I once attended a large Christian conference with several friends from my church. The speakers were all godly men and I recall the event as a time of wonderful spiritual refreshment. However, during one of the meal breaks, a few of us sat down at a table where a conversation was already underway. Most of the people at the table were from the same church.
As we listened, it was clear this group (led by their pastor) were not fans of the last speaker. I couldn't detect any major theological disagreement. Rather, they spent the next 15 minutes picking apart the speaker's mannerisms, mocking his clothing choices, and splitting hairs over his wording choices. One exchange went like this:
Pastor: Did you hear him say "IF Jesus is God why wouldn't you give your life to him?"?
Younger man: Yes! That shocked me.
Woman: My mouth about dropped open.
Pastor: As if there is any doubt! What kind of Christian would say IF? It is a concrete fact that Jesus is God. Never trust a man who says "if".
Woman: I'm just so glad we have enough discernment to see this. I bet few others here did.
Perhaps I should have spoken up. But at that moment I choose to heed Proverbs 26:4, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly or you yourself will be just like him." My friends and I just hurriedly finished our meal and left the table. But what I found remarkable was that the rest of the people at the table, presumably all from this pastor's church, were in complete agreement with the criticism. There were many nods and verbal affirmations at this supposed "discernment".
Of course, a key problem is that we find these kinds of statements in the Bible. Elijah confronted the people of Israel, who had fallen into idol worship, and said "how long will you waiver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him. But if Baal is God, follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). In the New Testament, Paul says "if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, then make my joy complete by being of the same mind" (Phil 2:1-2a). Elijah and Paul were not introducing doubt and their if-statements clearly are meant to help people see the truth of the situation and then respond appropriately to that truth. For Elijah, he was confronting them with the incompatibility of their beliefs. They still claimed to believe in the Lord, but as he pointed out if that is actually true (which it is) then that truth demands they stop worshiping Baal. In Paul's case, since it is true that Christ gives us encouragement and the Holy Spirit has already brought us into spiritual fellowship, then those truths should put in us a heart for unity.
That group sitting around the table really didn't have a problem over grammar or wording. The real problem was that they had allowed themselves to be consumed by pride and negative attitudes. Yet instead of repenting of their negative spirit, they had baptized that pride and renamed it "discernment". They had even nitpicked a Christian speaker's appeal for people to accept Christ as Lord. Sadly, I've encountered this same criticism many times since then. Several weeks ago I read a blog article where the writer was attacking a Christian speaker for making a similar statement and I've even had the same kind of critical nit-picking directed at me on occasion.
Yet how often have I been guilty of the same critical attitude? Or how about you? There is no spiritual gift of a critical attitude, yet we find this attitude alive and well in our own hearts far too often. Biblical discernment is a precious gift that is very much needed (and sadly often lacking) in the local church. But if your "discernment" only manifests itself in the ability to find fault in others, you've confused a prideful and critical heart with discernment. Sadly, that means your operating out of the very sinful spirit you claim to be able to detect.
Prayer: Father, forgive us for our critical attitudes. Lead us instead towards a loving spirit and a wise & discerning mind. Amen