God Is Closer Than You Think #4 – What Is The Bible?

by JT Holderman

Our Topic: “God is closer than you think.” This is the title of our twelve week series on the basics of biblical doctrine, theology, what we can know about ourselves and God. This morning I have the privilege of addressing the topic: “What is the Bible?” And I am so glad to, because the Bible has transforming power. Scripture gives us wisdom, it reveals who God is, it reveals who you are, and it will transform you. Do you believe this? Gregg has taken us through “What is Man” and “What does God look like” and Jeff has taken the tough task of “what is the Trinity.” But how do we know the answers to these three sermons. Through Scripture, what God has revealed. Let’s ground our discussion of Scripture in a couple of verses.

 Scripture Reading: If you have your Bibles this, please open them up to 2 Timothy 3:14-17. Listen to the Word of God…

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Context: We have this morning and incredibly rich passage of Scripture before us to study. Verse 16 is perhaps one of my favorite verses in the New Testament. What we have before us is a letter from the Apostle Paul, the same guy who wrote Romans and Corinthians. This letter is unique in one major way, it is written to a specific person, Timothy. Most of Paul’s letters are written to churches, to a large group of people. But here we have a unique glimpse into the correspondence between Paul and his young disciple and student in ministry Timothy. It’s a personal letter, from one friend to another. And here in our text, at the beginning of verse 14, we see that Paul is contrasting Timothy to someone else, but as for you. From the beginning of chapter three Paul lays out those who are living a godless life, those who are opposing truth and wisdom and virtue, those who are corrupted in mind, heretics. And in verses 10-13, directly preceding our passage, Paul commends timothy for being steadfast in his life as a Christian. So in v. 14 here, when Paul says but as for you, we must read him as an example in contrast to those who were against the Gospel. It is here in our passage that Paul therefore instructs Timothy, his young disciple, how he can continue to live in accordance with Jesus.

Purpose: And Paul instructs Timothy with one overriding point, really the whole purpose of this passage. Timothy is to become a mature disciple, to grow in the faith he has been brought up in. And Paul says this is primarily done through the power of the Scriptures. And this is the purpose of the text to you and I this morning, we are to become mature disciples by trusting God’s Word. I mean this is the reason that you and I come to church right? We sit under people who preach the Gospel to us for a reason don’t we? We don’t just come to have our ears itched and to hear funny stories, we come to be transformed. I think if we really ask ourselves, “Am I satisfied with who I am?” Most of us would say “no,” I would say “no.” We long to be the person God wants us to be. We are never complacent with who we are. On my drive this morning to church, I passed a pond. This was a stagnant pond, it had no fresh water flowing into it and it had no water flowing out of it. It was covered in green algae and looked disgusting. If the pond had moving water, it would become clearer. The same is true for you and I. If we are not being transformed by the Gospel, by what Jesus has done for you and I, we begin to look a lot like a stagnant pond. Think about why you came to church this morning. For many of us I’m sure it was because “well it’s just what you do on Sunday, or my wife wanted me to come, or I wanted to see friends, or I have to preach.” Think about why you came. Church is a place to worship God together and it’s also a place to grow together. We come to church because we love Jesus and we want to be transformed to be like him. If this isn’t why you come, check your heart.

Trusting in His Word: So Paul tells you and I that we grow and become mature disciples, we become more like Jesus, by trusting in His Word, in the Bible. Look at vv. 14-15. Paul instructs Timothy to become more mature by continuing to know the reality of the Gospel through Scripture. There are people, like his mother and Paul, who have instructed him as they themselves have been instructed by the Scriptures. So our call this morning, what we are primarily looking at, is the call to become mature disciples in Christ. What pictures in your mind do you associate with the word “maturity.” We think of an aged woman who simply exudes wisdom, we picture an old tree by the ocean that has withstood the trials of time, we think of a boy’s voice transitioning from really squeaky to deep, we think of composting and how it takes time for the soil to mature. I think the image of the tree is profound. The prophet Jeremiah uses an image of tree to talk about maturity, he says in Jeremiah 17:8.

