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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Denominations and Discernment

Discernment is a difficult quality to teach. Some people have a great deal more of it than others. It’s a quality that seems to me increasingly and depressingly rare.

It’s not hard to think of Christians who have known the Lord for years, yet remain more than a little gullible and sometimes require the protection of family and friends. You probably know some too. They like people. They think the best of everyone. They have a tendency to be so gentle and trusting that they fall for almost every new thing that comes along, provided it is presented with a smile. They mistake niceness for goodness and pleasant talk for the gospel truth.

Shrewd as Serpents

But I know a larger number of older Christians who are perceptive, cautious and experienced enough to look for evidence of genuine faith and a track record of obedience to Christ when confronted with a new doctrinal twist or suggestion as to how the church could be more effective in its mission. They exercise reserve when people around them are enthusiastically jumping on board each passing doctrinal train. The world is full of new ideas, but they know enough to judge each one by the word of God rather than by its emotional appeal.

Were they born that way, those Christians who are cautious, savvy, disciplined and inclined to test everything? I think not.

When the Lord told his disciples “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”, it sounds as if there is a choice involved, doesn’t it? You can choose to become increasingly discerning, or you can remain content with the level of understanding you currently possess. James says
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
The option to grow in perceptiveness is open to the one who has the faith to request it, just as Solomon did. There are ways to become shrewder and more prudent day by day through Bible study and prayer. In fact, this should rightly be the pattern in every Christian experience. And the discerning need little protection from wolves in sheep’s clothing: they see the bad guys coming a mile away.

Protecting Those Who Need It

Still, there will always be young Christians around, and there will always be those sheep in need of both protection and direction.

With this fact in mind, a friend suggested I qualify a point I made a few posts back about how we can better reflect the oneness of the Body of Christ, his church. On reflection, I believe he’s correct. My original recommendation read like this:
“4.  Where friendships are concerned, a spirit of exclusivity as a believer is also foreign to the spirit of Christ. If I decline to associate with Christians who do not believe precisely what I do, I fail to give opportunity for iron to sharpen iron as we interact, I keep myself from hearing things that may help me walk more closely with the Lord, I shut myself off from all manner of delightful fellowship, and I cease to reflect the oneness of the Body.”

Standing for the Unity of the Body

Now I believe very firmly in the unity of the church universal; the church the Lord Jesus Christ promised he would build. So no matter where or in what denomination you fellowship, if you are a genuine believer in the Christ — if you are determined to follow him and serve him and become more like him, and if you long for his appearing like I do — I love you and want to get to know you better. I want to demonstrate the oneness of the Body of Christ by going through life side by side with you. And back to back, if necessary. I want the world to see us united in faith and love, because the differences between you and me are microscopic compared to the differences between either of us and the world. These are the facts, plain and simple.

So if you choose to take a denominational name or cling to some peculiar doctrine that I don’t particularly agree with, does it mean I ought to cross the street when I see you coming my way? I really hope it doesn’t. And I don’t think that is the teaching of scripture.

The Dangers of Outside Influences

Now absolutely, as my friend pointed out, elders have a responsibility to shepherd the flock under their care. Part of that responsibility involves protecting impressionable, less mature believers from exposure to the sort of false teaching that could wreck their faith. To me, that means that the elders need to ensure that what is taught in my local church is according to the word of God. They must not allow teachers of false doctrine the opportunity to stand up in public and propagate error without rebuke. And in the event such men refuse to heed to the elders and continue to try to influence the flock away from the word of God, they must be put out of fellowship

That’s an ugly thing. It doesn’t happen often. And if it does, we ought to respect our elders’ wishes about not associating with those they deem to be teachers of false doctrine. That’s part of being subject to them. The average believer is also responsible to avoid such individuals, and we ought to take that instruction seriously if we love the Lord.

Pure or Indiscriminate?

