The Path to Discernment in the Local Church: Thoughts from Scot McKnight


In general [when I write here of discernment], I am thinking of what a local church or a local denomination does in order to discern how best to live out the gospel in its day and in its way. While personal discernment for my own life is important, that is not what I have in mind here. Instead, I am concerned with how a local church, often in deep conversation with a denomination, discerns how to live. In fact, often the discernment process occurs at the denominational level to guide each local church.

We do not need to get into all the ways various Christian churches make decisions. Rather, our concern in this book is about discernment at the local church level. Part 5 will probe how churches (locally or denominationally) make decisions about women in church ministries. A tension occurs when a young woman believes she is called to preach or teach publicly but a local church or denomination has “discerned” that to be unacceptable. The young woman’s belief is important to me, and I will deal with this, but our main concern is not so much with her discernment as with the church’s.

A second general issue concerns diversity. Every culture will decide its own patterns for living out the Bible. Turkish Christians will not have the same pattern as that of Southern Californian Christians. Russian Baptists will live out the gospel in ways that differ from Brazilian charismatics. Anglicans in India will choose ways that differ from Anglicans in Wheaton. This is perhaps obvious to many, but we must remind ourselves of the vibrant diversity of the church at the local level. Seeking unanimity on all things is unwise; permitting discernment at the local level can sometimes create too much diversity, but it is wiser to have decisions made on some problems at the local church level than to have everyone under lock and key.

Discernment can be very messy. Discernment is called for on issues that are obviously unclear in the Bible, the gray and fuzzy areas.

No one argues with the clear and unmistakable teachings with which most Christians agree. No one believes it is right to murder. No one believes spousal abuse is right. No one thinks selling off children is acceptable. And in spite of the question about premarital sex that my reader asked on my blog, detailed in a previous chapter of my book The Blue Parakeet, most don’t think premarital sexual intercourse is Christian behavior. These are the clear teachings in the Bible.

Churches, for instance, do need to discern if they want women to preach on Sunday. They will also have to decide how gays and lesbians will participate. These are messy areas. Here’s the rub: to avoid the messiness, some revert to seeing the Bible as a law book. Eventually, though, a day will come when it becomes clear that discernment is going on. Decisions are being made. And that’s what I’m most concerned about in The Blue Parakeet.

Discernment in Action: Divorce and Remarriage

Let me make five quick observations to get in our minds what we mean by discernment in divorce and remarriage.

  1. Jesus was against divorce, as is clear from Mark 10:11–12: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
  2. On another occasion Jesus “discerned” there is, in fact, an exception—sexual immorality. Look at Matthew 5:32: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (emphasis added). Now we’ve got clarity: divorce is wrong except in the case of sexual immorality. If you want to know what Jesus and Jews of his world understood by “sexual immorality,” turn to Leviticus 18 where you can read a list of sexual sins. All those, and probably more, were in Jesus’s mind when he said “sexual immorality.”
  3. The apostle Paul encountered a new situation in which he had to discern how the teachings of Jesus could be lived out when a non-Christian spouse deserted a Christian spouse. Was divorce also permissible for this situation? In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul discerned it was permissible. Paul knew precisely what he was doing—adding to what Jesus had taught. In 7:12 he says: “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord).” What did he discern? “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace” (7:15).
  4. Being true to Jesus, Paul is not looking for exceptions. He prefers that husband and wife stay together because the Christian might “save” the partner (7:16). But if the nonbeliever deserts, Paul discerns divorce is permissible, and he does so because we are called “to live in peace,” which probably means Paul wants the Christians not to be disruptive in society.
  5. Churches are called to enact similar discernments today, and long, hard, prayerful sessions have been directed at discerning whether abuse and desertion and immaturities are permissible grounds for divorce among Christians. No one says it is easy, but we have the following confidences: the guidance of the Spirit is promised us as we pray, as we study Scripture, and as we join in the conversation with church tradition. There will be both conservation and some innovation. It would be much easier for God to have given us rules and regulations for everything. But God, in his wisdom, has chosen not to do that. Discernment is an element of what it means to walk by faith.
  6. I believe our discernments should never become rules or laws. The moment we turn our discernments into rules or the moment we elevate them to the level of official positions, they are headed in the direction of fossilization, inflexibility, and the near impossibility of rethinking, renewing, and reforming. Instead, we need to render discernments with all the wisdom we can muster and let them remain as discernments and judgments, not rules or laws. At times churches and denominations will have to produce a “white paper” or a “statement” or even give a press release, but such official statements are needed only rarely, and probably less often than rarely.
  7. In our discussion of examples, we will find some patterns at work in our discernment, but these are not rules we apply; rather, they are discernments. I am nervous about anyone who thinks we can find a mechanism that will guide our path. Instead, we need attentiveness to the guiding of the Spirit as we read the Bible together.

I accept the reality that churches disagree over discernments. I also accept that the process will be difficult. Even within a church where a sensitive process of discernment has been followed, there will be folks who disagree. That’s the way it is, the way the church has always read the Bible. Longing for a day of certainty and uniformity in that certainty in this life may propel us into deeper discussions and the search for greater unity, but certainty and unanimity in discernment are not the world in which we live.

What the New Testament trajectory teaches us about divorce and remarriage is the need to remain firmly committed to marriage while permitting divorce in cases where the marital covenant has been destroyed. The pattern is to discern the underlying reason for the fractured relationship and then to judge if that reason is acceptable.

— Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Second Edition)

How to Use This Book

The Blue Parakeet is a reexamination of the Bible that calls all Christians to stop taming the Bible and to let it speak anew to our hearts. It is a perfect selection for small groups, Bible studies, and adult Sunday school. This new second edition includes new sections on race and slavery, the atonement, Genesis and science, and kingdom and justice issues such as the place of women in the church.

Pick up copies of The Blue Parakeet (Second Edition) today.

The Blue Parakeet

Scot McKnight

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