And I’m sure we all have pictures of immaturity. I can remember going to a wedding once. It was a beautiful wedding. A few rows behind my wife and I there were a couple boys, maybe 8 years old. During the service I heard this sound that every 8 year old boy knows. I creaked my neck around to see them blowing on their arms like this, making fart noises. There’s something that has taken place between when we were 8 and where we are now that we know this is immature to do at a wedding. Our hope as disciples is that every day we live with our faith in Jesus that we would become more mature. This isn’t always the case. For every three steps forward we often take two backward right? I had a dry period in my faith a couple of years ago and it felt like I backslid and lost years of growth. So what is Paul’s encouragement to you and I that we may become mature? We are to trust the Scriptures. But in order to trust them, we need to look at two questions:

  1. Are the Scriptures trustworthy?
  2. Why should I trust them?

1) Are the Scriptures Trustworthy? This last year I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. It has been a tough transition learning how to change my diet. It was frustrating to hear, but I trusted the doctor’s diagnosis. Why? Because the doctor has an authority that I don’t have. Years of schooling, years of diagnosing health issues like mine. She had an authority that I trusted. In the same way, the Scriptures have an authority that did not come from man, like my doctor’s diplomas for med school, but from God alone. Look at v. 16a. We see here that Scripture, the Bible, attests to its own authority as being literally breathed from God. If God is real and if God is good and loving and if God has spoken, has breathed out this word, it has authority that is unparalleled. If the God that the Scriptures describe has Himself made these words come into being, there is no greater authority. Do the Scriptures have authority in your life? If God spoke them, they are worthy of our trust. It is God’s revelation to you and me of just how much He loves us. The Gospel, the good news of what Jesus Christ has done for you and I, is contained within these pages. In them we see a God who became man, forsaking His Godly powers. We see a God who in becoming man suffered and died for our sin, a God who loved us enough to die for us. It has authority not only because it is God breathed, but because of the character of God Himself.

And because God’s words are authoritative, they have power. Power and authority are synonyms. One of the most powerful pictures in Scripture that illustrates the power of God’s words is found in the Gospel of John. In chapter 11: Lazarus come out! PAINT THE SCENE. God’s words have authority, they have power to simply create life, to do things!

2) Why Should I Trust the Scriptures? We have already answered this a bit, we laid a foundation with authority. But really, of what value is the Bible to me? We should always be asking this question, it prevents us from just reading the Bible out of routine. There is a purpose God has for His Word, and we should seek it. There are two reasons we should trust the Scriptures personally.

  • First, we should trust them because they are necessary. The Bible is a necessary component in coming to love and know God. We cannot know God, as He has revealed Himself to us as a good, loving, gracious father, without seeing it in Scripture. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in natural revelation. As a Christian when I see a sunrise or sunset, when I’m hiking with my wife, when I put my feet in the sand on the shore of the ocean, there are certain things that bring me to my knees in wonder and cry out “God made this!” There is a certain knowledge of God we can gain from the world around us, his beauty, his power. But we cannot know specific realities of who God is, or what he has done for us, apart from Scripture. It is necessary.
  • And secondly, theologians say Scripture is sufficient. Sufficient for what? If Scripture is necessary to know what God has done for you in Jesus Christ, then Scripture is sufficient for bringing you on your knees in faith, to trust in Jesus. Scripture is sufficient for salvation. Look at v. 15b.. Scripture brings about the reality of salvation, God uses it to touch your heart and reveal to you your sin and great need of redemption. But not only is it sufficient to save you, Scripture is also sufficient to mature you as a disciple. Look at vv. 16b-17. We see Paul list a few things that Scripture does, it doesn’t just fall idly by, it does stuff! Here are a few things the Bible says that it does: the bible initiates faith (Rom 10:17), the bible gives new life (1 pet. 1:23), it helps us grow spiritually (1 pet. 2:2), it searches the heart and convicts (heb 4:12), it liberates you (john 8:31-32), it refreshes and renews (ps. 119:25) and it revives and enlightens (ps. 19:7). These are just a few things the Bible says it does.

What Do I Mean By “Trust?” So remember, Paul is encouraging Timothy and You and I to become mature disciples, to become spiritually mature. He longs for us to live as a reflection of Jesus, to be like Him. And he tells us we are to do that by trusting in His word. But what do we mean by trust? Trust involves three things:

