Discernment: A Lamb Among Wolves

Declarations vs. Discussions?

Most people either want declarations from on high, or endless discussions from within.  Few desire to make real discernments leading forward.

Tony Jones totally misses the issue of discernment when he criticized Fitch about Rob Bell’s lack of accountability (see Fitch’s prompt).  Jones immediately takes this to mean “moral accountability” regarding marital fidelity, as if Fitch were talking about emotional support vs. church discipline.   


 But the accountability I believe Fitch is talking about is much deeper than some sort of moral accountability or doctrinal control.  Accountability requires relationships, deep mutually reciprocal relationships of openness and trust.  It is within accountable relationship that we can discern the Spirit at work within the people of the Word (Jesus, not the Bible!).

(This picture is exactly not what I’m talking about! Heresy hunts are the opposite of communities of discernent. I.e. we should always assume we are all the wolves, but Jesus the Lamb is leading us anyway).

For those of you reading it, discernment is the Non-Signpost of every Signpost within Prodigal Christianity, something I’m afraid many will miss when reading the book.  Our entire Western culture works against authentic Kingdom discernment by those united in Christ and filled by the Spirit.

Control vs. Freedom?

Often issues like these (gay marriage, evolution, women’s ordination) quickly degenerate into either ecclesial control or the freedom of independence.  The unfortunate story of Pete Enns makes this clear, and the independence of Rob Bells does also.  Ecclesial controllers issue declarations from on high, whether as an individual pastor or some committee.  Independent individuals offer their opinions for an endless discussion, usually with the assumption that everyone is also an isolated individual protected with and by their own opinions.

People usually frame the idea as if the church were a totalitarian regime allowing for no opposing opinions, suppressing the freedom of the press.  Independent individuals, i.e. like Rob Bell, are the freelance journalists and are the only ones speaking the truth.  On the one hand is either identity politics of sub-cultural control. On the other is a suppose freedom of expression beyond all constraints.  Neither escapes the logic of modernity seeking a foundation (whether in ideas or individuals).  This is where people like Jones always fault the church.  They say that people like Bell can only speak their minds, can only speak the truth, once they have left the suffocating control of backwards ecclesial control.

Discerning is not Controlling

I’m not saying that church abuse doesn’t happen, just that the solution is not total independence from local church bodies, but a transformation of local church to be able to discern God’s Kingdom rather than either merely declare or discuss.  As the saying goes, the opposite of co-dependence is not independence, but inter-dependence.

Only discernment within a community truly opens us up to what God is doing because 1) we open ourselves to being wrong 2) by opening up ourselves to Scripture, 3) the Work of the Spirit, and 4) the People of the Spirit.  This is perfectly exemplified in Acts 15 (which I will discuss in my next post).

The problem is hardly anyone actually risks enough to gather together and do this, or trust enough, or has faith enough to do this.  “Really? I’m going to trust someone that has hurt me so that we can discern something together?” “Really, I as the pastor, have to slow down and talk with people?” “Really, I going to discern something with someone who doesn’t have the theology degree that I have?” “Really, I have to trust that God is at work, and that while others need to change, I might have to change also?” “Really, you want me to die to myself to discern God’s Kingdom in this situation?”

Yes, that is exactly it.  And we do this because Jesus showed us how, and makes it possible through the giving of his Spirit.

Communal discernment of this sort is not covert play toward control. This is not passive-aggressive control, disguised as conversation. This is community in the Kingdom guided by the Spirit.

12 Replies to “Discernment: A Lamb Among Wolves”

  1. i'm absolutely with you on the importance of community and discernment, but why does fitch assume that rob bell lacks accountability? his original post seemed to discount the kind of thing you argue for which generally happens out of the public eye (and not exclusively in a pastor/board professional setting by any stretch). his accusation seemed to assume that bell's different conclusions implicitly required a lack of personal/communal accountability, but how arrogant is that?

  2. I am with you on a whole bunch of what you said and the heart behind it … but there is a veneer of romanticism that has my hesitant.

    When did Jesus this kind of discernment? When he was 12 at the temple? No… when his mom and brothers wanted to take him home? No… when the disciples wanted him to change plans on his way to Jerusalem? No… With the Pharisees? No… actually – I can't think of a single example of Jesus discerning communally.

