A crisis is fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish. Many rumours and ideas with little supporting evidence can circulate rapidly. At times these theories do not change people’s lives much. But if it changes behaviour in relation to protecting life and health it becomes different. Some theories are related to the Bible or are shared by Christians. Others function like religious beliefs. In this, as in all truth claims, we need the grace of discernment. We need to know the Scriptures well and accurately to test what we hear. How much is it someone’s personal opinion or does it have the authority of the Bible? In other matters we need to apply the principles of Scripture. We need to be very careful about preserving and promoting the truth (Zechariah 8:16). This involves avoiding rushing to hasty judgments about doubtful things in case we are spreading false rumours, especially if it could be slander (Proverbs 6:19 and 29:11). We need to consider what impact our opinions may have on others. Yet we also need to avoid evil suspicion since even some truly biblical beliefs are widely ridiculed and this does not make them wrong. We should not be gullible about mainstream opinions either. When online sermons, teaching and discussions are everywhere, we also need to know what we can trust. How do we discern true biblical teaching and weigh carefully claims that we encounter?
1 Thessalonians 5:21 helps us with understanding our duty of discernment. It speaks of testing or proving all things, including what we hear. As James Fergusson observes, it belongs in a list of instructions for living as Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:11-22). 1 Thessalonians 5:21
Fergusson clarifies that not despising preaching (v20) does not mean Paul requires obedience without question to everything which ministers preach. He commands them to prove and test accurately what they hear by the written Word (Acts 17:11). The word in Greek implies testing something by a standard as goldsmiths test gold using a touchstone.
To hold fast literally means to hold tightly with both hands, against all who would withstand it. They must hold fast that which is good, or what testing has shown to be good doctrine firmly grounded on the Word. They are consequently to abstain from that which is found to be evil or unsound. Fergusson goes on to make the following observations.
1. Christians Must Discern
Most people are naturally so foolish and unthinking that when they are running from one sinful extreme, they are in no small danger of going to the other unawares. The evil they are fleeing from is always in front of them. Thus, while they are so greatly intent on avoiding it, they do not notice the snare behind them. Paul implies this in dissuading them from the extreme of blind obedience to their ministers after having dissuaded from the other extreme of despising preaching (v20).
2. Christians Can Discern
All Christians may not have received an equal measure of gifts (Romans 14:1). The Lord has, however, given a spirit of discerning, in a greater or a lesser measure to all. If this is diligently and carefully made best use of through searching Scripture (Acts 17:11) and prayer (Psalm 119:19), they may be enabled to evaluate what they hear in preaching. In doing this they will choose and embrace what is sound and nourishing, and refuse and reject whatever is erroneous and hurtful. If they did not have such a spirit of discernment given them by God, it would have been pointless to instruct them “to prove all things” and “hold fast that which is good”.
3. Christians Must Discern Carefully
The spirit of discernment that God gives to Christians, should be exercised in evaluating their minister’s teaching. This does not mean they pass judicial sentence on him; they are not his judges (1 Corinthians 14:32). Neither does it allow them to vent disparaging censures against him, making his ministry repellent to others in all things. It means discerning how to regulate their own behaviour in choosing what is right and refusing what is wrong in what they hear. He instructs them to exercise discretion in relation to their own practice so that they may “hold fast” what is good.
4. Christians Must Test Their Opinions
A fixed resolution to maintain any opinion constantly should flow from a rational conviction (after careful search) that the opinion we hold is true and sound. Otherwise our constancy and fixed resolution is only self-willed pertinacity (Jeremiah 44:16). So, when truth is discovered after careful enquiry, we ought to be so fixed and absolute in our resolution to maintain it that we may not waver or be tossed to and fro with any contrary wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). Before they are resolved, he urges them to prove or test and then hold fast without wavering what they have proved to be good.
5. Christians Must Not Abuse Their Freedom
Christians must abstain from and avoid not only that which is really and in itself evil and sinful, but also any appearance or representation of evil (v22). They must avoid anything (unless commanded by God) that may give just grounds of suspicion to unprejudiced onlookers. These are those who are not malicious (Galatians 2:4-5), even though they may be weak (1 Corinthians 10:28). They may have just reason to suspect those practising such things as being guilty of wrongdoing. This might include dangerous phrases of speech in preaching even though they are not plainly heretical (1 Timothy 6:3). Other examples include eating at a feast in an idol’s temple (1 Corinthians 10:21) or close and unnecessary company with ungodly, immoral persons without a call (Luke 22:55). Close company in private suspicious places with persons of a different sex, especially if he or she has a bad reputation must also be avoided.
A conscientious, sensitive Christian must consider the eye of men as well as the all-seeing eye of God in abstaining from evil. They must not only abstain from what their own conscience will condemns as vile in itself and in God’s sight. Anything that has the appearance of evil to others and by which his good name might be justly wounded by others is also to be avoided. Conscientious Christians will not only strive to walk without falling. They will also seek to avoid being the occasion of others falling by their careless use of Christian liberty. They will strive to be on their guard against all, not just some temptations. They will not do this merely at some times, but always. This is required as the highest point of a spiritually sensitive Christian walk, to abstain from the appearance of evil. They abstain from that by which someone’s reputation might justly suffer or his neighbour be made to stumble. They will abstain not only from some but from all appearance of evil.
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