  1. For us to trust Scripture we must know it. This one is kind of a no brainer right? We can’t put any trust in the authority, necessity and sufficiency of Scripture if we haven’t read any of it, right? It would be like trying to say something intelligent in class about a book you have never read. You have to read it first in order to know what it is talking about. Now do we need to have read the entire Bible cover to cover, no, but we need to have read enough of it to see what it is about. So in order to trust the Bible we must first know it.
  2. Secondly, we must believe it. Now I think this is the most crucial step in trusting the Bible. Without a faith, a deep seated belief in what God has done for you in Jesus Christ, the words in the Bible are simply that, words on a page. They have no life. They are black pigment on a piece of paper. Our faith ignites the words on the page, bringing them to life, bringing them to reality as something worthy of our belief. Jesus Christ taking your sin on the cross and giving you a new life is something worthy of believing. A vital part of trusting the Bible is believing that in it God is speaking truly to you so that you might be transformed, you might be mature. This makes me think of the greatest theologian this world has ever known, a man named Augustine. Augustine lived in North Africa. He was a womanizer and self-confessed perverse man. He sought the comfort of women, not God with his life. But slowly over time God began to chip away at his heart. He knew the Old and New Testaments, but they were just information, literature. One day Augustine was sitting in a garden in Milan, Italy. On the bench next to him was a bound letters of Paul. He opened it up and read the first verse his eyes came across, “not in wantonness and drunkenness…” As soon as he had read this verse, he believed. The Word of God had such power in that moment to transform Augustine and give him faith. The Bible is nothing more than a textbook without faith in Jesus. It is our faith that brings this book alive!
  3. The third thing trust involves obedience. Trusting your parents when they tell you not to touch the hot stove means that you obey them, otherwise your hand is blistered and your parents are asking you why you didn’t trust them. Football season started a few weeks ago, thank goodness! Next time you watch a football game, when they cut with the camera to the coaches, look at them. What is in their hands? They hold their guide to the plays their team has learned. Many QB’s have this guide in short form on their forearm. These are the plays they have practiced and learned, the plays the team knows. When Tom Brady calls blue 42, it means a certain play. And when the team knows what to do with this play, their chances of success are much greater. But what if the players don’t obey? The play often falls dead. It doesn’t work. Likewise, obedience is a key factor in trusting what is in Scripture with our faith. But we have to be careful whenever we talk about obedience. Obedience that doesn’t first stem from love is legalism. We are not for this. Instead we should view obedience as the overflow of our heart to love and know God. Love should drive any obedience.

Conclusion: And Paul this morning wants you and I to be mature. He wants you to be continually transformed into the person God desires you to be. Maturity requires one thing from us this morning: response. Maturity beckons response. A mature person is someone who takes responsibility for their actions. And our call to be mature is grounded in our action, a call to respond to what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. Paul here specifically says that if you want to be mature, if you want to be the person God longs for you to be, trusting Scripture is essential.

Some of us need to know Scripture in order to respond to it. Some of us need to believe in what God has written for us to respond. And some of us need to simply be obedient to Scripture. Which person are you? Do you have trouble knowing what’s in the Bible? Do you have trouble believing it? Do you have trouble obeying it? I would guess we would say “JT, I have trouble with all three.” Me too. Trusting this book is difficult. But when we realize that God wants us to know Him, that He died for us to be able to know Him, it gives us a strength to grab hold of this book and love Him. Every time we read this text we are saying, “I love you God and I want to know you as you know me.” And isn’t it true that the more we love someone, the more we want to make them happy? The more I have loved my wife, the more I have realized what makes her happy and the more I want to do those things for her. And so we become mature by responding. We read the Bible not because we are supposed to, but because we love Him and want to be the person he wants us to be, mature, just like Paul wanted Timothy to be mature. Our love of God beckons a response.

I would encourage us all this morning to think deeply on our love of God. Do you love God? Do you want to grow in your relationship with Him? Then take this book and never let go. Love the Word of God and He will transform you into the person He and you long to be. “So what does this mean for how I live this week JT?” Maybe this week as you are at work, you take 5 or 10 minutes over your lunch break and you decide to work through an entire book of the bible. Maybe you choose the letter of James in the New Testament. Maybe you wake up 15 minutes earlier and spend some time reading and praying over it. Maybe when you are at school with a break you pull out your Bible and ask God to transform you, to make you a mature disciple. Maybe you think about reading through the Bible in a year, there are many great plans out there to do that. I’m doing it right now…though I’m definitely failing. If you and I do not see the value, but even more, if we don’t feel a burden of love to read the Bible, I have failed this morning. My prayer is that God would awaken you and me to a love for his Word. We must love Him in order to truly love and trust His word. Long to be mature disciples. Long to love God. And long to trust the Bible so that God may transform you into who you long to be.

Texted Questions 8/21/11

We started something new at Southside last Sunday.  People will be able to text questions during the sermon and we will try and take some time at the end to respond.  Those questions we do not get to we will provide responses to here.  The goal is to ask questions related to the sermon, but it’s understandable that sometimes additional questions might come up while we gather to worship…

Q: RE: “gifts of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of mission:” Would Muslims having dream encounters with Christ before meeting Christian missionaries be of the [spiritual] gifts and miracles in present day times? 