    Jesus doesn't seem to listen to his own community (teachers of the law) or to his closet followers! Unless there is an example that I am missing … this doesn't seem to hold water. help me -Bo

    1. Do Matthew 18 and Acts 15 not scratch your itch here? Is the former not an explicit invitation from the lips of Jesus for his disciples to enter into discerning, humble dialogue in the midst of disagreement and sin? And is the latter not an example of what a spirit-constituted community does when faced with sticky, devices issues? How is this space of discernment not part and parcel to the way of life made possible by Jesus? Does this type of communal discernment not reflect imperfectly, mysteriously what Scripture says about the Son only doing what the Father does – being in perfect alignment and submission to the Father's will?

  3. Until we're willing to admit that concepts like community, accountability and discernment can and do manifest differently in particular contexts, this conversation seems like it's going to remain at an impasse. What it seemed like Fitch was doing (in spite of his protestations to the contrary and lip service to radical democracy) was trying to take the particulars of accountability and discernment as they manifest in his particular ecclesiological context and universalize them. Don't get me wrong, I think it's OK to say "people need accountability." Where I think we run into trouble is when we say "people need accountability that looks exactly like this" (where "this" happens to be exactly what I think accountability should look like). That's what it felt like Fitch was doing, and it feels like that's what you're doing here in your critique of Jones' post. I don't think Jones was saying "this is what accountability has to look like," but rather he was giving an example of how accountability can look different in different contexts.

  4. Certainly all issues of the church need to be communally discerned. As I have followed this discussion the problematic issue I see is the narrow view of community. We as Christians discern communally as the entirety of the body of Christ at work in the world. Local faith communities (congregations) operate as a part of that discerning body. To dismiss Bell because he does not have a local congregation holding him accountable is stupid. He is responsible and accountable to the entire body as we all are. The real problem in my opinion is when congregations dismiss and reject other confessing members of the body (congregations and individuals who see things differently) and then discern locally and then profess truth universally.

  5. The problem is that sometimes (often?) "Communal discernment" of this sort *is* a covert play toward control – particularly when we recognize that the motivations of our hearts are often hidden from us. All too often, "communal discernment" functions precisely (if not intentionally) as passive-aggressive control, disguised as conversation. There's something that is more foundational than communal discernment – it is genuine, intimate friendship. A true embrace of the other in all their otherness without feeling the *need* to reduce that otherness with "discernment." Only after that's established is communal, mutual discernment possible in any real way.

  6. Even if the ideals described in this post are true, that doesn't necessarily prescribe the approach toward "church" that is assumed as the only possible way to embody them. For example, I haven't "attended a church" in over three years. But, do I have the kind of community that is described in this post? I think that I do. And, why should we assume that Rob Bell doesn't?

  7. I agree with you to a point. A flattened hierarcy, relational transparency, anti-pragmatism are marks of the work of the Spirit. But I am left wondering what the goal of discernment-as-shared-conversation. (I recognize that my question comes off as pragmatic; that's not my intent. I am seeking to understand.) Is is to prescribe the behavior of others? Does it exist to flag and correct sin? To simply become a warm, always-accepting surrogate family grouping?

  8. Everyone, thanks for the comments. For some reason my blog isn't notifying me I have comments so I just saw all of them wait for me.

    I certainly think that communal discernment takes many different forms, and can be just as prone to disaster as any other practice of community. The difference is that I think the NT gives ample warrant for this type of communal practice (this will be tomorrows post, I promise).

    The basic point that I wanted to make in this post, although the point has been side-tracked in other contexts to mean that I support overt violence against the abused and other such matters (see FB), is that right now the church, or any community for that matter, any at all, usually functions as either through mere declarations from some authority or an endless processes of discussion. Either of them, I believe, embody that way of Christ and his Kingdom. Communal discernment of mutual-openness as a means toward seeking justice non-violently lead to Jesus death, and I think we should lead communities toward the same structure. I'm fine if it is called idealistic or Romantic (but I don't think I'm either b/c I've been are part of a community that 'attempts' to do this, and it is messy and difficult and painful, which is kinda the whole point).

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