I’ve often wanted someone to come alongside me and tell me what to do. In motherhood, I wished for a professional, well-studied mother to live in my home and tell me exactly how to raise my newborn. (Completely unrealistic, but a dream nonetheless.) With health, I’ve desired a knowledgeable doctor who could—on demand, at any hour—answer my anxious concerns about my family’s well-being. (Again, quite unrealistic.)
I’ve done the same with my faith. I wanted an online library that I could browse through with curated resources that all resounded with the same tune. I wanted them to tell me where to fall on secondary and tertiary issues. I sought a bulleted list of teachers to avoid, teachers to heed, and what to believe about everything.
Unlike my previous unrealistic dreams, this one does exist in various forms. Yet what I’ve discovered is that such resources often lead us to over-reliant discernment. As believers, we need to develop healthy and biblically-grounded discernment.
Over-reliant discernment happens when we rely on someone else to tell us what to believe. While it’s good to learn from the wise and educated, we also can’t turn off our discerning brains and simply trust the voice of one person. This is what I did when I relied on Christian bloggers to build my faith. Though I believed I was engaging in real discernment by studying their lists of recommended and un-recommended teachers, I was blindly following yet another teacher without ever engaging in real discernment. I relied on them to do the hard work of knowing the essentials of the faith and testing every resource I wanted to consume.
With such over-reliant discernment on one person (who has one single set of beliefs) comes the danger of making secondary and tertiary theological issues into issues of first importance—which is exactly what I did. I declared those who disagreed with me to be in sin and labeled them as false teachers. In doing so, I missed out on the good those teachers had to offer, and I didn’t allow myself to be challenged by healthy disagreements among believers.
I fear that, perhaps, I’m not the only one.
When we’re equipped with right discernment, we can do discernment as Charles Spurgeon described: recognizing right from almost right. Rather than depending on others to tell us what we should believe and who we should listen to (and becoming fearful to consume anything without checking with those people first), we can pick up a book or listen to a podcast with a mind to distinguish truth from falsehood for ourselves.
With right discernment, we can distinguish secondary and tertiary issues from those of first order. Rather than writing off fellow believers as unreadable and unworthy of our time, we can see the truth and goodness found in their words as well, despite our differences. We can likewise listen to other believers share their differences with us without becoming enraged.
How do we develop this kind of discernment? We envelop ourselves in Scripture. As we treasure more and more of God’s word in our hearts, we learn to recognize when a word deviates from it. Through studying the whole of Scripture, we build a foundation for ourselves on the essentials of historic Christianity rather than on secondary and tertiary issues.
But having this foundation to be discerning ourselves doesn’t mean we should practice our discernment in isolation. We must join with the community of believers who have come before us, as well as those with whom we are connected in real life, not just on the internet.
Leaning on the Church
Part of the work of our church leaders is to be our earthly shepherds. This means they guide us towards good pastures and away from polluted water and the trail of wolves. This is what discernment in community looks like.
This differs from over-reliant discernment because your local church is just that—local. It’s not a random person on the internet telling you what you should and should not believe. Your local church is a body of believers living alongside you, modeling discernment, and helping you grow in it. The leaders are held accountable by creeds and other church authorities.
As any good shepherds should, they are warning you of dangers. They’re equipping you to know God’s word and to recognize the wolves on your own. We should never neglect the teachings of our local church; they are God’s gift to nourish and equip us, and to help us along in this sin-cursed world.
Studying the historic creeds and catechisms likewise helps us build a sturdy foundation for our faith. Unlike a list of beliefs written by one Christian blogger, the creeds and catechisms were created in community—they endured many debates and conversations before being written down. They’ve stood the test of time throughout church history.
Further, studying Scripture does require outside help. It’s important to build a solid library of biblical resources to help you understand it—like commentaries, study Bibles, and Bible studies. You could ask your pastor for recommendations on trustworthy resources and seek his counsel when you feel stuck.
In all discernment, we must always seek to be guided and driven by the truth of God’s word, not what our favorite teacher says, not what a discernment blogger decides. Rather, our life should be guided by what God’s word says is true, and, with the Spirit’s help, we assess every book, song, podcast, or sermon we consume by that standard.