Friday, November 30, 2007

Discernment Is a Gift, Not a Tactic

Discernment is a spiritual gift. The gift of "discernment of spirits" is given by God (1 Cor. 12:10). Everyone who is a Christian has the responsibility to be appropriately discerning, but those with the gift of discernment have an extraordinary ability, given by God, to be employed "for the common good." Such people see with spiritual eyes and have a special ability from God to cut through the fluff and what's bogus, in order to latch on to what's real and true and of God.

Friends, I am becoming sick to death of the oh-so-trendy, touchy-feely, all-views-are-equally-valid, sociologically driven, feel-good, human-potential-centered, quasi-psychological pottage that is being hustled on the streets by our denomination as "discernment."

This is not what God means by spiritual discernment. This is not what the Bible speaks of. This is not right or good. This human-centered "discernment" leads to the will of God being trampled by the exalted feelings and self-important opinions of mortals. It leads to manipulation and compromised convictions. For God's sake, we must lay it aside to be led by God's Word, which reveals God's will! Enough already of the misconceived and misused "discernment" that is being misspoken among us ad nauseam!

Just recently, presbytery moderators from all over the country were lined up and doused with this bogus "discernment" solution at a conference in Louisville, put on by the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). (The OGA appears determined to drag the denomination into both this kind of discernment and also troublesome consensus decision making, foisting both on an unsuspecting church at every opportunity.)

If one looks at the Presbyterian News Service account, Moderator Joan Gray shines. "It’s really about God; it’s not about us," she said. She reminded moderators that "Jesus Christ is the Lord and head of the church," and that authority must come from him and accord with his will. Preach it, sister! Discernment, she said, is "seeking, recognizing God’s will .... It's about surrender." Amen.

But when the account turns to the presentation on "discernment" that the Reverend Vicky Curtiss gave, what we get is a sociological process that listens to human opinion, pretty much without critical thinking. But the greatest shortcoming in this little exercise is the utter absence of looking to God's Word.

Look at the news story, and see if the Word of God is even mentioned in Curtiss's discernment process. It's not there. Instead we find a fuzzy "spiritual approach and a consensus-seeking approach in an effort to 'discern the mind of Christ.'" Do we seek what Scripture teaches us, since in the Bible we find the mind and will of God? No. We look inward and listen to others' feelings and opinions--"Praying, listening to one another and emphasizing the use of silence," she explains. All is subjective and captive to our totally depraved humanity.

This "discernment" is nothing more than a small-group tactic playing dress-up in Grandma's quasi-spiritual garb. It is not the spiritual discernment of the Bible, the spiritual gift supernaturally given by the Holy Spirit. It leads to our feelings and impressions, our brokenness and misperceptions, having authority over God's Word in how we determine what God wills. It is the poisonous extract of a church more psychologically than spiritually attuned. It's about me--and maybe you, if I get really generous.

If we Christians are to truly discern anything, let us go to the Word of God. And let us stay there until God's message to us is understood at least as clearly as it has been lovingly communicated to us by God.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." ... For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. -1 Cor. 1:18-19, 25


Blogger regressivepresby said...

Three in one week. I'm impressed.

Thank you for saying this. But what can one do? Even though its never been voted on, this IS THE model being adopted in our presbyteries/committees. Its highly manipulative, unfair to any minority view- left, right or center. But it is being pushed, and perceived as somehow more- spiritual, mature.

How can the underlying assumptions be addressed, when this process is introduced and de-facto adopted- without any debate/discussion? Is it enough to lament?

1:30 PM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...


I know who you are and where you're from, but please let the one or two other folks who read my blog know, too. Thanks.

What to do? Don't sit back passively and let things be done TO you. Get together with others who see through this tactic and move to handle business differently. Propose your alternative, and then you can all, uh, discern which way to go. There's no reason to just be a victim of the movement.

Be sure to work together with others. I've coined a rule: The Rule of Three or Four. If just you protest, you're some kook. If one other person joins you in protest, you're only a minor faction. But if three or four people all start saying the same kind of thing, suddenly it feels like a movement, as if the whole room were on your side.

A good example is in the comments on blog postings. One dissenter is pretty much ignored, but if three or four comments start running in a direction, the whole conversation moves that direction.

Simply do something about "discernment" as a process, and do it together with at least three or four.

We don't have to be controlled by the latest folly out of the Office of the General Assembly, the same folks who coincidentally have brought us the PUP report, the Louisville Papers, the newly proposed rewrite of the Form of Government, and annual reports of massive membership losses.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

1:46 PM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger Viola said...

Thanks for this. You just did a pretty good job of preaching your self. I personally think this idea of community discernment and consensus minus the Bible is one of the scariest moves being made among the elite in the PCUSA. Thanks for the advice you have given Dave. You ought to put up another posting with that information, and more, on it.

