hopes his readers will never turn their gaze from the criticized to the criticizer. Because at some point, the thoughtful Christian realizes that discernment ministries are implicitly claiming for themselves a kind of infallible judgment in matters theological, a gatekeeper-status when it comes to truth. The intelligent Christian eventually connects the dots: if 99% of Bible teachers are compromised and untrustworthy, and only this discernment ministry has had the eyes to see it and the courage to denounce it, that makes the discernment ministry the last man standing. In which case, the discernment ministry is really what we should be following, or at least it is the only one whose uncompromised judgements we should adopt as our own.

The upshot is again terribly ironic. Discernment ministries insist that Christians should be loyal to no one but Christ and His Word, and yet this very behavior (denouncing reliable teachers) creates a tribalism and devotee-mentality worse than the most mindless denominationalism. In this case, the tribe is typically anti-tradition, anti-ecclesial, anti-authority, but it is a tribe nonetheless. The tribe members are devoted to the Phinehas-leader’s pronouncements, and to rejecting all the Bible teachers he has outed, and to the continued pursuit of discernment (as processed and delivered by the ministry, of course). The self-congratulatory appeal of belonging to the truly discerning is powerful indeed.

On closer inspection, the doctrinal position of the particular discernment ministry turns out to be quite uninteresting: some subsection of Christianity with an eclectic collection of pet doctrines or resentments, which are sold as the positions which “the discerning” come to. In reality, many far more discerning believers have rejected those very positions precisely because they applied careful judgement to Scripture and history. But you’d never know it, from within the tribe. Never is Phinehas asked by his followers: by what standard do you judge a doctrine to be false or true? “The Bible alone” would be the answer, but we want to know more: what hermeneutic do you use to interpret Bible texts? What theological method to collate and harmonize those Bible texts? What theological tradition is your starting point for interpretation and one of your presuppositions when weighing the biblical data? Usually you will be dismissed or denounced long before you get answers to those questions. Which amounts to this: as far as Phinehas is concerned, you really need only make one discerning choice―trust the discernment ministry, and no one else.

All of which leads to the ironic conclusion: the truly discerning outgrow most online discernment ministries.

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.