But that is not at all the scenario I’m envisioning when I encourage believers to demonstrate the oneness of the Body of Christ by developing friendships with Christians in other denominations. Christians who attend churches that teach that speaking in tongues and miracles should be normative in the church, for instance, often understand the scripture on this subject differently than I do. Other times they are simply untaught or have not yet developed a conviction on the subject. Either way, there is a huge difference between folks like this and those Paul warns against and refers to as “fierce wolves” and “men speaking twisted things”.

First, there are degrees of “false teaching”. A Christian whose denomination fails to prioritize the remembrance of the Lord Jesus in the breaking of bread to the same degree my church does is not remotely in the same category as, well … Gretta Vosper, for instance. Gretta does not believe in the historical Christ. As such, she fits John the apostle’s description of “those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh”. John goes on to add, “Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist”.

Stay away from the antichrist. Really. One does not demonstrate the oneness of the Body of Christ by associating with people like that. But most false teaching is not in that category, thankfully. It may misprioritize. It may draw disputable conclusions. It may seem weird or unlikely. But it does not deny our Lord.

Second, while there is false teaching in many denominational churches, there are all kinds of people in such congregations who do not completely buy into the weird and unbiblical doctrines their pastors and administrative functionaries subscribe to. Often they are quite unaware of the odd things their denomination professes to believe. Are we to dissociate ourselves from folks like that because of their unintentional affiliation? I don’t think that is the Lord’s intent. Maybe that is where they were saved. Maybe they have never seen anything else. How do we benefit them by avoiding befriending them in the name of “purity”?

Third, while there is always the danger that a fellow believer may negatively influence my Christian walk, there is also the very distinct possibility that I will positively influence his. And even if I don’t, perhaps his efforts to show me his reasons for taking an Amillennial position on prophecy or to explain to me why there will be no sacrifices during the millennium — or even why he is struggling with the issue of eternal security — will strengthen my convictions rather than cause me to doubt. One does not learn how to fight well without ever engaging the enemy at any level.

A Personal Note

When I was in my early twenties, my parents moved to a new city and against what I thought was my better judgment, I eventually came along, having nowhere better to be. The church my parents were involved with was painfully short on attractive 20-something girls, so I elected to go to a local Pentecostal youth group.

I was not at my most discerning during that period in my life, I can assure you. I was ready to overlook all kinds of possible doctrinal quirks and weird church practices for the chance to meet attractive women. So I did. Overlook them, I mean. I sat through a number of Pentecostal meetings and enjoyed the full “speaking in tongues” experience, as well as the emotionalism, inconsistency and perpetual sin-and-repentance cycle that is characteristic of many Pentecostal groups.

What was the net result after a few months of checking out my options? I was back in the fellowship of my own local congregation, suddenly a whole lot more committed to some of the principles that hadn’t seemed that important to me until I experienced what it was like to live the Christian life without the benefit of them. Things like eternal security. I saw what being “saved and lost” looked like firsthand. I was not interested, thank you, and I remain uninterested to this day.

Now of course my family or my elders might have decided to forbid me from attending Pentecostal services to “protect” one of the sheep from false teaching. I believe they would have done me a disservice in that. I can’t even tell you for sure whether I would have obeyed them or not, had they decided to come down hard on me. But instead, they committed me to the Lord and let me do what I was determined to do, and the Lord went right ahead and did his work in my heart.

Open Arms and Obedience

So my take? Obey the authorities God has put over you, of course. If they tell you not to associate with certain Christians or groups, so be it. Authorities are given to us for our benefit, not to hurt us. But as we have opportunity (and false teachers aside, of course) I believe it is to our benefit to reach out to those who are our fellow believers, to befriend them, engage them, share with them and learn from them, wherever and under whatever denominational banner they may choose to worship.

And the discernment thing? We all have a responsibility to grow and to become wiser as we live the Christian life. The Christian of 30 years who has failed to develop even a modicum of reserve or discernment may be better off wandering from church to church rather than penned up against his or her will in a conservative sheepfold for which he or she has no appreciation.

That’s my take. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

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