As I mentioned in yesterday’s 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 struggled with how to being this series… or, actually, I guess I should say that I struggled with how to continue this series. I’m going to study several passages, and I could have begun with any of those passages. However, I decided to continue where I started in the introduction: from Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts in his letter to the Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul lists several types of ways that the Holy Spirit gifts individuals to help the church:
For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10 ESV)
As you can tell, Paul is focusing on the fact that the same Spirit is giving these different gifts. The variety in the giftings does not detract from the singularity of the source (i.e., the Holy Spirit). And, if you started reading a little earlier, you would have found that there is also a singularity of purpose: for the common benefit (or, as Paul would say later, for building up the church). (1 Corinthians 12:7)
In this list, “discernment” is called “the ability to distinguish between spirits,” or, literally, “the differentiation of spirits.” Paul uses the verb form of “differentiation” (“discernment” or “ability to distinguish between”) in 1 Corinthians 14:29 in the context of prophecy and “weighing” what prophets said. (I mentioned that passage briefly in the introduction post.)
Thus, “discernment” is a gift of the Spirit, along with prophecy, teaching, apostle, etc. As Paul insinuates later, all are not gifted with “discernment,” just as all are not gifted as apostles, teachers, prophets, etc. So, some are divinely empowered to do whatever it is that I am calling “discernment.”
However, as we see with the other spiritual gifts, the activities described by the “spiritual giftings” are not limited to those with the gifts themselves. Thus, while only some are “gifted” as teachers, all believers are instructed to teach each other. Similarly, while only some are “gifted” as exhorters, all believers are instructed to encourage one another. (I think we also see that all believers have the ability to prophesy in 1 Corinthians 14:31.)
So, I would say the same thing applies to discernment. Some are divinely gifted to discern “between spirits.” However, all are to do this work. (By the way, if Ephesians 4:11-12 is not limited to the gifted individuals there, then those gifted at discernment should be equipping others to do the work of discernment as they all serve the church.)
Putting this all together, we see that both those gifted at discernment and those who are not gifted as discernment are to do the work of “distinguishing between spirits.” I think that every follower of Jesus Christ would be included in one of those two groups. So, when we are gathered together, we should all seek to discern what is said.
[This is a side note - although related. It really shouldn't have to be said, but it does. There is nothing in this passage (1 Corinthians 12-14) or any other passage to limit the work of discernment when the church gathers to only those who view themselves as leaders or are viewed by others as leaders (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons, etc.). Of course, there is also nothing in this passage or any other passage to limit any type of speaking when the church gathers to leaders.]
But what does it mean to discern what is said? And what type of speech should be discerned? Is discernment only for prophecy? Should teaching/preaching be discerned?
In the next couple of posts, I’ll examine some passages that will help us answer those questions.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul begins a long (3 chapters) section of the letter addressing spiritual gifts. In the first part (chapter 12), Paul focuses mainly on the variety types of gifts and the importance of all the gifts working together for the benefit of the whole church. In the next part (chapter 13), he tells his readers that demonstrating love is more important than exercising any kind of gift. (In a rhetorical exclamation, he announced that even exercising great faith is nothing if the person is not showing the love of God to others.)
Finally, in the last section of this teaching about spiritual gifts, Paul turns more toward the use and exercise of the various gifts when the church gathers together. Since he primarily discusses the gifts of prophecy and tongues, some believe that the Corinthian church struggled with those two gifts. This is possible, perhaps probable.
But while correcting the way that the Corinthians were practicing or emphasizing spiritual gifts, Paul gives them (and us) a key principle: everything that is said or done when we are gathered with other Christians should edify those others. In fact, the only reason (according to Paul) that prophecy is preferred to tongues (uninterpreted) when the church is gathered together is that prophecy directly edifies the church while speaking in tongues does not.
When Paul comes around to laying down some general guidelines for speaking when gathered with other believers (1 Corinthians 14:26-40), he again divides his instructions into two parts: one set of instructions for speaking in tongues and another set of instructions for prophesying. Among the instructions for prophesying, Paul adds the importance of “discernment”: Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (1 Corinthians 14:29 ESV)
So, while Paul believes that prophesy directly edifies the church, he also says that prophesy should be weighed. He says something similar when writing to the church in Thessalonica: “Do not despise(AD) prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 ESV)
This discernment (or judging/weighing) becomes even more important when we think about other forms of speaking when the church gathers together. For example, I would think that teaching is directly edifying also (like prophesying). Thus, teaching would fall under the same guidelines as prophecy, and any type of instruction should be judged also. The same would be true of other types of speaking such as encouragement or even admonishment.
