Healthy communities of faith need people gifted with discernment. And what is this gift of discernment? According to Walter Wink “discernment does not entail esoteric knowledge, but rather the gift of seeing reality as it really is.” Yes, faith communities need people who can see reality as it really is, so that they can recognize the difference between what is good and what is evil, what is relevant and what is irrelevant, what leads to wholeness and healing and what doesn’t. As Wink also notes, such a gift of the Spirit enables one to see the spiritual dimension that lies behind the material.
Although the idea of spiritual warfare is off-putting to many Christians, especially those like me who find themselves left of center. There is something to be said about this imagery, especially as it is described and defined in the Ephesian letter. Without discernment, without the ability to see the spiritual behind the material, then it’s likely that we will end up fighting spiritual battles with human weapons, even though the battle requires spiritual weapons. In the words of the author of Ephesians: “put on the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11), for the battle is with spiritual forces. Scripture is the Spirit’s sword, the offensive weapon of choice (Eph. 6:10-17).
In a community that is open to the leading of the Spirit, there is great need for the gift of discernment to be present. This is doubly necessary in a community comprised largely of converts (1 Cor. 10:20) who might be easily led astray by charismatically inclined leaders. History is replete with examples of false prophets and false messiahs, with Jim Jones and David Koresh being good examples. It is, therefore, important that the church be able to distinguish between what is true and honorable and what is not. Paul called on the church to consider carefully the words of the prophets, to determine the source of these words (I Cor. 14:29). But it is not only the “prophetic” that requires discernment. Every day the church faces important issues that challenge its identity and purpose: politics, culture, human self-centeredness. Who will help the church remain true to its purpose and calling? Who will help them discern whether they are hearing an authentic word from God or a word that emerges from within our own self-centeredness or a word that has a more dark and sinister source? Other questions that might be raised by those who are spiritually sensitive include: Does this word comport well with what is known of God? What is the fruit of the one who brings the message?
The church must have the tools to test (dokimazō) the spirits (1 John 4:1-6). Those gifted for the ministry of discernment must rely on God's spirit and work in the context of the community. Criteria for this ministry of discernment may include "common sense, shared community values, or a set of doctrinal standards." Throughout history the church has looked to creeds, the “Rule of faith” (Regula fidei), and to Scripture for guidance in discerning the voice of the Spirit. At the center of the process of discernment is one’s fidelity to Jesus as Lord. Paul declared that no one speaking by the Spirit would deny the Lordship of Christ (1 Cor. 12:3). Those gifted and called to this ministry will be of great assistance to the church, but their ministry must be undertaken in love. This is not a ministry to be engaged in lightly, for the Spirit moves as the wind and so great attention must be given to the ways of the Spirit of God.
Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 89.
Cecil M. Robeck, "Discerning the Spirit in the Life of the Church," in The Church in the Movement of the Spirit, William R. Barr and Rena M. Yocom, eds., (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 34-35, 39-40.
* This is an excerpt from my book on Spiritual Gifts. I was thinking that we are living in an age, when we could use a bit of discernment! Let us pray that God would gift us with such people.