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Evangelical Christians Aren’t as “Discerning” as They Think They Are


Evangelical Christians love to think that they have — thanks to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit — some sort of supernatural discernment power that allows them to ferret out the true spiritual condition of everyone with whom they come in contact. Evangelicals, in particular, believe they have some sort of God-given radar that locks on unknown believers and lets them know that they are fellow believers. This radar is a spiritual paternity test of sorts, letting Evangelicals know when one of their family is in the vicinity. I heard countless preachers say that the “spirits” of two or more believers recognize each other when they come in contact with each other. Woo hoo! God’s children are in the house, baby!

Several years ago, a Christian who commented about unbelieving clergy still pastoring churches illustrated this point:

I also can’t help but think that living and walking out a lie every day is going to eventually take a psychological/emotional toll on anyone. I think it would also work against the pastor really being vulnerable or drawing close to his/her congregation for fear of letting something slip. Eventually people who are closer to the pastor will be able to discern that something just isn’t quite right here.

According to this Christian, she gets Spiderman-like tingly feelings that would let her know if a pastor is faking it. The idea behind her feelings is the notion that Christians can know a pastor well enough that any lying or dishonesty would peg their lie-meter, exposing the hypocrite for all to see. The problem with this thinking is that in real life that’s not how it works. Lying and deception are all too common, and even the most aware among us can be deceived. Believing that there is some sort of spiritual power that gives you laser-like discernment has no grounding in reality. Countless churches — from Liberal Christian to Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) — have passionate, devoted teachers and preachers of the Word of God who are, without question, unbelievers. Some of them I know personally. A few unbelieving pastors have been using fake-it-’til-you-make-it (to retirement) for years. These men genuinely love their congregations, even though they think the Christian God is a work of fiction.

I hate to break it to Christians, but there is no such thing as a spirit of discernment. The reason, of course, is that we humans don’t have a spirit/soul. We are flesh and blood. Certainly, we develop psychological skills that allow us to read people, and we often have gut feelings about them. That Spiderman-like tingly feeling we have is the result of evolution and environmental/social conditioning, and not some sort of divine gift given only to Christians. In fact, the belief that God gives you discernment skills tends to lessen your ability to see things as they are. Why? Because Evangelicals, in particular, develop complex ways of dealing with human behavior. Evangelicals talk of sin, forgiveness, and grace. They speak of accountability partners and allowing the Holy Spirit to perform its perfect work. Instead of seeing things as they are, Evangelicals allow theological nonsense to cloud their judgment.

This is why it’s no surprise that Evangelical churches have sexual abuse scandals, clergy misconduct, and all sorts of bad behavior that is washed away by the blood of Jesus and forgiven by the prayer-answering God. Instead of seeing that the youth pastor is way too friendly with several of his charges, loving, blind Christians see this behavior as him “ministering” to these girls. And when his “ministry” turns to rape, sexual assault, and other sex crimes, what then? As long as the predator still says he’s a Christian, forgiveness awaits. (Please see the Black Collar Crime Series.)

Evolution-driven discernment cares not one whit for the offender’s religious inclinations. What matters is that an older man, a man with authority, took advantage of those he was supposed to love, care for, and respect. What mattered to him was his dick, not their welfare. The youth pastor, then, should never be permitted to be around youths again. Yet, as sure as the sun rises in the East, the youth pastor, once he pays for his crimes, will be forgiven and given another opportunity to serve God. Why, some of his fellow Christians will testify on his behalf during his sentencing hearing, showering the judge with stories of how awesome the youth pastor is. There’s no divine discernment going on here. Just ignorance and a refusal to see things as they are.

It is time for Christians to stop pretending they have some special power that allows them to see things non-believers can’t see. It’s 2022. Time to put the intellect to work, making rational, thoughtful decisions. Unless Christians are willing to do so, they can expect to be hoodwinked and taken advantage of. Just remember, it’s discerning Evangelicals who put Donald Trump, the “Christian,” in the White House, voted for him again in 2020, and continue to rabidly support him to this day. Need I say more?

