Christian Discernment

A Discerning Heart

In “Learn to Discern” (2023-08-12), Gunner Q writes that he agrees with the following statement:

“We must always refer to the Bible, but nothing is more difficult than interpreting it and applying it to a particular situation without falling into fundamentalism. God relies on our intelligence to fully understand his word.”

I, of course, believe that Christians must use their intelligence to try to understand—but not determine[1]—what is, or is not, God’s Word. This is not limited to intelligence—discernment involves one’s entirety of being—but intelligence is nonetheless still required. Much of what is known as “heresy” is merely acceptable differences due to discernment.

This is why I stated in “Reviewing Wright’s Universal Apologia: Part 4” that…

“The error, if there is one, appears to be attempting to canonize the scriptures at all: the act of canonization was itself a corruption.”

The act of creating a biblical canon, especially one based on translations of books that differ from the original (as all translations do), was an error that crushes discernment. Many—especially those sympathetic to Orthodoxy or Roman Catholism—think I go way too far in this view.

This is also why, in Part 11, I noted that uniformity should not be confused with unity. The rise of non-denomination churches—with its decrease in ecclesiastical uniformity—reflects the inherent need for discernment in Christianity, to escape the crushing weight of church hierarchy and bureaucracy.

Gunner Q continues:

“A major cause of church friction is clergy imposing moral codes where God did not, then refusing to change those moral codes as time passes and situations change. Perhaps there was a time when dancing was sexually immoral, but it’s not immoral everywhere and always. Perhaps there was a time when the King James Bible was supernaturally special, but today I can’t hardly read it. I once heard of a promising pro tennis player who decided he was making an idol of tennis, and walked away from the sport. No rule or prophet required him to do that. He simply wanted, to the best of his knowledge, what God wanted. God will surely reward him for that devotion even if he was mistaken.”

 

“The issue here, is that discernment is DEAD in the Christian Church. Deader than disco. Christians, ESPECIALLY clergy, fail so completely to recognize evil or identify God’s Will in changing situations, that many unbelievers see nothing unique about God.”

 

“But no. Instead of churches being groups of men worshiping God and building up each other, they’re bureaucracies of variable relevance, united only in their certainty that a man should not be permitted to judge his own way through life.”

This is excellent analysis so far, but then?

“Discernment isn’t hard, or at least, you can start with the easy stuff like… [..] …how about, “did God mean what He repeatedly said about women submitting to men and wearing head coverings? Nah, we today are smart enough to know that God secretly wanted us to do the exact opposite.”

 

“I’m asking you to make smarter choices about what you choose to believe & say, because it’s frustrating to be associated with morons who say God and do Satan.”

When discernment comes to topics Gunner Q thinks are not subject to discernment, then everyone else goes too far and is actually helping out Satan, an accusation that GQ has falsely leveled at me in the past.

I thought this was supposed to be easy? What’s the point of discernment if I have to ask GQ for the correct answer? Do we need discernment to know how and when to use discernment? That is a bit too meta even for my tastes.

Gunner Q started right: discernment is about a man being permitted to judge his own way through life. But for this to work, it must even include discernment on the topics of submission and head coverings, otherwise GQ is no different than the people he critiques.

To Cover

In discerning whether or not a woman should cover, we start with the simple observation that God did not repeatedly say that women should wear head coverings, at least not in the way that it is most commonly understood. I say this as someone who was raised in one of the few remaining Christian families and communities that still practices women wearing head coverings.

Coverings—of cloth or hair—are mentioned in the Old Testament for the purpose of modesty. Examples include Genesis 24:64-65 and Numbers 5:18. To be uncovered was considered a sign of infidelity. Just as “there was a time when dancing was sexually immoral” but is no more, being uncovered—whether unveiled or with hair let down—is no longer considered either immodest nor a sign of infidelity. This would seem to be the perfect place where discernment can be exercised.

The real area of contention is not with varied examples in the OT of covering for modesty, but the covering for authority and submission found in the New Testament. This is mentioned in only one place: 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. The meaning of these verses, with their seemingly unique perspective on covering, is hotly debated. It is among the most confusing and difficult passages in the entire Bible. Very few theologians have ever fully agreed on its meaning.

A non-exhaustive list of areas of debate include (1) whether this is a specific cultural command subject to discernment (“judge among yourselves”); (2) whether long hair, a simple cloth covering, a hat, and/or a full veil qualifies as a covering (“for her hair is given her for a covering”); (3) whether she must always cover or only while praying or prophesying[2], as men are typically only required to take their hats off when doing the same; (4) whether this applies to activities outside of the church or only within it; (5) whether a woman or man should decide how to veil, if at all (“a woman ought to have authority over her own head”); (6) whether marital status determines if and how a woman should veil (as it did in many ancient near east cultures[3]); and (7) whether covering is a matter of authority or modesty.

