A Call to Discernment: Relationships God’s Way
by John Thompson, February 21, 2003
Much of the content of this article has come to me from three distinguished Bible teachers: Dr. Jay Adams, father of the biblical counseling movement; Dr. John Whitcomb, Old Testament scholar and co-author of The Genesis Flood; and Dr. Ed Payne, biblical/medical ethicist. It is with sincere appreciation and recognition that I draw from their deep wells of biblical understanding.
In every area of life, says Jay Adams, Christians today are continually bombarded with ideas, beliefs, and opinions, most of which are unbiblical or at least biblically suspect. Yet, we don’t know how to sort things out. We are sometimes undiscerning about the books we read, the causes we support, the television we watch, the politicians we elect, and even the company we keep. Chaos, confusion, and compromise reign in the church today. And many Christians fall prey because they do not know how — or simply do not care — to distinguish truth from error in either doctrine or lifestyle. In short, they lack spiritual discernment. To them, most issues of life are not black or white but gray; and Christians who try to think and live according to biblical ideals are accused of majoring on the minors. Most modern Christians might fit in rather comfortably with the Corinthian believers who congratulated themselves for their broad and tolerant views.
But what exactly is spiritual discernment? William F. Buckley has said that he has a jeweler’s eye for political truths. The jeweler has the ability to distinguish one gem from another in order to assess its true value. He can detect flaws and imperfections so as to differentiate the false from the true stone. Buckley claims the same ability in the realm of politics.
In similar fashion, the Christian is called upon by God to distinguish (literally, to separate) God’s thoughts and ways from all others, an ability imparted to believers by the Spirit of God as He enlightens us to understand the Scriptures (1 Cor. 2:14-16). When we were born again by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, God gave us a jeweler’s eye, an insight into Scripture in order to discern truth from error, good from evil, right from wrong, wisdom from folly, clean from unclean, God’s ways from the world’s ways — by means of testing everything by Scripture.
Let me hasten to add that the exercise of spiritual discernment is not optional for the Christian, it is commanded. One professor has quipped, “Open minds are like open windows; you have to put in screens to keep the bugs out.” Spiritual discernment is the process of screening out error from our minds and our lives, something that is essential for our purity as Christians. The Apostle Paul explains discernment as a threefold command: “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22). Examine — Retain — Reject. Examine by Scripture, retain the good, and reject the evil, both in doctrine and lifestyle.
Why Learn to Discern?
Why has God given us this supernatural understanding, and why does He want us to use it? Beyond the simple fact that it is commanded, there are at least nine reasons that should motivate you and me to practice discernment, not only for our own sake but also for the sake of our family:
- Discernment prepares you for leadership in your family and in your church (Deut. 1:13; Dan. 1:4).
- Discernment preserves you from being ruled by your feelings (Phil. 1:9 — biblical love is governed by discernment of truth).
- Discernment prepares you to know the will of God in wisdom, righteousness, and justice (Rom. 12:2; Prov. 2:9; 10:13).
- Discernment preserves you from error in both doctrine and practice (2 Sam. 14:17; 1 Sam. 25:33).
- Discernment prepares you to be a faithful steward of your time, talents, and treasure (Eph. 5:15ff; 1 Pet. 4:10; Matt. 25:27).
- Discernment preserves you from the extremes of isolationism and ecumenism (Rom. 15:7; 2 Cor. 6:14.
- Discernment prepares you to evaluate your own heart and life as well as the life and teaching of others (Heb. 4:12; 1 Cor. 11:28; 1 John 4:1).
- Discernment preserves you from the discipline of the Lord (Prov. 10:13; Isa. 27:11).
- Most importantly, discernment prepares you to please God by following His threefold command in 1 Thess. 5:21-22: Examine everything carefully; hold fast (retain) that which is good; abstain (reject) every form of evil. As we will explain shortly, we apply this command by relating to all other people on the basis of concentric circles of ministry, fellowship, and separation as seen in the lives of Christ and the Apostle Paul — what Dr. John Whitcomb calls “truth circles.”
These nine reasons certainly seem compelling enough to motivate even the most novice Christian father to practice discernment with his family. Nevertheless, there are two common failings which seriously hinder our growth in discernment: human sentimentalism and spiritual slothfulness.