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Atheist here. I saw the original comment, and the message I got from it was that the poster was arguing that someone essentially living a lie would pull away emotionally from the still-believing Christians to whom he/she was ministering, for fear that his unbelief might slip out. I personally likened that to working with a colleague who was job-hunting, and was minimizing his/her interactions with colleagues who weren’t informed of the job search. More than once in my professional life, I’ve had the notion that someone was on their way out, though they were careful not to tell me about it. I was usually right.

    I fear for the clergy who have deconverted. I don’t fear that they will do a substandard job, since they generally love their congregations and want to do the best for them. I suspect that deconverted clergy are much harder to spot than engineers looking for a new job. But someone who has thought about his/her religion enough to deconvert faces a long, hard road, the worst parts spent in the wee hours of the morning when they’re awake chewing on the situation. It must be miserable. So I fear for them, for their mental health, and wish them all a safe journey out of clergydom.

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    Bruce, not to suggest you have the personality characteristic I am going to complain about but…one main non-denominational church I participated in had a pastor with a very strong personality that I detested. I couldn’t imagine a “love” that he had for his congregation. After talking, just an evening ago, with my daughter and reminiscing about her babysitting his severely disabled son (whom she LOVED), I was enraged with what she told me about how raw & cold he would treat her if she even went to the child’s bedroom to get a diaper (congregants met @ his home for Bible study etc). I can only suspect that he assumed she was in the bedroom to snoop & spy.
    Was he pastor-ing us for the thrill of having the power over people?

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    Most pastors who deconvert do so gradually, and I would suspect that their preaching reflects that process. Most Christians are not that educated in their faith. Most haven’t read the bible cover to cover, and most only know what their pastor and perhaps a few Christian devotional books tell them. It is doubtful under those conditions that a parishioner is going to say, “OMG Pastor Bill is an atheist!” Pastor Bill on his own may move to a more progressive church if applicable, or he may stay in his congregation and gradually change the message. Bit it isn’t like he preaches before and brimstone on Sunday, reads a Bart Ehrman book, and wakes up on Thursday like, “Oh shit, I am an atheist now” and then has to preach again Sunday.

    I can understand that there could be a few congregants who pick up on Pastor Bill praying the same way or behaving the same way during pastoral counseling, but I doubt many would jump to the “OMG Pastor Bill is an atheist” conclusion. And some parishioners may just leave the church if they don’t like how it is going.

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    I actually think it would be harder for the secretly jaded Pastor to keep his secret if confronted by non-believers, rather than believers of his own flock. How often is a working Pastor taken to task or tested about their beliefs in church? There is nothing to defend in church, everyone believes the same thing (or they think they do). Just go with the flow and you’re there.

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    I agree that it would probably depend to some extent on the situation. Pastors in large progressive churches would probably have an easier time than an unbelieving pastor in a small, tight, more intimate kind of house church congregation.

    I guess what I was saying could relate to spiritual discernment, but I didn’t mean to be interpreted in such a mystical way about it. On my job, I often could tell if the client was lying based on inconsistencies, body language, eye contact, sometimes just a strong “off feeling,” an intuition. Where does that come from?

    At any rate, guys, I’m standing my ground. While I think the church should be compassionate and supportive toward an unbelieving pastor, he/she needs to be looking for other employment. To go on year after year, intentionally deceiving their congregation is immoral and unethical in my book. I would feel the same way about this if I were an atheist, BTW. It’s just wrong.

    • Avatar

      I see what you’re saying sometimes is is possible to spot a phony. This is more social sense than “Spidey sense”. Much of a pastor’s responsibility isn’t cracking the whip on heresy. Most of it is pomp and circumstance, congregation support (hospital visits), possibly church management etc. I’ve seen interviews with Catholic priests that are atheists but wish to serve one of the other tentacles of the Catholic church in the interest of serving the community. (In some venues the Catholic church is the only game in town.)
      I’m sure even the most pious pastor has doubts and commits sins. This of course is the best fodder for next Sunday’s sermon. For example Swaggart got caught with prostitutes at the time he was using pornographic magazines as props for his sermons. Rather than be a gotcha it’s inspiration (**looks heavenward**.)
      Think about your own church experience. How often do deep theological debates with the pastor occur? See what I mean?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      How could you possibly know how you would feel as an “atheist” since you have never been one. As a Christian, I would have agreed with you, but now, as an atheist, I see things differently. Surely you don’t think the only difference between a Christian and an atheist is the label? Former Christians have a distinct advantage over believers — we have been where they are. We know their beliefs, worldview, and thought processes. You, on the other hand, only have your Christian experiences and presuppositions to work with.

