April 22, 2018

Reading Diversely and Discerningly

Written By Cary Schmidt

Every Christian leader should read—often, diversely, and discerningly.

I live in a region of America where we are often witnessing to atheists, Catholics, denominational Christians, post-moderns, skeptics, secularists, wiccans, sexually confused, and academically accomplished people. We are simply forced to understand their thinking so that we can lead them away from error and into truth.

It’s the most wonderful experience to see the light bulb of the gospel shine light on darkened thinking. I recently met with a couple who had been visiting Emmanuel since November. We spent three hours together, explaining the gospel and answering their questions. This past Sunday, with broad smiles, they told me they had accepted Jesus as Saviour.

This is gospel ministry—and it involves the work of understanding and being informed on the errors of the 21st century, so as to surgically apply the gospel to those errors. This is exactly what Paul and the Apostles did in the first century (See Acts 17).

Leading a pagan heart to trust Jesus is often a process of deconstructing lies and reconstructing truth. This requires patience and understanding.

Thinking is a good thing, and whenever someone in my life has attempted to tell me I’m reading or thinking “too much” I’ve been alarmed by their suggestion and motives. God’s truth has never been afraid of careful examination, cross-examination, questions, or rigorous investigation.

Here are the reasons I read often, diversely, and discerningly; and I encourage you to do the same:

1. I have always been taught to read widely. Every major leader in my life over the past 49 years (and they are many) taught me both in word and deed to read with diversity. I don’t know a well-known, godly leader who doesn’t read a great diversity of authors—both Christian and secular.

2. It is biblical to learn and to discern. Paul admonished Timothy to study. John warned Christians to discern the spirits. Paul was extremely well educated. Proverbs instructs us to seek wisdom and understanding. The list could go on…

3. I want to know what I believe. It’s one thing to be “told” what I believe. It’s another to study it, consider the arguments, weigh the evidence, and land on a strong conclusion. To do so, I must read with diversity and discernment. In the Christian context, I must we willing to hear an argument, but then to test that argument by what Scripture actually says, as did the saints at Berea.

4. I want to know what others believe. It is wise to understand what others believe—first, so I can contrast truth with error; but second, so I can dialogue reasonably and intelligently—perhaps winning them to truth.

5. I want to keep learning. If I read only those with whom I agree, I’m not really learning so much as I am reaffirming what I’ve already learned. It’s like attending a pep rally rather than winning over new believers.

6. I want to get out of the “echo chamber.” The gospel is both simple and infinite. It’s awesome to explore God’s truth and to realize, as simple as it is, I will never exhaust it in my study.

7. I want to understand counter-arguments. It is wise to understand the counter-arguments to what I believe. Truth has never been intimidated by examination or questions.

8. I want to make informed decisions. My doctrinal positions are chosen intentionally, and not merely by “group think.” Many Christians fall away from faith because they were simply told what to believe rather than taught to study and discover the substance of their belief.

9. I want to build the best case I can to persuade others. My calling is to bring outsiders into truth. That is impossible if I don’t have a persuasive case and if that case isn’t informed and well supported.

10. I want to follow Jesus, not control men. Men who say, “Don’t read” or “only read my stuff…” are merely saying, “I want to control the narrative in your head.” First, it is hypocritical—they read. Second, it is fearful—they are afraid of losing control of you. Third, it’s dangerous—no man should have exclusive spiritual influence in your life or ministry.

11. I want to be real enough to admit where I was wrong. Over 42 years as a Christian, I’ve been wrong a lot—just ask my family! I have always had a lot to learn, and still do. Some people/positions aren’t as right (or wrong) as I was told. There are groups that want to fight on small hills, making them appear to be big hills. At times I have fought on the wrong hills, and my strong opinions, though passionately felt and well meaning, were not scriptural. An unwillingness to learn is an unwillingness to grow. Sometimes our opinions are like security blankets, and we live in fear of losing them. By God’s grace, I’ve lost some security blankets, but God replaced each of them with His strong foundation of grace and truth.

12. I want to think and see things through different lenses. Two people can see the same thing, believe the same thing, but describe it very differently. I love the diversity of perspective that comes through reading multiple authors on the same topic.

13. I want to learn critical thinking. Many Christians have mastered the art of criticism, but not critical thinking. Critical thinking is the ability to objectively look at a matter, to differentiate it from your identity and emotions, and to be able to choose truth because it is true. Critical thinking is not dangerous, it is wise. We need less criticism and more critical thinking in Christianity today.

14. I want to increase my vocabulary. Reading diversely has a practical value in that you learn new words and new ways of communicating God’s truth.

15. I believe in the priesthood of the believer. My goal is to equip the Christians around me with discernment to think biblically and independently of me.

16. I believe in the discerning presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is the responsibility of God’s Spirit to “guide me into all truth.” My prayer for our church family is that they will grow in discernment to know truth and error.

In closing, this post has two contexts, primarily to leaders, so allow me to be clear. The first is to read Christian or secular authors with discernment. The second is to be familiar with the counter-arguments and the cultural narrative of unbelievers.

Emphatically, I’m not talking about consuming wickedness or engaging in sinful practice for the purpose of “awareness.” Clearly, I’m not encouraging you to embrace false teaching or harmful theology. Actually, what I wrote above will booster and equip you against bad teaching.

Finally and most importantly, the key to all of this is discernment and critical thinking.

John warned New Testament believers to “try to the spirits”—put the modern messages to the test of God’s Spirit and Scripture. He didn’t say “ignore them,” “hide from them,” or “refuse to be aware of them”—quite the opposite. He’s saying “be aware, and try them—be discerning, be scriptural, and put them to the test.” See for yourself:

“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. 4 Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. 5 They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. 6 We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:1-6)