Have you ever heard of “discernment ministries”?
Be thankful if you haven’t and if you haven’t, then my apologies for introducing you to this bizarre phenomenon.
I’m sure “discernment ministries” probably existed before the internet, but the world wide web has allowed this phenomenon to explode. Essentially, “discernment ministries” are self-annointed, often anonymous people or groups of people who believe that it is their mission from God to discern for the church who the false teachers are, what is or is not “Biblical”, and what the “essentials” of the faith are which one must believe in order to be a true Christian.
No one asked these people to do this and few if any of them have legitmate credentials to “discern” what is or is not orthodox. But they own a computer and a Bible, so apparently that is qualification enough.
The unifying cry of the criticisms that come out of all of these discerment ministries is the same: “It’s not in the Bible!” Of course, this cry isn’t confined to the margins of the internet. Pastors and layity in churches across the country cry foul if something is done in another church, or God forbid their own church, which isn’t specifically prescribed in the Bible.
To be honest, I just don’t get it. What does it matter if we do something in church that isn’t specifically spelled out in the Bible, so long as it’s not contradictory to Scripture?
Sunday school isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Those little plastic cups and cardboard wafers we pass off as communion elements aren’t Bible approved. The Bible certainly doesn’t make mention of church softball leagues, youth groups, or vacation Bible school, but no one seems to make much of a fuss about those things, as these are all Christian activities that we enjoy. If a Christian in their teens gets an online degree from a Christian college, the discerment ministries would surely tell them that they shouldn’t go here as Christian online colleges are not mentioned in the Bible. But no other sane Christian would say that they are wrong for this. Curious if you ask me.
I think what really frustrates me about this go to criticism, though, is the latent hypocrisy of those who employ it.
If you really want to be like the 1st century church and you really think that the 21st century church should only employ tools, resources, and practices specifically mentioned in the Bible, then you’re going to have to give up at least the following: electricity, sound systems, air conditioning, guitars, keyboards, pews, projection of any kind, Christmas trees, Passion plays, altar calls, and of course….using the internet to tell people that using things not mentioned in the Bible to spread the gospel is a sin.
Furthermore, the early church wasn’t the perfect model for emulation we’ve come to believe it was. If we actually read the letters of Paul, instead of merely focusing on a few verses here and there, we would see that the vast majority of Paul’s letters (which make up the bulk of the New Testament) are spent dealing with church problems. In short, the early church was just as screwed up as we are and it was filled with people who actually heard Jesus speak for themselves.
But if we are going to model ourselves after the early church then we should look at how they actually did things.
The early church was innovative. It wasn’t bound by tradition or even the Hebrew Bible. In trying to answer her call to take the Gospel to the very ends of the earth the church was constantly finding and wrestling with new ways to make the Gospel relevant for those they encountered. We see this clearly in the famous struggle between Jewish Christians and the inclusion of Gentiles in the church.
The battle was being fought over whether the Gentile believers had to keep the laws in the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish Christians were particularly upset because the Gentiles weren’t following the law to be circumcised. Ultimately, however, they were upset because these people had the nerve to claim Jesus as Lord but they lived out the faith in a way that was very different than how the Jewish Christians thought the Hebrew Bible commanded the faith be lived. In other words, it was essentially the same “it’s not in the Bible” debate that rages today.
In particular, Paul’s approach to missions was incredibly innovative.
Throughout his many travels as “the apostle to the Gentiles” he was continually adapting his approach for spreading the Gospel in each new culture he encountered. If Paul showed up on the scene today and we were behaving as if we still lived in1st century Palestine, I have to think he would be mortified. Such an would approach nullify our ability to spread the gospel in our own 21st century context and thus would be fundamentally contradictory to what seems to be a big part of Paul’s philosophy of ministry: share the Gospel by whatever means necessary. As he wrote to the church in Corinth,
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
We should certainly compare and contrast our theological ideas and conclusions against the Bible, but if the Bible doesn’t mention something we should tread lightly and not assume that the Bible’s silence is its implicit condemnation. Biblical contradiction, not Biblical approval is something we should be far more concerned about.
The very fact that the Spirit is alive and continues to blow through the church means that new and creative practices, traditions, and resources not specifically mentioned in the Bible will always find their way into the doors of the church. And that is a very good and holy thing. It frees up from the bondage of legalism and allows us to continue to fulfill our call to proclaim the Gospel in ways that are fresh and relevant to an ever changing culture.
So, if your pastor introduces something new at church next Sunday and it’s not clearly contradictory to Scripture, like erecting a literal golden calf in the sanctuary, don’t freak out. It may not have the explicit approval of the Bible, but there’s a good chance it’s been approved by the Spirit.
However, take caution when participating in new, Spirit led things.
They just may change your life.
Grace and peace,