Be Careful What You Call Discernment

August 15, 2011

Discernment has become an overused word in the Presbyspeak lexicon. I first became aware of its co-opting when a lesbian Doctor of Ministry student used a presbytery committee as her focus group, to discuss and practice “discernment” for her D.Min. project. Led through a process meant to tease out a definition and description of the practice, the group swam in an amorphous soup of feelings and consensus testing. The “moment” for me was when the leader was asked what role Scripture played in the process of discernment. She was stopped short, like a deer in the headlights, without an answer. In her practice and in her teaching, Scripture was not a part of the discerning process. This fact was verified in her “testimony” of how spiritual “discernment” had led her into homosexual practice.

So the word and its use in Presbyterian circles has always had red-flags attached to it for me. We need the real thing now more than ever. The PCUSA for its survival must untangle the mess that is the result of the “discernment” of governing bodies, judicial commissions, some of its ministerial candidates, seminary professors, and other opinion leaders. To make some headway, we must sort out what is the discipline of the church known as discernment and apply that robust practice faithfully and courageously throughout the church.

Some may feel such a discussion is too late. However, I am seeing signs that even the Minneapolis meeting of the Fellowship of Presbyterians may succumb to an anemic (if not misguided) version of the gift of discernment, unless we take some time now to prepare our hearts, minds, souls, and wills for the process we must undergo. Proper discernment leads to godly decisions, which the church needs today. How can we be a part of that process and be assured its outcome is what God would want for us?

It all started in the Garden! When God created Adam and Eve, they were endowed with the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and error. They had everything they needed for life and godliness in the Tree of Life. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was off-limits to them, providing the occasion for daily exercise of moral discernment. The lie of the snake was that by eating from it, they would then be able to judge between good and evil. In fact, what happened was their eyes were opened to evil and dimmed to good, making discernment all the more difficult. In addition, by eating off the wrong tree, they declared their independence from God morally, insisting that they knew better without God’s input what was good for them.

This is, in fact, the situation we find ourselves in now. The ability to discern what is truth and what is error, between what is good and what is evil, is predicated on a full experience of the good (the Tree of Life) and a shunning of evil (the Tree of Knowledge). The way given to us to make the distinctions is found only as God’s Word instructs and guides our perception of the situation.

As this topic develops this week, I will address the difference between discernment and judgmentalism, the conditions under which godly discernment can occur, the spiritual gift of discernment, and discernment practiced in “meetings.”

3 Responses to “Be Careful What You Call Discernment”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    Mary, thank you for this. I am very much looking forward to your postings on this subject. I think discernment is one of our biggest problems. The idea that either debate, consensus or voting minus listening to what God’s word says on a subject has always bothered me.

  2. Dave Moody Says:

    Timely and helpful, thanks Mary.

  3. Excellent teaching, Mary. Thanks!

    Your sentence: “In fact, what happened was their eyes were opened to evil and dimmed to good, making discernment all the more difficult,” reminded of the 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 passage where those who “refused to love the truth and so be saved” were sent a strong delusion by God in order that all who did not believe the truth “might be condemned.”

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