The Desperate Need for Biblical Discernment

One of the greatest things crippling the church of Jesus Christ today is the almost complete absence of any biblical discernment. It seems that anything goes today, and very few believers are willing to stand up and say, ‘Yes but, what sayeth the Scriptures?’

It seems that almost any teaching, any activity, any practice, and any leader is allowed in our churches, simply because we are too scared or too unwilling to test all things, and assess everything in the light of the Word of God. We are also afraid of being accused of being intolerant or judgmental or unloving to even raise a few questions.

Yet the Bible is absolutely full of commands for us to do this very thing: to assess all things in terms of how they line up with the clear teachings of Scripture. There would be hundreds of such commands in both Testaments. Yet today the people of God seem to be terrified of engaging in the slightest bit of biblical discernment.

The sad truth is, every cult and heretical group around makes it quite clear that the leaders, their teachings and their practices are never to be questioned and never to be challenged. Believers are just supposed to accept whatever they say and do.

Whenever you find such an attitude on the part of any leadership group, you know you are in the wrong place, and you better get out of there at once. But it is not just in the cults where this is happening. More and more mainstream evangelical and Pentecostal groups are also heading down the same path.

Just today I encountered a good example of this very thing. I had posted a link to a video warning about some decidedly unbiblical goings on in some Christian circles which are clearly more in line with New Age beliefs and practices than with biblical Christianity.

Yet one believer wrote back saying I had better watch out, and I had better not “blaspheme”! This person clearly does not even know what that word means, let alone what Scripture teaches us. To simply ask whether someone’s doctrine or practice lines up with the Bible has nothing to do with blasphemy.

Indeed, it is the very essence of being a follower of Jesus. There are so many clear texts on this. But since I was just reading in Matthew 7 today, let me focus on just one important passage. In Matt. 7:15-23 Jesus gives a powerful warning about false prophets.

They will prophesy in his name and do many miracles and even drive out demons. Yet Jesus says they are ferocious wolves in sheep’s clothing. And in the end of time he will say to them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” These are strong words, but words which are all but neglected by so many believers today.

It seems anyone can come along with some razzamatazz and wow the crowds, and people just soak it up. No hard questions are asked and no biblical checkups are required. We have become so gullible and undiscerning that we are being taken in by one false prophet after another. This ought not to be.

As Grant Osborne comments, “The point of the whole section is that the saints must at all times be watchful to make certain their leaders fulfil their calling. This does not mean a critical attitude (so 7:1-5) but it does entail loving concern and spiritual vigilance. Too many charlatans have appeared throughout church history for us to be complacent.”

Of course one can always go in the opposite extreme, and be unduly critical and judgmental of everyone all the time. And one does not need to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are genuine gifts and manifestations of the Spirit, but there are false ones as well.

R.T. France puts it this way: “The testing of purportedly divine communications is a prominent and necessary concern of the NT writers; cf. 1 Cor. 14:29, 37-38; 2 Thess 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1-6. Such wariness coexists in the NT, however, with a recognition of and welcome for prophecy as a genuine divine gift, and Matthew shares that recognition (10:41; 23:34).”

Or as John Stott puts it, “‘Beware!’ Jesus warns. We must be on our guard, pray for discernment, use our critical faculties and never relax our vigilance. . . . This warning of Jesus gives us no encouragement, however, either to become suspicious of everybody or to take up as our hobby the disreputable sport known as ‘heresy hunting’. Rather it is a solemn reminder that there are false teachers in the church and that we are to be on our guard. Truth matters.”

So many other texts can be appealed to here. But if someone no less than our Lord himself could offer such a strong and clarion call for discernment, biblical judgment, and careful assessment of a person claiming to represent him, then we had better start doing what he has commanded us.

The enemy is doing everything he can to destroy the true church. False prophets, false teachers, false signs and false wonders are all part of his bag of tricks. It is incumbent upon every one of us to carefully and thoroughly discern and test what we are receiving.

No Christian leader is above biblical assessment, and to suggest that one is, is a sure sign that one is dealing with a false prophet. The true man of God will always agree that everything he says and does must square with the revealed Word of God. It is pride and demonic arrogance, not true spirituality, that refuses to allow believers to make such vital fruit inspections.

