SHINY FAKE GOLD-PLATED COINS
Regrettable and diverse are the failures of an overabundance of internet based “discernment” ministries, websites, programs and blogs. Frequently, these self-titled so-called discernment ministries are highly visible, easily accessible and are presented to the world as being representative of the truth. These presentations are the creations of self-appointed “watchmen” who claim divine inspiration for their discernment ability over and above that which is available to the average Christian believer. In addition, these “watchmen” defend their position, which by the very nature of their “ministries” cannot be described as biblical, with an aggressive fervour which borders on occultic fanaticism.
Undeniably, there has always been a biblical imperative for true watchmen to guard against and warn the faithful in the church about attacks launched by the Evil one and his followers against the truth. These attacks are rarely predictable and by necessity often disguised as truth, which makes them difficult to recognize. The focus of many immature or momentarily weaker Christians, is often temporarily distracted by worldly or other concerns. Sometimes all it requires for the spiritual attack to have a disastrous effect, is the overly enthusiastic zeal of an immature seeker. (*6)True wisdom is not manifested in trying to see resemblances in things which differ, but in discerning the real difference among those which resemble one another.
Until the end of the church age, the need for watchmen will continue to exist. However, the proper basis for the guard duties and spirit in which these duties should be conducted, must be followed by the watchmen. Failing this, the ministries of these watchmen, many of these nowadays calling themselves “discernment” ministries, will continue to be evangelically ineffective, the Truth will not prevail and these ministries will remain causative to an escalation in the unjust persecution of the Christian faith. An even greater injustice is served when the inexperienced believer is led astray by unscrupulous noise-makers, posing as watchmen, who publicly depict many of the Lord’s sheep as disciples of Satan.
(1)The primary problem with most discernment ministries is their sole, self-appointed role in the body of Christ is to singularly point out heresy. Most fail or refuse to understand (diagnose) heresy’s cause(s), neither can they offer cures that are either preventative or curative. These are those “…who love nothing more than ‘gatekeeping’, ‘controlling the switches’, and ‘patrolling the boundaries’”, “watchers on the wall” who expect great reward.
(2)Some individuals and ministries border on emotional hysteria over “conspiracies” and the flood tide of apostasy. However, it is identification-based spiritual growth which is to protect both individual Christian and the Church corporately from error, not the gift of “discerning of spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10) nor any so-called “word of discernment” from a charismatic leader!
We must bear in mind that there has never been a biblical call for a discernment ministry in the form that many of them assume today. To the contrary, the ability to discern truth from lies is one which every spiritually regenerated Christian has. It is the duty of every believer and every ministry to be discerning and to develop and practice this ability. It is a spiritual gift granted by God to the followers of Jesus Christ in order to provide them with a means to avoid pitfalls placed in their way by Satan. Some incorrectly assume that spiritual discernment is a God-given awareness of evil or good spiritual presences, like an ability to tell whether a demon is present in something. While there may be some who have that ability, it is not what the Bible tells us about discernment. Biblical discernment has everything to do with wisdom.
Wisdom, or the ability to discern things spiritually, comes from knowing Jesus Christ. We learn to be spiritually discerning by us knowing Him. Spiritual discernment must be developed through our training in righteousness, and the mature Christian will be trained by constant practice at becoming skilled at the Word of God. The only way that we can increase our discernment skills is to consistently consult the Bible to learn the truth. We cannot become skilled at recognizing error by focusing on and studying different errors. We can only recognize that which is false if we know the Truth, and the only Truth is in the Word.
Central to the failure of many discernment ministries (and individuals) is an unashamed inability to apply biblical discernment to core issues affecting Christianity. Often, the very absence of biblical understanding regarding error and deceitfulness, is construed as being “valuable” discernment, “effective” refutation or “diligent” exposure of falsehoods.
Common failures include, but are certainly not limited, to the following:
1. An inability to effectively address the actual raison d’entre of their website, blog, broadcast, ministry, program or other publication. With predictable regularity, discernment sites become platforms from which the host launches personal pride-fueled vendettas against individuals, doctrines or groups who are of a different opinion to theirs. (7) In the process they cause more damage than the very error that they are trying to correct [does].
