The Gift of Discernment?

In chapter 7 of his book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, blogger Tim Challies turns his attention from understanding the nature of discernment and its relationship to God’s will to focus on discernment as a spiritual gift. He points out that the topic of spiritual gifts has been controversial and divisive within the Christian church and describes two primary positions that Christians take on the subject. “Some Christians believe and teach that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing) were given for a time but have since ceased. Others believe and teach that they continue, are operative in the church today, and need to be both sought and practiced.” But rather than taking a position on the subject, Challies simply states that this discussion is outside the context of this book and is, thus, not particularly relevant to our topic.” In saying this I believe Challies is incorrect, and will demonstrate that as we get into the chapter.

He begins with a basic theology of spiritual gifts taken primarily from the text of 1 Cor. 12-14, offering 5 principles based on observations from the text. First, there is a variety of spiritual gifts that is “as wide as the variety of people whom God welcomes into his family.” Second, gifts are given by the Holy Spirit as he sees fit and energized by his power. Third, spiritual gifts are given to every believer without respect to his or her status or maturity in the faith. Fourth, gifts are given for the purpose of helping us see the work of the Spirit in the church. And finally, gifts are given for the benefit of the entire church, not the individual Christian.

Having established his understanding of the nature and purpose of spiritual gifts, Challies goes on to talk specifically about the gift of discernment. In 1 Cor. 12:7 the apostle Paul writes, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” And he goes on to list several of these manifestations. When we come to v.10 he says, “to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” It is this term, discerning of spirits, which Challies believes is describing a specific gift in the area of separating truth from error. However, he admits that “The Bible does not elaborate on what this gift entails.” Rather than finding this lack of biblical data problematic, Challies believes that this supports the existence of a modern day gift of discernment in the church whether it is the same gift as that which was operating in the early church or not. He says, Because the Bible makes it clear that there is a great variety of gifts operative in the church, I see no reason not to suppose that discernment is one of these gifts.”

Certainly this kind of argument seems quite dangerous. If the absence of biblical teaching on a gift gives us free reign to suppose the nature of that gift and its use in the church today, then what prevents us from recognizing a class of appliance faith healers who will cast evil spirits out of our toasters and free clogged vacuum cleaners with a single command? Or how about the spiritual gift of potlucks, which seem to have been given overwhelmingly to Baptist churches? After all, the variety of gifts is “as wide as the variety of people whom God welcomes into his family.” Obviously these are absurd suggestions, but they illustrate a serious flaw in the reasoning of this chapter. The absence of biblical teaching ought to make us more careful in our interpretation of the scriptures which actually mention this gift and cautious in our conclusions about its use in the church today.

Some Bible teachers note the order in which the manifestations are described suggests that discerning of spirits is to prophecy as the interpretation of tongues is to different kinds of tongues. In other words, they say that the gift of discernment was given to the church in order to distinguish between true and false prophecy in the early church. Challies rejects this idea, however, pointing to Paul’s command in 1 Thess. 5:21 to test all things; hold fast what is good.” Again, this seems like careless interpretation, since Paul told the Thessalonians in the previous verse, “Do not despise prophecies.” If indeed the command to “test all things” is related to the gift of discernment, then it would seem to support the idea that discernment was connected directly to the gift of prophecy.

As he continues to try to define the gift of discernment, Challies does repeatedly point out the need for every Christian to practice discernment. He mentions 1 John 4:1 where the apostle says that we should not “believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” He also points out the noble Bereans in Acts 17 who “examined the Scriptures daily” to see if what Paul and Silas were saying was actually so. Challies contends, however, that there are certain situations which call for discernment beyond the capacity of the average Christian such as the deceptive language of false prophets, signs and wonders performed by false christs, or the subtle appearance of counterfeit teachers. But in response one might point to Ephesians 4:14 which states that the effect of the faithful ministry of pastors and teachers in the church is that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” No mention is made anywhere in the entire chapter of the gift of discernment, rather it is the equipping of the saints, the edifying of the body of Christ, and the unity of the faith which leads to complete maturity in Christ and the ability to discern the truth in these areas.

Challies began the chapter by suggesting that we need not concern ourselves with questions about the continuation of spiritual gifts in the church, but his interpretation and use of God’s word to make his case leaves much to be desired. Since the Bible’s testimony on this issue is limited, and it is not at all clear that this gift has any application in the church today, it might be better to simply skip to his concluding remarks: “Even if God has not specifically gifted you in this way, he still expects you to grow in discernment and to practice this discipline. Do so to his glory and for the benefit of the church.”

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