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23 Replies to “The Desperate Need for Biblical Discernment”

  1. Great article. Spot on. I know nothing makes me respect someone more than them making it clear that what they say needs to be tested against the scriptures. It shows a humbleness of heart and a great desire to be transparent before God and people.
    Kathy Scott

  2. Bill, you have the wonderful skill, the keen ability, and the spirit of a willing soul to write essays that are so important for the times that we live in today. How timely, how excellent, and how teachable is this article!

    Our former church pastor used to tell the congregation to “call him out” if what he shares in any sermon is not Bible-based. We attended that church for about ten years. Suddenly, when the church as a whole wanted to do an in home Bible study on Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” I began to see the compromise creeping in. What stirred me to recognize it? The fact that Warren’s video “welcome” and introduction to the book study course left out the fact of the need for confession of sin and repentance at the foot of the cross of Christ! Several other study leaders noticed this as well. When I raised my hand and shared my concern about this, the lecturer/leader organizer just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’ll look into it.” Never heard anything back about this gross error in presenting how to be born again in Christ. So, since I was committed to being a leader I added what was missing to the prayer of salvation and during the six weeks of in home study, made sure that the people attending knew what was needed to be saved according to John 3.

    I had recently contacted you via email about an error in judgment that was done by another pastor and church that we formerly attended. Thanks again for your great discernment and advice.

    These are not frivolous problems or disagreements. They are huge! That’s why we have the warnings in Scripture that you have pointed out here. Warnings to beware – directly from Jesus himself!

    I love your last paragraph – especially the need for “vital fruit inspections.” Can I borrow that great phrase for my blog post title today as I link to your essay?

    God bless you Bill. Your Holy Spirit led discernment abilities shines through like a ray of light on this darkened world of sin, evil and death. I admire you greatly for your essays and articles that teach us well and bring Bible-based wisdom alive to Christians all around the world here at this blog!

    Christine Watson, USA

  3. Spot on Bill.
    This is one of the passions of my heart that God would grant us a hunger for the truth as revealed in His word.
    When I first met the Lord in 1983, it seemed that the Christians in my circle were always discussing the Bible and if someone had an unusual opinion on something it was common to ask, “Have you got a scripture for that brother” Today to ask to discuss a doctrinal point of view with an open Bible may well get the retort,”I won’t discuss it. I know what I believe” And this from leaders!
    From the prosperity preachers who have removed half the pages of the New testament, to the emerging church guys who actively discourage Bible reading, to the liberals who use the Bible as decoration without ever cracking it open, it would seem that biblical fidelity may be the greatest need of the day.
    Glenn Christopherson

  4. The problem for the discerning Christian comes about when the movement/person under scrutiny insists that their particular interpretation of scriptures is the right one.

    Most cults become cults through a combination of charismatic (meaning dominant/influential in this case) leaders, and slight distortion of biblical texts to the exclusion of other parts of the bible or legitimate alternative textual interpretation.

    I think what the Holy Spirit says is that we are all capable of forming our own cult as we can all have our own fixations and blind spots. However the difference between a cultist and simply a mistaken believer, is a question of humility. Are we humble enough to accept that we could be looking at God’s word mistakenly yet without being gullible. It’s a difficult balance to keep.

    Lennard Caldwell, Clifton QLD

  5. G’day Bill,

    It really gets me going that Jesus’ command ‘do not judge’ (Matthew 7v1) is quoted so often and freely, without the context. A few sentences later, Jesus warns that some people are ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’ (Matthew 7v6) and we should work out who they are (i.e. discernment) and act accordingly. Thanks again.

    Andrew Campbell

  6. Hi Bill,
    My wife tells me about some wise advise she was given by her Pastor when she was in Confirmation class. Her Pastor told her not to believe something just because a Pastor said it but to always check it out in the Bible.
    Wise advise then, and still wise advise now.
    David Vivian

  7. More than once I have been talking with other Christians who have suddenly ordered me to stop blaspheming against God’s anointed. People should not bestow this title too lightly, nor use it as a simple conversation-stopper. Two of these ‘prophets’ were later shown to be gross hypocrites and spent some time in jail. As you say, Bill, biblical discernment is too often conspicuous by its absence.