Hindrances to Discernment: Sentimentalism
Some sincere Christians might well ask, “What about love and unity in the body of Christ? Doesn’t the practice of truth circles violate Christ’s appeal and prayer for love and unity among the brethren (John 13:35; 17:21ff)?”
That depends upon what sort of love and unity Christ was appealing for in His church. Human sentimentalism defines love as the warm fuzzies that make us feel good toward another person. Yet God describes agape love as selflessly doing what is best for another person regardless of our feelings. It is agape love that Christ commanded in the body of Christ, not human sentimentalism. And it is unity in truth that Christ prayed for, not unity in error. Even so, someone might argue, when we must draw truth circles that define our levels of fellowship with others, aren’t love and unity more important than truth?
The ecumenist tells us that truth in doctrine and lifestyle must be ignored for the sake of love and unity. Is that what Scripture says? No, the Bible teaches that believers are perfected in unity (John 17:23) as God sanctifies them in the truth (John 17:17; cf. Eph. 4:17. Further, the Bible teaches four crucial things about the relationship of truth and love.
First, the Bible proclaims that truth and love are absolutely essential to each other. Scripture tells us that God is love and also that God is truth (1 John 4:16; 1:5-7). These two completely compatible virtues were perfectly and fully manifested in our Lord Jesus Christ (“full of grace and truth” — John 1:14) and, ultimately, in the Cross (2 Cor. 5:21. Someone has said, justice (truth) and mercy (love) kissed at the Cross.
Second, the Bible indicates that truth is prior to love and is thus the highest virtue. Can a person believe that God is love if he does not first believe that God is truth? Of course not, for God’s truth, the Bible, tells us of God’s love. Apart from truth, we would know nothing of love. Truth, then, is prior to love because it declares and defines love. One author has said that truth is the foundation upon which love stands. But doesn’t 1 Cor. 13:13 say that love is the greatest, that all other virtues are subservient to love? Let’s read that verse again: “But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of THESE is love” — that is, the greatest of these three. The greatest of ALL virtues, however, is truth. Look back a few verses to 1 Cor. 13:6. What does it say? Love rejoices in the truth.
Third, the Bible reveals that truth defines love. In truth’s greatest description of love, the love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, truth gives love its boundaries of operation: Love is patient, kind, not jealous, not arrogant, not rude, or selfish, or irritable, or resentful; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Without such boundaries, love will devolve into nothing more than human sentimentalism. It is God’s definition of selfless love (agape), not man’s definition of sentimental love, which must control our ministry and fellowship.
Fourth and finally, the Bible tells us that truth is promoted by love. Biblical love never minimizes truth but rather motivates truth as Paul explains in Eph. 4:15: “speaking the truth in love.” This verse suggests that there are two different ways to speak the truth: either in love (patient, kind, humble, etc. — 1 Cor. 13) or not in love (nagging, harsh, arrogant, etc.).
Medicine or Syrup
Let me explain this difference with one of Dr. John Whitcomb’s pointed illustrations. Suppose you have a child who becomes deathly ill. And your knowledgeable physician tells you that your child can be saved only by taking orally a powerful medication.
“Fine, fine, where’s the medicine?” you say.
“Wait a minute,” he adds, “this medicine is unbelievably bitter and incredibly nauseating. And your child must have a huge dose.”
“Oh, no,” you think, “I hate to see my child suffer in getting down that sickening medicine.”
“I just remembered something,” declares the physician. “I have some sweet syrup that we can mix with this repulsive medicine so that he won’t taste the bitterness of the medicine.”
Now, fathers, if you didn’t have that choice of mixing the two together, would you give your child the syrup without the medicine or the medicine without the syrup? Which would you choose? The medicine without the syrup, of course. What good is the syrup without the medicine? No good at all. It’s the medicine that cures. And whether it’s mixed with the syrup or not, it’s got to get into the child or the child will die.
