If discernment is defined as “the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong,” then you can imagine why it is unpopular today. In chapter 4 of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, Tim Challies points out that “we live in a culture that teaches we can and should do whatever makes us happy and that no one has the right to hold us to any standard but our own. Judging is the great sin of postmodernism.” Many people, even many non-Christians, will quote Jesus himself in order to escape what they consider to be unfair judgment: “Judge not that you be not judged.” (Matt. 7:1) But at the same time, we read the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 saying, “Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?” While some people might attempt to pit these two statements against each other as an example of the Bible’s contradictory nature, they can be rightly understood to two complementary principles of Scripture: there are things we must judge and things we must not judge.
It is certain that the practice of judging can be dangerous, even sinful, if we neglect to heed the cautions found in God’s word. At the same time, to refuse to practice judgment at all is to throw out discernment altogether, and this is likewise foolish. Challies warns that if we never judge, we “open the church to all manner of spiritual evil and deception,” and so it is necessary for us to apply biblical standards to help us decide when to judge, what to judge, and how to judge.
In 1 Corinthians 4, we find one area in which judgment is prohibited, and that is when we go beyond what the Bible actually says. This kind of judgment is hypocritical because it presumes to know things that God has not revealed to us. Paul said,
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God. (1 Cor. 4:3-5)
The motives of a person’s heart are hidden to us as mere men. Only God can know them and understand them. In fact, David Lowery explains that, “From a human point of view [Paul] was not competent to judge even his own motives, much less the quality of his service. How then could others decide these matters?” So judging another person’s motives is clearly wrong.
Another form of wrong judgment, according to Challies, is when we “decide that [someone is] doing wrong because they do something the Bible doesn’t talk about.” This relates to issues that are not explicitly forbidden or commanded in God’s word and must be decided upon by each individual with the knowledge that he or she will have to give an answer to God. Paul speaks of this in Romans 14:1-4,
Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.
There are certainly matters which the Bible leaves to every man’s conscience before God, and we have no right to sit in judgment of anyone else in those things. The goal, according to the apostle Paul, is that Christians would live in harmony with one another, in spite of our varied backgrounds and levels of maturity. We must remember that God will deal with his servants to judge them and ultimately will defend them from unjust criticism. In other words, it is not our responsibility to judge our fellow servants in areas where God has not given specific instruction.
Obviously, then, the practice of judgment is limited to only those things of which the Bible clearly speaks, and only to things which we as human beings can actually see and know. This means that we ought to evaluate all teaching, just as the noble Bereans in Acts 17 who “received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” We ought not receive any teaching from any source without first comparing it with the word of God to know if it is true. A similar lesson is taught in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 where Paul warned, “Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good.” Here the apostle cautioned these early believers to receive the word of God as it was revealed by testing everything against the standard of truth. Even the spirits were to be measured against the truth of God that had been previously revealed, according to 1 John 4:1.
Men also are to be tested, according to the guidelines of the Bible. Deacons are to be tested first, according to 1 Timothy 3:10, and “then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless.” And Paul tested men whom he sent to minister to the churches, according to 2 Corinthians 8:22. But most of all, we are called to judge ourselves, to see whether we are truly saved (2 Cor. 13:5), whether we may be approved as God’s servants (2 Tim. 2:15), and whether we may engage in the worship and fellowship of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 13:28). We must compare all of these things to the unchangeable standard of God’s word. This is right judgment.