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  8. Thanks Peter

    Yes this idea of not touching the Lord’s anointed (eg, I Samuel 24:6-7; 26:8-11; Psalm 105:15) is a greatly abused concept in Christian circles today. The passages just mentioned refer to physical harm to Saul and Jacob. They have nothing to do with ensuring that our leaders are on the straight and narrow both in terms of doctrine as well as lifestyle. And in NT terms, we are all the Lord’s anointed. For more on this, see this helpful article: http://www.thomaswilliamson.net/TouchNot.htm

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. I also am very concerned at lack of Scriptural teaching and lack of church discipline within churches.
    If the blind lead the blind, they will certainly both fall (See Mat 15:14 and Luke 6:39). Many pastors continue in their sin and even propagating it because they love their own lives more than Jesus and His WORDS. And if we put more value on following our pastors over the BIBLE, then we will continue to fall into errors at faster and faster speeds.
    Society is accepting sin and the church is following the world. This in not Biblical. We must not challenge the Word of God.
    Church leadership has allowed Satan to ravage their flocks because they refuse to teach the truth. Whether because of fear, compassion, or ignorance the results will be horrendous for all concerned.
    Judith Bond

  10. Hi Bill
    Here, here

    A great article – Jesus was a servant King, discerning and testing is the key to understanding God’s will. As member of the leadership team of church I get numerous people coming to us with a ‘word from God’. I simply say, write it and we will put it to the test (our intercessors) – often just waiting to see what God does gives you confirmation. Perhaps people would be less ready to say they have heard from God if they lived in OT times when you got it wrong you could pay with your life!

    Charles Northcote

  11. Hi Bill, it is hard to comment without seeing the link to the ‘alleged’ minister of interest. I would suggest that the false signs, wonders and miracles you talk about are not evidenced in the Western Church very much nor for that matter genuine signs, wonders and miracles – because of the West’s unbelief. I was saved into a small pentecostal and very legalistic movement and I was taught that it is the US televangelist that is the offender in the ‘depart from me, I never knew you’ (Mt.7); but I have read about and seen Indian mystics, who believe in multiple gods, use the name of Jesus in healing and the casting out of devils……because it works!! You may disagree with me, but I think any sniff of the supernatural manifestations in the West is always associated with the demonic. Last example, Hillsong is the largest Church in Australia – any reasoning why? It is the powerfull worship and people do ‘experience’ God – but Brian Houston’s father was baptised in the Spirit and got stuck into pentecostalism with a ferver (I know that Frank was not perfect) and I have seen an old man named Wayne Bloomfield at CLC at Darlinghurst in the 80’s and I had taken some friends, and Wayne said receive the Holy Spirit and ‘blew’ on the audience – no smoke and mirrors, no mass psychological manipulation – but over 300 people fell over under the power of God – it was amazing and the guys I was with said that they knew God existed! I do know it is easy to manipulate audiences and give some ear tickling words – but in reality, we hardly see the power of God in operation like Paul did – if you want a peak as to what it may look like ( and you may be offended) look up T.B.Joshua of Nigeria (you tube & others) and see how he moves in the supernatural, you may conclude that he is a Mathew 7 man or you may conclude that we in the West are so far below what God wants to do in the West, that it will inspire you!
    Neil Innes, NT

  12. Great article Bill. I was taught a poem that I still think of and use, when I was studying with my Pastor, when I was a new Christian. It goes like this……
    “What says the Bible,
    The precious Bible
    What says the Bible to me
    The teachings of men
    So often mislead me
    What says the Bible to me?”
    I was told to go and check everything out. He said, “How do you know I am telling you the truth? You have a town library, Go and check out what I am teaching. You must study for yourself and ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Study with me but do your own study as well and always go back to the Bible.” Great advice I found.
    Margaret McKay

  13. Thanks Neil

    Yes as I said in the article, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are genuine gifts and manifestations, but there are also false ones, which Jesus, Paul and others clearly warned about. So again, biblical discernment is always needed.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. As a long time Pentecostal and pastor of a Pentecostal church for over 20 years I have been personally disgusted with what I have seen happening in recent years in so called Pentecostal gatherings. I think it is evidence of a great delusion and complete lack of discernment on the part of so called believers. It has become a clever money making scam full of false prophets and questionable ministries who have so adulterated the word of God with extra unbiblical practices and so called manifestations of the Holy Spirit, which do not magnify Christ, produce no reverence for God and leave a mess in people’s lives, and bring great discredit on what I used to think was the greatest movement for evangelism the world has ever seen.
    Jim Garlick

  15. A very timely reminder for all Christians and Church leaders alike.
    Can’t agree more from my observations. Thanks again, Bill, for your forthrightness.
    Richard Chieng

  16. Thank you very much for the Thomas Williamson link, Bill. I especially appreciated that section of his paper headed, ‘A New Caste of Untouchables’. ‘Bullying’ is just the right term for what some of these people do.

