Discernment September 13, 2013

Our weekly column, From the Shepherd’s Nook, is on Paul, pastors and discernment, by John Frye.

In the last post we explored Jesus as the discernment artist. Let’s consider the Apostle Paul and the topic of discernment. I mentioned the unhealthy propensity of evangelical leaders to provide endless directions; to make things plain, practical and do-able. I’ve come to see that this is not always a beneficial service to the church. Mere directives do not provoke thought and, thus, short-circuit the process of discernment.

The Apostle Paul spent a relatively brief time in the city of Thessaloniki and a young church was birthed. Paul writes to the vigorous Jesus-followers in the city and in his first letter he addresses a serious topic: sexual purity.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.           – 1 Thessalonians 4: 3 – 8

Notice Paul’s encouragement for the believers to “learn” and he offers little specific sexual direction. God calls us to a holy life. Paul concludes that on the issue of being holy (sexually) that God, in fact, “keeps on giving the Holy Spirit” (present active verb). Little instruction, few directives, yet a huge reminder: we have the Holy Spirit.

At a pastors’ seminar in Detroit I attended with hundreds of Christian leaders being taught by a renown Bible teacher, the topic of sexual purity was on the agenda. This famous Bible teacher, based on teachings of Jewish Rabbis, expounded that the levitical sexual purity laws (e.g., Leviticus 15) given to Israel were God’s continuing directives today for the church. I’m not kidding. I sat stunned. This was a contemporary form of the Galatian heresy confronted by Paul in the fiery little Book of Galatians. This esteemed guru of the faith was dragging New Covenant believers back under the legislation (Law) of the Old Covenant without even batting an eye. I looked around and saw hundreds of pastors taking notes like this was the best news since the resurrection of Jesus.

Now compare that example of “Bible teaching” in Detroit with Paul’s words to the Thessalonians. If anyone knew the levitical code for sexual purity and cleanliness, it would be the former Pharisee of the Pharisees named Saul/Paul. When he wrote that it was God’s will for the Thessalonians to be sexually holy, he could have whipped out a divinely revealed litany of sexual directives (from Moses) and passed them on to this new church plant. Paul did not do this, but the Bible teacher in Detroit did. Who was correct on the topic?

Most of the church in Thessaloniki were converted Gentiles. Paul even said that they had turned from idols to serve the living and true God (1:9). The levitical sexual purity laws given to Israel would have meant nothing to them. So, Paul gives directions for them to learn to be sexually holy and reminds them that holiness is best learned from, get this, the Holy Spirit. It’s not rocket science. Paul could rest in the reality of the living presence of the Spirit in that young church Who would guide them into a practice of sexual purity. The new believers would learn to discern. They did not need a code of conduct; they needed only to attend to the Holy Counselor.

What a challenge the process of discernment is! Do we pastors have that kind of trust in the Spirit’s ability? Do we have that kind of trust in believers’ ability to develop Spirit-empowered discernment? Do we have the courage to forgo all our fine-tuned directions which we are convinced will lead people to holiness? You will recall that little church learning to discern sexual holiness spread the Gospel all over Asia Minor without any training from Campus Crusade, Inter-Varsity, or Evangelism Explosion. How can this be? Living with a discernment mind-set casts the community totally upon the Holy Spirit. Another spin-off of this joyful reliance on the Holy Spirit was a missional passion that almost left Paul speechless (see 1:7-9). We must shift from always giving directions to providing the challenge to learn to discern. Is this risky? Sure, but the consequences are staggering.

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