I have been writing on Barmen and Barth and quoting from a little book he wrote in the middle of the German Church crisis. Some of what he wrote reminds me of your words about our discernment coming out of Scriptures. I hope it is okay to quote one thing here.

"And yet the Evangelical Church still possesses the Bible, and with it the promise of reform, not by human, political and Church-political arbitrariness, but by means of the Word of God. Where the Bible is allowed to be Master, theological existence lives, it is then possible for Church reform to issue from the Church’s life.
Where there is no theological existence, then, in our own day, as in every age of the Church in which she seeks selfishly to help herself, reform can and will be still-born."

Viola Larson
Sacramento, California

5:00 PM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger John Foreman said...

It's obvious that many of our "leaders" have no concept or experience of the biblical gift of discernment... proven by their advocacy of causes that contradict God's will as revealed in scripture.

1:28 PM, December 01, 2007  
Blogger Linda said...

Thank you for this excellent piece Jim. Thank you for mentioning the gift of the Holy Spirit in discernment. It seems like the church is leaving out the third person of the Trinity in understanding how we are to do God's work in this world and get our discernment.Prayer preceeds revival and discernment.

Linda Lee

4:54 PM, December 01, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...

Thank you, too, Linda.

Indeed prayer is needed, but even prayer can be so subjective, unless we submit to the discipline of understanding and obeying Scripture.

The Holy Spirit inspired the Word, and the Word leads us to the will of God. Without that canon to measure what we pray and what we think we discern, we're on our own, relying on feelings, hunches, our own desires, public opinion, and so on.

We need the Word. In tremendous love, God gave us the Word as our unfailing guide. It is there that we find discernment.

(I know two women who go by "Linda Lee", used as their first name. Is Lee your last name, and could you let us know where you are from? Thanks. It's part of a protocol I'm trying to be consistent in asking.)

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

10:59 PM, December 02, 2007  
Blogger Bruce B. said...

How about trying to say just one thing good or in support of the PCUSA in every blog.. it would be a fine model to follow.

Bruce B.

8:04 AM, December 03, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...


Did you miss what I said about Moderator Joan Gray? She is Moderator of the General Assembly, and definitely a part of the PCUSA.

That's just an instance. But for a larger picture, you need to realize that if I didn't have positive regard for the PCUSA, I wouldn't bother to try to perfect it. I would write it off as impossible, or leave it behind as trash. I would give up on it. But I don't. I continue to believe that it has good bones and can be restored to its former glory. That's broadly positive.

We do ourselves and our denomination no good by mindlessly endorsing whatever comes down the pike. True spiritual discernment that can determine what is from God and what is not is sorely needed among Presbyterians.

And what is our measuring stick? Scripture.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

(Bruce, please identify yourself, so that I will not need to remove your anonymous comment.)

9:32 AM, December 03, 2007  
Blogger ZZMike said...

This is loosely related. There are two recent news stories from England. First:

Children should learn more about atheism and less about Jesus, says Labour think-tank

"[Institute For Public Policy Research] calls for equal weight to be given to agnosticism and humanism as is given to Christianity. Children should also be taught about cults such as the Baha'i, made famous by the government scientist Dr David Kelly, paganism and even environmentalism."

(It's interesting that they include "environmentalism" in the same category as religion.)

Second, the arch Archbishop of Canterbury thinks this is great stuff:

Williams backs Pullman

"But Dr Rowan Williams told a Downing Street seminar of theologians and academics hosted by Mr Blair that Pullman's novels could help to address the "inadequacies" of some religious education courses which only taught pupils about religious festivals."

Pullman's novels are the "Golden Compass" series, which I don't include in the topic. The "inadequacies" refers to the first article above.

Evidently Archbishop Williams is fine with the idea of less Christianity and more other doctines being taught in school.

This could be the result of a state religion to which nobody pays any attention. Or maybe it's the result of things in C. S. Lewis' "That Hideous Strength" going the wrong way.

Mike Zorn
Santa Ana CA

10:44 AM, December 03, 2007  
Blogger Rick Johnson said...

Hi, Jim. Amen to your original post and follow-up posts yesterday and late on Sunday. The news story, the ongoing consensus model in presbyteries (including in mine, Prospect Hill, in northwestern Iowa), and your posts all remind me of the wise words of 1 John 4:1: "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God . . . ". Thanks for your reminders.

Rick Johnson
George, Iowa

8:57 AM, December 04, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll echo the rest: great post!

I think we all know that the new 'discernment' is the newest weapon that is being used to silence dissent and to block reform in the church, according to God's Word.

It's yet another way to prevent and subvert the representative process in our denomination.

Toby Brown
Cuero, Texas

11:15 AM, December 05, 2007  
Blogger stjones said...

Yes, great post; you've nailed what's been bothering me about all the psuedo-spiritual pablum that we're drowning in. This nonsense is another "great gift to the church" from our friends on the TTF. In addition to scuttling ordination standards, they proposed this very process of seeking answers within ourselves.

