Discernment in our times

  • Dani Treweek
  • 11 June 2018

As someone who lives by herself, I’m enjoying the fun new phenomena of virtual communal TV viewing. Admittedly that makes it sound far more technical and impressive an endeavour than it really is. Basically, I sit in my lounge room while some of my friends sit in their lounge rooms and ‘together’ we watch the same TV show whilst heckling and joking with one another via social media commentary. 

The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was a perfect occasion for some virtual communal TV viewing. When it came to the sermon, we all held our collective breath to see if Bishop Curry would speak of Jesus to the estimated one billion people who were watching. When he declared that Jesus “died to save us all” we were all excited—perhaps even a little relieved. My monitor screen was flooded with comments of praise and commendation for Bishop Curry’s boldness and faithfulness. 

Yet, as I watched the Duke and Duchess climb into their gilded carriage and travel off towards their happily-ever-after, a sense of disquiet crept across me. As I reflected on the full content of Bishop Curry’s wedding sermon, I wondered if the gospel truly had been proclaimed—or more accurately, if the gospel had been proclaimed truly.

Bishop Curry had declared that Jesus died to save us all. Praise God for that! But exactly what Jesus died to save us from and for, and how his death actually achieved our salvation, remained unclear. The bishop also denied Jesus’ unique role as the only one capable of bringing redemption to humanity. Highlighting Jesus’ death as simply an example of how powerful love can be, the bishop quoted Martin Luther King, stating: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love, and when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world”. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, their family and friends, the Hollywood celebrities in attendance, the billion-odd people watching from their lounge rooms and even the Queen herself had been told that “all we need is love”. If we have that, then together we will be able to redeem and transform ourselves, each other, and this world. 

As I pondered the ultimate message of the sermon and reflected on the glowing praise and commendation it was receiving amongst the worldwide evangelical Christian community, I began to wonder about our collective ability and willingness to exercise spiritual discernment at times like these.

In his book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, Tim Challies very helpfully defines discernment as:

The skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong. It is a task in which we attempt to see things as God sees them.1

Discernment is a discipline that Scripture calls us to intentionally cultivate and exercise. For instance, Paul urges the Philippian Christians to intentionally pursue discernment of the truth. He writes “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Phil 1:9-10).2

However, at times God’s word also speaks of discernment as something with a sharper edge to it. For example, Paul warns Timothy to avoid godless false teachers who have the appearance of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim 3:5). Clearly, in order to determine who ought to be avoided, Timothy would be required to exercise discernment. Likewise, right before he departed from Ephesus, Paul gathered the church elders together and warned them to:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock… I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert. (Acts 20: 28-31a)

While there were aspects to Bishop Curry’s sermon which were commendable and which resonated with biblical truth, the focus of it was not, as Paul would say, excellent. While his words may have had the appearance of godliness, their content ultimately denied its power. While Bishop Curry is ostensibly “one of us”, some of what he spoke was indeed twisted.  

This article is not intended to be a witch-hunt of Bishop Curry (though others have established the importance of being aware of his progressively liberal agenda as primate of the Episcopal Church of the United States). Rather, my intention here is to encourage us, as disciples of Christ, to embrace the necessity of exercising discernment at all times. 

What might that have looked like on this particular occasion? Perhaps it may have been expressed through more measured reflection on the full content of Bishop Curry’s sermon, rather than simply focusing on the parts we thought were commendable. Perhaps we might have recalled Jesus’ words that not everyone who calls him “Lord” truly does the will of the Father (Matt 7:21-23), leading us to be more intentional about hearing and interpreting Bishop Curry’s words within the context of his broader public ministry. Perhaps it might have meant questioning whether the message that was proclaimed had honoured (sinful) humanity’s potential more than it truly honoured Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf. Perhaps it might have meant making our priority to hear Bishop Curry’s message as God himself heard it, and so tempered our response accordingly. 

Of course, occasions like this will nonetheless still often provide Christians with opportunities to glorify God and correctively proclaim the true gospel in the public square (see Michael Jensen’s excellent example of that here). Yet, foundational to such an exercise is the vitally important discipline of discernment, which calls us to intentionally seek to “understand and apply God’s word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong”.

As the culture around us becomes increasingly antagonistic towards any expression of gospel truth, it is likely that we will be tempted to wholeheartedly embrace any person bold enough to speak of Jesus positively in the hostile public square. We so long for the world around us to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour that anything which is seen to have even just some resonance of gospel truth will very probably capture our attention and public commendation. (Consider, for example, the way that sections of the Christian community have wholeheartedly celebrated the ‘biblically sympathetic’ but ultimately non-Christian philosophy of Jordan Peterson). Yet throughout church history some of the most dangerous heresies have arisen from false teachers who look like they are “one of us” at first glance, and whose words seem to have the ring of truth about them upon an initial read. After all, even the early church heretic Arius didn’t expressly deny Jesus’ divinity every time he preached.

So as we talk in private and public, let’s be discerning. Let’s rejoice when Christ is truly honoured and the gospel is truly proclaimed. But let’s also pay attention. Let’s be alert. Let’s avoid godless false teaching. Let’s instead approve onlywhat is excellent, so that our love may truly abound more and more and we may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

1. Tim Challies, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, Crossway, Wheaton, 2007, p. 71.

2. Given the content of Bishop Curry’s sermon, it is interesting to note that Paul views discernment as a key aspect of love!