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Discernment: Part of the edifying process of the church gathering

Posted by on Nov 9, 2011 in edification, gathering | 10 comments

Discernment: Part of the edifying process of the church gathering

As I said in a previous post, I’m working my way through a series on the role of discernment when the church gathers together. (See the “Introduction” post here.) I’ve also stated already that I believe that discernment is the work of those who are gifted at “distinguishing between spirits,” but it is also the work of those who are not gifted in that way.

In this post I want to point out something that I’ve assumed several times already: discernment is part of the edifying process that occurs while the church gathers together. That would also mean that discernment is a mutual process, meaning that the whole church is involved in the work.

As I said in the previous post, Paul includes “discernment” (“the ability to distinguish spirits”) among the examples of the many ways that the Holy Spirit manifests himself in his children for the benefit of all. (See 1 Corinthians 12:10.) However, it is important to note that Paul also includes “discernment” (“weigh what is said”) specifically in the principles that he lays out for meeting together in a way that allows the church to work together to build up one another:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up… Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (1 Corinthians 14:26-29 ESV)

So, the context of this passage is coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and Paul begins by stating (emphatically) that everything done should build up others (not only the one speaking). He also specifies that several should be allowed to exercise each type of speaking (one at a time, of course).

In the midst of these instructions about meeting together, Paul includes discernment, saying, “[L]et the others weigh what is said,” referring specifically to what prophets say, in this case. For Paul, these instructions about discernment fall within the realm of the church gathering and fall within the process of building up one another.

Don’t miss the significance of this: discernment is both part of gathering together as the church and also part of mutual edification.

In another letter to the church in another city, Paul again included discernment within the context of the work of edification by the whole church:

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:11-22 ESV)

While this passage from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Christians is not limited to times when the church gathers together, it does seem to include those times as well. Again, the focus is on encouraging and building up one another, and both listening to prophecies as well as discernment (“test everything”) is part of that edification.

This last passage will lead us to the final two passage in this series. In 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, Paul wrote in stoccato fashion: Test everything. Host fast to what is good. Abstain from every kind of evil. In many ways, this helps us understand what the work and role of discernment is when we gather together.

Have you ever gathered together with other Christians in a way that included the work of discernment? Would you share something about that with us?


Series on Discernment

Prelude: Let the Others Weigh what is Said…
1. Test Everything: The role of discernment when the church gathers (Introduction)
2. Discernment: A gift of the Spirit and the work of all
3. Discernment: Part of the edifying process of the church gathering
4. Discernment, the Bereans, and Scripture
5. Discernment when Scripture doesn’t Answer our Questions


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 11-9-2011

    When we first left the institutional church and gathered with believers in our home, this is one of the very natural things to grow out of that. While there was plenty of teaching going on, it was never a one-way street, and there was always the opportunity for (and it was frequently exercised) a checks-and-balance type discussion.

    While some have tried in other blogs and discussions to draw a distinction between “discussion” and “teaching” or perhaps viewing the group discussion as “Bible study” vs. a “sermon” (or, again, “teaching”), I do not believe that distinction need exist. I believe that what Paul is describing is exactly what takes place when people gather under any other circumstance other than “church”. If you consider the way a family talks together, it is not at all out of character for someone to respond to something that has been said, and even to correct or rephrase or restructure something that has been said. This is, I believe, what Paul envisioned for the believers gathering together.

  2. 11-9-2011


    I appreciate your input on this series. I think you and I are the only ones interested in the topic… 🙂

    I agree that the distinction you mentioned is not necessary or particularly helpful. Asking questions is a great step toward and part of discernment.


  3. 11-9-2011

    I’m interested, I wrote two pages of my thoughts on the issue, but I deleted them before posting. 🙂 I’m trying hard not to interact on blogs, but I read all of your posts Alan.