Given these different possibilities, even people who agree that women are required by God to be covered rarely put down their knives long enough to agree on the how and why. Given this, it makes sense that Christians should promote discernment in these matters, so why doesn’t GQ promote it for this ‘easy’ issue? Because he has a vested interest in ensuring that all Christians agree with his particular interpretation that wives be subordinated to their husbands.

To Submit

I have written extensively on the topic of biblical submission. Rather than rehash all of that, I will—using only two verses—adequately demonstrate the extreme difficulty in insisting on a dogmatic theology of biblical submission:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” — Ephesians 5:21-22

On its surface, this standard translation may seem pretty straightforward, but its analysis is anything but simple. It is very clear that Paul instructed wives to submit to their husbands—he states it quite plainly, doesn’t he?—but in what sense he meant this is hotly debated.

Here are a list of some of the problems:

  1. The ‘verb’ here is the participle “[be] submitting”, one of a series of participles that refer way back to the verb “be filled” in verse 18. It is not in the verb form “submit [yourselves]” in the original Greek.
  2. The verb submit is in the middle voice, not the active voice as in 1 Corinthians 15.
  3. The verb in “Wives, submit yourselves…” is elided—left out—of the original manuscripts. It is inserted by translators. Very few people have ever asked why Paul would do this and what it means (or why Peter would do the same thing in 1 Peter 3).
  4. The verb elision—an ellipsis—implies that submission of the wife in v22 is an instantiation, example, or highlight, of the mutual submission of both husbands and wives described in v21.
  5. The entire passage (Ephesians 5:21-33) may be part of an inclusio, another language feature serving a similar purpose as the ellipsis. Why, for example, is Paul telling husbands to submit to their wives?
  6. The two sentences are not two sentences, but together form just one part of a single much larger sentence. Many Bible translators insert a paragraph break between these two sentence fragments, indicating a separation of thought where none existed in the original. This is related to the previous two points.
  7. The early church writers were not unanimous on a simple understanding of these verses.

You can read more about some of these problems in “The Original Source Material“.

Once we bring in the other related Bible passages, the issue gets even murkier. Given this, shouldn’t Christians promote discernment in these matters? Why isn’t this an easy issue?

Many people, including GQ, have a vested interest in ensuring that all Christians agree with their particular interpretation that wives be subordinated to their husbands. They cannot accept that they might not be correct, nor would they willingly allow others to be wrong.

The Nature of Authority

Underlying both of these issues is the authority of men in the marital relationship. Very few people look at the Bible verses on covering and submission and try to figure out what it means. The vast majority already know what it says even before they read it. This form of circular reasoning is known as eisegesis, the opposite of exegesis.

At its core is the question of what to do with Genesis 3:16. How one interprets this verse determines how one comes to understand covering and submission, and yet few have given it much thought. Trust me, I’ve asked people to take a stand on these issues, and few, if anyone, has ever taken me up on the challenge.

In “In Analysis of Genesis 3:16,” I introduce the problems of the curses from the Fall of Man and how those challenge the logical consistency of one’s theological views. Is a husband supposed to rule his wife? If so, is this God’s design or is it God’s curse? Can and should a husband and wife try to avoid this or is it inevitable?

Then, in “The Context of Genesis 3:16,” I delve into much more detail and see how it applies to submission.

Lastly, in “Divine Command Theory,” I further illustrate how one’s theology must be logically consistent, and why submission as subordination under authority does not make sense.

Moving Forward

The most important observation that GQ made is this:

“A major cause of church friction is clergy imposing moral codes where God did not, then refusing to change those moral codes as time passes and situations change.”

I agree wholeheartedly! The rules for veiling and wifely subordination[4] are examples of moral codes that many believe God did not impose for all time and places. Time has passed and situations—like modesty standards[5]—have changed.

“The crux of the matter is whether a man decides for himself, how he should live.”

At the very least, this should be a matter of discernment that each man should decide for himself.

My extensive studies on these topics over many years has led me to conclude that the strict patriarchal subordination view is absolutely not what Jesus, Paul, and Peter had in mind. Indeed, such a view is the antithesis of what they were actually trying to do.

At the same time I recognize that other Christians may want their marital relationships to operate differently. They have their own discernment. Consequently, I don’t tell anyone that they are forbidden to have a marriage informed by Christian Patriarchy. If a man wants a veiled, subordinate wife (and she agrees to marry him), then who am I to stand in their way?

I also expect my right to discernment to be similarly honored. If that bargain cannot be maintained, then all bets are off. Don’t expect me to stand by and leave such things unchallenged.

Footnotes

[1] This is based on 1 Kings 13, where the man of God from Judah received conflicting messages addressed from God. One was valid and the other was not. God ended the man’s life because he failed to obey the one which came from God. The passage does not imply that the man of God had to determine what God’s Word was, merely to obey it. God’s Word simply is. It is self-evident. No man can say “Yes, this is God’s word, and no this is not” and have that be the end of the discussion.

