This is the third post in our series on discerning problems. Even though discernment is probably more about seeing what the Holy Spirit is doing than about sensing problems, these three posts focus on how to judge “discernment” of problems, and what to do with that discernment if there is a problem. The first week we discussed How To Discern Other People’s Discernment. Then last week we talked about how to discern our own “discernment” by judging what may be the source of an uneasy feeling we experience. Today I’ll share my thoughts about how to handle it if we truly are discerning a problem.
We Need An Interpretation
I see a parallel with discernment and Paul’s advice about the gift of tongues. Paul taught that the gift of tongues should be interpreted or else the person should speak to themselves and to God, because nobody understands and it doesn’t benefit the church if there isn’t an interpretation. Similarly, just saying you “feel” like something is wrong causes confusion rather than benefitting anybody. It’s also not fair to the person who is the object of the accusation. There’s nothing they can say for themselves —you just have a “bad feeling” about them. What if you missed it? What if your bad feeling was due to something else?
Guys, we need to treat revelation with humility. Scripture teaches we should be willing to let our revelation be tested. But if you have nothing more to share than a “bad feeling” about somebody, how can other Christians rightly judge it? All it does is cause confusion, and sometimes anger.
I’ll just tell you how I personally feel in such a case. When I see someone on Facebook come out and say something like “I don’t know, but I just feel like so-and-so has a Jezebel spirit” it angers me. What did the poor person do to deserve such an accusation? My experience is that people who do that are often the ones who are deceived. But even if you were right on the mark with your “bad feeling,” how am I going to know you aren’t just another person who sees a “Jezebel” or “false prophet” in every corner?
I’ve heard fabricated accusations against a Christian leader I respect. I didn’t write off the accusations, but neither did I immediately embrace them. I soon found out with as much certainty as possible that they were 100% made up. Scripture says not to entertain an accusation against an elder unless it’s brought by two or three witnesses. If we aren’t supposed to entertain such an accusation unless it’s brought by two or three witnesses, then how can we expect other Christians to entertain our “bad feeling” about so-and-so when that’s all we have on them?
Remember the story from last week where I felt something wrong in the church, and later the pastor was uncovered as a serial adulterer? What if I had stood up and said something? It wouldn’t have done any good. Since I wasn’t even sure why I felt that bad feeling, I could have easily mistaken it as an indication that the church itself was bad. I didn’t know it was a problem with the pastor, which was going to hurt people.
Unless it becomes clear why you have that “bad feeling,” it’s probably best to keep it to yourself and to God. Make sure you are in a place of thanksgiving to God for the church, nothing hindering the river of His love from flowing freely through your heart. Pray about it. Ask God what’s going on and why you are feeling that way. Thank the Holy Spirit for what he’s doing in that situation. Pray that if there’s anything hidden that needs to be uncovered, it will be revealed.
Many times it will soon become evident what’s going on. There are cases where a leader was caught in an extramarital affair but it went unreported for quite a while because someone was afraid of getting involved in the situation. In these cases something concrete needs to be addressed. Doing so is unpleasant, but it’s for the sake of protecting people God loves.
Many times when the “bad feeling” is right on, it becomes evident in the teaching. I’m not talking about minor differences in doctrine, but teaching that is controlling or proposes a way to God other than through Christ. These and a few other forms of teaching are highly destructive. As I became more familiar with God’s grace and with the gospel message, I began to more quickly recognize harmful teaching as the reason for the “bad feeling” I got. All I had to do was keep listening and it became clear what was going on.
I most often feel that “bad feeling” when there’s a heavy legalism or controlling teaching involved. It soon becomes evident in the teaching, which means it is no longer just a “bad feeling” and I can address it. I’ve addressed much of the underlying doctrine in “I Am Persuaded.” I Am Persuaded is an uplifting and encouraging read which clears up a lot of confusion about “authority in the church” and thoroughly refutes teachings which religious leaders often use to control people.
A Personal Warning
When your heart is in a place of close fellowship with the Lord and thanksgiving for the church, yet you find yourself unexplainably disturbed in a certain place or near a certain person, it’s likely that you really are picking up on something in the spirit realm. This can still serve as a personal warning.
John 2:23-25 (NRSV) When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Jesus walked so closely with the Father that he knew what was in people’s hearts. He saw the gold in people who looked unimpressive to others. He also saw when people who seemed outwardly impressive had hearts full of filth. He didn’t fall for it when people put on masks. In fact, he knew that Judas was stealing from the money bag all along!
If you don’t know what’s going on, it may not be appropriate or helpful to share this “bad feeling” with other people. However, it can still serve as a personal warning and/or a call to prayer. One woman felt really disturbed when her husband brought a guy over to stay at their house. She went somewhere else with the kids. They later found out he was convicted of raping children about the same age as her kids.
I’ve had that sick feeling before without being sure why, only to hear later about a sexual abuse scandal involving an elder. This sense that something is wrong can sometimes protect us from getting involved in some way with the wrong people.
Doctrinal Issues That Should Be Challenged
When we challenge doctrine, it’s important to accurately represent what the teacher we are questioning is teaching. We do that with direct quotes. As we saw in part 1, a lot of the so-called “discernment” going around grossly misrepresents or even lies about what the people it opposes actually teach. Very few Christians agree about all doctrine. It’s all right to disagree on many things and express our different viewpoints, but we focus on honoring the Holy Spirit’s work in each other’s lives and building each other up in love. However, there are some teachings that are quite destructive and should be strongly opposed. These include:
- Teaching used to control and manipulate people
- Legalism/teaching that implies Jesus isn’t enough/heaps guilt and condemnation on people rather than pointing to what Jesus has done to make us right with God
- Licentiousness, which is teaching that openly promotes immorality
- Teaching that denies truths fundamental to the Christian faith, such as Jesus’ death, resurrection, incarnation, deity
- Any teaching that puts a “mediator” other than Christ between God and man, implies that there is a way of salvation other than through Christ, or draws people away from centering on Christ and on his redemptive work
As we’ve noted before, sometimes Charismatics get so used to slanderous accusations and false “discernment” being slung at them that they are too quick to write off valid concerns. Yet paying attention to valid concerns can help us to avoid a lot of trouble and people getting hurt. Some people falsely teach that a Christian cannot express a problem with a doctrine unless they first approach the teacher personally. (At least if that teacher is popular.) Such a notion is ridiculous and unbiblical. Those are the instructions for dealing with personal offense, which is a different matter. Teaching, like prophecy, should be tested publicly.
At times I’ve had people get upset with me when I pointed out the problem with a specific teaching, but they later encountered abuse and trouble as a result of that teaching. This includes the more extreme forms of heavy emphasis on “spiritual fathers.” (I have a 99 cent booklet on this, “Spiritual Fathers Or Brothers.” taken from a chapter of “I Am Persauded.” )
Other times the issue may be unethical practices or authoritarian manipulation by religious leaders. Sometimes there’s a cost to standing for truth. I know at least one case of a person very close to me losing a job and being slimed after speaking out about unethical (and illegal) practices in a ministry. I’ve seen a few others too afraid to speak out about other wrongdoings. But when it gets to that point, we have a responsibility to not be silent, even if it may hurt us.
I hope this series has been helpful for some people who’ve felt unexplainably disturbed in certain situations, as I have. Thanks for reading!