2. An inability to comprehend biblical doctrine due to the spiritual immaturity of the host, which results in that discernment ministry attacking both error and truth, believers and non-believers with equal enthusiasm. This lack of wisdom, on these conveniently public platforms, is effectively exploited by Satan in his attempts to withhold clarity in understanding from the readers, and eventuates in a blurring of lines between truth and lies. For almost every so-called discernment ministry, there are many others which attempt to refute their claims and to present a counter argument, which will hopefully paint that watchman as a heretic or publisher of a false message. All the mudslinging, name-calling, exposing, rebuking, aggression, lies, unbiblical argument and counterargument, weak theology and backyard apologetics on display, presents the inexperienced reader with almost no possibility of finding the truth.
3. A loveless, careless and undeservedly arrogant nature in the methodology of the host, which indicates their inability and unwillingness to apply the most critically important Christian principles. These biblical prescripts are imperative to the effective functioning of their ministry. The argument is often made by these self-appointed watchmen, that nothing could be more loving than exposing false teachers and thereby protecting deceived readers from their message. While that argument is true in many respects, it is effectively nullified by the fact that the watchmen attempt to expose as heretical, those who proclaim the truth, along with those who preach lies.
4. An inability to distinguish essential doctrine from non-essential. Inexorably linked to this failure will be the inability of the host to distinguish between biblical doctrine and the teachings of men. Frequently, the hosts will fanatically apply their own (often permissible) interpretation of non-essential doctrines, to mark other believers who hold to different (permissible) understanding, as heretics or false teachers. Together with this, the host will claim that their understanding is strictly biblical and will often appeal to the writings of other like-minded individuals, or incorrect biblical hermeneutics (eisegesis), as proof thereof. The fact that many may agree upon a specific matter, does not make that which they agree upon, any more or less correct, particularly when many of them are simply professing Christians.
5. An oversight in adopting a humble position, such as which would bear witness to the fact that they were saved by grace alone, or that they had no role in acquiring the spiritual ability to discern error from truth. Humility in a watchman’s approach is an absolute imperative, a character which any ministry should exhibit in service of the church. The absence of humility, patience, kindness, love, compassion, understanding and wisdom will render any “discernment” ministry useless to the Christian commission. That, of course, does not imply that a watchman should adopt an attitude of general tolerance or a soft-handed approach toward error. Neither should that attitude be unduly affected by the fact that the perceived error remains intentional or unintentional. Rather, they should confidently and prayerfully address error, heresy and heretics in conjunction with Christian humility. There is no room for personal agendas, man-centered opinion or pride in the life of a watchman in the church.
6. An incorrect assumption by some who fervently occupy themselves with discernment issues, that they need to have a great knowledge of errors and heresies in order to avoid or expose them. (3)Does the Father want us to be acquainted with what is evil in that way? Not at all. We do not need to explore and know all the evil; we cannot afford to waste our time in this way. If we occupy ourselves with evil we shall in some way be coloured by it. The greatest thing is to be hidden with Him. In this day of religious evil the only true preservation is to be kept abiding in the Lord Jesus above.
7. An imbalance of information, which ultimately serves as an advertisement for falsities, false doctrine, heresies and heretics. Most so-called discernment sites constitute hundreds or thousands of pages, articles, images, recordings and facts about false teachers and teachings. Rarely do they present a balanced amount of Scriptural truth against which these falsities can be measured. Therefore, the reader has no accurate yardstick against which the error can be measured, other than the opinion of the host. Inevitably there will be thousands of words written against the perceived error, stating the position of the host of the discernment ministry, or that of a related group. In truth, that is useless information presented by those who can do no more than to promote sensationalism and controversy.
8. An undue regard for conspiracy theories. Many self-appointed watchmen spend an incredible amount of time researching the world in their search quest to expose, or in many instances develop, extra-biblical prophecies which, in fact, are nothing more than conspiracy theories. Much of this speculative thought glamourizes imaginary events, most often these are presented as having some relevance to the end times.
