The State of Discernment – Physician Heal Thyself
Any reference to “discernment ministries” (lower case) is not to be confused with “Discernment Ministries” (upper case). I am fully aware that this newsletter contains shocking statements and that there are many generalizations. We must, however, examine the general trends. Those ministries that do not conform to the general trend are an extremely small minority of less than five. The fact that there may be exceptions, do not prove the rule.
I have been standing against error from soon after I first was saved. My first experience of noticing error was when, in 1971, a beloved pastor friend handed me Prison to Praise by Merlin R. Carothers with the words – “this book had changed my life”. I read it and as a 20 year-old was convinced that this was not the truth. My initial response turned out to be correct as this was the first in a long line of books teaching positive confession, which is the foundation of the Word of Faith error. I also remember well how my friend rejected me because I told him that I did not like the book and that it contained error.
In 1994 I preached a series of messages in various churches in South Africa on the “Toronto Blessing”. This was my public entry into the so-called discernment ministry. Since then I have examined, exposed, written and preached against, almost every major error that has plagued the church since Oral Robert’s Seed Faith. I still regularly research, write, and preach against false doctrine. Over these 34 years I have been in close contact with many of the discernment ministries and the personalities that operate those ministries.
During this time I have carefully observed every aspect of these ministries including the impact they have had on the church at large, local churches, and on the lives of individual believers. Recent events involving many in the discernment community have finally prompted me to once again re-evaluate the impact, viability and Biblical mandate of these ministries.
Is there a Biblical mandate for ministries of discernment?
Before analyzing the fruit of these ministries, we must establish whether, or not, there is a biblical mandate for such ministries?
The typical justification for a discernment ministry comes from the idea of a watchman: “So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me.” (Ezekiel 33:7) (Also Isaiah 21). God tells Ezekiel that he has a responsibility to warn the nation of God’s impending judgment because of their wickedness. The problem is that the bulk of the “watchman passages” are in Isaiah and Ezekiel and these have nothing to do with watching for the enemy. But, the idea of a watchman is extrapolated to mean that the watchmen must watch for the enemy. This is then applied to the New Testament and taken to mean that discernment ministries must watch for the enemy in the form of false teaching and teachers.
However, where in the New Testament do we find examples of such watchmen who stand outside the church (city) warning the church of the error? There is not a single person anywhere in the New Testament that functioned as modern discernment ministries do. All ministry in the New Testament happened within, and out of, the local church. Even Paul was sent out from a local church and would return to, and report back to, the local church (Acts 13).
Titus 1:9 and Jude 3 are often quoted but neither of these verses sanctions a parachurch discernment ministry. Indeed, these texts, and many others, speak of the need for discernment. Almost every epistle was written to address some error or the other and a large portion of each letter exposes and corrects error. Clearly discernment is necessary and vital as false doctrine continues to grow.
Who then, is responsible to guard the purity of the doctrine? Ephesians 4:11 mentions the ministries and then goes on to say that they are to equip the saints “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting,” (Ephesians 4:14). Thus at the broadest level discernment is the responsibility of each of the gift ministries, who then equip believers to discern.
But more specifically, it is the function of elders and teachers (Acts 20:28; 1Timothy 4:16 etc.). The reason for this is simple: The antidote for error is not to point out the error. A doctor who makes an accurate diagnosis of the disease without prescribing the treatment is of no value. The diagnosis must be followed by the cure. This is exactly the model Paul shows us in his epistles. He does not just point out error but administers the therapy in the form of sound doctrine. That is the function of pastors and teachers in the local church – they combat error with truth, false doctrine with sound doctrine. That is the biblical model.
Oh, but local pastors have failed, is the reply. Yes, many have forsaken the truth for the lie and introduced error into their congregations. However, it is up to the individual believer to be discerning (Hebrews 5:14) and to leave that church when it moves into error. I know the retort is that it is unrealistic for believers to recognize when their leaders get into error and that they need the help of outside ministries to point out the error. Let’s examine that notion for a moment:
First, if the only way a believer will know he is being deceived is through some website or external ministry, then we have no faith in the Lord Who promised that He will build His church and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18) and Who also said “… the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. “And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. “Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”(John 10:3-5) and, “All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them.” (John 10:8). The sheep must, and will, hear the voice of the Shepherd. Sometimes He has to bring an obstacle across their path to get their attention, but He will lead and true sheep will follow. To introduce a pragmatic idea (a discernment ministry) in order to protect the church is a statement of unbelief in the Great Shepherd.
