Discernment’s Lack of Discernment

It’s a new season, spring is coming to an end and summer is being ushered in. With that, yet another discernment ministry controversy that shouldn’t be.

It’s not my purpose here to discuss the scandal-of-the-month. Rather I wish to address the core problem that I’ve seen come up time and again with para-church ministries devoted to “discernment.” I’ve been a Christian for nearly two decades, and have seen many rise to national and international prominence, only to crash hard and leave people bitter and angry. As the internet becomes ubiquitous, they spawn acolytes that run blogs and spend copious amounts of time and energy on social media “exposing” every false teacher they can find. Like a child with a hammer, everything they see becomes a nail.

To be fair, I’ve seen many discernment ministries start off strong, and remain that way (sometimes) for many, many years. They’re able to properly spot error, warn believers that it’s there, and steer people away from it. They perform a valuable service to Christ’s church. Sadly, however, most that I’ve seen eventually lose their proper focus. Things quickly go from strong and valuable, to dangerous and ill-serving.

What causes the inevitable fall? Well, there are many possibilities, all ultimately pointing to our common, sinful nature. However, it all often boils down to following. The discernment ministries gather such an impressive following that they must do what they can to maintain and/or grow the following, lest their ministry shrink and die. It’s a loss of focus on whom they serve.

It was easier for me to see the problems with good discernment ministries gone bad by looking at the good discernment ministries that are still good. So which ones do I consider to be good? There are just a few, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything they say or do. Justin Peters and Chris Rosebrough are two good ones around today, and the late Ken Silva is a third that we’re at a loss not having with us any longer. (Note, I see a difference between apologetics ministry and discernment. Typically, apologetics ministries are good at avoiding the problem I’m about to discuss with discernment ministries. I don’t see any difference between self-described discernment ministries and polemics ministries; they end up being different sides of the same ministerial coin.)

Justin Peters has a ministry that educates people on the heresies within the Word-Faith movement. He will get into other areas that have a lot of overlap with Word-Faith, but Word-Faith is his strength, and he rarely wanders more than arms-length from it.

Chris Rosebrough is very strong on New Apostolic Reformation, Emergent Church, and the Seeker-Driven movements. His daily internet show, Pirate Christian Radio, focuses on comparing bad teaching in churches to what the Bible says, and most often focuses on these areas. Chris, like Justin, knows his strengths, and sticks to them.

Where the good ministries gone bad start their downward trend is burning out on their strengths. They build a sizable following by rightly calling out error in an area they have taken time to become knowledgable in. Eventually, though, they end up getting to a place where they cannot grow any more without making changes. Some of them have put aside past careers, and have become dependent upon the financial support that their ministries generate. To stop growing means certain financial ruin.

The only way to grow is to expand the focus. No longer can they educate only on the area that made their ministries thrive, they have to find more. This is where they inevitably fall apart. They become a hammer, looking for nails. Now, everyone who teaches a squishy (yet not necessarily heretical) teaching is seen as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Articulating a prayer in the wrong way becomes a focus of their attention. No longer do these ministries go after just wolves, they have to turn their attention to wayward sheep (and often the sheep aren’t even wayward, they’re just doing things differently.) At this point, things escalate, and we end up with the seasonal controversy. Heels dig in, and battle lines are drawn. It never ends well, and it never benefits the Lord’s Church.

The alternative to growth into areas outside of their expertise is to account for the growth that comes in your followers over time and their inevitable move onto other things. They’ve gotten as much out of the ministry as they can and they find other ministries that help them grow in other areas. This means that you’re always looking for new followers who aren’t strong in the area that these ministries focus on. I like Chris Rosebrough, but I am familiar with the teachings of the churches that he critiques, and no longer need his commentary to know what’s wrong with it. I listen to “Pirate Christian Radio” only very occasionally. That’s okay. There are many people out there that don’t have the experience or wisdom to see the error in New Apostolic or Seeker-Driven, and they can benefit from time spent listening to Chris. He has a fun personality too, so he can entertain while he teaches.

Apologetics ministries may have problems, but they rarely have the same problem as discernment ministries. It takes time to study a false system and learn how to engage it with the Gospel. Years may be spent learning the beliefs of a cult, or the doctrines of a false religious system. There’s too much invested to start over and try another cult or religion. Apologists more often plant their flag and do their work, they don’t trouble themselves with growth, and most often growth is not necessary to their continued existence.

I’ve learned, after nearly two decades, never to become too invested in discernment ministries. Support and follow them when they’re strong, but be willing to rebuke them when they lose focus. Don’t put them on a pedestal. Don’t invest in them as super-human heroes. Recognize that they’re sinful humans like the rest of us.

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