I get frustrated sometimes by the lack of discernment I see from people who fly the “discernment” banner.

Isn’t the whole point of discernment to be able to discern truth from error? To see clearly what is good and right as opposed to what is bad and wrong?

But those quick to champion discernment often place everyone into camps of “safe” or “dangerous.” And ironically, once you’ve got everyone properly placed and labeled, there’s really no need for discernment anymore. Just avoid the “bad” and embrace the “good.” The result is tribal factions that compete with the Corinthian church for the trophy of divisiveness.

Real Discernment Beyond Labels

Real discernment must go beyond all-or-nothing labels. Real discernment requires us to recognize truth wherever it may be found.

You cannot benefit from the riches of church history, for example, unless you’re willing to glean the gold from forefathers and mothers in the faith who, at times, were in the wrong, sometimes egregiously so. And even today, real discernment also requires you to acknowledge error and falsehood, even when it comes from someone you usually revere as trustworthy and credible.

Real Discernment and Christian Freedom

Real discernment must also distinguish between serious deviations in doctrine and the kinds of ongoing disagreements over how best to apply Scripture in our day when no clear command has been given us. Much of the infighting in churches today arises from disagreement over questions of wisdom and prudence—the best way to respond to a crisis, or how to put into practice a political principle, or the posture to adopt toward the world we want to reach. True discernment is marked by restraint, uttering “Thus says the Lord” only in those areas in which the Scriptures clearly lay out a principle and path. Otherwise, we eviscerate Christian freedom and bind the consciences of believers without Christ’s authority.

I don’t want to imply that real discernment will shut down debate, appealing always to the virtue of “agreeing to disagree.” By all means, bring arguments (not quarrels). Make a case. Seek to persuade. Just remember, if you share the same commitment to Christian orthodoxy or belong to the same church and confess all the truth about Christ, you must put your political and pragmatic differences in perspective and work hard to not walk away from a brother and sister in Christ who sees our responsibility in this moment differently than you do.

Real Discernment and the Essentials

Real discernment must also recognize the difference between doctrines “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15) and important though secondary positions where Bible-believing Christians disagree. These second-tier doctrines do matter, as they often connect to first-order issues. But real discernment doesn’t conflate these issues and then turn to inflammatory and alarmist rhetoric.

This is where what often passes for “discernment” goes awry. Christians sometimes overreact to a perceived drift in doctrine. Setting up alarm bells to ring at the slightest possible misstep can turn us into hypercritical, overly alarmist Christians quick to pounce on any possible error. To assume the worst of a brother in Christ, or to be ever suspicious that anyone with whom you have doctrinal disagreement must be a wolf in disguise, is to fall prey to a self-righteous spirit and a tunnel vision that keeps us from seeing real dangers around us.

Even worse, such efforts at rooting out any possible error we see in others can lead us to assume the place for confrontation is in the barracks with our brothers and sisters rather than on the battlefield, where our proclamation of the gospel poses a threat to the powers and principalities of this world. Not everyone who claims the gift of “discernment” is truly discerning, especially those who fashion themselves as doctrinal police, ready to pounce on anyone for the slightest perceptible error.

And yet, labels do matter when it comes to orthodoxy and heresy. Don’t get so used to rolling your eyes at those who cry wolf so often that you start to think there aren’t any wolves. Alexander and Athanasius were right about Arius and Arianism. Augustine was right about Pelagius. The fact that some are wrong to see dangers everywhere doesn’t mean we should think there aren’t dangers anywhere.

Doctrine Matters

You cannot read the New Testament, especially the pastoral letters, without noting the stress the apostles placed on maintaining sound doctrine. But I’ve seen it happen: in order to avoid the excesses of those who fly the banner of “discernment,” some Christians lose the desire to stand up and speak out for orthodoxy when it’s truly in danger of being lost. It’s possible to go silent when speaking up for the truth is required.

My burden in writing The Thrill of Orthodoxy was to help believers recapture the wonder of Christian theology and the preciousness of biblical truth. I want to see the church grow in discernment—true discernment. That’s why we must lean on the global church for help in discerning what has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all” from differences among Christians in different regions and denominations. And we must lean on the church throughout history so we know when to issue anathemas and excommunications and when to put other heated debates in perspective.

Theology isn’t an arduous task of arranging irrelevant details. It’s an invitation into greater knowledge of this Jesus who has saved us. Jesus himself said that eternal life is to know God and the One he has sent. Real discernment means learning to speak in ways worthy of his majesty so we can describe his excellencies to others.

If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.