Count me among those who believe that the PCUSA cannot be reformed because it will not be reformed.


12:16 PM, December 05, 2007  
Blogger JennyKirk said...


You have such a way with setting forth the point that you are trying to make and letting us "discern." ;-) May God continue to bless you as you continue to be guided by His Word AND His Spirit! I am going to print your post for our session to read. Thank you again!

1:30 PM, December 05, 2007  
Blogger JennyKirk said...


JennyKirk is Jennifer Kirkbride from Wellsburg, WV. I met you at the '04 GA where I was a commissioner. Peace and many blessings!

1:36 PM, December 05, 2007  
Blogger Gary Vance said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:33 PM, December 30, 2007  
Blogger Gary Vance said...

Frankly, I am amazed at the amount of presumption you utilize in your article on "discernment". You presume Rev. Curtiss disregards the validity and role of scriptures in the process of discerning spiritual matters. However, I recognize some strong biblical ideas in the approach she is advocating.

Rev. Curtiss suggests,"Praying, listening to one another and emphasizing the use of silence..." Jim, do you oppose praying as a first step toward Godly discernment? Apparently, Rev. Curtiss is acquainted with the scripture that says, "Where two or more agree as touching anything.." There are many scriptures emphasizing the vital nature of Christians being in unity and one accord on matters of importance. Jim, discovering consensus within a circle of prayer is a proven Biblical exercise that helps true seekers discern what the Lord's will is. Emphasizing silence is a form of "waiting upon the Lord". Shouldn't prayer also entail silently listening for an answer from God?

You say, "Do we seek what Scripture teaches us, since in the Bible we find the mind and will of God? No".
Jim, once again you allow your presumptuous thoughts to cloud your own discernment of the heart and intent of Rev. Curtiss. The Bible doesn't always tell us what God's will is concerning many details of life, such as where to live or what church to attend or whether to rent or buy or if we should build a new sanctuary for the church etc.

However, Christians can find and discern the will of God if we would simply utilize the obviously Biblical approach recommended by the Rev. Curtiss. Please Jim, remove some of the presumptuous prejudicial thinking from your heart and you will improve your own batting average in the ongoing endeavor of "spiritual discernment".

Rev. Gary Vance
Pastor of Word of Life Ministries
Leoma, TN

10:25 AM, December 31, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...


Of course prayer is vital! But we aren't blind people tring to figure out an elephant by touch. God has revealed his will to us through the Scriptures, and we would be silly, stupid children if we didn't turn directly to the Word rather than gazing at our navels in some subjective process that elevates feelings and discards truth.

I have grown tired of the procedure Curtiss recommends, and I have seen its sorry results. I sat in on nearly all of the Theological Task Force meetings in years past. I heard Curtiss instruct the TTF in the discernment process, and I watched wryly as the process produced a tragically flawed and morally compromising result. I saw emotions, clever manipulations, and personal opinions walk roughshod over God's Word and orthodox practice.

The fruit of this process is not spiritual discernment writ large; it is human arrogance and rationalization trumping the authority of the Word. We clever mortals have devised yet another way to tell God that we know better than he what is right and good and pleasing to him.

Suppose I am a 20-year-old and am falling madly in love with a wonderful young woman. I want to know what she thinks about me, what's in her mind, what pleases her or attracts her. So where should I go to find out?

Curtiss would have me convene a group that doesn't necessarily include her. She would have the group go through various exercises to "discern" what they think she must be thinking or what she must want. We'd seriously attack the question by feeling and intuiting and looking to everyone's opinions and hunches. All opinions would have equal weight, including those of people who don't know my beloved and don't have a clue about what she thinks and likes. Finally, we'd come up with a decision that sure seems engineered by the person in charge of the process, since these things seem always to move in the direction the leader chooses.

Would that be any good?

Wouldn't it be best for me to spend a lot of time with my new love, talking with her, interacting with her, asking her what she likes and how I can be loving toward her? Shouldn't I go directly to her?

And if she had written me extensive love letters, wouldn't I be really wise to read them earnestly, doing my best to understand what she means and intends in what she has written? And wouldn't I just love to read and reread those letters, savoring and weighing every word--far more than polling other people for their perhaps-uninformed opinions?

What God tells us in the Bible is not exhaustive, but it is both necessary and sufficient. And it's a whole lot better than a bunch of pooled hunches driven by an agenda--if we want to know God's will, rather than engineer our own fallen desires.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

10:40 AM, January 03, 2008  
Blogger Kim said...

I loved the blog! I'm researching the topic of discernment for a book--and I like the fact that you are a no "fluff" kind of guy. I have heard too many watered down sermons by pastors who are afraid they are going to offend someone. Great blog!
K. Flor

10:43 PM, May 14, 2008  

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