A: Yes, I think so…There are, at least, a couple of passages that indicate God’s sovereignty in revealing Himself through dream encounters and other supernatural phenomenon: Acts 2:17 (quoted from Joel 2:28):

“It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.”

Rev 14:6 —And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people.”

A well-received book, first published in 1980, titled, I Dared to Call Him Father: The True Story of a Woman’s Encounter with God by Bilquis Sheikh, describes the process of a Pakistani noblewoman coming to a belief in Christ, through dreams and reading the Bible on her own.

Q: Growing up dispensational, now piecing things together between the three views (dispensational, covenant, and new covenant) I struggle with the lack of distinction.  If so I can’t choose Him first and ask for the Spirit without the Spirit within me.  Will you have more info on this on the blog?

A: It sounds like you are asking about the sovereignty of God related to salvation… There are two more distinctions within Protestantism that we didn’t speak to last Sunday: Calvinism and Arminianism.  These theological frameworks have both overlap as well as fundamental disagreements.  At the heart of the differences is the human will.  Calvinists believe that the human will is incapable of choosing Christ – that we are dead in our sins (Col 2:13) until God’s sovereign electing grace breaks in.  While the crux of Arminianism is the assertion that God has bestowed upon humanity an unimpaired freedom of the will and that those who choose to respond in obedience to Christ’s offer of grace will find eternal salvation (Heb 5:8-9).

Q: I am a Christian and I listen to some ungodly [music] – swearing, [graphic] language, etc. but I don’t let it influence me at all.  Is it a sin to listen to the music?

A:  Great question!  The word music comes from the word muse. Muse means to think of or meditate on. The ancient philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) noted that, “emotions of any kind can be evoked by melody and rhythm; therefore music has the power to form character.”  So, it seems that music is quite a powerful tool.  One way to think of it is that music opens the soul (our intellect, will, and emotions) and speaks its “truth” into us. I would encourage you to be careful and thoughtful regarding what you fill your soul with.  Paul, in Philippians 4:8 says,

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

Here’s an interesting quote by Confucius (551-479 BC): “A wise man seeks by music to strengthen his soul: the thoughtless one uses it to stifle his fears.”

Finally, let me say that Christian meditation[1] is a bit of a lost art in the Church today.  This last Sunday we spoke of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Often times it’s meditation that releases the warm presence and power of God into and through our lives.  Consider these words from J.I. Packer in the Christian classic, Knowing God:  How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God?  The rule for doing this is demanding, but simple.  It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into a matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God…Meditation is a lost art today, a Christian people suffer grievously from their ignorance of the practice.  Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.  It is the activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God.  Its purpose is to clear one’s mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let His truth make its full and proper impact on ones mind and heart.[2]


[1] Psalm 4:4 – “Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.”  Psalm 27:4 – “That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple.”

[2] J.I. Packer, Knowing God, InterVarsity Press 1973: 18-19.

A History of Spiritual Discernment

This article is an excerpt from Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church, (Upper Room: 1997) by Danny E. Morris & Charles M. Olsen.

The practice of discernment has roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Human awareness of the presence of God prompts questions: God, what are you up to in the world? What is my part in it? The conviction that divine guidance operates in the human world invites us into a process of discernment.

Discernment was developed in the practice of the early church fathers and mothers and worked out in the experience of the faithful. In the 1600s, St. Ignatius put forth the now classical “Spiritual Exercises” on discernment. What emphases on discernment were occurring after the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 and before Ignatius presented the Spiritual Exercises? The tradition of discernment is remarkable.

Origen, in the third century, saw human thoughts coming from three sources: God, evil spirits, and good spirits. If people could trace their thoughts (discern the spirits), they could find a way to give themselves to the proper spirit, for people are moved by the spirits to good or evil. (2)

John Cassian, in the fourth century, followed Origen’s lead. His twenty-four Conferences presented a study of the Egyptian ideal of a monk. The subject of the second conference was discernment. He saw three sources of thought: God (illumination of Holy Spirit), the devil (who makes sin attractive), and ourselves (thoughts of what we have done or heard). “We must therefore keep a close eye on this threefold scheme of our thoughts and we must exercise wise discretion concerning them as they surface in our hearts. Right from the beginning, we will scrutinize their origins and their causes, deciding our necessary reaction to them in the light of who it is that suggests them.” (3)

Cassian said that discernment is the eye and lamp of the body; he referred to the biblical image of the sound eye that produces light for the body and the diseased eye that makes darkness. The monk who discerns:

  • is kept from veering to the left in carelessness and sin, sluggishness of spirit, and pretext of control;
  • is kept from veering to the right in stupid presumption and excessive fervor beyond restraint. (4)

Cassian also offered the image of the test applied by the money-changer who discerned true gold. We are to place thoughts on the scales of our heart and weigh them with exacting care.

