Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. Galatians 5:13
Churches today seem to enjoy being on one side of the spectrum or the other. Either they have a list of rules as long as the entire Old Testament, or they have zero standards and anything goes.
I recently had over one hundred teenagers and young adults fill out a survey to get their perspectives on the church and various topics that churches should be talking to their young people about. One of the questions is, “Why do you think young adults are leaving our churches?” The next generation has a very interesting perspective and some very unique ideas when it comes to our Christian churches. The answers varied across the board. Some think churches are too stiff and young people just get bored or frustrated with the traditions. Others think churches are compromising and are no different than the world, so young people see no point in going to church after mom and dad stop forcing them. The next generation is hanging in the balance.
So how do we fix it? How do we find the balance between “Only do these things on this list and nothing else,” and “Do whatever you want?”
It starts with the PEOPLE. Church change doesn’t start with the pastor saying, “Alright, we are super messed up and all need to get fixed!” It starts when the Christians that make up the body of believers take personal responsibility and say, “I am messed up and need Jesus to change me.” We must all pursue Christ and His likeness for ourselves.
The key to this is DISCERNMENT. John MacArthur on Grace to You says, “In its simplest definition, discernment is nothing more than the ability to decide between truth and error, right and wrong. Discernment is the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth. In other words, the ability to think with discernment is synonymous with an ability to think biblically.” 1.
I’ve heard many people in Christian circles discuss thinking biblically or thinking in a godly way; but it is much more rare to hear someone use the word discernment. One of my friends has called it “biblical critical thinking.” It’s using the Bible and principles of God’s Word to make decisions that are morally correct, scripturally sound, and honoring to God.
1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 says, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.” The Greek word for “prove” is dokimázō which means “to test, examine, prove, scrutinize (to see whether a thing is genuine or not), as metals, or to recognize as genuine after examination, to approve, deem worthy.” 2. God tells us in this verse that it is important to test things, to examine what is right or wrong; and then, as it says, either hold fast to what is good, or stay away from it if it is evil.
I believe discernment–how to make Biblical decisions–is ignored in the two types of churches for a few different reasons.
First, the “legalistic” churches, the ones that give lists of rules and enjoy telling you their personal standards. I believe they do not teach discernment because it’s easier to teach WHAT to do than WHY to do it. Jefferson Bethke said, “We love to live by the letter of the law and not the Spirit of the law. We do this because the rules are easier to follow.” 3. In the context of Mr. Bethke’s statement, it is easier to tell a young lady, “Please make sure everything comes past your knee and all your sleeves are at least three-fingers’ width,” then to take the time to teach her why she should take care of her body. God loves her so much that He created her in a beautiful, unique way and He demands modesty in heart and attitude, not just outward appearance. (In 1 Peter 3:3-4, note how it says what is most important is not “the outward adorning” but the “hidden [woman] of the heart.”)
How often do we do things just because they are what we’ve always done, or things we are told that it’s just what we do? Do we actually know why we follow certain rules and regulations? It’s the modern-day law of the Old Testament. New Testament Christians in the Bible were hung up on the Law of Moses. That’s why Paul wrote to the church in Galatia saying “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” We don’t have to walk around feeling like we are in one of those yokes they bound oxen with: stiff, unable to walk freely. We have liberty in Christ! “Ye have been called to liberty!”
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have the “liberal” churches, the ones who take the liberty thing just a little too far. Unfortunately, these churches encourage everyone to enjoy their freedom in Christ more than encouraging them to pursue holiness and spiritual maturity. Certain gray areas for some Christians (such as drinking, smoking, “shacking up”, etc) can be completely justified by people in this category. But Galatians 5:13 commands: “only use not that liberty as an occasion to the flesh.” There is grace in Jesus Christ, but it is not there so we can fulfill every fleshly lust we feel or think.
Romans 8:5-8 says, “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” The word “carnally” relates to our human desires. If we continually give in to what we feel and what we want, it is not pleasing to God. In that case, we are living to please ourselves.
For these churches, it is easier to build large congregations and have a happy church when the message is, “Jesus loves you just the way you are and we have liberty in Him to live life how we see fit,” instead of the reconciling, life-changing message of the Gospel. We can come as we are, but Jesus never intends us to stay that way. We should leave church or personal devotions different because we met with Him. The Gospel of Christ becomes a dream-achieving, happiness-promising, prosperity Gospel. However, living to make yourself happy is not living to honor God.
We now understand what discernment is, and we know a few reasons why churches avoid this topic, but what are we supposed to do with this information?
Do you know how much God loves you, unconditionally loves you? Do you know that Jesus Christ left His perfect home in Heaven, where He was adored and worshipped every moment by the angels and there was no sin, sickness, or sadness, to come to earth as a carpenter’s son? He came and lived a perfect, sinless life so we could be restored into a right relationship with Him. He bore your sins and died for them, so we wouldn’t have to. He rose again so we could have eternal life with Him and worship Him for time without end. He makes a way of escape in temptation. He gives peace and joy in trials. He is Jesus, and He deserves more love, adoration, worship, and praise than we can give Him in our short lifetime on earth. Why wouldn’t we want to serve Him and live for Him, when He has done and continues to do so much for us? Living for Him is the least we can do.
Instead of asking “How much can I get away with?” when it comes to piercings, clothing, physicality in relationships, alcohol, drugs, music, and every other questionable topic you can think of . . . why not ask, “How much can I honor Christ with this? How much like Him can I be? How will this help my journey to holiness and Christlikeness?”
You will make mistakes. You will fail. We all do. But use the mistakes as steppingstones, and grow in discernment. Study the Bible, don’t just listen to your preacher or teachers talk about it. Take its truth and principles and use them to make biblically sound decisions in every area of your life.
Christ commands that we use discernment in every area of our life. We should not be tied down by a list of rules, but we should also not be living our life spurred on by every personal whim and selfish desire. We are supposed to make measured, biblical, Christ-honoring decisions in every area of our life. You don’t have to be legalistic or liberal. Pursue Christ with all that you are!
Wherever you are in your walk with Christ, I hope and pray you will make decisions that draw you closer to Him and honor Him more every day.
- (“What is Biblical Discernment and Why Is It Important, para 1. John MacArthur. https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA138/what-is-biblical-discernment-and-why-is-it-important.)