In very much the same way, whatever you do, you must speak the truth or people will die spiritually. Whether it is spoken with or without love, truth must be spoken (cf. Phil. 1:15-18 — Paul here praises God that the truth of the gospel was proclaimed, even though without love). Certainly, God’s ideal is BOTH, the truth with the love, the medicine with the syrup. And when we speak the truth in love, the medicine goes down so much easier, doesn’t it? But make no mistake; it is the truth that makes us well. The love simply makes the truth more palatable. So, thank God for agape love. How we need more of it in the church today. But be assured of this, that the greatest virtue of all is truth.
Hindrances to Discernment: Spiritual Slothfulness
In addition to human sentimentalism, there is a second serious hindrance to our growth in discernment. It is spiritual slothfulness, a laziness or indifference in evaluating the issues of life by the Word of God.
In commenting on Hebrews 5:11-14, Dr. Jay Adams explains that the writer of Hebrews is concerned about second-generation Jewish Christians who have become dull in their ability to understand the truth of God. This spiritual ailment afflicted them because they had failed to regularly distinguish truth from error in the issues of life. The word “dull” in verse 11 literally means one who is sluggish, slow, unconcerned, or lazy. Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, uses this word to describe a person in a coma. The idea, then, is that of a person who, by failure to make use of his brain, has drifted into a spiritual stupor, a spiritual coma, and thus is now incapable of distinguishing truth from error.
He is likened in verse 13 to an infant. One of the signs of physical growth in children is their ability to discriminate between what is good to put into the mouth and what is harmful. Babies put anything and everything into their mouths, don’t they? Many immature Christians are like that too. They will swallow anything religious with little discernment whether it is good for them or harmful. Why? Because they are said to be unaccustomed with the word of righteousness, unskilled in using God’s Word to determine God’s will in the issues of life. Consequently, immature, undiscerning Christians will often harm themselves and their families by allowing error to influence them.
Let me emphasize again that these Christians fell into this state because they failed to rightly exercise the spiritual faculties that God gave them. And the corrective for this spiritual stupor, according to verse 14, is to exercise our spiritual senses day after day after day in evaluating the issues of life by the Word of God. Only then will we become trained to discern good and evil. But remember that discernment involves not only distinguishing the truth but also practicing the truth. And that, dear friends, occurs when we discern our own truth circles.
Christ’s Truth Circles
In Luke 18:8, our Lord asked His disciples this telling question: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” Or to personalize the question, will He find faith in our families? Where is a father to begin in his effort to protect and perpetuate truth in his family? How might we dads ensure the preservation and propagation of Christian beliefs and Christian behavior in our children? How might we avoid our family’s spiritual contamination by the world?
God’s method for protecting and perpetuating both the faith and the faithful is by our understanding and applying God’s “truth circles.” In the midst of such confusion and compromise in the church, Scripture reveals that we must relate to other people on the basis of concentric circles of ministry, fellowship, and separation from error. As a matter of fact, this is precisely the teaching and practice of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul.
The world into which Christ came 2,000 years ago was deeply mired in religious confusion. You can’t imagine the theological chaos that existed among Greek religion, Roman religion, the mystery religions, Gnosticism, and the various sects of Judaism: the Hasidim, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and others. How did our Lord Jesus Christ handle the ministry and fellowship of God’s truth in such a religious swamp? We know, of course, that in regard to salvation, He was NOT a respecter of persons. As Paul declared in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” However, in regard to ministry and fellowship, Christ was VERY MUCH a respecter of persons. In fact, He absolutely refused to treat everyone the same way. Instead, He had a whole series of concentric circles in which He would treat various people to various levels of ministry and fellowship. What were these circles, and what does this principle mean for your family and mine today?
Our Lord’s largest circle for fellowship and ministry was the nation Israel. Outside that circle He normally had no fellowship or ministry to offer. Might a half-Jew worm into that largest circle? No way! Even to the Samaritan woman in John 4:19-22, a half-Jew and half-Gentile, Christ declared, in essence, “You do not have the truth, for Israel alone was entrusted with the oracles of God” (cf. Rom.3:2). Although it is true that nothing can destroy God’s Word (heaven and earth shall pass away but not God’s Word), nevertheless in the hearts and minds of men God’s truth is very fragile and can be plundered and spoiled. The sower sows the Word of God into the hearts of men, but if it’s not understood, Satan can steal it from man’s heart (Matt. 13).
