Theological reflection on the praxis of spiritual discernment
Dr Frederick Marais
(Buvton: Stellenbosch)

GDN 2006

As a theologian committed to the missional  vision I regards spiritual discernment as a key praxis in the live of the church. There has been keen interest in the practice of discernment the past decade that resulted in a number of publications published the past five to ten years  on this topic. While doing research on the praxis of Corporate Spiritual Discernment  I realized that Spiritual Discernment was, and for many still is, not a popular theological topic. Theological training at mainline seminaries should start necessary theological reflection on this praxis in order to serve the discerning faith communities with a theological frame. A number of theological questions keep popping up while I read through the material. This article aims to stimulate theological discussion on the practice of corporate spiritual discernment. The list is of questions ask is not a complete list but is meant to be a start.

  • Why is Corporate Spiritual Discernment a “lost” praxis?


The New Testament scholar of Candler, Luke Timothy Johnson in his study on spiritual discernment in the book of Acts, identify four main challenges the young Jerusalem congregation had to face, namely the decision to continue preaching (Act 4:23-31), the choosing of the seven (Act 6:1-6), the acceptance of Paul as disciple (Acts 9:26-30) and the Jerusalem Council’s decision on the baptism of the gentiles and the requirement of the circumcision. (Acts 14:26-15:35)  He shows convincingly that what we would call corporate spiritual discernment today, was an active practice in the first congregation in Jerusalem. The contrast between decision making in the first congregation and decision making in churches today is stark. It is almost as if it is two totally different social institutions with active discernment on every step of the way in Jerusalem and a orderly process of decision making that was shaped by Roberts Rule Book on the other hand. There is many sociological, cultural and historical reasons for the lost of discernment in churches today. The most important reason has to do with the mission frontier position in Acts and the power position of churches in society in the Christendom era  and the related Christendom Theology with its emphasis on the maintenance of Christianity. When actively participating in the Missio Dei, it seem obvious and necessary to make decisions through discernment, testing the spirits in the uncertain position of a church in a mission frontier (1 Cor:12:10). As churches are confronted with a new post-christendom frontier today spiritual discernment is re-discovered as core praxis of every local congregation.


  • Scripture as an authorative text in discerment

There is no debate on the importance of Scripture in the process of corporate spiritual discernment. It is unfortunately true that spiritual discernment in many models becomes a contemplative exercise in which scripture seems to loose its normative and authorative role.   The question seems to be how scripture can remain an authorative text in dialog with the contemporarty witnesses of the faithful? In Jerusalem the leadership was constantly confronted by the surprising testimonies of the missionaries. The testimonies of Paul and Barnabas challenged the Jerusalem leaders with the reality of gentiles that now has become part of their “movement”. We know there was strong opposition from “some men from Judea” (Acts 15:1)  At the meeting in Jerusalem the testimony of the missionaries, first Peter (1-11) and then Paul and Barnabas(12), was followed by a citing of Amos 9:11-12 by James.  James starts his contribution interestingly with, “The words of the prophets agree with this…” It is clear that God’s intentions are revealed not only in the words of the prophet but also in the narrative of the missionaries. The dialog between these two texts, “…Peter’s story is key to understanding the Scripture”  and Scripture, helped them to understand the implications of Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

The obvious fact that the narrative of Acts is a narrative about missionaries crossing boundaries, can easily be overlooked.   If it is true that the church is called to participate in God’s mission to the world, discernment will always involve listening to more than one text as we have seen in the Acts narrative?  Discernment with God’s mission to the world in mind can therefore never be done without listening to the texts of the stranger as a integral part of God’s revelation.  There is ample Biblical witness to indicate that God has not only identified Himself with the stranger but actually reveals Himself through the presence of the stranger. Acts of hospitality, as a deep listening to the stranger, is therefore a important hermeneutical act in the discernment process.  Lesselie Newbigin therefore challenges the Western Church to listen to those “on the other side”.

Patrick Keifert describes this dialog in his rhetorical model as a process of de-centering.   “When we are hospitable to strangers …we are de-centered from our center role as rhetors, as actors by (1) the other (2) the self (3) the Other.  In the act of de-centering, understanding takes place in-directly, through the eyes and experience of others. Keifert clearly implies that deep listening cannot take place unless the listener de-centers itself to give “the other” center stage as actors.

