Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
April 4, 2017

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:1-3a).

To each [member of the church] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 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 discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Corinthians 12:7-11).

According to the New Testament, the “discernment of spirits” is both a task set for the church and a gift given to the church. It is a task insofar as the church’s gospel is subject to all sorts of distortions, falsifications and misapplications, which must be identified and corrected. It is a gift insofar as the wisdom needed to distinguish truth from error, and good from evil, seems to be something deeper than the kinds of intellectual refinement and practical experience we human beings can attain for ourselves. The Holy Spirit apportions to some members of the body of Christ—those called to be pastors, chaplains and teachers—the gift of spiritual discernment so that they can perform the delicate and difficult task of nurturing souls so often subject to doubt, confusion, error and sin. And the church establishes theological seminaries so that those who have been called to this task may refine their spiritual gifts—most notably, for present purposes, the gift of discernment—by diligent study and sharpen them by supervised practice.

What is the “discernment” or “testing” of spirits? As I understand it, it is a two-sided gift, involving both theological discrimination and spiritual insight. Theological discrimination refers to the capacity to sense when someone’s ideas or actions are out of alignment with the historic Christian faith. Spiritual insight, also known as the virtue of prudence, refers to the capacity to size up people and situations, and then to intervene in ways that forestall or correct mistakes, calm tensions, reconcile adversaries, and heal wounds of mind and heart. Teachers, perhaps, need an extra measure of the former, pastors and chaplains of the latter. But good teaching requires a share of prudence, just as skillful pastoral care must be deeply rooted in solid doctrine. So I venture to say that everyone called into Christian leadership needs to be “discerning” in both ways.

1 John 4:1-6 foregrounds the theological discrimination aspect of spiritual discernment. It commands us to “test the spirits.” The Greek verb dokimazo, here translated as “test,” is used in classical literature to refer to the assaying of metals, that is, to the determination of their purity. But it can also be used in reference to the assessment of persons: Is a young person mature enough to exercise the rights and duties of a citizen? Is a citizen qualified to hold public office?(1) When St. John tells us to “test the spirits,” he is telling us to scrutinize the doctrinal position of those who bid for leadership in the church, and warning us that some candidates are “false prophets,” eager to peddle erroneous or distorted ideas.

The specific heresy with which John was dealing was Docetism, which held that Jesus only seemed to be human. As God’s Son, his true being was purely “spiritual”—by which the Docetists meant “immaterial.” He wasn’t really born of a woman: he somehow passed through Mary’s womb like water through a straw. He didn’t really engage in carnal activities, such as eating and sleeping: he only seemed to, for theatrical effect. He didn’t really die on the cross—because he was never really “alive” in the first place. John combats these ideas with a vigorously incarnational theology, and hoists the Docetists on their own petard: “Every spirit,” he says, “that confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2). True Christians regard Jesus as their brother, not as a kind of heavenly hologram. Conversely, those who deny the reality of Christ’s humanity and the goodness of creaturely existence out of revulsion for the body and its functions are dupes of the antichrist.

There is a very practical ethical payoff to 1 John’s doctrinal test. In the verses immediately following today’s lesson, John exhorts us to “love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God” (I John 4:7). It would be absurd for God to love us, and impossible for us to love each other, if there were something intrinsically evil or shameful about our mortal bodies.

St. John understood that doctrinal error—and Docetism is only one example of this—eventually damages the moral and devotional life of the Christian community. Or as my own seminary professor, George Lindbeck, put it, Christian doctrines are not merely truth claims; they are also regulative principles.(2) They not only indicate what we believe; they also map the kind of people we ought to be, the kind of character we ought to exhibit, and the kind of attitudes we ought to cultivate. And “testing the spirits” is not simply a matter of protecting the community against doctrinal error; it’s also a matter of protecting the community against the corrosion of our morals, the trivialization of our worship, and the disruption of our communal relationships.