Those who do not love the truth will not, and do not, heed the warning of the Shepherd or of the discernment ministry, since they love the darkness more than the light. Thus, any effort by a discernment ministry to rescue such is a waste of time. “The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?” (Jeremiah 5:31).
I have witnessed many times how people reject the clear warnings about error because they choose to ignore the evidence. It is my contention that everyone who testifies that they came out of error as a result of a discernment ministry, would have seen the light anyhow since they were open to, and seeking for, the truth.
We are not fatalistically saying “what will be will be”. No, those who are true sheep, who love the Lord and His Word, will be led into all truth by the Spirit: “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” (John 16:13).
God does not bless man-made and extra-biblical methods that substitute for a work of the Spirit. Remember what happened when Israel put the ark on a cart instead of carrying it on the shoulders of the priests (1Samuel 6)?
By the above, I am not saying there is no need for recognized pastors and teachers, operating from the context of a local church, to be speaking and writing on discernment issues. There clearly is. However, the majority of discernment ministries are not operated by pastors or teachers but by discernment researchers who operate outside the local church and do not exhibit a pastoring or teaching gift. I must therefore categorically reject any and all discernment workers, irrespective of their other credentials, who do not operate within the context of a local church.
This is for two reasons: Accountability and a reality check.
Without real, on the ground, accountability we are far more open to deception, error, pride and sin. This alone, accounts for most of the problems within the discernment community of the past 30 years. By accountability I am not referring to heavy shepherding but I am also not meaning a loose association with a church without real accountability. Many pay lip service to the idea of accountability but the moment someone corrects them, they turn on the person who dared correct them thus proving that they never were accountable. (While I am writing this one discernment blogger is publishing a series of articles denying that there is any need for accountability). It is abundantly clear that no one who is not in submission to godly brethren should have anything to say to Christians. Sadly, many within the apologetics ministry are mavericks who cannot, and will not, submit to anyone. Yet, the Scripture is clear: “… Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” (1Peter 5:5) See also 1Corinthians 16:16; Ephesians 5:21; Hebrews 13:17 etc.
The second reason discernment must flow from the context of the local church is that life in the local church keeps us in touch with reality. Dealing with real people in a real church is a very humbling process. It keeps us, and our ministry, real. There is no room for ministry that flows from those who cannot get along with others and thus sit in their isolated towers shooting arrows at all and sundry. Yes, the road a prophet walks is often lonely, but it is not isolated. No ministry can just be about facts and data. All ministry must revolve around the people who make up the Body of Christ. There is no room for, and no elders should allow, a hit-and-run preacher to address the congregation. Hit-and-run preachers are those who come into the local church, say a bunch of radical stuff, cause upset and division and then run away, leaving the local shepherds to deal with the mess. If they just ran, that would be one thing, but they also reap names for their mailing list and through their mailings continue to sow trouble into the local churches.
And yes, I have heard the cliché that there are no good churches. There are enough good churches, but those in the discernment camp are hyper-critical and thus even very sound and healthy churches do not measure up to their unbiblical standards. There are no perfect churches and neither was there a perfect church in the New Testament, yet we are instructed to be part of a local congregation and ‘not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together’ (Hebrews 10:25).
Discernment ministry is the easiest of all ministries to get into and therefore attracts some questionable characters. You don’t need to know the Bible or the Lord, you don’t have to pray, you don’t need any kind of spiritual gift, you don’t even need to be saved to set up a discernment ministry. Several don’t even know the basics of the English language. All you need is some gall, time to troll the internet for some juicy morsel and some basic Facebook or blogging skills. It is no wonder that I have met a few discernment bloggers who get on famously with atheists who have the same mission – to criticize Christianity.
Harsh, you say? Maybe, but it is the truth.