The Biblical story reminds us that de-centering is not always voluntarily but some times an act of God to force a self-centered community into the position of servant hood or even slavery. For the exile community in Babel it meant a  “loss of  (1) a structured, reliable ‘world’ where  (2) treasured symbols of meaning are mocked and dismissed”   In this radical de-centering, what the exile perceived to be “a given” was deconstructed to the point that almost nothing makes sense any more.  De-centered listening, voluntarily or forced, are by no means a romantic endeavor but a shocking experience of being powerless, “…like lambs into the mist of wolves.” (Luke 10:3) Brueggemann perceive this power-less position in discernment as a   potential advantage: “I suggest that the ‘exile’ (as metaphor) is a rich resource for fresh discernment, even though a Christian exile in a secular culture and a cultural exile with the loss of conventional hegemony are very different.”  The question is how discerning communities can take the challenge of the power shifts of these “post” worlds as a God given opportunity. It is in the post-Jerusalem, post-christendom, post-apartheid, post-modernism or post-communist  world that the opportunity arises for the discerning community to understand the truth about God and his Kingdom anew in dialog with “the other.”

  • Scripture as a formative text in discernment

Now the question arises, how Scripture can also be a formative text in discernment? In Rom 12:1-2 Paul’s plea is that our “minds” should be trans-formed in order to discern Gods will. Discernment is clearly a process that trans-form people. John Ackerman suggests that leadership in the church has to understand that in other to be “shaped”  by the Word, they need to re-position from being an “expert” to be a “knower”.   Trained theologians, influenced by modernistic epistemology of the so-called objective knowledge,  take the position of the experts in the faith community, and expect that others, who are the amateurs, to listen to them! The unfortunate legacy of this so-called objective knowledge in terms of spiritual discernment is clear. This myth of objective knowledge creates a division in the discerning community of experts and amateurs.  God and His Missio Dei, like any other subject, becomes the object of study. “Experts” accumulate more and more knowledge about Him and through preaching and other teaching programs in the congregation, teach the amateurs (read: impose on them) what is true about Him and His Kingdom. Paul’s vision, in Rom 12:1-2 on discerning the truth is by no means a process about God, or knowledge about God, or about the truth, but a vision of people being transformed by the truth.  “The truth is not impose upon us, for indeed truth has not done its work unless and until we have learned to honor and love it from our hearts as truth. But we do not reach truth unless we allow ourselves to be exposed to or drawn by a truth which is beyond our present understanding. The important thing is not how we formulate a doctrine of biblical authority but how we allow the Bible to function in our daily lives. We grow into knowledge of God by allowing the biblical story to awaken our imagination and to challenge and stimulate out thinking and acting.”  In corporate spiritual discernment there are indeed no experts but only beggars who read Scripture, reflect on tradition, and listen to the others, in dependency on the Holy Spirit to from and trans-form us into a faithful and obedient community of disciples. Scripture is no rulebook, neither a set o objective truths that only needs to be known and applied; it is Gods word to His people in the context where they need to follow Him in His Missio Dei.

  • Some comments on the “why” and “how” of discerning conversation?

It is important to reflect on what we want to achieve when we do corporate spiritual discernment. Why should we do discernment? I would like to propose that is not so much about the will of God as it is about “hearing Gods call”   We have seen that in the Acts narrative that discernment had to do with the mission of the Jerusalem congregation. For them it basically had to do with the question on defending their “Jewish” identity in this new Christian movement, or the inclusion of the gentiles? They were confronted by these mission questions all the time. Though the answers might seem obvious to us today, we need to appreciate their anxiety in a hostile context, with no guarantee about what was going to happen to them in the future. The truth about God is a truth to be discovered on the missionary road. Jesus therefore told the disciples in John 16 that they will discover the “full” truth as and when they cross new boundaries.