  4. 11-9-2011


    Thanks for letting me know that you’re interested and reading! Next time, don’t delete those two pages, even if you don’t want to publish this publicly. Just email them to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  5. 11-9-2011

    I appreciate your thoughts – georgia ana posts them for our group – one of the things that surprised me about our organic/simple church meetings was that the aggregate discussion was very illuminating – everyone had a slightly different take on a passage of scripture that i found helpful – discussions focused on topics other than scripture i found often wandered around and were not very helpful for me (but perhaps others got something out of it) – sometimes God communicates thru prophets – but more certainly He communicates thru the illumination of scripture – and more people’s discernment seems to increase the clarity & perhaps power of what He’s communicating – at least its seemed that way to me and i was very surprised at that – i much appreciate the varied expressions of the Spirit instead of waiting for the pronoucements of some celebrity preacher (tho there’s room for that too.

  6. 11-11-2011

    I’ve been travelling and just catching up this morning. For many, they have mostly experienced a formal setting where one expounds and everyone else politely listens, and listens uncritically (accepting what is said rather than evaluating and considering what is said against what else is known, what scripture says, etc.).

    For many people whose experience has taught them to be passive listeners and non-participants, they have no developed skills at actively sharing what they think about a passage, or evaluating what someone else thinks about a passage. One method I’ve used to help people get started in developing these skills is the following:

    1. We work through a book together. I find NT books best. Everyone is encouraged to read through the book at least once a week, and read through the current chapter daily. Most will do so.

    2. Group size is “around a dozen.”

    3. General discussion (after the first time) of what last week meant to us during the week. What changed? (This will make more sense when you go through the rest below)

    4. Going around the room in turn, the first person takes either the first verse (a short epistle) or the first paragraph (a longer gospel). They are “in charge” of that. They read it and are encouraged to share what it “says.” They are the teacher, or at least, the discussion leader. (You may need to prepare a lot of open ended questions to ask when someone becomes awkwardly stuck. People get it in the first week or two, so give them time to work though it on their own first–some silence and some awkwardness will be fine if you stay relaxed and don’t jump in to “bail them out.” You must not dominate, even in subtle ways (questions, encouragements, etc.).

    4. Everyone is invited to ask questions about what the verse/passage owner says (to understand what the speaker means, to get them to expand on that they think, etc.). “active listening”

    5. When they finish (one minute to five minutes range typically), then everyone else is invited by the verse owner to share what they see. There will be some who expand on the direction of what has been said, some will see additional things not seen, and some will question what has been said/is being said. Critical evaluation is encouraged, including differences/confirmation/expansion, usually leading to deeper agreement on what the passage says/means, even if vastly different from where everyone started.

    6. Takeaways discussion (also led by the verse/passage owner)–now that we know a little better what it says, what does this mean to us tomorrow? What changes, what do we do differently?

    7. The next person takes the next portion and repeats the process.

    In a very short time, people discover that they can read scripture and interpret scripture, and they develop skills at teaching/encouraging/interpreting/applying scripture, and actively experiencing changes in thinking and acting and reacting, and sharing those application insights from the past with others.

    Sometimes it will be necessary to show people how to use some tools–like a concordance ( an abbreviated Crudens is fine, and you can also introduce something larger like Youngs to look up how else the word was translated, where the exact word is used in other passages, etc. You can also add english dictionaries, Vines and other tools that can be used handily and briefly (your TDNT is a bit heavy for immediate use interacting together–the same is true for commentaries). A one volume commentary can be helpful (JFB, etc).

    These tools can be used during discussions (what does that word mean> Where else is this word/topic/person used?). The time together is active in seeking to understand what scripture says, and the to find ways to apply it.

  7. 11-11-2011


    I think that kind of variety in perspective and contexts is extremely beneficial both in helping people understand Scripture and helping them mature in Christ.


    Among many Christians, there is a concern about being “right” about everything they say. Many will not say anything because they might be wrong or someone else may disagree with them. I’ve had difficulty helping people overcome that. Any suggestions?


  8. 11-11-2011

    Hey Alan,

    Me, too. But in small groups, using the method I described, I’ve seen a lot of shy wall-flowers bloom.