There is no such ministry as “faultfinding” yet it is the easiest thing in the world to do and it takes no skill or gift at all. I can look at the most magnificent architecture, painting or other form of art and find fault with it. Why is the Mona Lisa so dark? Why is St Paul’s Cathedral so brown? Why is Luciano Pavarotti so fat? Anyone can listen to a sermon and pull it apart – there is nothing to it and millions of people do that every Sunday over the lunch table. But can they preach or do they even understand what was said? Probably not! Every one of the thousands who watch ball games can play the game better than the men on the field and every armchair critic knows more about theology than the men who have been called and gifted to teach the Church. This has resulted in a reversion to the day of the Judges when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). Let’s be clear; this kind of lawlessness is not a good thing but has led to anarchy in Christian circles.
I do not understand why people travel many miles to sit at the feet of their favorite ranter, yet will not bother to support their local church. I have watched people travel long distances to a conference where a discernment blogger was present and sit at the feet of their guru outside the meetings while God was pouring out his Spirit on the people inside.
Allow me to sum up by saying again: no one should read or listen to anyone who is not in submission to a local church and godly men.
Since the root is suspect, it is no wonder the fruit is also bad. Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 7:16-20). We must therefore examine the fruit of the discernment ministries over the past 30 years. Yes, there have been a few people who testify that they came out of deception because of one, or another discernment ministry, but as said above, these are generally people who have a love for the truth and who would have found the truth without these ministries. But on the whole, the fruit is not good.
One of the hallmarks of almost all who engage in discernment work is arrogance and pride. When fixated on the darkness of heresy, it does not take long for one to believe that one’s own little light is a blazing spotlight and is the only light out there. Instead of a gratitude for the Lord’s grace, such soon feel superior to everyone around them, including other discernment people and pastors. The arrogance I have seen and experienced at the hand of discernment people surpasses the arrogance and elitism so common among Calvinists.
Discernment conferences are populated by people patting themselves on the back and thanking God that they are not as deceived as those poor people over there (Luke 18:11). I knew a “church” made up of around a hundred people who met every week to discuss the terrible state of the churches around them and to preach on some heresy. The fact that the group was run by a woman (contrary to scripture) did not bother them and it was no wonder when the whole thing was destroyed a few years later as a result of immorality.
This is not just anecdotal. I am a careful and objective observer and could fill pages of examples of the prideful behavior and words of the ‘discernment community’. I know of one or perhaps two out of the dozens I have met and interacted with, that were humble servants of the church. After almost 50 years in the ministry, I can say categorically, there are none as arrogant as discernment and “remnant” people.
Again, there is no sanction in the New Testament for people to group together around a common hate for error. The basis of the true church and true fellowship is a love of the Lord and His Word.
As a direct result of the arrogance and one-upmanship that prevails in discernment circles, division is common to all these groups. Because their whole focus is to fight error and because these ministries are largely made up of mavericks that don’t get on well with others and who are not submissive, this constant aggression often turns inward against those who are supposed to be on the same side. The events of the past few months are a prime example of the open civil war that often erupts. One or two ministries lead in this ungodly behavior but many of their followers emulate the bad attitude of their gurus. When I read the hateful, caustic, arrogant and unrestrained comments by discernment followers on articles written by pastors who are trying to bring sanity into the recent mess, I can only wonder whether these people are actually saved since the fruit of the Spirit is totally absent in their behavior.
These wars are fought in the public arena for all to see the bad behavior, terrible language and general carnality. Not only do they fight their battles in public but they also go to court contrary to 1Corinthins 6. Twenty five years ago, one of the first discernment ministries in South Africa sued me because I had opposed them when they divided and destroyed a healthy church through error that they had introduced. There are several other examples. As late as yesterday, I saw a video by a “Christian” group in the UK encouraging people to sue a brother because his behavior was unchristian! These people believe that it is permissible to fight unchristian behavior with equal or worse unchristian behavior; no wonder the world does not believe our message. This argumentativeness and criticism spills over to their personal relationships and has destroyed families, marriages and friendships. But when that happens they claim to be suffering for the faith and suffering for truth. No, you have destroyed your relationships through your hatred and lack of love.
Sensationalism and Scoops
Some discernment ministries thrive on dishing out the latest dirt on the heretics. Just like the worldly news media, it is important for them to break the news first (commonly known as a scoop), and as sensationally as possible. This attracts readers and followers.
This competitive environment leads to badly done and rushed research and often the twisting of the facts in order to sensationalize the story further. I frequently witness stories that are completely false as a result of bad research or sensationalizing the sins of the heretics. This lack of integrity and objectivity in dealing with the information ultimately results in spiritual blindness on the part of the publisher. Today I noticed one of these people on social media accusing me of taking a position, which I had twice told him I do not hold. But the truth is just not as exciting as the lie.