Discernment arises from the confession that God is active in history to fulfill His promise of the coming and realization of His Kingdom. Form the confession that God is sovereign in His grace and caring fidelity, the faith community responds to “…pattern its life on what it grasps to be the nature of the divine Sovereign.”  In response to God’s activity, the faith community interprets historically, critically and with theological sensitivity in order to constitute a trustworthy witness of God’s  intend. Discernment is therefore a “response” to “who God is” and what He is historically “up to”.

H Richard Niebuhr warns that this is foreign to the western worldview. He explains that the two dominant metaphors in the western worldview are “man-the-maker” and “man-the-citizen”.   For  “man-the-maker”, discerning is all about what  we can achieve. Humans are the achievers of their own goals and creator of their own destiny. Everybody needs to be “purpose-driven” in order to be faithful to God’s intentions.  “Man-the-citizen” on the other hand,  is trying to create an orderly society where people obey the laws agreed upon. To define and obey the Divine laws would be the aim of discernment within this pattern.  The image of “man-the-law-maker” and “law-abider” create a safe and orderly world where the complexities of live can be limited.  The temptation for man-the-law-maker would be to draw straight lines that do not take into account the radical uniqueness of the Kingdom of God.  In both these visions, discernment can easily derail to serve the human desire to apply him or her and control the world in self-governance.

Niebuhr continues to propose a third alternative metaphor, “man-the-answerer”.  “What is implicit in the idea of responsibility is the image of man-the-answerer, man engaged in dialogue, man acting in response to action upon him.”  Where the basic question of man-the-maker is: “How can I achieve good?” and Man-the-citizen asks: “What is the right thing to do?” Man-the-answerer in contrast asks: “What is going on, and what will be a fitting response to what is going on?”  For the Christian community this question of what is going on?, will include and start with: “What is God up to?” In following Niebuhr, discernment should always start with theo-logical questions. Who God is and what God is up to? should pro-cedes all the ecclesial, political, economical and ethical questions in the discernment liturgy. Although faith communities seem reluctant to ask the God-questions  there is no other place to start. Once discovered, it can free the discerning community from its secular and humanistic anxieties of self-achievement and self-fulfillment.  It also implies that there are no objective truths that the discerning community can apply regardless there history or context. If discernment is a response to the triune God’s Missio Dei, discernment is the responsibility of every faith community, local and global, and to every new generation to discern on a fitting response to God’s active and faithful presence. 


  • Discerning and detecting God the Spirit locally and pubically

We have established that the discerning community cannot but be local and within a particular time and culture. Newbigin clearly understood that we should abandon any attempt to work with “grand narratives” and that we should value locality or to be “…in each place”. In his reflection on the report by the WCC’s consultation on “congregational life” in Geneva 1976, Newbigin underlines the significance of local congregations.   “Place”, he argues, is not a geographic reference but “its place in the fabric of human society.”   The relationship between the local church and its “place” most is understood christlogically: “the relationship of the church to its ‘place’ is to be governed by the relationship of Christ to the world.”   The church “in each place” should be like Christ a sign, foretaste and an instrument.  In order that the church may truly be a sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose to consummate all things in Christ, it must in each place be credible as a sign, foretaste and instrument in relation to the secular realities of that place.”  

The church relationship to “place” is in terms of its Christological definition not “of” but “for that place.”   “The whole existence of the congregation must be such as to mediate to the people of that place the call of Christ which speaks to them as they are but calls them from what they are in order that- in Christ- they may become God’s new creation… the true catholicity of the Church, rooted in the being of the Triune God, is such that neither does universality cancel the particularity or “each” place, not does locality deny universality, for the “full flowering of the life of Christ must be present in each local church” 

Micheal Welker echoes Newbigin’s emphasis on locality and particularity in his work on God the Spirit.  “The community of those upon whom the Spirit has come is to grow out of diverse concreteness of individual life and suffering, the fullness of which cannot be taken in from any one perspective.”  The local congregation is therefore, as Newbigin would constantly reminds us “the first hermeneutic of the gospel.”  The church in its denominational and ecumenical structures should put this into practice by encouraging local congregations to become a first hermeneutic of the gospel. This can only be done if local congregations are permitted to become missional faith communities in discerning God’s preferred future for their community. This can only happen if seminaries start to realize that discernment is key to the future of the church.



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