  1. Is it filled with what is good for all?
  2. Is it heavy with the fear of God?
  3. Is it genuine in the feelings which underlie it?
  4. Is it lightweight because of human show or because of some thrust toward novelty?
  5. Has the burden of vainglory lessened its merit or diminished its luster?” (1:21) (5)

For Cassian, humility was the path for the search. A monk was to openly disclose his thoughts to his spiritual guide. Self-disclosure and obedience, which produces humility, leads to discernment.

John Climacus, in the sixth century, had great respect for the insights of Cassian. Climacus was selected to be the abbott at Sinai after living for years as a hermit in the desert. In an effort to be a wise abbott, he wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, presenting thirty steps for monks to consider. Step number twenty-six is on discernment. He cites Cassian’s work on discernment, which he calls a “beautiful and sublime” philosophy: “From humility comes discernment, from discernment comes insight, and from insight comes foresight. And who would not run this fine race of obedience when such blessings are there ahead of him?” (6) The steps in Climacus’ ladder were arranged in juxtaposition to one another. We should not be surprised to see that number four, “Obedience,” was matched with number twenty-six, “Discernment.”

In Ladder of Divine Ascent, Climacus presents three progressive stages of discernment.

  1. For beginners it is self-understanding;
  2. For intermediates, the spiritual capacity to distinguish the good from what is opposed to it;
  3. For the advanced, direct God-given light, which affects people and the world around them. (7)

The focus of discernment in the early church remained on individuals and on interpersonal relationships. Sensitivity to communal discernment had not yet been developed.

The church in the east and the church in the west developed different patterns of wisdom in discernment and decision making.

The eastern church looked to the wisdom of mystics and ascetics. Bishops sought communal wisdom for the good of the community. Desert fathers and mothers returned to villages where people looked to them for wisdom. The Philokalia (1782) pulled together important sources on discernment, from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries, which would guide the pilgrim in the spiritual life. (8) When God spoke through a spiritual ascetic, debate ended; the ascetic’s capacity to sway others was enormous because discernment was viewed as a gift of God.

Because of their emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox churches offer us a unique gift: an understanding of experience through trinitarian structures. The Orthodox see in threes, discerning the presence of God beyond, with, and in experience.

The western church adapted itself to the patterns of the Roman Empire. Early on, Roman law and styles of deliberation were introduced in the church. The great councils of the western church had their roots in the Roman senate, a deliberative body. As the senate debated issues of state, the church argued over issues of doctrine. Participants stood one at a time and presented their arguments, citing authorities who would support them. Then members of the council voted to agree, disagree, or abstain.

The Roman Catholic Church was hierarchical. Cardinals, the great princes of the church, were primary authority figures. The unity of the church was grounded in the authority of the pope. In the western church, discernment was focused by the importance of authority, tradition, unity, and continuity.

Even the monasteries reflected the decision-making patterns of the church in Rome, but with some adaptations. Each monastery had a chapter room where discussion and debate took place. The abbot or abbess may or may not have made final decisions, but the wisdom of the community played a significant role. For Saint Benedict, for instance, the “narrow way” meant walking in another’s discretion and wisdom.

The Dark Ages cast more light on discernment than we are prone to admit. In addition to monastic expressions of faithfulness, the piety of the common people found expression in the mystics of the period. Meister Eckhart and the Friends of God embraced a practical piety that people could understand. Thomas à Kempis, in Of the Imitation of Christ, presented a practical style of discernment that centered on following Christ. (9)

The dawning of the Renaissance took place in the century between the two great councils of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Council of Constance (1415-1418), the powers of the state were present and the schism of the papacy ended. In the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Catholic dogma was formalized in reaction to Protestant tenets of faith, which were considered anathema. The Roman Church defined the authority of Scripture in relationship to tradition and the authority of the pope. Reform, which could have drawn on the practices of discernment, was not included in the agenda of either meeting.

One of the most dynamic centuries in history appeared between these two bookend councils.

