How much does Crossway want to get Tim Challies’ new book on the New York Times bestseller list? Apparently, not much, because they’ve sent him down here for a blog-tour interview. The change of atmosphere from teampyro to here must be pretty stressful, but Tim’s a hardy Canadian and can handle the transition.
Seriously, Tim’s book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is a unique, thorough and practical look at a topic that increasingly is creating controversial discussions among evangelicals. Blogosphere readers will know that Tim is a serious and conservative reformed Baptist, but his work on discernment is even-handed and useful to more than just those identifying with reformed Christianity.
Those of you looking for an argument can move along. I’m sure Tim and I disagree on many things, but scripture tells us that it’s a good thing when brothers dwell together in unity. Our agreement on the Good News of Jesus outweighs our disagreements.
Tim’s a fine writer, much in the style of Jerry Bridges. I appreciate his willingness to field a few ground balls from me. Support Tim and The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. So here’s the interview:
Let’s start with a definition of discernment that doesn’t use the word “discern” in any form. Synonyms allowed and encouraged.
At its simplest discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil (and this is drawn directly from Hebrews 5:14). When we understand that the world was created good and when we understand that evil has since come into it, we realize that good and evil are now in constant opposition to one another. To be discerning is to be able to distinguish between the two using the Bible as guide. I provide a longer and more thorough definition in my book, but this one is simple and cuts right to the heart of the matter.
Without the discipline of discernment, what happens in the life of the typical believer? In the local church?
Well, if we understand that discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil, we must see that a lack of discernment will mean that a person or a church will be unable to distinguish between them and will then accept what is evil under the banner of what is good. What happens next will depend on just how lacking they are in discernment. Some churches may allow unbiblical songs or forms of worship that displease God. Others may go further and allow teaching about Jesus and His work that strike right at the heart of the gospel. Discernment functions in a way similar to the bodyâ€™s immune system, keeping out what is foreignâ€”what will pollute and infect and destroy. A person with no immune system will very quickly succumb to disease and illness. A person or church with no discernment (no â€œspiritual immune systemâ€) will eventually suffer the same downfall.
Almost every disagreement among Christians is diagnosed by at least one side as a failure of the other side to exercise proper discernment. How does discernment apply to those areas of historic disagreement where Christians read the Bible with similar views of authority and still come to differing conclusions on issues?
In our practice of discernment we need to keep in mind just how close a doctrine lies to the gospel. Those doctrines that are critical to the faithâ€”the doctrines of the person and work of Christ, the doctrine of justification and the likeâ€”these are doctrines where we can allow no significant disagreement. The Bible gives us no latitude for disagreement. But as we move further away we can begin to allow a little bit more room. We will see there are some doctrines where we can disagree and where perhaps we may need to affirm that we cannot be in close, local church fellowship, even while loving each other and affirming our common faith. And then there are issues that may still be important, but about which we can disagree even while staying in close fellowship within the local church. Discernment will allow us to understand just how important a doctrine is or how central it is to the faith. And then it will teach us how to react in a godly fashion.
Is a solo Christian writing a blog and calling it a “ministry of discernment” exercising a ministry in the normal, Biblical sense of the term? Or is “freelance” discernment a non sequitor?
Discernment cannot be understood as a practice that stands on its own. Neither is it something we do for its own sakeâ€”we are not discerning for the sake of discernment but rather for the sake of purity in doctrine and in practice. A person who wishes to be discerning must also be willing to take into account the Bibleâ€™s other teachings about loving one another, about speaking the truth in love, and so on. Many of these â€œdiscernment ministriesâ€ and â€œdiscernment blogsâ€ seem to understand the importance of separating truth from error, even while falling into error in their responses. The Bible does not account for a lone wolf Christian making it his business to critique every author or teacher or ministry who happens to stumble into his crosshairs. In the book I suggest that the local church is the best and most natural context for the practice of discernment and Iâ€™ll stand by that!
As you may know, I’m immersing myself in a study of Roman Catholicism. It is not unusual at all to read the story of a convert who was drawn to Roman Catholicism precisely because of significant theological disagreements among Protestants. Roman Catholicism solves the discernment issue with authoritative teaching that can be found in encyclicals, councils and the catechism of the Catholic Church.