Deceitful watchmen who feel the need to oppose evil by making advances against it from behind the safety of their keyboards and pens, write thousands of pages of uninformed warnings against all forms of non-existent demons. This falls perfectly in line with Satan’s plan to spread fear of himself among all people, to make keep people busy with seeking him in all things. People begin to fear and concentrate on Satan’s presence in everything they eat, drink, hear, see and experience, rather than fearing God who can destroy both body and soul in hell. By displacing God and placing Satan into everything and every place he is not, simply ascribes extra power to Satan power that he would not have had.
The truth is that neither false religious teachings nor the actions of man or Satan can bring utopia into existence, regardless of their ingenuity or creativity. Only heaven brings lasting peace and joy. The one hope for all believers lies only in heaven, not here on this earth. Discernment ministries which glorify Satan by publicizing as demonic facts, things which are not of Satan, diminish the salvific power of the true Gospel and deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the saved Christian.
SHINY SOLID GOLD COINS
On the other hand, true believers can also accept that many are the victories of truly biblical discernment ministries, for which we should be very appreciative and which we could scarcely do without. Studious, spiritually mature and doctrinally sound Christians and ministries which point out error according to solely biblical prescripts, are rare and their lights shine clearly in the darkness.
Their paths are straight, their intentions are transparent and unwaveringly Bible-based, their personal opinions are limited and their approach is loving, patient, kind and spiritually led. Their ministries attest to the fact that they have a deep concern and compassion toward those who are in error, who are being deceived by Satan. They speak out against the errors, lies, falsehoods and the father of the lies, but at the same time hope to bring those who are being misled into darkness, back into the light of the Gospel by means of the Word.
They have upheld the authority of Scripture (Sola Scriptura) as opposed to the fallacy of Solo Scriptura, which advocates that all individuals have the right to interpret biblical text according to their own understanding, under the alleged guidance of the Holy Spirit. RC Sproul wrote on this matter: “If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation.”
(4)The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider communion of saints down through the ages.
Watchmen who have adhered to Sola Scriptura have proven to be invaluable in the face of the onslaught against the Christian faith, a war which is no longer restricted to ‘real’ life, but which has become increasingly ominous and firmly entrenched in the social media and in the virtual world of the internet. It is a war which is being waged on many fronts, including from within the church where it can be the most effective and easily disguised.
Immature Christians are prone to believing large amounts of what they perceive as truth the internet, and this comes about just as they are being spiritually led to ridding themselves of the burden of gullibility which engulfed them in their secular lives. Satan does not take kindly to losing his fans! It comes as a huge shock to them when they realize that not all who pose as Christians are true believers. Bad theology as displayed by many so-called discernment sites, makes it very difficult to explain to the immature Christian, that much of what seems to be Christianity, or to be a fellowship of true discerning Christians, is actually a fatal deception, a scheme consisting of half-truths which about the Gospel which has been hi-jacked by Satan and his followers.
Unfortunately, all too often it is those obscure and dangerous places which “baby” Christians frequent in their search for a clearer understanding of the truth. Aging bookshops which smell of leather and wood, church libraries which are filled with well read dog-eared books with yellowing pages, scuffed and stained covers, seem no longer to fit with the reality of a technologically advancing world. Worldly churches love to promote the fallacy that Christianity constantly needs to adapt to remain relevant in the ever-changing world. Other than a spiritually mature believer, who could make the argument that a 400 year old Bible is more relevant than most attractive “discernment” websites which are linked to another 1000 agreeable sites?
Satan would certainly never fail to take advantage of utilizing the popularity and influence of Facebook, Google, YouTube or Wikipedia. As a result, the chance of the messages encountered in those places having been tainted with error, is high. The truth of the Gospel has never been popular. Solid discernment sites are true rarities, in fact, a discernment site which does not clearly warn their readers of the possibility that their own site could contain error, trusts in their own fallibility.
There are a few truly biblical and sound “discernment” ministries. A few – for which we can hardly express our gratitude sufficiently. Those who are searching for solid resources should do so prayerfully, carefully testing the content of all sources against Scripture, and not take anything at face value. Simply because a website or ministry claims to be a source of discerning Christian truth, does not mean that it is. To the contrary, it is far more likely that it will NOT be.