But what does it mean to “weigh” what someone says? What is discernment? Who should judge what is said and for what reason? What examples of discernment do we find in Scripture? I hope to examine each of these questions in the next few posts.
But let’s be honest. For the majority of Christians who gather together (at least in the Western world), discernment is not and cannot be part of their gatherings. Usually, only one person speaks. If someone else speaks, that person must first be given permission to speak. Then, if someone has a question about what is said, or if someone disagrees, there are few avenues of asking questions, much less discernment. (Yes, I understand that some “preachers” or teachers allow for questions and disagreements. But for most Christians in America and the West, this is not allowed or encouraged.)
In spite of this, discernment was important to Paul. Plus, this is a topic that I have not studied much. So, I’m looking forward to looking at various passages of Scripture that I think are related to this topic.
What passages would you study in order to understand discernment? Do you think everything said among the church should be “judged”? Why or why not? When something is spoken, what about that should be “weighed” by others?
As we’ve looked through many early writings, we’ve seen various descriptions of early church meetings. Each author had their own reason for writing about church gatherings.
Some writers focused on the activities that occurred during the meeting: reading Scripture, singing songs, instructing and exhorting one another, collecting and distributing to those in need, eating a meal together.
Some writers focused on the reasons for believers to gather together: protection from the works of Satan, protections from sin, discussing things that lead to mutual benefit.
Many of the writers encouraged frequent meetings and harmony between brothers and sisters who come together.
Some of the writers seemed to indicate mutual service while others placed more responsibility in the hands of one or more believers (the bishop, the presbyters, or the president).
What do we make of all of these different descriptions of early church meetings? First, we should recognize that different groups of believers met in different ways. Second, we should recognize that we should return to Scripture to determine how believers should meet together. While these early writings help us understand the history of the early church, they were not and should not now be accepted as Scripture. Yes, some were thought to be Scripture early on, but they were generally accepted only by some groups of believers but not accepted universally.
So, as we continue to study church meetings, we should study this historical records, and then compare them to Scripture. What does Scripture say about activities during the meeting of the church? What does Scripture say about the purpose of the meeting of the church? Who does Scripture say is responsible for the meeting of the church?
In the next week or so I will be working on a series to discuss these questions. Since I have examined different writers concerning their view and descriptions of early church meetings, I plan to balance those views by looking at the passages of Scripture that discuss or describe the meeting of the church. We should be able to compare and contrast the scriptural view of the meeting of the church both with the views of these early church writers as well as our own views.
As we continue to examine some early church writers to determine what they believed about the church meeting, we come to Justin Martyr. He lived from about 100 to about 165 AD, and wrote several apologies (defenses) and treatises. His most famous apology is called the First Apology, which was probably written in the 150s AD. Chapter LXVII (the next to the last chapter) of the First Apology is presented below:
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
First, notice that Justin uses a different word to specify the normal day of the church meeting. Literally, he says they meet “on the day of the Sun.” This probably refers to the same day as “the Lord’s Day” which we’ve seen previously, but it is interesting that Justin uses the Roman day names: day of the Sun, day of Saturn, etc.
Also, Justin spends more time describing what is done when the church meets than describing the purpose of the meeting itself. Some of those activities include public reading (probably OT and NT Scriptures), instruction and exhortation, prayer, partaking of the Lord’s Supper (bread and wine and water), and contributing to and sharing with those who are in need.
Justin places a lot of emphasis on an individual that he refers to as “the president.” He uses a unique term here – one that we do not find in the NT and one that we have not seen in other early church writings. If there is a connection between “the president” and the elders or deacons, Justin does not specify the connection in this passage.
The “president” is given the responsibility of instructing and exhorting people to imitate what has been read in the Scriptures. Likewise, the “president” is given the responsibility of praying over the Lord’s Supper elements, and of distributing what had been collected to those who are in need (orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners, strangers).
Finally, instead of telling his readers why the church should gather together, he tells them why they should gather on Sunday. He says that the church gathers together on Sunday because that is the day of Christ’s resurrection.
Alan Knox is a PhD student in biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a web developer. His interests include PHP and ecclesiology. His dissertation topic is the purpose of the gathering of the church in the New Testament. By God’s grace, he tries to live what he is learning about the church.
He writes about how our understanding of the church affects (or should affect) the way the we live our lives among other brothers and sisters in Christ. He's found that many aspects of our understanding of church (gathering, leading, teaching, etc.) are woven together such that it’s almost impossible to focus on only one aspect.
Find out more on his website, The Assembling of the Church.