So, how are we to protect and perpetuate God’s truth in our families? Only by applying Christ’s principle of fellowship, ministry and separation, His circles of truth. Based upon Christ’s own model, we too are to have boundary lines that govern the ministry of our time, our talent and our treasure. Not quite convinced? Please read on.
Smaller and Smaller Circles
Within the circle of Israel, Jesus distinguished two groups in Matt. 21:14-17. One group — the chief priests and scribes — were religious enemies of the truth. The other group — the blind, the lame and the children — believed in Christ. Yet, spiritually they were referred to as infants and nursing babes. They were spiritual novices untaught in the Scriptures. And because they were not involved in the deeper things of God’s Word, Christ never included them in His closer circles of ministry and fellowship. As verse 17 declares, “He left them and went out of the city.”
Christ’s next smaller circle consisted of 500 faithful believers (1 Cor. 15:6). This is the group of brethren whom Christ entrusted with the special truth of His appearance after His resurrection. We know that these were faithful brethren rather than merely spiritual babes because they were chosen to witness the proof of Christ’s resurrection.
From within the circle of His faithful followers, the Lord Jesus sent out into Israel 70 missionaries in groups of two to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, that the kingdom is at hand (Luke 10:1,17-20). To these select evangelists He gave special, powerful truth which caused even the demons to be subjected to them.
Yet, there were the Twelve who were more favored still (Luke 6:12-13). Our Lord prayed all night that the Father would show Him the precise men to choose for this extremely important group that He was to train for three and one-half years, day after day after day, to have His mind and His character.
Among the Twelve was a traitor, so the next smaller circle, the Eleven, was privileged to receive Christ’s Great Commission and to view His ascension into heaven (Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 2:8-9,12-13).
Three preferred Apostles (Peter, James and John) were invited by Jesus to be a part of some of the most spectacular events of His life. They beheld His transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-5), witnessed Jesus raise from the dead the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:51) and accompanied our Lord into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray for Him as He agonized over the infinite price He would pay for the sins of the world (Matt. 26:37).
Who would our Lord entrust His own mother to? Just anybody? Or someone who was deeply committed to Him. The answer is found in John 19:27 where Jesus said to the beloved Apostle John, “Behold, your mother!”
How many circles did Jesus have for ministry, fellowship and separation? At least nine are revealed to us in Scripture, but in principle there could have been many more than that. Depending upon the level of truth involved, there was an increasingly smaller and smaller circle of ministry and fellowship from the size of a nation all the way down to just one deeply committed man.
No, Christ is not a respecter of persons for salvation, but He is definitely a respecter of persons for the protection and perpetuation of His truth. He is extremely selective regarding whom He entrusts with His deeper and greater truths. These circles of ministry and fellowship in Scripture are no accident but are God’s revealed program for guarding His truth. So, we fathers are to be very careful what kind of church we are in and what level of fellowship we share and with whom. We are to be very careful where we invest our time and talent and treasure. Not everybody is prepared to receive and to perpetuate the deepest and most precious truths of God. If we are careless about our time, talent and treasure, we will answer to God for our poor stewardship.
Paul’s Truth Circles
Someone might rightly argue, however, that what is true for Christ is not necessarily normative for His followers. After all, Christ was the Son of God. We can’t do everything Jesus did (like walking on water). So, did the New Testament Christians practice these circles of truth? We have the most information about the Apostle Paul, so let’s look at his example. What principle governed his investment of time, talent and treasure? What circles of ministry and fellowship do we observe in his life?
Just like our Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul distinguished between those outside Israel and those within the chosen nation. Paul, defending himself before King Agrippa, an unregenerate pagan, tells King Agrippa that all the Jews (i.e., all sorts of Jews) earnestly serve God night and day (Acts 26:6-7). Paul did not, however, reveal to Agrippa any further truth regarding the divisions that separated the nation Israel. That was family truth not intended for outsiders.
But inside the circle of Israel, when Paul is standing before an official Jewish council, he draws yet another circle of Pharisees vs. Sadducees (Acts 23:6-10). Though the Pharisees were not true believers, nevertheless, they were closer to the truth than the Sadducees who denied the truths of resurrection, angels, and spirits.
