“The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty” (Proverbs 27:12). Indeed, this biblical truth is reflected in an African saying: “A dog which is about to die first loses its sense of hearing”. In other words, when someone persistently ignores warnings or advice, you can be sure they are about to find themselves in trouble or something far worse.
When someone persistently ignores warnings or advice, you can be sure they are about to find themselves in trouble or something far worse
Biblical discernment is a necessary skill for every believer. Yet it is often strangely lacking. In an age of religious inclusiveness, cultural relativism, scientific naturalism and ancestor worship, deception quickly ensnares even the sincerest Christian. Without the ability to evaluate truth claims using the bible, the church will struggle to “defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
So how can the church recover the art of biblical discernment? On the other hand, what happens when the church treats discernment as a non-essential? How can we equip today’s church to distinguish between truth and error, darkness and light? Or, as Spurgeon put it, how will we know “the difference between right and almost right”? Let’s turn to Colossians 2, which provides practical insights about this subject.
Biblical discernment is a necessary skill for every believer. Yet it is often strangely lacking
Church leaders must disciple believers and defend biblical truth
Paul exemplifies what church leaders are called to be and do. He calls attention to his “great struggle” for the believers in Colossae and Thessalonica (Colossians 2:1). He was involved and concerned about the church. Elsewhere he even speaks about being anxious for the wellbeing and faith of believers (Philippians 2:28). But leaders who agonise over and hate destructive error are in short supply today. Instead, we see great concern about the size of church buildings, the size of the tithes, and their own popularity. But shepherds are called to lay down their very lives for the flock. If only church leaders would share Paul’s burden, protecting the sheep from divisive error and carefully teaching them the only truth that can set us free. Only then can we see the church in Africa deepen its roots, blossom and thrive, becoming a “great commission post” for reaching the world.
Leaders who agonise over and hate destructive error are in short supply today. Instead, we see great concern about the size of church buildings, the size of the tithes, and their own popularity
Discernment depends on knowledge
In Colossians 2:2-3, Paul desired that the Colossians would attain “all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself.” Why does he want them to have such knowledge? So that “no one may delude you with plausible arguments” (Colossians 2:4). The better you know the truth, the more readily you will recognise and reject error. If you are daily seeking to grow in your understanding of all that Jesus is and all that he has done for you, you won’t be easily led astray by inferior alternatives. The church that stands firm against error is the kind whose members are plumbing the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
Discernment helps us spot danger signs from a distance
Like the serpent in Genesis 3, false teachers often hide error under a thin veil of distorted truth
False teachers manipulate the unwary through numerous means. Sometimes they boast of God’s favour to them. Others burden the church with guilt. They make promises God has not. Like the serpent in Genesis 3, they often hide error under a thin veil of distorted truth. But here and in his other epistles, Paul gives us a clear advantage. He describes these tricks so that we can see them clearly and resist. In Colossians 2, he warns against four types of error that might tempt and mislead. Each comes with an explicit or implied “let no one”:
- Take you captive through philosophy and empty deception (Colossians 2:8)—such as the false scholarship and Scripture-twisting of Jehovah’s Witnesses
- Act as your judge about food or observing special holy days (Colossians 2:16)—errors promoted by missionary sects such as Seventh-day Adventism and Mormonism
- Disqualify you for your prize through self-abasement and claims of visions (Colossians 2:18)—these are represented by counterfeit “prophets” such as Ellen G. White, William Marrion Branham, and David Owuor of Kenya, Elvis Mbonye of Uganda—to mention but a few.
- Impose their man-made regulations on you (Colossians 2:21)—especially attempts to reintroduce Old Testament dietary laws (and even newer ones, such as shunning coffee and tea), making them a test of salvation
True spiritual fullness is found in Christ—not in spirits, powers, invisible forces, angels, visions, or modern-day prophets and apostles
We must not allow ourselves to be seduced by false teachers’ impressive – but empty – philosophy and cunning deceptions. Rather, we must apply Paul’s reminders of the surpassing fullness and freedom we have in Christ. In him, we are “made complete”. Because Jesus is “the head over all rule and authority” (Colossians 2:10).
Apathy as an obstacle to discernment
Why do so many fail to take discernment seriously? The answer is more than a matter of having the right information, or a special gift for correctly assessing truth claims. Too often believers choose to be indifferent towards the danger of false teachings. We might dismiss it as none of our business, or as something that should only be addressed by church leaders. We may even go as far as thinking that people who are deceived deserve it. Such Christians stay in their comfort zones until a friend, neighbour or loved one becomes a victim. That’s when they wake up and seek help. But too often it’s too late. However, if the pastor serves as a true watchman this need not happen.
Why do so many fail to take discernment seriously? Too often believers choose to be indifferent towards the danger of false teachings
True spiritual fullness is found in Christ—not in spirits, powers, invisible forces, angels, visions, or modern-day prophets and apostles. Whoever comes to Christ and heeds his Word does not only receive life. She/he inhabits a place of safety and strength. Robert Critchley’s timeless hymn says it well:
My hope is built on nothing less / Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness! / I dare not trust the sweetest frame, / But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name. / On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand! / All other ground is sinking sand, / All other ground is sinking sand.