During the Council of Constance, John Huss was burned at the stake for invoking the authority of the Bible for discernment. He was the spiritual father of what we know as the Moravian Church.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, in Spiritual Exercises, outlined “Rules for Discernment of Spirits.” (10) The list of rules was extensive and unique. Though many of the rules were drawn from time-honored traditions of discernment, others were new. The rules included the importance of imagination, reason, biblical connections, experience, testing the spirits, and feelings. The affective influences were central. People involved in spiritual discernment put matters to the test-resting them in the heart, looking for consolation, which leads toward God in peace, or desolation, which leads away from God in distress. Rules for discernment of spirits were applied primarily to matters of individual discernment, but could be expanded for the purposes of communal discernment.

The writings of the mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, presented another dimension to the process of discernment by introducing the aspect of human desire. Our deepest longings and desires are for God. All other desires are stripped, sometimes painfully, as we find true satisfaction in God and in doing God’s will.

In the Protestant Reformation, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli brought forth the evangelical principles of grace alone through faith and the centrality of Scripture. Scripture was seen as the divine spectacles through which one could discern God’s leading.

The Protestant Reformation, and influence of John Calvin, in particular, with his emphasis on decency and order, planted seeds that eventually grew in the parliamentary culture in England. Calvin, who found himself in a chaotic setting in Geneva, tried to bring about both order and piety while fashioning Geneva into a city of God. A reading of his Institutes of the Christian Religion reveals how western his thinking was. (11) Without question, he bought into the Greek and Roman methods of rational debate. The voting practices of the Swiss Cantons were followed in the church. Indeed, he stretched the meaning of Acts 14, in which Paul and Barnabas appointed elders, to suggest that the people voted on the appointments with a show of hands.

Calvin was a lawyer by training, relying on rules and ordinances to insure that everything was done decently and in order. Calvin both contributes to and limits our inquiry into discernment by placing emphasis on:

  • The importance of church government. “Each church, therefore, had from its beginning a Senate, chosen from godly, grave, and holy men, which had jurisdiction over the correcting of faults. This office of government is necessary for all ages.” (12)
  • The importance of God’s calling those who lead and decide. “In order that noisy and troublesome men should not rashly take upon themselves to teach or to rule, especial care was taken that no one should assume public office in the church without being called.” (13)
  • The place and importance of Christ as the actual Presider. “Now it is Christ’s right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity. But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit.” (14)

“If one seeks in Scripture what the authority of councils is, there exists no clearer promise than in this statement of Christ’s: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’ (Matt.18:20). But that nonetheless refers as much to a little meeting as to a universal council. Christ will be in the midst of a council only if it is gathered together in his name. I deny that they are gathered in his name who, casting aside God, ordain anything according to their own decision; who, not content with the oracles of Scripture, concoct some novelty out of their own heads.” (15)

  • The importance of reason. “The same thing happened to them [councils] that Roman senators of old themselves complained of – senatorial decrees were badly framed. For so long as opinions are counted, not weighed, the better part had often to be overcome by the greater.” (16)
  • The importance of organization, structure, form, and law to bind us together. “We see that some form of organization is necessary in all human society to foster the common peace and maintain concord.” Therefore, if we wish to provide for the safety of the church, we must attend with all diligence to Paul’s command that “all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

“Yet since such diversity exists in the customs of men, such variety in their minds, such conflicts in their judgments and dispositions, no organization is sufficiently strong unless constituted with definite laws; nor can any procedure be maintained without some set form. (Nor can Paul’s requirement – that ‘all things be done decently and in order‘ – be met unless order itself and decorum be established through the addition of observances that form, as it were, a bond of union.” (17)

  • The danger of spirituality. Calvin held a basic distrust of the ascetic. This created a division, a split between spirituality and administration. “But in these observances one thing must be guarded against. They are not to be considered necessary for salvation and thus bind consciences by scruples; nor are they to be associated with the worship of God, and piety thus be lodged in them.” (18)

As much as the fathers of the early church speak of it, discernment did not appear in Calvin’s vocabulary. He rightly feared that devotion to the observances could create a kind of salvation system. (Note the devotion and passion with which some people participate in parliamentary process.) But he also erroneously feared associating the observances, or practices, of communal discernment with worship, lest worship be contaminated. Neither did he want to associate piety (spirituality) with church governance because spirituality moves into an area that is beyond the control of reason. Calvin did not demonstrate any practical awareness that the same Hebrew words are used for worship and work. He would have difficulty with a model of worshipful-work. The separation of governance and administration from spirituality – which is the malady of many church boards, councils, and assemblies today – is therefore solidly rooted in the Reformation!

