Is there a place for biblical discernment and calling out those in error? Yes! And I think my website and YouTube channel have quite a repertoire, proofing this to be so. Over the last few years, I have spent some time on three different platforms looking at some problematic doctrinal errors, studying the Bible, and interviewing theologians to ask specific questions. Recently I have been invited by someone I have been investigating to interact and speak about some of the pitfalls and problems in his teaching. Even though this is an ongoing and developing conversation that I was very excited about, there seems to have been quite a backlash, with certain people vilifying this attempted conversation. There appears to be a prevailing us-versus-them mentality in the online apologetics and heresy-hunting arena where people don’t really want to engage with those they criticize. From day one, our ministry has always looked to communicate privately, first cautioning and offering help with the problem teachings we are seeing. Unfortunately, the last few days have clearly shown no genuine concern in the broader Christian context to correct those who invited scrutiny in love. Francis Shaeffer writes in his book, “The God Who Is There,” that.

“There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.[1]

An essential ingredient in our walk of faith should be humility and biblical curiosity and especially a desire to see the Church of Jesus Christ celebrated as the “Pillar of truth” (1 Tim.3:15). Shaeffer writes:

“We must affirm the possibility of right and wrong with regard to systems and categories. We fall off the cliff on one side if we do not do so. But there is another side to the cliff: None of us is completely consistent in our Christian thinking. We must declare non-Christian systems false. And furthermore, we must declare as true the Christian system…. And yet we must understand that none of us is totally consistent in presenting the Christian system…. We must be careful not to see everything as relative…. Yet, we must not fall off the other cliff by thinking that any of us expresses the Christian teaching in a completely perfect fashion…. This balance keeps us from a sectarian way of thinking; it keeps us from chewing up everyone who differs with us on any point of Christian doctrine. This is a very practical cliff indeed.”

Discernment is not screaming heresy from the sidelines looking for conformity; that is simple witch-hunting. Instead, biblical Evangelism is actively pursuing the individual you disagree with to transform and correct in the power of the Spirit. Bill Muehlenberg sums it up correctly when he writes;

“The Bible is crystal clear on these matters as well. We must speak truth, but we must speak it in love (Ephesians 4:15). Our conversation must always be full of grace, seasoned with salt, (Colossians 4:5-6). We must be prepared to give an answer to everyone, but with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16). And we must be gracious, not contentious, as we contend for the faith (Jude 3). It is too easy to be ugly, harsh, cold, and unloving when we present truth.”[2]

That is incarnational theology at its best, not just to call out doctrinal errors but to enter next to those that we differ with, helping and restoring them to virtue and truth. Paul speaks to young Timothy (2 Tim.2:22-26), and he adds;

 “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

Our desire should always end in the place where we seek repentance and restoration to those we disagree with. Sadly, I have seen in the last few days that discernment ministries, heresy hunters, and some well-meaning Christians have just created echo chambers where they want to talk about and not speak to the individuals with whom they disagree. Some of the accusations I simply will not dare to repeat it is simply not flattering or Christlike in any way or form. Derek Rishmawy mentions in his article, “How to correct your opponents like Paul”[3], that;

“If you’re going to correct false teaching in your opponents with gentleness, you’re going to need to be able to withstand misplaced anger, contradiction, arrogance, and maybe even personal abuse…”

The last few days, I have experienced misplaced anger, threats, accusations, and personal abuse from other discernment ministries and Christians, seeking to vilify rather than follow the outlines of the Scriptures. I can’t help but be sympathetic to why people in error do not want to hear what these ministries say. It is like a friend once said when his child screamed at him, “I cannot listen to you if you scream every word!” I am getting the impression that some individuals in the Church have very little desire to get next to those they criticize, trying to journey with them in love. Some people are saying to me, “what about your reputation?” Some individuals even say they have lost respect for me. But I cannot help but think why no one is willing to befriend these people, they criticize, making themselves willing to challenge and encourage change. Trevon Wax writes;

“When discernment goes wrong, it leads to a hyper-fundamentalism that smears people right and left while slowly but surely drawing the circle of fellowship more and more narrowly until only a tiny portion of Christian people are represented. In the end, even that group turns on each other and begins sniping at the first sign of suspicion.”[4]

How should we pursue correction? Derek Rishmawy mentioned an excellent quote in his article[5] of St. John Chrysostom that pointed us to the wisdom of gentleness in correction:

“A strong rebuke, if it be given with gentleness, is most likely to wound deeply: for it is possible, indeed it is, to touch more effectually by gentleness, than one overawes by boldness…. How is it then that he says, ‘A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject? He speaks there of one incorrigible, of one whom he knows to be diseased beyond the possibility of cure”[6]