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  17. Lennard of QLD:

    “The problem for the discerning Christian comes about when the movement/person under scrutiny insists that their particular interpretation of scriptures is the right one.”

    Lennard, I think this is a sign that they are going off the rails… They may only be off by say one degree, but over time and distance that tiny difference can carry them far away from Biblical truth.

    Interpretations are all of man, only the Word of God is infallible.

    John Angelico

  18. Thanks Bill, for a very good and timely warning.
    Picking up on your post, John, I am considerably exercised by the lack of discernment in a number of areas:
    1. What passes for worship in many of today’s churches is nothing more than entertainment. There is little of “reverence and holy fear” (Heb.12:28) in evidence, and when one makes a protest, all we get in response is adamant refusal, and dismissals as being “old fashioned” etc. In truth the world has come into the church in a big way. A.W Tozer has often been quoted of late on this site, and he had a lot to say about the degeneration of worship in his time, and that was the 1940s and 1950s. What would he have said about things now?!
    2. It is said of the men of Issachar that they “understood the times” (1 Chron.12:32). We have little of that in today’s churches, and when it comes to end times teaching we have interpretations placed on Scripture that it will not bear. On one hand we have Dispensationalists with their “rapture” teaching assuring us that while things will indeed get very bad, not to worry because believers will be zapped out of it to heaven before the evil really gets going. On the other hand we have certain brands of post-millennialism assuring us that there will be a world-wide revival and Christianisation before the end, which may well not be for several thousand years yet (they know that, do they?) – so as for His coming, for all practical purposes forget it. Either way, the need for enduring until He comes, and looking for and living life in the light of His near coming is sidestepped. Both sides are interpretations imposed on the Scriptures, and have baneful effects, while there is little discernment.
    3. Holiness of life. While I have difficulties with the older style “holiness” teachings (either the Wesleyan or Keswick varieties), what we have now in many churches – particularly the mega-churches – is sheer antinomianism. The Ten Commandments as the guide for the Christian life is disdained as “legalism”, and in practice there is little to be distinguished between the rank and file Christian and his worldly counterpart. What is holiness? What are the criteria for holiness? While the older Keswick teaching misinterpreted Romans 6 & 7, at least its proponents were deeply concerned about holiness and separation from the world. Indeed, the danger of “worldliness” is little heard of in today’s churches.
    There’s my contribution. I welcome further discussion.
    Murray R Adamthwaite

  19. I guess then the question is, if we are mostly in agreement here: having got at least some Biblical discernment, how to we then use that to sway our leaders?
    Will we take a stand in our respective churches and be willing to take flak? Will we take a stand and ask the hard questions? Will take a stand and say ‘enough is enough’ and not harshly criticise, but lovingly challenge (I’m thinking Luther), standing on the Word of God alone, the present status of things? Will we say something and allow ourselves to be thought of as ‘legalists’ ‘troublemakers’ or worse?

    Do we love these people enough to lay down our status for their sakes?
    Nathan Keen

  20. Thanks for this, Bill.
    i read some of the comments above & it says about all.
    One problem that exists today & in growing measure so, is that Christian love has taken on a degree of tolerance of evil that transgresses the boundaries of sound doctrine.
    Biblical doctrine is being shoved aside as ‘unloving’, ‘divisive’, ‘negative’, too critical’, etc.
    In trying to get people to ‘test the spirits’ one finds a pervasive negativity towards it, yet it is a biblical imperative.
    It is good that you mentioned in the article that ‘to become suspicious of everybody or to take up as our hobby the disreputable sport known as ‘heresy hunting’ is wrong.
    But people are looking to leadership often in an unhealthy way, without discernment in studying the Scriptures for themselves.
    Dare to mention that something a leader in the church has said is not biblical & you quickly get the response “Do not touch the Lord’s anointed”.
    i dared to question a church leader in a fast-growing church (Soteria) here in our home city of Pretoria, South Africa about contact with the spiritual world & extra-biblical revelation.
    i was subsequently branded as a trouble-maker & the congregation got the message from the pulpit that they should have no contact with me whatsoever.
    We need to remember that we will pay a price for the love of Truth.
    The price is increasing as days go by.
    But it is worth it – for what Christ Jesus did for us on the Cross & in the Resurrection.
    As to you: Keep on keeping on, as the Great Falling away gathers momentum.

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