The Anabaptists tried to model their churches on the New Testament church. They involved the whole faith community in decision making. Because of persecutions, Anabaptists were left with a deep distrust of the state and felt that too many churches had compromised discernment by cooperating with the powers of the state.

Following the Reformation, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Quakers made noteworthy contributions to the practice of discernment. They looked to the presence of the Spirit to provide guidance, listened to the promptings of the Spirit in the gathered community, and followed the Spirit’s lead. Listening in silence fostered the intuitive capacity of the community of Friends.

The communal character of Friends’ understanding and practice of discernment was evident from their beginning and is still the character of Quaker meetings today.

In addition, the Friends brought to discernment the practices of coming to a consensus, the clearness committee, making a minute, and registering non-concurrence.

In the Methodist tradition, discernment has played a role in the spiritual growth of individuals and communities. The Methodist movement created for spiritual nurture and guidance three types of small groups: classes, bands, and the select band.

1.     The class was a small group of people who sought a personal relationship with God. The class leader was appointed by the Wesleys or their assistants and was a person with common sense, an experience of saving grace, and the ability to interpret the Bible to the members of the class. Each week, the leader would inquire about the spiritual state of class members, then offer prayer and guidance suited to the needs expressed by individuals. Spiritual discernment came through interaction with the class leader, who asked questions that led people to think about and to listen for what the Spirit intended for their lives.

2.     The Methodist bands were for people who had experienced new birth or saving faith. While the focus of spiritual formation in the class meeting was “to flee from the wrath to come” and “to watch over one another in love,” the focus of the band meeting was to deepen the participants’ discipleship through obedience to the scriptural command to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Members of the bands and the select bands were accountable to one another, and the will of God was discerned through dialogue, prayer, and experimentation. (19)

3.     The select society or select band provided guidance and support for people who had either the desire or the experience of perfect love: love of God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind. All members of the select band (including the Wesleys) were peers. There were no membership restrictions based upon gender or marital status. The group’s focus was on understanding and experiencing perfect love toward God and neighbor. Spiritual discernment was found in the interaction of group members.

In Puritan New England, during the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards was concerned about the excesses of the Great Awakening in which he participated. He wanted to provide people with a way of processing their experiences. In particular, he wanted to help pastors deal with members of their congregations who had been awakened. Believing that most experiences of the Great Awakening were valid, he sought to help people look for signs that would separate the wheat from the chaff and identify experiences that were genuine.

In England, the political advent of rule by law and parliamentary procedure had a powerful impact on the church. The Church of Scotland was run by parliamentary rules. In fact, when the powers of state were consolidated in London, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland took over administration of the city of Edinburgh. Scottish leaders who had practiced and refined parliamentary order in Scotland made their presence felt in the Royal Parliament. When the Presbyterian Church in America was embroiled in new school/old school controversies, it needed procedures by which to conduct meetings. The Scots readily provided the manual.

Church history shows that discernment in Europe was made by a body of elite equals, but the parliaments and town meetings that cropped up in every village in America led the church to embrace a culture of argument and persuasion. From about 1820, many churches adopted a faith that common people would discern the truth if they had the facts. The church’s theology of sin and evil fit in with democracy; government by the people would hold in check the evil intentions of a few.

As denominations developed in the United States, rules and procedures for church assemblies gradually became standardized. In 1871, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church sent a short set of general rules to the presbyteries. The rules were uniform, so there would be no regional variation.

Prior to this, an officer in the United States Army, Henry Martyn Robert, had given thought to the deliberations of religious assemblies. He had been frustrated by the inept ways that meetings were conducted in his American Baptist church. When asked to preside over a church meeting in 1863, he drafted a brief statement of rules of order based on Thomas Jefferson’s rules for the United States Congress. The experience prompted him to expand on the effort, producing what we know as Robert’s Rules of Order. (20) General Robert wanted to standardize them for use in various religious and civic settings so that people would be familiar with a consistent method of making decisions. The effort was calculated to show that the ways religious bodies make decisions is no different from the way other organizations make decisions. Robert’s rules have been widely used in the church. But they are designed as rules for combat useful in any arbitration. (21)

Historian Michael Cartright points out several other interesting developments that occurred at the same time Robert’s Rules of Order was written. Francis Lieber wrote General Orders 100 on the rules of conduct in war. The methods of fighting created so many casualties (note the casualties in the Civil War) that rules were offered to limit casualties and to make war more humane. Lieber’s rules of combat in war have significance for the concept of just war and for restraint in modern wars.