Within the circle of resurrection-believing Pharisees, Paul draws an even smaller circle, namely, born-again Jews (Acts 21:18-20). James warns Paul to be careful not to unnecessarily offend these believing Jews who were still legalistic about the Mosaic Law. Consequently, the Apostle Paul was careful not to speak or behave in a manner that would be an affront to these weak believers, following the principle he explains in 1 Corinthians 9:20, “And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews.”
Now, as long as Jewish Christians wanted to practice the Mosaic Law in their own lives, that was agreeable. But as soon as they began to impose the Mosaic Law upon Gentile Christians, Paul drew the line, even with his friends and fellow workers, between faithful believers and hypocrites (Gal. 2:11-14). For Paul, friendship could never be an excuse for compromising the purity of God’s truth. Just as with Christ, so also Paul’s circles of ministry and fellowship continue to get smaller.
According to Acts 15:36-40, even among brethren with whom Paul had no doctrinal controversy, there were some he found it impossible to co-labor with. John Mark was one of them. When the going got tough on Paul’s first missionary journey, John Mark deserted Paul and Barnabas and went home to mother. Later, when Barnabas wanted to bring him along on their second missionary journey, Paul vehemently dissented. In fact, their disagreement was so sharp that they separated from one another forever, Barnabas taking John Mark and Paul taking Silas.
Paul’s circles of ministry and fellowship finally narrow down to just one person, his most faithful and like-minded co-worker: Timothy (Phil. 2:19-22). No doubt Paul deeply appreciated other co-laborers such as Luke, Titus and Silas. But Timothy was his closest kindred spirit.
The Principle of Truth Circles
The first principle of God’s truth circles is this: God protects and perpetuates both the faith (truth) and the faithful (believers) as we invest our time, talent and treasure on the basis of concentric circles of ministry, fellowship and separation. People whose doctrine and lifestyle are least pure receive the least ministry and fellowship (which still must be exercised cautiously, often without our innocent children present). People whose doctrine and lifestyle are most pure receive the most ministry and fellowship.
But what about people who have error in beliefs or behavior yet sincerely want to know and practice the truth? That is the second principle: the exception to the rule, the grace mixed with the law. As we already demonstrated, Gentiles were outside our Lord’s normal sphere of ministry. However, two passages of Scripture reveal that the boundary lines of His truth circles were sufficiently flexible to allow for an exception to His usual principle of ministry. In Christ’s encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28), we are reminded that His ordinary ministry was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (v. 24). Nevertheless, He made an exception to that rule for a specific reason, namely, her great faith (v. 28). Likewise, for the Roman centurion in Luke 7:1-10 our Lord made an exception on the same basis, his great faith (v. 9). Following Christ’s example, we, too, should set aside our normal rule of ministry and fellowship if God brings into our sphere of influence an erroneous though earnest truth seeker.
Because the modern church has become so influenced by our emotion-dominated culture, the whole idea of truth circles tends to run across the grain of our wanting to just love everyone the same. Why not just let love cover our doctrinal and lifestyle differences with others? Because the Bible teaches that there is one thing that is worse than division. It is unity in error, what is called ecumenism. This is one of two extremes of relating that God wants us to avoid. Ecumenism is the false notion that there are no truth circles because we ALL have the truth. The opposite extreme is likewise to be avoided, namely isolationism, also a false notion that there are no truth circles because we ONLY have the truth. The Bible, however, teaches that we are neither to join with all nor are we to withdraw from all, but rather we are to have various levels of fellowship (truth shared in common) based upon the level of truth or error (in both doctrine and lifestyle) held by others.
Discerning Our Own Truth Circles
In order to be good stewards of our time, talent and treasure, we must discern our own truth circles. We do this by establishing various levels of ministry and fellowship with other people based upon the level of truth or error they hold. Those whose doctrine and lifestyle are least biblical receive the smallest investment of our time, talent and treasure. Those whose doctrine and lifestyle are most biblical receive our greatest investment. And those with great faith who are normally outside our ministry circles become welcomed exceptions to the norm. God’s truth circles solves the historical problem of keeping a wide heart yet walking a narrow path by properly expressing both God’s love (unity) and His holiness (separation) in all our relationships.