As a result, playing fast and loose with the truth permeates every area of their ministry. I recently saw an internationally known discernment speaker publish that he does not live in the country where he has resided for at least the past 25 years. Everyone knows that, that is where he and his wife have lived and raised their kids. You can see how a lack of integrity in dealing with the information plus arrogance can result in people saying whatever they want without accountability and without a twinge of conscience.
This hunger for sensationalism is driven by a need to draw a following and a lust for the money that sometimes comes from publishing books and touring the speaking circuit.
This is nothing more than gossip and people gather around the blogs and social media to pick up the latest bit of scandal that they immediately share with everyone else who has the same lust for bad news. The Bible has much to say about the evil of gossip and very few of those who spread the stories will stop for one moment to intercede, let alone weep, for the sin that has come into the Church. While these same people will rush to the computer to spread the news of another preacher’s fall, I have never seen one of them rush to speak about souls being saved or the truth being proclaimed elsewhere. Thus they are no better than the Hollywood tabloids.
Lack of Discernment
People who make it their business to be discerning seem to have no discernment. That does not seem to be possible. Yet discernment people are notorious for their lack of discernment on two levels:
Firstly, knowing the truth is the only antidote to error since the devil is constantly repackaging error in new forms. It would be impossible for anyone to know every permutation of error – past, present and future; so the only way to avoid deception is by having a thorough knowledge of the truth. But discerners do not study the truth, they study error and when an error comes their way that has not been defined for them as error they fall for the new error.
As a result, I have watched with dismay as discernment workers fall for Eastern Orthodoxy, replacement theology, Calvinism, Arianism, Dominionism, Trumpism, and worse. Recently, one of the leading discernment ministries appointed a man, who has always held to clear heretical views, to a senior position in their ministry. They discovered their mistake only when it was too late and the imposter had already split their following in half.
Secondly, discernment is not just an intellectual process dealing only with facts. It is also a spiritual process. Firstly, the discerner must be led by the Spirit and secondly he must have the ability to discern spiritual things (1Corinthians 2:14). But because many discerners have little or no real spiritual walk, they are insensitive to the spiritual issues that surround any matter. I am constantly appalled by the lack of insight exhibited by discerners. Many seem unable to grasp the most elementary spiritual matters and in that process become handy weapons for evil.
It seems to me that the prime qualification to get into discernment work is a critical spirit. I can spot a “discerner” a mile off! Whenever I publish something on the internet, no matter how orthodox and spiritual the article, they will always find something to nitpick. At the same time the message has no impact on them as it is always for someone else because they sincerely believe that they have attained perfection.
There have been some “discerners” in churches that I have served in that are the worst members any shepherd could have. They are not happy to go home from the meetings unless they have stirred some trouble while their own sins remain untouched by the Word. I, and other good pastors, do not want “discerners” in our churches. Not because we do not want to be held accountable (we most certainly do), but these people are divisive and instead of listening to the message to hear the voice of the Lord speaking to them, they are looking for every opportunity where you may have misspoken or emphasized one truth to the apparent detriment of another.
I had one such woman, not too long ago, who is addicted to a particular drug, yet would argue with me because the bread at the communion is not unleavened. The same person was very proud of the fact that she does not watch TV, yet her every spare moment is spent on the internet scouring the dregs for some new filth on someone.
Fortunately most of them don’t stay in any church for long because they are above being surrounded by ordinary believers and shepherds who know less than they do (or so they think). A second blessing is that very few of them will commit to a good church, no matter how godly the elders and congregation because they can never find a church that is able to rattle off every single heresy and misdeed of every false preacher on the internet. This, they define as a lack of discernment, even though they often cannot even give a clear definition of the basics of the gospel.
No Fruit of the Spirit
Some of the speakers in these circles, egged on by their groupies, have set an example of harshness, vitriol, name-calling and generally un-Christ like behavior. This is seen as strength, courage and righteous indignation and many seek to emulate these examples. They obviously have their pet Scriptures to sanction such behavior, and have fallen into the error of the Pharisees “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” (Matthew 23:23)
But Jesus says that a tree is known by its fruit and this is the ultimate test (Matthew 7:15-23). Some of them point to the correctness of their doctrine or miracles or their devotion to Christian works as fruit. The point of Matthew 7 is not about the fruit of someone’s ministry, the question is about the fruit of their lives. In this analogy the tree is not the ministry, it is the man. So, what fruit does he bear through the whole of his life? How does he treat his wife and children? Can he control his temper? Does he exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). What testimony does he have before the world etc.