Cartright also related that a friend of his had been appointed pastor of a church in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. On her arrival at the church, she learned that the two previous administrative council meetings had come to an end when council members started throwing chairs at one another. Everyone felt that a significant transition had been made when the first meeting of the council during her pastorate ended without violence. In that case, Robert’s Rules of Order actually did limit combat!

The rules of order are helpful in handling different points of view on designated subjects. The rules are most helpful in highly charged situations and with large groups; although some of the principles – considering one matter at a time, protecting the rights of the minority, assuring the will of the majority – are important, the rules cannot, in and of themselves, provide the structure for spiritual discernment.

Recent developments in leadership theory, not-for-profit board development, and conflict resolution have influenced church administration. Coupled with a resurgence of interest in spirituality and general dissatisfaction with the present operation of church boards and assemblies, they have led to greater interest in the practice of discernment, both personal and communal. The church can now draw on its traditions of spiritual discernment and order its life and ministries according to the will of God.

Additional Resources: Defining Discernment and Some Basic Assumptions About Spiritual Discernment

Endnotes:
2. Origen, On First Principles (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).
3. John Cassian, Conferences (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 1:20, 54.
4. Ibid., 2:3, 62.
5. Ibid., 1:21, 57.
6. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 114.
7. Ibid., 229.
8. Kadloubovsy and Palmer, Early Fathers from the Philokalia (London: Faber & Faber, 1954).
9. Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ (New York: Mentor Bock, 1957).
10. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1964).
11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
12. Ibid., 4.3.8.
13. Ibid., 4.3.10.
14. Ibid., 4.9.1.
15. Ibid., 4.9.2.
16. Ibid., 4.9.8.
17. Ibid., 4.10.27.
18. Ibid., 4.10.27.
19. The Book of Discipline (The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 71.
20. Henry M. Robert III, Robert’s Rules of Order, Revised (New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1979), iv and v.
21. James Turner Johnson, Just War Traditions and the Restraint of War (Princeton University Press, 1981), 62-63, 297-322.

Random Thoughts From My Stickies

I use the application “stickies” on my Mac to make notes to myself and to collect random thoughts, quotes, or pithy sayings to contemplate or study. Following are some random thoughts from the last few weeks. Sorry I didn’t always record the source…

*God’s perfection doesn’t merely reject or punish evil: it overwhelms it with good.

*Grace – God’s love for tomorrow coming into our life today

*Love – Shared hope (Kim McManus)

*There is a difference between obligation obedience and covenantal obedience

*Shalom results from living in the tension of…

  1. Contentment (Phil 4:6-7)
  2. Justice – making things right (Lk 18:7b-18a) “Shalom-makers”
  3. Righteousness – right relationship, navigate the relationship (Rom 8:31-39)
  4. Loyalty
  5. Community (Col 3:12-17)
  6. Wholeness
  7. Integrity
  8. Salvation

*Paradigm shift  — Gap between stimulus and response (Covey)

*Rules keep us immature

*Virtue comes as a result of moral effort – It’s like learning a new language, it becomes second nature

*We don’t need to learn our love language as much as we need to learn the language of love

*Learn to think Christianly

*The nature of virtue ethics

*The Spirit works to re-humanize us

*Love is not our duty, it is our destiny

*Take a nurturing response toward your emtional self, listen to the emotional self in the presence of God (Ps 139:1-3), draw your emotional self toward God, stay and wait/receive in God’s presence (Ps 46:10; Lk 10:42) — It is scary to be deeply revealing in God’ presence.

*Soul ache

*God comes to you disguised as your life. –Paula D’Arcy

*Every person we meet is Jesus in a distressing disguise.  –Mother Theresa

*Worship is the primary means to transformation

*Gideon and God test one another. God is available for interaction. Invitation to be bold (vs foolish). We are free to be bold.

*God “tests” us to reveal our hearts to ourselves (he already knows).

*OT is brutal and filled with war. The NT concept is that our battle is NOT against flesh and blood (Eph 6).

*Glory of God is among the poor.  –Joel Green

*Take calcium to sleep better

*Spiritual Formation – Intentionally partnering with the work of the Holy Spirit to help people learn to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength.

*Joy does not mean the absence of sorrow, but the capacity to rejoice in the midst of it.  –Gordon Fee

*Bidden or not bidden, God is present. Erasmus/Jung

*God is the goal of God – John Piper

The embrace of faith, like any embrace, is visible.  –Scot McKnight, Dancing Grace (Chap 13)

*Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.
I refuse to die while I am still alive.
–GK Chesterton – Man Alive