    I remind myself of various things, such as:

    Without meaning to, we often model being right, and speaking/teaching very thoroughly/well. We studied hard to prepare, we know things that may not readily stand out, and we say way too much when it is “our turn.” When you don’t know or see several ways of taking things, say so. Puzzle out loud. Admit some lack of clarity when it is there. Rather than impressing them as a competent TEACHER/PASTOR/PREACHER, we need to reveal our own inadequacies and struggles as real people. Model reality, not caricatures that no one lives up to.

    Don’t dismiss someone who disagrees with you–model being wrong, or possibly being wrong–without fanfare. When someone disagrees with you, take a breath, get small before our God, and ask them to explain more, seek to understand them, and leave it at “not sure now” or “never saw it that way” etc. if that is really the case if you were honest with yourself before God. No one needs false confidence.

    When we aren’t experts and accept being wrong (or at least being unsure), that makes it safer for others to be that way. It also means that their own lack of knowledge is no reason for not following God with abandon.

    And I wonder where the fear of being right comes from–underneath the “importance of handling scripture rightly,” and underneath all the other fears, such as the fear of speaking in public, the fear of failure, and the fear of looking foolish. Can it be the underlying issue is acceptance? Performance based acceptance is pretty much a cultural anchor most people carry, with attendant wounds and scars.

    Whatever is going in within us, any hint of negative response to what anyone shares will heighten fears–especially in the beginning, where people aren’t experienced interacting in this way together. People also catch on to disingenuous affirmation with similar reaction. While we should be careful not to evaluate things said as “right” or “wrong,” we should also take care not to lay value their view as “good” or “interesting” or, “That’s one way of putting it.” Honest reactions are OK, just don’t be patronizing. You have to be in touch with yourself if you want to touch others. Too often, our encouragements to others are just performance enhancers for ourselves–where we are more concerned with how we look as leaders facilitating a discussion, than who we are as simple, fellow disciples who make mistakes and are fragile, too.

    Those who struggle often aren’t used to being listened to. I’ve seen more than one person tear up when they start making sense and people start responding to what they share.

    When someone is timid or hesitant, don’t evaluate or affirm what they say at all. Instead, we affirm them and state the obvious. “This is hard for you, isn’t it?” “You aren’t used to speaking in a group, are you?” “You don’t have to be a TV pastor with this–none of us are!” It can be helpful to let them take a new perspective by asking things like:

    “How would you explain this to a small child?”

    “How do you think your (mom/dad/friends/pastor) might have understood/understand this verse?”

    “What one thing jumps out at You? Why”

    “How does this verse make you feel? Why?”

    “How would this look in real life?”

    This fear of being wrong or even speaking up seems to be heightened in a large group, so getting people started sharing in a smaller size group is helpful.

    Using the discussion method I’ve described above has proven very helpful. Everyone takes a turn, so everyone is supportive and patient. In an hour, you can visibly see signs of people finding confidence, surprising themselves with their thinking and putting ideas into words. In a few weeks/months, the capabilities are very different than when they began.

  9. 11-11-2011


    People are afraid to speak because a lot of the traditions have super initiated “leaders” who feel it is their place to correct every perceived error in terminology. In one of the traditions that I used to teach and preach in, the “senior pastor” (no he was not Jesus so I found that puzzling as well :)) would sit at the back of the class and take notes, then he would ask me to meet him in his office and explain the “errors” that I had made. One week I decided to just take a John MacArthur commentary (John MacArthur is this brother’s hero in the faith as he graduated from John MacArthur’s school) and basically facilitated discussing reading brother MacArthur’s Commentary word for word. Sure enough, he called me in and showed me the 10 or so errors I had made and gave me a copy of the notes he had taken so I could correct my understanding. When I got home, I e-mailed him the copy of MacArthur’s commentary on that chapter and asked him if he considered MacArthur a poor choice for reference. 🙂

  10. 11-11-2011

    Art and Hutch,

    Thanks for making this blog so much better!