Thursday, June 30, 2022

On the need for discernment

It seems from my experience (and from what I have heard others say) that possibly the most neglected and underappreciated gift of the Spirit is the gift of discernment. Tim Alberta, himself the son of a pastor, cites Michigan pastor Ken Brown, writing, “'Discernment'—one’s basic ability to separate truth from untruth—'is a core biblical discipline. And many Christians are not practicing it.'”

Now I'm not talking about so-called "discernment ministries" that seem to do nothing more than pick out certain individuals, churches, ministries, or movements as "enemies of the faith" and then go over everything those people say or do with a fine-toothed comb to find the smallest mistake they can use to raise a charge of "HERESY!!" I'm talking about real, Spirit-guided thinking.

God Gave Us Minds: We Should Use Them to Think Critically

Discernment can also alert us that something which is purporting to call out false teachers or false prophets isn't giving the whole story.

At the beginning of June 2022, online writer Todd Starnes published an article saying that popular Bible teacher Beth Moore "rips conservative Christians." I saw on social media where some people had taken Starnes' article as a launching pad to write a rebuke of Moore. The post said Beth Moore had "mocked" conservative believers by tweeting:
“The liberals are coming! The liberals are coming! Woke alert!"

"When our fear of liberalism exceeds our fear of the Lord, our god is power."

“Lemme tell you how this works. All you have to do to thwart change in conservative Christian ranks is to frame it as a progressive takeover." 

A friend of mine online wrote the following in an "open letter" response to Beth Moore:

I'm not certain what you mean by 'thwart change in conservative Christian ranks is to frame it as a progressive takeover,' and, I'm not sure you are aware of the reason for this statement, either. If we frame an action as 'progressive takeover; you can bank on it that we are aware of progressive tactics and false doctrine creeping in with an attempt to lead the innocent astray. Many are becoming well informed as to the intent of a progressive church and are arising in strength with a determined resistant to such error and blasphemy.
My first piece of advice to this commentator would be, "If you're not certain what Moore meant, would it not be wise to do a little research and check the context before writing and posting a long response?" Make sure you understand a person's position before you attack it.

The context in which Moore was writing was the investigation of the cover-up of sexual abuse by ministers in Southern Baptist churches. Survivors of abuse in SBC churches have been calling for years for a central registry or database of ministers against whom credible accusations of sexual abuse have been made, so that other churches can check to see if a candidate for a staff position has a questionable past at a previous church.

The SBC Executive Committee, citing the cooperative congregational structure of the fellowship (as opposed to a hierarchical, centralized system of church government), claimed they had no power or authority to maintain such a list. Since local churches, rather than the SBC organization, do the actual work of ordaining ministers, a church couldn't even find out if a minister had been defrocked for some cause without personally contacting every church he had previously worked at (and then only if the applicant actually listed every prior church job so they even could call them)..

But it turns out the Executive Committee had been keeping a list of accused pastors all along, and just wasn't letting churches know it even existed so they could submit a candidate's name to get a yes/no as to whether he had any past issues they should be aware of.

One other thing that was turned up by the outside independent investigators was that at least one member of the Executive Committee had blown off the claims of women about being abused by certain ministers as a Satanic plot to distract the church from the mission of evangelism. Comments by the SBC's legal counsel advised that if the church acknowledged they knew of abuse, it could open them up to financial liability if someone was abused at another church by a minister who had moved to a new location after leaving a previous church because of allegations of abuse. That potential liability could affect donations to the SBC's cooperative program that funds missions outreach and seminary training for pastors, so the valid claims of people who had suffered spiritual and/or sexual abuse were classified as a "liberal attack" against the work of God.

That is what Beth Moore was referring to when she said, "Lemme tell you how this works. All you have to do to thwart change in conservative Christian ranks is to frame it as a progressive takeover." She wasn't mocking conservatives, but pointing out the scare tactic being used by those in positions of power to having their past actions scrutinized.

As writer Trevin Wax puts it, "Conservatives who want to protect the church sometimes end up defending rot." Sometimes, in our "righteous indignation" over what we interpret as an attack against ourselves, our group, or our values, we're all too ready to fire first, and maybe later, if we have time, we'll get ready and aim by doing a little investigation and research. As the Apostle James says, we should be quick to listen, and slow to speak (or type, as the case may be).

I'm trying to learn that lesson myself. Instead of firing off a reply on my friend's open letter post to "straighten them out" (as we say here in the South), I'm writing this blog post over three weeks after the post I read.

That Inner Voice

Sometimes, the Spirit's gift of discernment may be a full revelation of what is wrong with a teaching, a ministry, person, or situation. But in my experience, more often than not, it's a "gut feeling" that something is off, that things are not quite right. For me, it's usually a sudden knot in my stomach. It's a Spirit-initiated sense of discomfort telling me that I need to check things out further, to investigate and do some research for evidence that confirms that "gut check."