By studying the Truth in Scripture, by knowing Jesus and by growing in wisdom through His Word, you will be equipped to recognize clearly which of these ministries provide biblical discernment of issues critical to the Christian faith, and which of them are committed to discerning matters pertaining to the world.
Avoid sources which seem to readily ascribe to others, terms such as heretic, heresy, false prophet, false preacher, false doctrine, Antichrist and so on. All of the above really do exist in steadily increasing numbers. We know this because Jesus told us so. However, a discernment ministry which casually labels a true believer, saved by Grace through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ, a heretic or a false teacher, is no discernment ministry at all. Rather, that ministry is a source of opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church.
“True wisdom is not manifested in trying to see resemblances in things which differ, but in discerning the real difference among those which resemble one another.”
– Grant Swart
The Proper Basis and Spirit for Discernment Ministry
A Jehovah’s Witness struggling with his faith finds a Christian Web site that challenges the teachings of the Watchtower with biblical and historical evidence. He calls a phone number provided on the Web site and over the next several months a caring Christian helps him break free of the Watchtower and find salvation in Jesus Christ.
A Christian who left her church because of the teachings of Harold Camping reads an article that exposes Campings errors. Now shes not only back in her church, but she has learned some important lessons about Bible interpretation.
The above two examples only begin to illustrate how discernment or countercult ministry makes vital contributions to both evangelism and the church. If only the story ended there. As I pointed out in the previous issue, however, discernment ministry too often is a mixed blessing.
Consider the following example: a team of Christian evangelists positions itself outside a Mormon temple, holding up signs that denounce and mock Mormonism. How effective do you think this evangelistic approach would be? If you think it would generate more heat than light, you’re right; unfortunately, this strategy is being used again and again by a minority of the Christians witnessing inSalt Lake Cityand elsewhere, and some of these protestors have even derisively taken to displaying Mormon temple garments (underwear), which Mormons consider sacred. Responsible Christian evangelists often have to first overcome the offense these tactics create before they can make any headway with Mormons.
Such inappropriate conduct in discernment/countercult ministry is best explained by simple carnality. If discipleship, accountability, and spiritual maturity are expected before people venture into other avenues of Christian service, it should be all the more so with discernment ministry, which faces exceptional challenges. Apologetics requires the Lord’s servant to contend for the truth, but in doing so he or she should not be contentious (2 Tim. 2:4; cf. Eph. 4:15). Apologetics requires the accumulation of knowledge, but this poses a pitfall: knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1 NIV). The Christian engaged in discernment ministry should never forget this.
Alienating the very people we are trying to reach is not the only problem plaguing discernment ministry. Many ministries, without realizing it, divide Christians who should be united and promote simplistic rather than nuanced thinking. They do so by advocating positions such as the following:
Covenant theology (disdainfully called replacement theology by its critics) is heresy. (To this example could be added the opposite position, that dispensationalism is heresy.)
The slightest degree of evangelical acceptance of Roman Catholicism or psychology is not only misguided, but constitutes apostasy.
Belief in day-age creationism (an old earth) is a capitulation to evolution and an abandonment of the Bible.
Seeker-sensitive churches are not only at risk of compromising Christian faith but have already betrayed it, simply by being seeker-sensitive churches.
I noted in the previous From the Editor that Christians exercising doctrinal discernment need to distinguish between three degrees or levels of error: (1) errors that overthrow Christian faith (i.e., heresy; the pseudo-Christian cults are in this category), (2) errors that seriously impair but do not destroy it (i.e., aberrant theology), and (3) errors that no doubt have consequences but do not seriously undermine orthodoxy (i.e., errors the likes of which we all unknowingly hold). Even if some of the beliefs bulleted above are in error, the vast majority of people who hold them remain faithful Christians, committed to orthodoxy, and thus such errors belong in the third category.
For example, despite their differences overIsraeland other issues, advocates of covenant theology and dispensationalism both know, love, and serve the same Christ and deal with the same vital issues in their sanctification process. Evangelicals who attribute some degree of validity to Roman Catholicism rarely end up praying to Mary or confusing sanctification with justification. Adherents of day-age creationism seldom slide into a belief in evolution; indeed, many of todays most effective opponents of evolutionism believe in an old earth.
