Book Club Discussion: Discernment or Hypocrisy... or a Bit of Both?


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Part 3 of The Blue Parakeet addresses what author Scot McKnight refers to as “patterns of discernment” for reading the Bible. McKnight has already established the fact that we all pick and choose (or adopt and adapt) when reading and applying Scripture. Here he seeks to analyze how and why we do it.

[Aside: Anyone who still thinks that good Christians do not pick and choose, and wants to continue to argue this point, must answer the following questions before posting a comment: #1 Have you sold all of your belongings and given them to them to the poor? (Matthew 19:23-24) #2 Do you recite the Lord’s Prayer every time you pray? (Luke 11:2) If you answer yes to both, then you may post a comment about how you do not pick and choose...which will no doubt be a challenge, seeing as you have no computer.]

Anyway, according to McKnight, adopting and adapting is nothing to be ashamed of. He writes, “...It is my belief that we—the church—have always read the Bible in a picking and choosing way. Somehow, someway we have formed patterns of discernment that guide us.” (p. 123)

According to McKnight, how one discerns is heavily influenced by his or her local church, denominational affiliation, and culture. (I suppose we “postmodern” folks might call these interpretive communities.) He acknowledges that this results in both diversity and disagreement.

Using several compelling examples from church history, as well contemporary debates, McKnight identifies several patterns of discernment.

For example, the Apostle Paul’s incredibly controversial statement that circumcision was not necessary for Christian converts, that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value...the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” represents a pattern of discernment that McKnight calls “theological development.”

He writes, “In other words, ‘that theology was then, but this theology is now.’”(136)

Another example comes from 1 Peter, where women are instructed to avoid elaborate hairstyles, gold jewelry and fine clothing. Several readers in a previous post applied the same pattern of discernment that McKnight identifies. Several of you concluded that the best way to apply this teaching to our day and culture is to encourage women to dress modestly and avoid wearing fancy, expensive clothes that might create cultural barriers between themselves and others in the church or community. McKnight writes that “this pattern of discernment might be called the deeper principle. This approach knows that the principle is transcultural.” (p. 138)

A third example concerns cosmology. While our cosmology is helio-centric (sun-centered), the Bible’s is clearly geo-centric (earth-centered). Obviously, most Christians do not believe that the earths sits atop a stable foundation with pillars or that there are four literal corners of the earth (Job 9:5, 38:4-7; Proverbs 8:27-29; Revelation 7:1). Writes McKnight, “The pattern of discernment here is simply growth in knowledge, scientific and otherwise.”

(I wonder if we should discuss the possibility of applying this pattern of discernment to Genesis 1?)

A fourth example concerns the death penalty, which is often hotly contested within Christian communities. “The pattern of discernment for those who oppose capital punishment,” says McKnight, “combines social progress, historical development, legal development, and the theological development that climaxes with Jesus’ own teaching.”

McKnight also examines controversial subjects like speaking in tongues and divorce, examining the different patterns of discernment applied to those issues. 

These chapters represent a lot of what I like about Scot McKnight. He addresses messy, controversial issues with clarity, candor, and humility. He doesn’t reveal exactly where he stands on each issue, but presents both sides fairly. His point seems to be to start a conversation, to identify patterns of discernment so that we are aware of them, rather than trying to insist that there is one right way to discern.

Writes McKnight: “It is my belief that most Christians and churches do operate within a pattern of discernment, but it is rarely openly admitted and even more rarely clarified. Discernment, I am arguing, is how we have always read the Bible; in fact, it is how biblical authors themselves read the Bible they had! I want to begin a conversation among Bible readers about this very topic: What pattern of discernment is at work among us?” (p. 144)

When I ask myself that question, I certainly think of some of McKnight's examples, several of which are good examples of what I consider to be wise discernment. We've often used these approaches in our discussions here on the blog. (For example, I think that most of us have established a common pattern of discernment in agreeing that God's command concerning mixed fibers in Leviticus 19 is culturally specific and need not be applied literally today. However, there has been some disagreement among us about whether God's commands concerning homosexuality in the same passage do indeed apply. We have some competing patterns of discernment here, which have made for interesting conversations.)

But when I ask myself what patterns of discernment I observe in my life and in the life of the church, I can't help but add another, less flattering pattern to McKnight's list. It seems to me that a  lot of us pick and choose, (or adopt and adapt) based on comfort levels. In other words, I’d argue that one of the most common discernment patterns is psychological. It goes something like this: “I don’t like it, so I don’t think it applies,” or, “that verse condemns someone else’s behavior, not mine, so it does apply.”

So does this make me a hopeless cynic?

I know that McKnight is trying to highlight ways in which we discern wisely, and I believe that many people do in fact try to discern wisely in many situations, but I also think that sometimes what masquerades as “discernment” is nothing better than hypocrisy.

When was the last time we took the Apostle Paul’s condemnation of gossip and arrogance as seriously as we take his condemnation of homosexuality? I myself like to think that Jesus didn’t really mean it when he said “every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” I look for ways to “discern” that little verse away, if you konw what I mean. :)

In the end, I think that we adopt and adapt with mixed motives and that it’s important to recognize this.Sometimes our prejudices and biases can get in the way of wise discernment.

So, what do you think? What patterns of discernment do you observe? Which ones have affected your life most profoundly? Which ones do you struggle with the most?

Be sure to check in next week for what should be an interesting conclusion to our discussion of The Blue Parakeet. McKnight uses as a case study women in church ministry. Knowing this group, this should get interesting!

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