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.
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.