by Peter Ditzel
Pastors who follow Paul’s example try to empower their congregations by encouraging them to study the Bible and think for themselves. Their pleasure is to see believers growing. They know that helping Christians to become proficient Bible scholars is the best way to ensure that they are not waylaid by erroneous teachings. They allow people to question them, and they converse with them as brethren as they search the Scriptures together to find the answers. These pastors are a rare and endangered species.
What seems to be the more common type of pastor is the one who “plays his cards close to his chest.” Please forgive the expression from gambling, but it well describes what I mean. This pastor has what he believes to be some knowledge of the Bible, and he doesn’t want it to leak out to others. In his sermons and so-called Bible studies (really lectures), he doles out crumbs and tidbits here and there. But he is always careful not to so educate anyone in his congregation as to empower that person. He is afraid of creating what he, in his mistrustful thinking, believes will be a rival or threat to his position in the congregation as the sole purveyor of biblical wisdom. The only people he delegates any responsibilities to are yes men who simply do his bidding. At least partly because this pastor never allows himself to be seriously questioned, his understanding of the Bible becomes defective. Thus, even the knowledge he gives out in paltry rations is flawed, but, because they put their trust in him, his congregation doesn’t even know it. By keeping his congregation in a perpetual state of ignorance, this pastor promotes poor discernment.
Here are just two examples among many I could cite from my own experience and the reports of others. I chose these because they could be told simply, in one paragraph. But they are actually quite typical.
My family and I visited a church in which the pastor gave a sermon about angels. During the sermon, he gave several anecdotes of supposed real encounters with angels that he had read about. He cited these stories in a positive way, indicating that he believed them to be inspiring stories that we should find uplifting. The problem was that in each of the stories, there was an incident in which the supposed angel of God lied to accomplish his ends. Do God’s angels lie? Anyone with even a child’s understanding of Scripture should know that God’s holy, righteous angels do not lie. But that pastor didn’t know something even that rudimentary. And no one in his congregation challenged him. All seemed to accept what he said with a disturbing naivety.
On another occasion, my family and I visited a church in a region we had never been to before. When we walked in, the pastor, instead of greeting us with a smile, acted suspicious toward us. Typical of most standard church meetings, the pastor was the only person who taught from the Bible. After his sermon, he did not ask for questions. Afterward, his wife kindly invited us as visitors from afar to their house for lunch. The pastor stayed behind for awhile for some church business. We enjoyed conversing with the pastor’s wife until the pastor arrived home. Almost as soon as he sat down, without any apparent reason, he began saying how he would not tolerate anyone trying to steal his congregation. He said that someone had recently tried to steal his congregation but he had gotten it back. But now he was going to keep a sharp watch and make sure it didn’t happen again. It was his congregation, and he was going to make sure he kept control of it. This, expanded in great detail, was almost his entire conversation during the meal. I smiled and listened politely and afterward we thanked his wife for her hospitality and left, never to return, but feeling sorry for the people in this man’s congregation, living under the thumb of this little dictator.
Has your pastor ever said that it is the Christian’s duty to submit to his teaching or that it is prideful to question what he says? Don’t believe it. A literal translation of 1 Corinthians 14:29 says, “And prophets let speak two or three and the others scrutinize!” Today, instead of having two or three speakers, we often see pastors dominate the entire assembly. When was the last time your pastor allowed you to scrutinize what he said? (I will have more to say about what the Bible says a pastor is supposed to do and whether God wants His assemblies to be led by one man in a future article.) And, how many people in your congregation have the biblical discernment and competence to even begin such a scrutiny?
3. Lack of Serious Personal Bible Study: How do art experts know a real from a counterfeit Rembrandt? They know what to look for. And how do they know? They learn from careful study. That’s why they’re called experts.
Don’t you think that we Christians should be experts on the message God has left with us? Shouldn’t we be such experts that we can spot a counterfeit message when we see or hear it?
Since the invention of the printing press, Bibles have been readily available. And now there are Bibles for computers, various devices running Android and other platforms, and e-book readers. Plus there are programs and apps to assist our study of the Bible. And some of the Bibles and Bible helps are free. Christians CAN have the pure Word, but they are instead choosing the damaged and infected secondhand word coming from corrupt teachers.
Nothing in the Bible says that an understanding of God’s Word can only be gained by certain “holy men” called clergy. Immediately after speaking of those who twist the Scriptures to their own destruction, Peter writes to the brethren, “Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen” (2 Peter 3:17-18). All Christians are expected to grow in both grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This is a reference to coming to understand His mind as expressed in the Bible.
So we have not only the scandal of the leaders becoming corrupt and corrupting those who listen to them, but also the shame of Christians being unwilling to take up the forkful of food for themselves and lift it to their mouths. As a result, as we have seen in Ezekiel 34:21, the flock has become diseased—spiritually perverted, doctrinally unsound, lame in their walk with God—and scattered—weakened by not being of one spirit and one mind as the Scriptures say we ought to be (Philippians 1:27; 2:2; 1 Peter 3:8). The result is a general lack of discernment of truth from error in what is taught from the pulpit, published in Christian books and articles, broadcast on Christian radio and television, and believed by the average Christian.
To Timothy, Paul wrote, “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them” (2 Timothy 3:13-14). Timothy had learned from Paul. Today, we cannot sit as disciples at the feet of Paul and the other apostles or of Jesus. But we can still learn from them, directly from their inspired writings.
Word of His Grace takes its name from Acts 20:32. When the apostle Paul suspected that his arrest and eventual execution were drawing near, he called for the elders of the church in Ephesus. His farewell address to them is recorded in Acts 20. In verse 32, knowing that he would no longer be able to be their overseer and shepherd, he told them, “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” The Bible is what is able to build us up. Paul did not delegate his authority to any man, but set the Bible as the brethren’s authority.
Again, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus” (2 Timothy 2:15-17). Yes, and today, too, we should shun the profane and vain babblings of popular Christian writers and television and radio evangelists and, yes, even local pastors when they are unbiblical in their teachings, stifling in their control, and not open to serious questioning.
Why don’t we do this? Because a general apathy has settled over many Christians. Shouldn’t we just leave these things to the experts we pay to study the Bible and preach? Aren’t we too busy with work and other cares to delve deeply into the Word of God? No, it is time to get our priorities straight.
Cures for Lack of Discernment
As someone has said, if we allow it, the immediate will always try to get in the way of the important. But understanding the Bible so that we are not led astray and so that we can help others is too important to allow this to happen. Because Christians are not taking seriously their responsibility to know the Bible, false teachers are growing in influence, distorting the Gospel, and giving Christianity a bad name. Several times, the Bible calls us priests and a priesthood (see 1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). In 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul says, “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.” But the responsibility to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) is ours.
Are we letting the immediate get in the way of the important? Are we being distracted by work, family other responsibilities, or entertainment? These things have their place, but we must organize our days so that we have time for Bible study.
Another way to cure lack of discernment is to begin holding church leaders accountable. Absolutely nothing in the Bible says that anyone is to have the power of a despot over God’s people. As I have already pointed out, 1 Corinthians 14:29 allows for two or three men speaking in a meeting and, after they have spoken, other men are to thoroughly judge (diakrinetōsan) or scrutinize what they have said. If your church refuses to follow this biblical directive, maybe it is time to find the exit.
In this article, I’m calling on the reader to take responsibility for his or her own spiritual life. Wake up spiritually and be willing to make hard choices where necessary. May the Lord give each of us true, biblical discernment from this day forward.
Copyright © 2012 Peter Ditzel