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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  • Pamela C. Fitkin

    good morning, one of the things I have always practiced and say it many times in preaching and teaching is for my listeners to seek the Holy Spirit after they have heard me and if there is something I have said that needs correcting to bring it to me. If they have been convicted of something I encourage them to also come and we could pray together. I tell people to always seek scripture and the discerning spirit when they listen to preachers. Perhaps, I do this out of fear ( I don’t want to be guilty of causing someone to stumble) or/ and I hope it is because I want us all to do our best to discern HIS will and the Spirits calling. Your question, “Do we have that kind of trust in believers’ ability to develop Spirit-empowered discernment”, is a good one and there are times when I do and times when (knowing a person well) I do not… If I am truly honest, the area I fail in is thinking the Holy Spirit is not powerful enough to help us overcome our inabilities to discern… I need to keep trusting. (hope this make sense)

  • Rebecca Trotter

    What a great post! It reminds me of that verse from Jeremiah 33:

    I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.

    I’ve always thought that was a challenging concept for a pastor! It really is scary to think that we should simply commend people to the Holy Spirit and trust God to lead them. (Or US, for that matter!) So glad to see you preaching this, though. It’s a faithful, needed corrective, imo.

  • Anthony

    Is it not the case that when Jewish teachers would use the word porneia (translated “sexual immorality”) that word functioned as a suitcase in which all of the prohibitions from Leviticus 18 would fit? That chapter essentially conveys that out of all persons and animals one could theoretically have sex with, it should only happen within a permanent, monogamous, heterosexual, non-incestuous relationship with another human being?

  • BradK

    That last question may not have a simple answer, Anthony. Where is monogamy in Leviticus 18? Multiple wives are not prohibited there, right? It actually may even be assumed in verse 18. How is non-incestuous defined? A man may marry his niece or his first cousin? Is this part of Leviticus really a permanent, comprehensive guide to sexual relations for God’s people?

  • I believe that our discernment (and our whole faith) should not be based on an allegedly inerrant Bible but on our conviction that God is perfect and that our whole conduct should be based on following the Golden Rule, that is on loving everyone (even our foes) as ourselves.
    We should regard the Biblical books in the same way we look at modern Christian books of great authors, that is both with awe and discernment.

    I’ve tried to articulate this in a post I’ve just written: http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/biblical-inspiration-and-randal-rauser/

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Jean

    John’s hypothesis is possible. However, it is also possible that Paul assumes his readers understand the contours of sexual immorality by virtue of Paul’s prior teachings when he planted the Thessalonian church. It’s fair to assume on many issues that Paul assumes a certain level of prior teaching when he addresses certain issues in his letters.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Great post Scot.

    On a related point, clearly on this topic of sexual purity the issue is some practice(s) that had been undertaken or were being done by some in the Thessalonian community. But what exactly were these practices? . . .we don’t know!! But too often people put words in Paul’s mouth to try to convey whatever point they wish to make so it can be backed with the authority of Scripture.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    1) Christians(TM) have an obsessive fixation on sexual morality. Kind of like a porn addict, except flipped one-eighty from “YEAH YEAH YEAH” to “THOU SHALT NOT” but with the same intensity.
    2) Unfortunately, “Discernment” in Christianese means not seeing the hidden reality of a situation, but seeing DEEMONS under every bed and hiding in every shadow or Harry Potter book.