Discernment is a Noble Thing, Phil Johnson

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:7).

Discernment and polemics blogs exist because celebrity pastor blogs and Twitter feeds exist, and because there are two sides to every story.

Today the average churchgoer is exposed to teaching from preachers he has never met and who may or may not have good intentions or orthodox teaching. Yet these teachers appear credible due to their large following. Discernment ministries exist to give a check and balance on this trend.

At ShepCon19 this week, in an otherwise exegetically sound sermon, Phil Johnson argued that certain well-known discernment ministries are in error for their tone. They are always critiquing — always entering into controversy — pugnacious and pugilant.

True, Scripture does warn against entering into foolish controversies (Titus 3:9). But it also exhorts us to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3).

In my life, I have yet to hear an ethically credible condemnation of pugilence from the pulpit. Ironically, the only preachers who stand ready to condemn the contenders seem to be the greatest contenders themselves.

For instance, here is a conversation I once had with Phil Johnson:

Quite a slap on the wrist!

I had to look up the word hauteur. It means:

  • haughtiness of manner
  • disdainful pride
  • arrogance
  • conceit
  • snobbery
  • superiority
  • self-importance
  • disdain
  • condescension
  • contempt
  • scorn

Quite a punch you’re packing there, Mr. Johnson.

But this is no troubling thing to me. As the song goes, “Now Watergate does not bother me. Does your conscience bother you?”

Perhaps it is the weight of conscience that presses those who have been quick to slander the reputation of others to preach such messages — to themselves.

Paul says it well in Titus 1:7:

“Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless — not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.”

Discernment ministry is not about cheap shots, quick-tempers, slander, or the quest for dishonest gain. It is about objectivity.

The goal is to call it like it is. When a man does well, we say so: “Good Johnson; Bad Johnson,” as the day may be.

Discernment is a noble thing.

“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

Before condemning a discernment ministry for always critiquing, consider whether there could be a need for watchdogs. Do you criticize the Better Business Bureau or the Food and Drug Administration, or private watchdog organizations for making it their business to critique others? Think about it.

Keep in mind that the Scripture tells us wolves will come from within (Acts 20:29). And these wolves should be exposed and disfellowshipped (Ephesians 5:11). The goal is not to bash Christians. The goal is truth in all things. Let unity come from a shared understanding of truth, or it isn’t unity at all.

Yes, do avoid the divisive ones — “those who cause divisions and offenses…” But the divisive ones are not the ones we tend to think. Read the full verse:

“Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Romans 16:17).

The divisive ones are those who oppose biblical doctrine — not the ones who rightly call foul.

Discernment ministries seek to foster unity in the truth.

The best discernment ministries support their claims with sources and research. Such projects may or may not be helpful to you in a given season of life. And you may disagree with particular evaluations and conclusions. No one is error-proof.

But before condemning the very idea of discernment ministries, understand that the people running these sites are doing what they believe God calls them to do.

Here’s some advice for those looking to avoid portraying an overweening hauteur: Trying ending your words to others with this phrase: “God bless.”

If you can say that, and if you can mean it in good conscience, then you are a peacemaker — whatever the celebrity pastors may say.