[2] Somewhat confusingly, most of the proponents of Christian women veiling do not think that wives should be praying and prophesying in church at all, but should remain silent at all times. Why make women veil for participation in a forbidden activity?

[3] Veiling was not a Christianity-specific practice, it was a widely-held secular pagan practice.

[4] Note that I say subordination, not submission. These are not synonyms in this context.

[5] A woman with her hair down is no longer considered immodest, nor is it an indication of her being a prostitute or of having had an affair. Indeed, many “traditional” men now think a woman should wear her hair long and down. Covering—having her hair up—for modesty no longer makes any cultural sense. These days hair color, not length, is considered a more important indicator.

5 Comments

  1. Lastmod

    Christian discernment I would suppose in the West today, particularly in the USA means

    “my church / pastor / priest / tradition / view is correct, and yours is wrong “because I said so”

    and throw scripture at it.

    I just returned from my native Upstate New York (death of a aunt) for a brief visit….was there only for about five days. My aunt’s son, (my cousin) who is a little younger than me and I chatted for a bit. He’s on his second marriage. Three children, two from the first and one from his new wife.

    And yes….he is “bold n’ biblical” now and knows more than anyone else. He was the same guy who said I “joined a jesus cult” when I first was involved with the Salvation Army in 2007…but now, he’s born again???? Oh boy, he knows it all.

    After his first marriage crumbled in 2019 or so….he ends up in a church, or attending and “lo!” he immediately meets a perfect gal. Almost twenty years younger than him, and after a year of dating…..marriage and a new baby a mere ten months after the ring on the trophy wife’s finger.

    He asked me about my faith and if I am still involved with the “cult” (the salvation army are not real christians , according to his discernment).

    I just explained I am no longer in the faith. Any faith tradition.

    He then told me that I need a wife, and if I just go to church, pray “real hard” God will give me one. Because “God said man cannot be alone” I asked about Paul, and others and of course….he knows more than me.

    It was like talking to Oscar, Jack, or DS in person than online. Anything you say, is refuted by their infallible discernment. Its always “better than yours”

    I tried to let it go, and move on…..he wouldnt drop any of it. At my aunts old farm later the same day, he still was throwing bible quotes at me, telling me I was wrong (not just on faith, or Jesus…but everything).

    I finally grabbed him by his shirt, tpushed the knot of hisa tie up on his throat, shoved him up on the living room wall and told him “Keep the f*ck away from me”

    He wimpered away, and left me alone. I feel bad for the loss of his mother, my aunt but I no longer let anyone like this talk down to me to “puff themselves up” and its a tactic I should have learned when I was 10.

    Instead I actually had compassionate parenbts who lived more like Jesus than any believer of late(er) than I have ever seen.

    Discernment is done through prayer. Not “off the cuff” jocular remarks and “red pill masculinity” or “staggering intellect” or “military service” (expecting and demanding respect)

    1. Derek L. Ramsey

      lastmod,

      My condolences to you and what is left of your family. My heart and prayer goes out to you.

      “Discernment is done through prayer.”

      I like this.

      Over the years, many of those ‘heretical’ men that have demonstrated discernment were, not of towering intellect, but devout men of prayer.

      I don’t agree that intellect has nothing to do with it, after all, loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength includes your intellect, but I certainly agree that intellect alone is not going to get you there.

      “Christian discernment I would suppose in the West today, particularly in the USA means “my church / pastor / priest / tradition / view is correct, and yours is wrong “because I said so” and throw scripture at it.”

      I like GQ, despite his manner, but I don’t understand how he fails to see this. He correctly sees that true discernment is lacking, identifies the cause, and then falls back on the failure.

      Peace,
      DR

      1. Lastmod

        Thanks….very few left in my family from the Silent Generation (which all of my dad’s side is from). My aunt and uncle were friendly people. My cousin was and will always be a jerk.

        I was surprised how quickly he backed down. We’re both the same height and he is probably in better shape than me, probably because it was so unexpected. Everyone just expects me to take abuse. Always was a problem from childhood….

        Well, if one is to follow Jesus, one has to pray. A lot. Even Jesus prayed and not to “look good” or “proper” but because he knew the ways of God, the father.

        This jock, faux masculinity I see in the forums and on youtube (Chandler, Driscol, Washer and like) is bothersome. They have made Jesus into the political socio-sexual and discernment is pretty much a “louder with crowder” style and it works good when all the men you hang with are the “church leaders / big shots”

        Discernment is through prayer, and prayer alone in the end. Jesus, being who he was and what he was….didnt need to pray, and he did for this discernment to handle people out there so he would know what to say and how to say it…and with wisdom.

        Thanks again

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