Christians need to beware of the either-or fallacy: it may seem that one must either oppose all forms of psychotherapy or one will be corrupted by the many ungodly beliefs that are present in that field, but it may rather be possible to discern and avoid those false elements while learning something from the elements of truthderived from general revelationthat are also present in it. It may seem that any effort to make ones church seeker friendly necessarily means pandering to nonbelievers at the expense of the gospel, but it may rather be possible to remove unnecessary offenses to nonbelievers without removing the necessary offense of the cross. Even if some Christians efforts to sift truth from falsehood in these areas are imperfectly executed, it doesnt necessarily follow that the resulting compromise rises to the second or first levels of error. The wise Christian will learn to know the difference.
There can be no wisdom, of course, where there is no knowledge. Proper discernment of error presupposes adequate understanding of truth. This is why the Christian Research Institute is forever stressing that Christians need to learn the essential doctrines of their faith. To further this end we are launching in this issue a two-part feature article by theologian and apologist Norman L. Geisler. Few writers in the church today are as qualified to identify and analyze the essentials as is Dr. Geisler, and so we encourage you to take advantage of this outstanding educational opportunity.
One would like to think that if Christians understood which doctrines are essential and how to distinguish between the three degrees of error, the defects in discernment ministry would disappear. I noted last issue, however, that the situation is more complex than that, and weve already seen one reason why: spiritual immaturity.
A further problemnot unrelated to the problem of carnalityis that there is a contingent within the larger discernment community whose criteria is not strictly the essentials at all. These are Christians who are committed to particular scenarios of end-time prophetic fulfillment involving how the Antichrist, Babylonthe Great (the Great Whore of the book of Revelation), and the final apostasy of the church will emerge and converge. Such Christians tend to believe that Christs return within a matter of years is not only possible but assured, and thus they assume that the final apostasy is already underway.
This groups version of discernment ministry is to look throughout the church for signs of this apostasy and speculate as to how all these disparate elements will merge together to usher in the Antichrist. In this way, true examples of compromise and error (e.g., indiscriminate use of psychology; modern-day apostles and prophets claiming new revelation) take on an added, ominous dimension of evil, and even inherently innocent activities become tainted with possible connections to the Antichrist (remember the rainbow scare of the 1980s?1). Books, conferences, Web sites, and entire ministries are devoted to identifying which people and trends in the body of Christ are contributing to the Great Apostasy.
This particular approach to discernment ministry often gets ugly. A certain paranoia and pessimism can set in about almost anything new in the church. Christian leaders are monitored carefully for any suspicious words, deeds, or associations, and rare is the leader who has not been accused of apostasy or compromise on one Web site or another. If someone seems to be heading down an expected pathway to Antichrist (e.g., advocating implantable identification technology), then this person is evildont confuse the discerning Christian with the facts.
All this goes to show that when commitment to end-time scenarios rather than commitment to essential truth becomes the basis for discernment, truth itself often becomes a casualty. Newspaper eschatology is sensational, highly speculative (not only assuming one of many possible eschatologies is correct but also assuming a particular scenario for its fulfillment is correct), continually under revision, and unsupported by sound biblical exegesis (as even the majority of dispensational-futurist scholars would acknowledge).
The only proper basis for discernment ministry is apologetics: to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3 NASB). When this contending is done with wisdom, humility, love, and a commitment to the unity of faithful Christians (Eph. 4:23), discernment ministry can fulfill its potential and truly become a thoroughgoing blessing to the church.
— Elliot Miller
1. Author ConstanceCumbey (Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow [Huntington House, 1983]) cast suspicion on Christians who put rainbow bumper stickers on their cars, because these stickers supposedly signaled involvement in a New Age conspiracy to usher in the Antichrist within a matter of months.
(1) With appreciation to Dan Smedra
(2) With appreciation to Dan Smedra
(3) With appreciation to Dan Smedra
(4) With appreciation to Michael Horton
(6) With appreciation to Dan Smedra
(7) With appreciation to Anton Bosch
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