Let me give a homey illustration of this. Throughout my elementary, junior high and high school years, my mother would faithfully meet me at the front door at 3:15 when I came home from school. Or she did so four days a week. On Wednesdays, she went to church for her afternoon prayer group, and didn’t get home till about 4:00. So I would let myself in—and, to my immense delight, had forty-five minutes of unrestricted access to the cookie jar. One Wednesday, with my mouth already watering in anticipation of my after-school snack, I was startled to find Mom waiting for me at the door. “Mom!” I exclaimed, “What’s up? It’s Wednesday. Why aren’t you at prayer group?” “I quit,” she replied. This was stunning news. “You quit your prayer group? Why?” Her demeanor was calm and collected: there was no anger or resentment in her voice. But there was a note of resoluteness indicating that her decision was irrevocable. “Because it isn’t a prayer group anymore,” she explained. “It’s a church-sponsored gossip group. Instead of wanting to know just enough about people’s problems to pray for them, we want to know every little detail about their problems, so we can pity them—or sit in judgment of them. It’s indecent. I’m not going back.”

Mother wasn’t a trained theologian. But she knew her Catechism, which states: “Intercession brings before God the needs of others…,” and she understood from that simple definition that trusting God to care for others means abstaining from voyeuristic nosiness regarding their situation. That is theological discrimination in action.

But spiritual discernment is more than theological discrimination. It also involves spiritual insight. By this I mean a kind of holy shrewdness about what makes people tick, combined with the courage and tact needed to help people straighten out their misguided priorities, purify their mixed motives, repent of their sins, and heal from their emotional wounds. This point is highlighted by St. Paul, who embeds “the ability to distinguish between spirits,” diakrisis pneumatōn, in a longer list of gifts that the Holy Spirit imparts to various members of the church to ensure its corporate health and vitality. The Greek word diakrisis is a courtroom term, referring to a judge’s willingness to hear arguments and weigh evidence before rendering a verdict. In using this term, Paul reminds us that a congregation needs people with practical wisdom, a sense of proportion, a certain objectivity and self-detachment.

In the summer on 1977, I worked as a student intern pastor at the Congregational Church in Danville, Vermont. One day the pastor, George Peters, took me to see Mabel, an elderly, ailing member of the congregation, who was living in a nursing home. “It’s been over a month since my last visit,” he told me, with a twinkle in his eye, “and I’ll be getting an earful.” We went into Mabel’s room, and George introduced me to her. “It’s nice of you to come,” she said to me, with a note of sarcasm in her voice. “I guess Pastor Peters thinks that because there are two of you, you can visit me half as often as you’re supposed to and stay only half as long.” I fumbled to reply, but George came to my rescue. “Mabel,” he said, “you seem upset.” “Yes, I am! I feel like you’ve forgotten me,” she scolded. “Very understandable,” he said. “It has been a while since I last dropped by.” “Are you apologizing?” she asked, the indignation in her voice beginning to subside. “Well, I guess so. I’m sure the days are long in here, and you must get lonesome.” “Yes, very lonesome,” she sniffed. “My children have all moved away, and most of my old friends are gone now.” “That must hurt terribly,” said George. “And feeling mad at me is a lot easier than feeling sorry for yourself, isn’t it.” At that she melted into tears. He took her hand, gazed down at her lovingly, let her have a good cry, and after a few minutes began telling her about things at church and in town. Pretty soon she was all smiles.

I watched this transformation with amazement, and I suddenly realized why, in Scripture, exorcisms involve calling things by their true names. In naming Mabel’s underlying sorrow, George was able to defuse her surface-level anger and restore friendship between them.

Seminarians must develop both aspects of the gift of discernment—theological discrimination as well as spiritual insight. But they must also learn that this gift is not only something which they exercise for the benefit of others. It is also something that others will be constantly exercising on them, though perhaps in less formal, less “professional” ways. Wise Christian teachers, pastors and chaplains encourages those with whom they work to help them examine their own priorities, scrutinize their own motives, name their own sins, and face up to their own wounds, just as they are busy helping others in similar ways. The discernment of spirits, in both its aspects, is a spiritual gift which ministers of the gospel should be seen to possess by their church as a precondition of ordination, and should work hard during and after seminary to develop. Yet it is not a gift restricted to the ordained, just as it is not a task which only a “chosen few” are called to perform. Healthy Christian communities are blessed with a variety of “discerning” persons, some of whom seem especially anointed to keep their clergy leaders honest! And wise clergy will attend carefully to the counsel of those laity under their care who are so gifted. For they, too, are contributing to the “common good.”

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(1) H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, and H. S. Jones, eds., An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 7th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), s.v. dokimazo.

(2) Cf. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).

(3) “An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism,” The (Online) Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church, http://www.bcponline.org/Misc/catechism.htm, accessed 22 September, 2014.

(4) Liddell et al., s.v. diakrinō and diakrisis.

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