I remember when I first heard about the beginning of the "Lakeland Outpouring" in 2008. In March or April that spring, I was reading an article about the Florida revival in an email newsletter from Charisma magazine. The evangelist leading the meetings, Canadian Todd Bentley, was quoted as saying that he believed the same angel that had accompanied William Branham was also showing up in Bentley's meetings, bringing supernatural power to the services.

Just a week or so before reading that article, I had see the movie adaptation of Frank Peretti's novel The Visitation. I guess that movie had put my spiritual antenna on high alert, because as soon as I read what Bentley said about an angel making appearances, I felt an acute sense of uneasiness. I didn't know anything at that time about William Branham, but knew I had to research him and see if my gut feeling was grounded.

I learned that Branham denied the historic orthodox teaching that God is a Trinity, calling it a "doctrine of demons." As soon as I had that information, I knew that things were not going to end well in Lakeland if Bentley was associating himself with a person who espoused such heresy. By August of that summer, just four months or so after the "outpouring" had begun, Bentley was leaving in disgrace when it was found out that he had been out at local bars drinking after services, and there were allegations he had become emotionally involved (though he claims it was never physical) with a ministry intern on his staff, who also happened to work as his children's nanny whenever Bentley's wife and children happened to join him on the road. Bentley eventually divorced his wife (whom he had years before said God had clearly told him to marry -- so had God now changed His mind?) and married the intern, went through a supposed "restoration" process, and went out on the revival meeting trail again. Years later, he was again disgraced when revelations of sexual perversion were made public.

Basic Common Sense

The great British preacher Charles H. Spurgeon once said, "Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right." Frequently, we need the Holy Spirit's assistance to help us spot the difference between right and almost right. But other time, we don't need a spiritual superpower, but simply to use God-given common sense and to pay close attention when we read.

In December of 2021, when the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus was starting to make the rounds, a well-meaning person posted the following image on Facebook:

While the Bible is clear that God is ever-present, all-powerful, and all-knowing, there's a major problem with this meme. The virus variant is omicron, not omnicron. Omicron is a letter in the Greek alphabet (which medical scientists have been using to designate mutations/variants of the virus). Omnicron with the extra n isn't even a valid word as far as I'm aware (though it might be interpreted as meaning "all time," since omni- means "all" and chronos means "time," but the missing h tends to blow up that theory).

Quite often, someone sees the last part of a meme like this, which says true things about God, and totally ignores the fact that the beginning of the statement is fatally flawed. Motivated out of a heart to promote God as the answer, a person sharing this can nevertheless look foolish to anyone who is simply paying attention to the fact that the variant is not named omnicron with the extra n, regardless of whether they understand the Greek roots at all.

Another popular meme that people unthinkingly share is:

Now, setting aside the fact that construction on the Keystone XL pipeline hasn't even been completed (which means opening it is a bit more complicated than simply pushing a button or turning a valve control wheel -- it's not like we can have oil via the pipeline within a week or so), and the intricacies of the hopelessly broken U.S. immigration system, the fatal flaw in this statement is "Make this go virtual!!"

The correct words to use in this case would have been, "Make this go viral!!" Going virtual is what our schools and churches did in 2020 when the pandemic hit, moving from physical, in-person gatherings to online meeting spaces. Going viral is what happens when a video, meme, photo, etc. starts gaining rapid traction on the internet, and its reach and exposure increases exponentially.

I have two theories about this particular statement that has been all over social media:
  1. The person who originated this honestly didn't know the difference between virtual and viral, posted it with the wrong word, and then hundreds of people simply shared it without correcting the spelling.
  2. Someone intentionally created this with the wrong word, knowing that people's emotions would get stirred up by the first two statements, making them willing to quickly share/repost the whole thing without paying attention to the major mistake. It very well could have been an experiment to see just how many people would blindly share the meme based on emotional resonance, without engaging the logical part of their brains. This tends to prove out Jonathan Haidt's analogy of the rider (rational thought) and the elephant (emotional response): 90% of what we say and do is based on emotions or gut feelings, and our logical faculties are really only in control of about 10% of our words and actions.
The difference between right and almost right can frequently be easy to spot if we'll simply turn down our emotional response and examine things closely.

In Closing

Let's all strive to be more discerning, using the natural abilities God gave us as rational beings created in His image, and asking the Holy Spirit to alert us to things we may not see in the natural. If we can be more serious about practicing the gift of discernment, we can help ourselves and others to avoid falling into error, as well as avoiding bringing reproach on the people of God by repeating things that just aren't true, or well thought out.

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