Rules of Discernment, Rule 1: Authority
One of my persistent frustrations with my fellow Christians is a general lack of discernment and good judgment. As the bible makes amply clear, there are false teachers and bad shepherds out there yet everywhere I turn, I meet Christians who have fallen for con artists and cult leaders and false teachings by the boatload. When you see the wreckage of broken families, broken people and corruption wrought in people’s lives, the persistence and ferocity with which scripture condemns false teacher and bad shepherds makes perfect sense.
What I’ve realized in talking with the victims of the charlatans and cons is that no one ever taught them even the most basic rules of discernment. Which makes sense since charlatans and cons are hardly going to start teaching their victims how to sniff them out. But I’m not a charlatan or a con, although you are plenty welcome to go buy my books, so I’m happy to share what I know, starting with rule numero uno:
All authority belongs to God. No one who claims authority for themselves is to be trusted.
It doesn’t matter if the claim to authority comes by way of their education, revelation, natural ability or giftings, their call, the affirmation of others, institutional position or because they were born on a Thursday in July in a magic lightning storm. It doesn’t matter what the reason given is, any teacher who claims authority for themselves (or claims that God has conferred such authority to them) is a false teacher to be rejected out of hand.
A true religious teacher claims no authority for themselves and will direct you to verify anything they say with the Spirit in you rather than just accepting what they say at face value. They know that God is real and that the same God which is teaching them is available to you. If their words are true, the Spirit in you will affirm it. If their words are false or not meant for you, the Spirit will keep you from falling into error. An insistence on directing you back to the Spirit in you for your answers is a hallmark of a true teacher.
Further, a real teacher will show a willingness to accept with a minimum of quarrel or offense if you come back and say that the Spirit in you did not affirm their words. Their impulse will be to go to God for instruction and understanding, not to make you defend yourself. A real religious teacher doesn’t need you to agree with or affirm them. They know that it’s God’s job to grow and teach his children and He will do it with or without the teacher’s help. And they have enough experience listening to and sitting with God to easily receive correction or allow their understanding to be expanded, so your disagreement is an opportunity rather than a threat.
Now, perhaps you are reading this and you’re thinking of the teachers you’ve known and realizing that what I’m describing is assuredly not the sort of behavior you are accustomed seeing among Christian (or other religious) teachers. Which explains right there why the church is in such horrific condition. A disproportionate percentage of Christian teachers can’t even make it past the first rule of discernment. They don’t even pass the sniff test. And yes, that includes the ones with the largest followings and most money. In fact, it especially includes them.
The truth of the matter is that most of the teachers God has trained for the benefit of the body are nowhere near a pulpit. Some are. But not many. Most of the best teachers are just walking among us unrecognized and unheralded by the institutions that claim the label of the church for themselves. They simply speak truth into whatever situation they are in, watering the ground around them with words of life, weeding out falsehoods by the root and scattering seeds of healing and restoration in their wake.
It would be lovely if these were the people leading the church, of course. Maybe you can check with God and see if there’s a plan for that. 😉
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