      I assume, then, that you support employment discrimination based on religion.

      • Avatar

        Bruce, (my 2 cents: you need a thumbs up symbol! You explain things very good!)
        I once was asked the difference between an atheist BEFORE converting to Christianity and becoming an atheist AFTER leaving. The only answer I once read was… one possibly converts to Christianity because there is a lack of Counter Information about Christianity and its falsehoods. After Christianity, counter information is presented, makes sense, and accepted. There is no longer a “Fear Card” being played to stop one from learning facts that were taboo while practicing Christianity.

        I also notice that Christians need to “fill in the gaps” immediately when there is an unknown. Having the ability to “read” people is a human capability that doesn’t “come from” anything supernatural. “Given how vital it must have been for the survival of our prehistoric ancestors to make nuanced and accurate predictions about other people, it makes sense that humans would become quite expert at instantaneously raising and weighing multiple potential explanations for a person’s action.” ~Psychology Today~

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    Dr. R

    I find this topic somewhat humorous. In the Gothardite cult I grew up in, we were taught to look at people’s eyes to see if they were saved or not. (Also, if the person is female, you can look at how they are dressed – if she’s not completely covered then you know she’s not right with God!)

    Anyway, the preacher of the church I was stuck in as a teenager had a side-job for a while at the same company where I worked. It quickly became obvious to me that the preacher didn’t really believe in what he preached – he was more concerned with money, including some dubious get-rich-quick schemes.

    Oddly enough, that preacher is still at that church, or at least at the church that occupies the building. That church’s website whitewashes so much history, I can only guess that it was written by some poor functionary at the Ministry of Truth.

    I wonder if that preacher is still chasing get-rich-quick schemes!

  7. Avatar
    Ian, for a long time

    I have seen people speak of discernment……..after things were revealed. For me, after I announced my deconversion, I had a couple of people write and tell me that they knew something was wrong and that they knew I was falling away, or words to that effect. If this was true, why didn’t anyone come to me and try to help me. If my brothers and sisters in Christ ®️let me fall, are the they guilty of something? Where was the watchman on the wall?
    In the same vein, I have seen people who come out as drunks, smokers, etc., and everyone whispers to themselves about how they “knew”. Maybe I am just naive, but I didn’t know. Sure, there were a few signs, but we were always told to believe the best about people and not think evil. So, we were stifling out discernment, because we loved people. Makes no sense to me.

    I have learned that I was way behind the power curve on reading people. I’ve taken some good training and learned how to do what I need to do, but I was very naive for many years. I had a tendency to believe what people were telling me, because I had been taught this. I was supposed to rely on the discernment of the Holy Spirit to guide me. Turns out that the Holy Spirit would have gotten me killed on the Oregon Trail.

    Amazingly, though, pastors and those in charge always have good discernment. My parents always claimed to have good discernment when it came to me. I can’t tell you how many times I was disciplined for something I didn’t do, or for the wrong thing. You’d think the guiding force would have wanted righteousness in all things, not just in church.

  8. Pingback:Christians Aren’t as “Discerning” as They Imagine –

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    Many decades ago, while in college, I was part of a charismatic fellowship that encouraged us to do the work of the Holy Spirit. So, I “discerned” the Lord was ‘displeased’ with one of the guys in the fellowship and so told him publicly to ‘get back on track’. Those words still haunt me today.

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    Yes, the Black Collar Crime series reveals how lacking in discernment Christians can be. Someone can rob the congregation blind or commit sexual abuse, and people often turn a blind eye because “brother” or “sister” so-and-so would never do something like that…

  11. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    “I have seen people speak of discernment……..after things were revealed.”

    Ian’s comment reminded me of some conversations I had with fellow congregants in an Evangelical church I belonged to. Whenever it was revealed that someone was having illicit sexual relationship or engaging in any other “sin”–or left the church–invariably, someone would say “I knew something wasn’t right” with that person.

    Could “discernment” be the ecumenical equivalent of 20/20 hindsight?

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