The fruit defines the tree – anger, bitterness, strife, arrogance, division, a critical spirit and slander are NOT the fruit of the Spirit of God. It is that simple yet many pour money, time, and support into ministries that do not promote the fruit of the Spirit but rather the fruit of the flesh. Let me make it plain: I don’t care how much you know about the heresies out there, or even how much you know about the Bible. If you do not produce “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” But rather – “hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy”, you have nothing to say to anyone and you need to repent and get back to the Cross. Jesus said: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:18-20).
What is Our Mandate?
Above we established that there is no Biblical mandate for discernment ministries. What then, is our mandate? The only mandate the church has (outside of the obvious commission to preach the gospel) is to bring believers into conformity to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Everything we do can, and must be, measured against this question; “Does it help people to become more like Christ?” Conforming people to Christ is the purpose of all preaching, doctrine and ministry. Except for one or two exceptions, discernment ministries have not produced this result but rather, the reverse.
The Way Forward for Me
This obviously leads to the question about the future and direction of my ministry.
My primary concern is the building up and the protection of the Body of Christ and I know from experience that you cannot build a church on negativity, criticism and pointing out error.
What is also clear is that over the past 30 years of countless discernment ministries, millions of words written and countless videos believers are still no better at discerning the truth. On the contrary, as we have shown above, not only are believers not discerning but those who lead, and those who follow discernment ministries have arguably done more harm than good by fostering a false sense of security and promoting ungodly behavior.
Our goal can clearly not simply be to point out error. It has not worked, and it is not part of the Biblical commission. Yes, we will still research and write on error as new forms of error evolve. But we need to do more:
We need to equip believers, leaders, and churches with the truth, and the skills to know the truth, and to recognize error for themselves, even when something has not been defined as error before. This can only be done by teaching the truth more than pointing out the error. We cannot move away from the original mandate of making disciples and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Equipping and teaching can also not simply be at the academic and intellectual level. Knowledge for knowledge sake “puffs up” (1Corinthans 8:1). This is certainly at the heart of the failure of discernment ministries in general. They have operated in the realm of the intellectual and have forsaken the spiritual dimension.
Let’s be clear, you can have all knowledge but without the fruit of the Spirit you have nothing (1Corinthians 13). It is a waste of time. Knowledge is only of any value when it is accompanied by spiritual maturity and fruit. Forgive me for repeating myself but the vast majority of those involved in discernment work are carnal and spiritual babes as evidenced by their fruit. And yet, it is these babes who have been set up as the custodians of truth!
Hebrews 6:12-14 is clear that babes are undiscerning and unskilled in the word of righteousness and that it is those who are mature who are able to discern. I know your reaction may be that those involved in discernment work are not babes but mature. However, Paul says the presence of envy, division and strife are proof that people are still babes: “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men…” (1Corinthians 3:1-4).
Beyond doubt envy, division and strife (carnality) have been the hallmarks of discernment people over the past 30 years and has finally found its low point in the events of the last months of 2018.
In case I was misunderstood: The carnality that defines discernment workers means that they are unskilled in the Scriptures (no matter how much they know). They cannot discern and have proven themselves disqualified for the task they have taken upon themselves.
So, I will continue to point out error, but I intend, by God’s grace, to continue to emphasize truth rather than error. Yes, I know that is not as exciting as the latest bit of gossip but that is the only mandate we have from the Head of the Church.
I will also not engage, or even respond to, the lies and mudslinging that is so much part of discernment groups. Just last night another scurrilous video was distributed by a discernment group making me out to be a heretic. The problem is that the entire video is based on lies and a gross distortion of what I believe and teach. (This article was written two weeks ago, long before the video was recorded).
If you want to know what I believe on anything then ask me. I have taught through 95% of the New Testament and part of the Old Testament. These verse-by-verse studies are in the public domain, so anyone who wants to know what I believe on any topic simply needs to listen to the appropriate recording.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it. Brethren, pray for us.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-25)