As we contemplate our practice of truth circles, several points ought to be kept in mind. First, we should to realize that our truth circles are not static but dynamic. They are ever changing. New acquaintances come into our lives nearly every week, and we must discern how God would have us relate to them on the basis of truth. Old acquaintances may grow in truth or fall into error and thus change in their relationship to us. We, too, grow in our understanding of truth which can change our view of the doctrine and practice of others.
Second, establishing truth circles is God’s means for our stewarding and prioritizing of time, talent and treasure. God desires that we be good stewards of the time and gifts which He has given us for serving Him (1 Pet. 4:10; Matt. 25:27). He wants us to make the most of our time, not spending it on those who reject the truth in either doctrine or practice (Eph. 5:15-17). Actually, we prioritize our time already, either by design or by default. Either we set our priorities or someone else does by taking up our time. And if we are setting our priorities, we are doing so on the basis of God’s principles or on the basis of the world’s principles (sentimentalism, slothfulness, fear of man, materialism, success, etc.). Any way you look at it, prioritizing is going on in your life already. So, why not approach it God’s way and reap the blessings of the nine reasons mentioned at the outset of this article?
Third, we must be diligent to speak the truth in love when we must say no to greater fellowship or ministry. God wants us to exercise selfless love in attitudes and actions toward all mankind, and especially toward fellow believers (1 Pet. 1:22. Make sure your refusal is not because you are being prideful, nasty, critical or unforgiving, but because you really care about God’s truth. Because you want to separate truth from error in your thinking and living. Because you love Christ and want to serve Him in the purity and holiness of His truth.
It is not unloving to dispense God’s truth on God’s terms. Consider the surgeon who offers to freely give a pain-relieving operation to an ailing man. Yet, for all the surgeon’s pleadings, the man will not come to the hospital where the sterile operating room and necessary equipment await him. Instead, he wants his operation performed at his own home and with his own kitchen utensils. In essence, he wants the operation on his own terms which, frankly, won’t be successful. Is the surgeon, therefore, hardhearted because he requires the essential prerequisites? Neither is the Christian who requires a certain measure of faithfulness as a prerequisite to greater fellowship and ministry.
A fourth point to remember in drawing our truth circles is to evaluate doctrinal and moral error using Scripture alone as our standard. We must distinguish biblical doctrines from personal opinions, primary from secondary issues, and clear from unclear matters. The Bible itself infers various categories of doctrine which I have, for the sake of my own recall, labeled the Five I’s of Doctrinal Distinctions: Imperative, Important, Incidental, Indefinite, and Individual.
Imperative doctrine is truth foundational to salvation, such as Christ’s deity, incarnation, substitutionary death and resurrection, and perhaps the integrity of the Scriptures (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2; 3:11; 2 Jn. 10-11; Gal. 2:11-16). These truths will be clearly disclosed to all who love Christ (John 14:21 — “He who loves Me… I will disclose Myself to him”).
Important (but not foundational) doctrines are distinguished by our Lord from secondary matters in the Law of Moses (Matt. 23:23 — “the weightier provisions of the Law”). We have no such statement for the Law of Christ. So, there may be some disagreement among Christians regarding what matters are important and what matters are secondary. A good start, I think, would be the Ten Commandments.
Incidental (secondary) doctrine refers to all remaining principles and precepts of Scripture that are clear. Note, however, that these secondary matters still require obedience (Matt. 23:23 — “…without neglecting the others”).
Indefinite (unclear) doctrine is truth that is clear to God but unclear to fallen, though redeemed, man, such as divorce and remarriage, issues of prophecy, women’s head covering, the Sabbath question, etc. Because these matters are unclear to equally godly men, we must in humility treat them as we do individual opinions (see below). A great difficulty is that Christians even differ over what matters should be in this category. Paul alluded to this category when he declared, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall now fully…” (1 Cor. 13:12). And Peter commented similarly, “speaking in them (Paul’s letters) of these things, in which are some things hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:15).
