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In Christianity, to discern is to...

[i]dentify the true nature of a spirit, doctrine, practice, or group; distinguish truth from error, extreme error from slight error, the divine from the human and the demonic.
Definition from: "A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy Part One: The Case For Doctrinal Discernment" (an article from the Christian Research Journal, Summer 1990, page 28) by Robert M. Bowman.

The two main Greek words translated as "discernment" are anakrino, meaning to examine or judge closely, and diakrino, to separate out, to investigate, to examine.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. {13} For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. {14} But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

The Bible teaches that Christians ought to learn to discern. They must be able to test teachings against the Biblical standard.

Paul told the Thessalonians:

Do not quench the Spirit; {20} do not despise prophetic utterances. {21} But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; {22} abstain from every form of evil.

While he encouraged the Thessalonians not to discount or dismiss the Holy Spirit by despising that which was being taught as coming from God (prophecy), Paul instructed them to test everything.

Earlier, Luke had noted that the people of Berea ...

... were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining [anakrino] the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. {12} Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.

Christians who believe that the Spiritual Gifts are still available today, see the gift of ''distinguishing between spirits'' (discerning whether they are human, from God, or demonic), to be a special form of discernment (revealed, instead of learned):

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. {8} To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, {9} to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, {10} to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. {11} All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

Some Christian apologetics and/or countercult organizations describe themselves as discernment ministries.

Discernment includes judging - a practice many Christians are confused about.


For most Christians today, the challenge of learning how to discern orthodox from heretical doctrine has apparently not been faced. Either they treat doctrine as minimally important and so regard charges of "heresy" as rude and unloving, or they treat doctrine as all-important and so regard anyone who disagrees with them in the slightest as a heretic. In short, most believers seem to think either that there are almost no heretics or that almost everybody outside their own little group is a heretic.

The cause of doctrinal discernment, then, is in serious jeopardy. Although anticult and discernment ministries are mushrooming everywhere, many of them operate on the basis of an excessively narrow understanding of orthodoxy. Consequently, such groups are charged deservedly with "heresy hunting" and discredit the practice of doctrinal discernment. At the other extreme — and often overreacting to such heresy hunters — are those within the Christian community who reject any warnings of heresy among professing Christians.

In this two-part article I will attempt to set forth a balanced approach to the issue of doctrinal heresy. In this first part I will present a biblical case for the practice of discerning orthodox from heretical doctrines. In the second part I will offer guidelines for doctrinal discernment.
Christian A Censorious [Critical] Spirit George D. Watson provides insight into the character and spiritual immaturity of those who criticise in an un-Scriptural and un-Christlike manner. See also the companion article, A Gentle Spirit
Christian Discernment Indepth article by Robert Longman.

See Also

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First posted: Nov. 2, 1996
Last Updated: Dec. 15, 2003
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