What I have seen is armchair keyboard critiques that just look for a platform to say what they believe. They are not interested in restoration, holiness, and the upliftment of the Church of Jesus Christ. I think the advice of Randy White[7] is excellent in this regard. He writes;

“Discernment ministries are pointing out counterfeits, but they are not giving the real thing that is needed to stem the tide. Bible study is the way to know the real thing. Individual, verse-by-verse, word-by-word study will highlight errors of theology and teaching better than any discernment ministry ever will. If you are in discernment ministry, try morphing your ministry into a Bible study ministry. Teach the Word. Help your followers know the content of Scripture and allow the Spirit to work on a daily and individual basis. Sadly, many in the discernment ministry cannot or have not led a Bible study, taught a passage, dealt with the struggles of interpretation, or studied the issues of a doctrine from the pages of Scripture. This must change or the entire discernment industry will move from internal sickness to being the source of further sickness within the church. If you regularly spend time listening to, reading, or watching a discernment blog or podcast, let me encourage you to move on. Spend that time in study of the Word. Your own ability to discern will soon skyrocket. You’ll be able to smell a skunk when it is near and will not be dependent upon someone else to explain it to you.”

Who are these discernment ministries?

A friend in ministry, Dr. Michael Brown, has surely been one of the biggest proponents of criticism throughout the years, and he writes something valuable;

“There is a big problem, however, with anonymous “discernment” ministries, and they are becoming more and more common, especially online. Why is this problematic? First, we have no idea who is running the ministry. Is it an 18-year-old high-school kid? Is it a disgruntled, excommunicated church member in poor standing in his community? Is it an immature, thrice-divorced gossiper? Or is it a respected biblical scholar with fluency in the original texts or a highly-respected former missionary? Obviously, we would treat the critique of a respected biblical scholar a whole lot differently than that of a brand new, teenaged believer. Second, there is no public accountability for the ministry. So, they malign and misrepresent others online, yet they cannot be corrected or rebuked. They spread false information about men and women of God, but no one can call them to account – not their pastor or their denomination or their peers or their elders – because no one knows who they are. And they are supposed to be correcting the Body? By what authority? Third, there is no way to know the ministry’s (or the ministry leader’s) connection to the rest of the Body.”[8]

People do not see that the very conversation I have with certain people has been submitted to leadership, pastors, and people that I trust. But some people are not interested in the process; in a world of instant results and cancel culture, they demand conformity. I can remember what Tony Fitzgerald once said at a conference we attended;

“People love to sing amazing grace on Sunday’s and during the week they decide who needs to get it.” (Emphasis mine)

The conversation is because I have been told by leadership to do so! Another question we need to answer is, “Who holds these accountants accountable?” This should give us a clear indication of whether any ministry has any credit. The sad reality is that people will take any criticism from any discernment ministry, and they will keep it at unkind, fruitless, ad hominem, vitriolic, carnal heresy hunting. Bill Muehlenberg sums it up correctly when he writes;

“the heresy hunters demand 100 percent theological perfection NOW – or else. And of course, this perfection means seeing things exactly as the hunters do. They are theological purists who build themselves up by tearing others down. They are modern-day Pharisees who condemn most other folks, while thinking that they and their handful of followers are the select few who alone have God’s approval. Pride and arrogance of course abounds with these folks. They will claim that they are just standing up for sound doctrine. But believing alone does not make you a true Christ-follower. The devil believes as well, and is likely a better theologian than most of us.”[9]

Anyone who knows a thing about me comprehends that I have strongly and invariably accentuated the significance of right belief and sound doctrine. But our orthodoxy must also be paired with the right orthopraxy. We should remember that there is another person created in the image of God on the other side of our critique. Believers should have no place to call those guilty when they do not exhibit the Spirit’s fruits when looking at those they disagree with. I pray the Lord Jesus keeps my heart from this, and I will follow him into “all” the World and converse with whoever he sends my way as His image and likeness.

Selah,

Pastor Rudolph.

Sources: 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/460456-there-is-nothing-more-ugly-than-an-orthodoxy-without-understanding

[2] https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/04/06/spiritual-discernment-or-fleshly-criticism/

[3] One day a lady criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism in attempting to win people to the Lord. Moody’s reply was “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?” The lady replied, “I don’t do it.” Moody retorted, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”

[4] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/gift-temptation-discerning-whats-good

[5] https://credomag.com/2021/10/how-to-correct-your-opponents-like-paul/

[6] Homily 6; NPNF 13:497

[7] https://sharperiron.org/article/sickness-discernment-ministries

[8] https://askdrbrown.org/library/why-anonymous-%E2%80%9Cdiscernment%E2%80%9D-ministries-have-no-credibility

[9] https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/12/on-heresy-hunters-again/