Finally, individual doctrine refers to personal applications and opinions which are neither right nor wrong in themselves unless they violate a Scriptural principle. Possible examples might include attending movies, watching television, buying insurance, etc. Even in this category, we should sharpen one another through respectful dialogue. Referring to this category, Paul exhorted: “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 15:5b).
In addition to doctrinal error, we must likewise evaluate moral error in another’s life using Scripture alone as our standard. God’s general principle regarding people in moral error is to avoid (or limit) spiritual fellowship yet maintain an evangelistic association in a manner that does not allow negative influence (i.e., not intimate association). As with doctrine, Scripture distinguishes several categories of morally wayward people: unbelievers, believers under church discipline, disorderly (unfaithful) believers, and contentious believers.
Unbelievers are outside the circle of Christian fellowship (2 Cor. 6:14 — “Do not be bound together with unbelievers … for what fellowship has light with darkness?” No fellowship, however, does not mean no association, for we are to be the light of the world. Remember, Jesus ate with sinners for the purpose of converting them (Matt. 9:9-13; cf. also 1 Cor. 5:9-10). Such association, however, must be pursued cautiously and often without our innocent children involved.
Believers under discipline (and perhaps those who should be, yet are not in a church that faithfully practices discipline) are to be treated as a Gentile (unbeliever) (Matt. 18:17.
Disorderly (unfaithful) believers are Christians who are not living faithfully due to an unwillingness to practice the truth they know or to learn new truth that is uncomfortable or inconvenient. Our relationship with them should be civil but not social. As the Psalmist rightly said, “I am a companion of all those who fear Thee, and of those who keep Thy precepts” (Ps. 119:63). Likewise, Paul exhorted, “keep aloof (withdraw) from every brother who leads an unruly (literally, out of order, disorderly, out of step with Scripture) life” (2 Thess. 3:6).
Contentious believers are to be avoided because they stir up strife. Paul exhorts, “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions (divisions) and hindrances to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from (avoid, shun) them” (Rom. 16:17). And again Paul commands, “Reject (avoid) a factious man after a first and second warning” (Tit. 3:10).
Counting the Cost
A fifth point to remember in drawing our truth circles is to count the cost, not only what it will cost you to become discerning (possible loss of “friends,” misunderstandings) but also what it will cost you NOT to become discerning. Think of the consequences of not being able to distinguish good from evil in your thinking and life. Think of what it will mean in your relationship to God. Think of how this will affect your wife, your children and your grandchildren. Practicing discernment will protect and perpetuate truth in your family for generations. Compromising this crucial practice will expose your family to a doctrinal and moral morass.
The sixth, and most important, point in practicing your truth circles is to keep Christ at the center of your relationships. After all, our love for Christ is the only proper motivation for setting priorities with our time, talent and treasure. And what we are really doing is choosing whom Christ most wants us to share Him with as we live with Him moment by moment. He is always with us, He is the center of our life and He wants to be the center of every one of our relationships.
Are you ready to discern your own truth circles? First, draw what looks like a target with about eight or ten concentric circles. Then, starting at the center, write the name of the person or group of persons in your life whose doctrine and lifestyle are most biblical (as you best understand Scripture). Then work your way increasingly outward to the larger circles. The concluding diagram will then represent God’s truth circles for governing your ministry and fellowship — apart from the sway of sentimental emotions. Here’s how my own truth circles worked out: my wife, my faithful children, my co-laborers in ministry, like-minded brethren (especially in my assembly), faithful believers (outside my assembly), new believers, moral unbelievers, unfaithful believers (walking disorderly), believers under discipline, and unregenerate persons. How did yours turn out?
Remember, brethren, truth circles is God’s plan for protecting and perpetuating your faith and your family. Are you using your jeweler’s eye to discern God’s thoughts and ways from those of the world? Are you then arranging your relationships and stewarding your time and gifts accordingly? Fathers, are you guarding your family from poisonous beliefs and behaviors that would pollute their spiritual lives? If so, then you will keep the faith and will pass on the torch of truth to the next generation. And when you meet our Savior face-to-face in heaven, you will hear Him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. You have put Me above your closest friends. You have put My truth above your personal convenience. You have put My goals above your own desires. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”