November 27, 2011

Missional Discernment

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at Madison Street Church in Riverside. My friend and mentor, Jeff Wright is the pastor there. It is a wonderful group of people doing some great things in their part of the world. I preached on the subject of discernment and drew from St. Paul's letters, which I've been reading and thinking a lot about lately. No different than any other point in history, Christians today are face with the challenge of discerning how we engage cultures, our place within them, etc. Now, some would say that this is already defined for us in Scripture. Yes, I agree with this in general. But we fall somewhere in between Acts and Revelation and the details have to be worked out in real time. What are we to do with stem cell research or factory farming? Or what about the issue that almost every N. American denomination is deliberating over, sexual orientation? This is where discernment plays into this. How did Paul, and the other church leaders for that matter, know what was permissible and what wasn't as the Gospel touched more and more cultures further away from the Jewish norm of their day? As you read the Epistles I think there are a few rules that run through Paul's writing regarding discerning and making judgments on such issues. Here's what I think he offers:

1. These issues arise due to mission. Are we making judgments on issues because as we embody and proclaim the Gospel among all cultures (and sub-cultures) we are approaching groups that function outside of our norms? If the debate of the issue is our primary engagement are we missing the (biblical) point? Circumcision, food, gender roles, etc. arose for Paul because he was on mission. Not because he was looking for a debate.

2. Discernment requires a grasp of Scripture. Not proof texts. Paul knew his Bible inside and out. He got the over-arching narrative and this shaped his worldview. We ought to be doing the same. What shapes your worldview more? Culture (norms, rituals, practices, news outlets, media, etc.) or Scripture?

3. Our view of Scripture is shaped by Jesus. Paul saw the whole of Scripture through Jesus. Everything he knew of Scripture was now shaped by everything he knew of Jesus. Think of Jesus as the lens through which we read Scripture. Paul would be horrified to hear of someone interpreting Scripture through his writing. To do the work of missional discernment Jesus has to shape how we read the whole of Scripture. Know the Gospels.

4. Missional discernment requires community. Paul was rarely alone and he almost always writes to a community, not individuals. Discernment is a collective process. It happens as we ruminate over Scriptures during meals together, as we worship and pray together, as we laugh and cry together, as we go about God's mission together. I think Paul's letters assume that this kind of together-ness was happening in the churches he wrote to who were approached with such issues.

5. The presence of the Holy Spirit is assumed and engaged. It could be said that Paul is totally dependent on the Holy Spirit. He is confident that the Spirit is with him and with those he addresses. He is therefore confident to say and do the bold and wild things he does. In a pain-adverse and safety-idolizing culture I think it's safe to say that we do not assume the presence of the Holy Spirit. Quite to opposite: we think we're on our own. But Paul made decisions and encouraged discernment in a manner that did not assume that God was simply "watching from on high." Rather, he did so assuming God's presence was immediate.

How does this match up with how we discern the "issues" of our day? Thoughts?

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