How would you answer the Roman Catholic assertion that Protestant claims to be able to discern the truth are self-refuting because every Protestant with a Bible functions as her/her own final authority? Is Catholicism’s understanding of discernment as the responsibility of apostolic leadership and tradition wrong?
I understand that this is a stumbling block for those who turn their backs on the Protestant faith and a source of ridicule for many of those who look at it from outside. By way of response I offer this: Roman Catholics delude themselves when they suggest that they enjoy far more unanimity than we do. When it comes to the faith of the person next door, these ruling bodies often have little impact. Many of the Roman Catholics I know or that I have been close to in the past hold all manner of teaching that is directly opposed to encyclicals, councils and catechism. Just recently someone I know converted to Catholicism and embraced the church, even while living with a series of boyfriends and (obviously!) using birth control. Many Catholics hold foreign beliefs and yet remain within the church. If youâ€™ve immersed yourself in a study of Catholicism you know that there are many, many Catholics, and I would not be surprised to learn that it marks the majority, that simply do not hold to the beliefs of their own church. They have significant theological disagreements of their own, even if they remain quiet about them or if the church someone holds onto a semblance of unanimity.
This is not to excuse Protestants for their lack of unanimity. When we squabble we once again prove our unworthiness to call ourselves by the name of Christ. I think we all look forward to the day when we will enjoy perfect harmony with the Lord and with each other. But until then, sin continues to cloud our eyes and keeps us from enjoying that kind of unity. Like many Christians, I am excited by the Together for the Gospel movement and its emphasis on putting aside secondary differences to focus on what is of utmost importanceâ€”the gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray that more movements like this show that, despite differences, those of us who affirm the gospel can work together for the glory of God.
It appears to some of us- myself included- that evangelicalism has an informal “magisterial” of preachers and ministers that function in the present as authoritative arbiters of discernment.
How does the citing of well known pastors and teachers function in the discipline of discernment, particularly in relation to well known ministers who are not the elders or pastors or an individual Christian’s church. (Example: How far does “Pastor Piper says,” for example, extend into the discernment of truth for the larger church?)
This may be true, though I believe there is more to it than the idea of a â€œmagisterial.â€ There are some men who are specially gifted in studying, interpreting and teaching the Scripture. When we refer to these men we acknowledge the blessing they are to the church and we rely to some degree on their expertise. We are wrong to assign them a place of infallibility or to refer to them without looking to Scripture to ensure that what they teach is true. But I think the Bible allows and even encourages us to sometimes defer to the expertise of the â€œexpertsâ€ or at least to acknowledge their special training or special skill. This may be especially important for those of us who do not have the formal theological training that, though not necessary for a Christian to be equipped for service, truly is helpful.
And before we get too down on the more conservative wing, it must be admitted that every group within Christianity and without has its leadersâ€”those to whom we refer with more respect than others. It could hardly be any other way.
Are you surprised that some have reacted critically to your step from blogger to author? Have you learned anything about the negative side of being a well known, well endorsed blogger?
First we should put this in context and realize that there have only been a few people who have really objected to the book. But I think the irony is that the people who have reacted most critically are the ones who are most concerned with discernment. To this point I have not heard from a single discernment ministry that they have read my book. Nor have any of the watchbloggers indicated that they have read it. Whether they just have no interest in it or whether theyâ€™ve written me off, I do not know. But I will say that the book has received more of a positive acceptance from those closer to the mainline than those who overtly focus on discernment.
What’s the deal with Tim Horton’s?
As a non-coffee-drinker I have never developed the same level of affection for Timmyâ€™s that youâ€™ll find in many of my countrymen. To me, Tim Hortonâ€™s is a place to go to find a decent sandwich, a Coke and, if necessary, a clean bathroom. It isnâ€™t the best food youâ€™ll find (and not the cleanest bathrooms, either), but itâ€™s consistent and itâ€™s good enough for stopping at when youâ€™re on the road.