It all broke last week: another of those little web scandals, first a “discernment” article and then mostly heated tweets about a Christian who supposedly promotes evil Compromise.
Only this time I knew the targeted Christian myself, thanks to common social media circles, and suspected the accusations were untrue. I did some checking and found I was right. And I began to rediscover my years-long irritation with a particular aspect of evangelical popular culture: the pop culture of unbiblical and quarrelsome “discernment” blogging, or QDB.I do not challenge biblical discernment. But I do want to challenge quarrelsome discernment: a counterfeit “discernment” that revels in the fight, refuses to listen to others, and is careless with the truth.
Especially if you are sympathetic to the Bible’s call for discernment, my scare quotes may make you blanch. If I were you and were reading this, I might also blanch. That’s because I know many people, including professing Christians, do ignore the Bible’s serious requirements (as found in texts such as Titus 1) to rebuke false teaching. These people may even practice a form of legalism and condemn anything labeled “biblical discernment.” But biblical discernment is good. It confronts evil ideas that hurt people. It has helped get bad leaders booted and sham books exposed.
As a Christian I want to practice biblical discernment, privately and publicly. (I even ran my own discernment-style blog for a while.) Few days pass that I’m not writing a challenge to some recent evangelical irritant, right up to and including this very article. However, I want to do so in a way that shows love for people and points above all to Jesus and the gospel.
That’s why I put “discernment” in quotes. I do not challenge biblical discernment. But I do want to challenge quarrelsome discernment: a counterfeit “discernment” that revels in the fight, refuses to listen to others, is careless with the truth, and twists one biblical instruction — to rebuke false teaching — into a chief end of a Christian’s ministry.
How does this happen? I will not base my thoughts on, say, interviews, surveys, proof-texting, or supposed inside knowledge. It is not my intent to out-discern the discerners or give them a dose of their own medicine. (Other writers rightfully expose QDBs’ untruths and thus fulfill the Bible’s “iron sharpens iron” concept.) Instead, I will suggest very general reasons — yes, including potential motives — based on the impulses I have seen in myself and on common personality traits I see in people I meet and read on the QDB blogs.
First, QDBs have an over-exaltation of “biblical preaching.” Here I must be careful, because the “we need more preaching!” folks are sensitive about apparent pushback. But especially since I woke up in 2005 and discovered they exist, I love biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. I truly enjoy long, expositional, Christ-centered sermons. By contrast, I have little use for shallow evangelical moralistic homilies and wrongful pragmatism.
However, QDBs often “preach” less about the gospel than about the value of “biblical preaching” itself, or else their fans choose to dwell on this doctrine at the expense of potentially duller doctrines about love and such (which they may presume are covered by other evangelicals). Fans especially begin to suspect that the most spiritual task they can do is “preach” and rebuke compromise. Eventually more people are craving to be “preachers” on the Internet than are actually called to do so, starting in the local church settings that Paul assumed.
Second, even truly God-gifted teachers forget their own geographic limitations when they get on the Internet. I have read some “preachism” gadflies who, when faced with disagreement, insist on rearranging the furniture as if to make Facebook into their own virtual preaching hall. Sorry, the Web is not a classroom with a single teacher up front; it is a raucous bar where everyone stands about and jabbers. And we must follow the house rules instead of wishing we were somewhere more comfortable. (That’s one right meaning of “contextualization.”)
QDBs (and their gadflies) also like to take passages such as 1 Corinthians 5:11, in which Paul warns Christians to avoid “associating” with rebellious Christians in church, and apply that rule to other places — as if a webpage can suddenly become a simulated local church in which you can practice parallel-world biblical “shunning” or “church discipline” by rebuking or banning. Let’s not be nearly so foolish. Paul’s instructions apply to local churches in reality.
Third, quarrelsome “discernment” bloggers take the biblical call to pastor, which includes the call to rebuke false teaching, and make that companion command their prime directive. QDBs primarily aim for the sexy controversies while letting the more humdrum pastors handle the duller mission of loving, caring, and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus blogs and groups often take negative and militant “discernment” names and postures, telling more about who they condemn than Who they proclaim. What is the point in such a singular, isolated mission approach? Does it align with Scripture’s emphasis that pastors must first teach the gospel to build the church, while also on the side rebuke the false teaching when that need arises?
Fourth, QDBs imply that strong Christians spend all our lives in a battle for the battle, or that the best “preachers” separate the preaching/teaching/rebuking call from all of the other calls in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. QDBs may cite verses 10-16 in Titus’ first chapter, but neglect verses 5-9 where Paul insists that overseers (e.g., elders or pastors) must not be “quick-tempered” (or “quarrelsome“) but must be disciplined and of good reputation.
You want to fulfill the calling of overseer anywhere you go? Preaching and rebuking do not cut it when practiced in isolation. You must always be a pastor — including all that sentimental stuff like being a good father, being trustworthy, and not being quarrelsome — even on your preaching blog! You don’t get to turn into someone else because “that’s just how it is” on the Internet (that would be compromise), or because the rebuking posts get hits so that’s probably where the real ministry need is, or because, well, it did really win readers’ acclaim the last time you were hot on the trail of that wolf, and that “sheep” over there really looks like it’s just as dangerous, so it’s best for your blogging staff to whack first and ask questions later.
Please notice what I have not said. I have not said, “Discernment isn’t important,” nor have I said, “Discernment is so divisive, so let’s just show people more love.” Rather, I’ve said, “Discernment is vital, so let’s compare quarrelsome discernment blogging culture itself with Scripture.” It is Scripture, not sentimental pleading, that reveals QDB’s failures and demands repentance.
What next? Reading or writing discerning-the-discerners articles like this is only a start. Christians must accept no substitutes for real biblical pastoring and discernment, and must cultivate and praise those characteristics among people we know in our churches. Let us realize that yes, we must rebuke lies, but we must also know when and how to do this, practicing biblically wise reproof for listeners “like a gold ring or an ornament of gold.” I am grateful for the godly pastors, teachers, authors, volunteers, and many other Christians who strive to practice this biblical wisdom, both in real life and in their Internet interactions.
Image credit: E. Stephen Burnett