Church Rules and the Missing Piece

I did not think I was going to write another post on church rules, but as I read the comments and emails following my simple story, one piece of the whole subject kept peskily scratching at the door of my mind.

My story left out important parts of the church rules discussion because I cannot do justice to every aspect in one post.

However, I’d like to talk about an important missing piece. A verse from Galatians gives a clue:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

Galatians 6:1 (ESV) emphasis mine

The church is often faced with situations that require solutions that aren’t clearly spelled out in the Bible.

What do you do when you have a church member who is not overtly disobeying anything in the Bible, who keeps the church rules, but somehow is still a troublemaker and causes a spirit of dissension in the church?

What if you get a sense of manipulation or dishonesty from someone, but you can’t prove from the Bible or from facts that you know with certainty that he/she is doing anything wrong?

Or perhaps someone is doing something obviously wrong, but won’t admit to any fault. What should you do about it?

Make some more rules to hopefully take care of the problem?

On the other hand, you might also have people in the church who are “Spirit-led” but who live unwisely, being careless in their understanding and application of the Bible. What do you do? Make some rules to get them back in line?

Does making more rules ever work?


This is the piece that I think is missing in many church situations: spiritual discernment.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Ephesians 5:15-17 (ESV) emphasis mine

Once you start seeing it, it’s all through the Bible.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2 (ESV) emphasis mine

We go round and round and round in our churches, unable to solve problems because our natural minds are not able to understand what can only be understood in the spiritual realm.

This is a big reason why sexual abuse is so prevalent in the church: the church has no spiritual power to deal with a problem deeper than surface regulation. Abusers innately know that they are protected by such a system. It’s easy–just follow the rules!

But a spiritual person knows when someone has a wicked heart.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

I Corinthians 2: 14-16 (ESV) emphasis mine

Discernment is something all Christians should grow in, but God also gives a special gift called “the discerning of spirits” to some believers for the purpose of building up the church.

For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

I Corinthians 12:8-11 (ESV) emphasis mine

It’s a gift close to my heart–in fact, the one I asked for when I received the Holy Spirit.

Yet many churches have no concept of solving problems from a spiritual standpoint, thus no platform for people with the gift of discernment.

When a spiritual problem arises, usually whoever happens to be in administration is responsible to do something about it, whether or not they have any spiritual skill to solve the problem.

In addition to that, sometimes people with this gift are women. Some of my mentors are extremely skilled at discernment, but as single women, they don’t have a voice in church issues.

This enormous need for spiritual discernment in God’s church has often left me with a helpless longing to be more discerning myself. I feel like a kindergartener in my ability to discern. I can’t do much about the church as a whole, but how could I grow in this area personally?

First of all, I’m seeing that discernment is a gift, something only God can give through the Holy Spirit.

None of us deserve this gift, but God loves to give His children good things if we ask Him. And He loves to give wisdom!

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

James 1:5 (ESV)

Last Sunday, another part of my question of how to become more discerning was answered for me. As I listened to a Sunday School class discussing Hebrews 5, I almost jumped out of my seat when I read verse 14!

But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:14 (ESV)

Excitedly I found Will after church and told him what I had read: Discernment is a gift from God that can be trained by constant practice.

How could this look in a church?

How would a church look that valued the gift of spiritual discernment? What would it mean for a church to work together so that each member could have his or her ability to discern trained by constant practice? What if those who are wise and experienced would mentor those of us who need practice?

What if, when the church encountered a problem, we all got together and prayed for God to speak to us individually and as a group, for supernatural wisdom and insight into the spiritual realm?

Our words could be tested in the group, and spiritual solutions applied to correct spiritual problems. For we can never legislate what only the Holy Spirit can do. We can never see ourselves or others in the church with clarity as the Holy Spirit can.

I can’t tell you how much I long to see that kind of power exploding in our churches!

Whether we believe in rules or not, we need this missing piece. We need God’s gift of discernment so that we may be blameless for the day of Christ.

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

Philippians 1:9-10 (ESV) emphasis mine



I feel the need to give my husband Will some credit for this post, because he has helped me a great deal to think through this subject over the last few years. I’m lucky to be married to him!




13 thoughts on “Church Rules and the Missing Piece

  1. EG

    Praise Jesus, the Living Word! Another breath of fresh air here, the wind of the Spirit moving with the Scriptures so powerfully. And also so powerful because we can see this lived in your lives!


  2. This is good. What you said about it never working to make more rules reminds me of a story Chris tells about CBS days. Some students had gotten up early one morning to play volleyball and disturbed enough people with their noise that it became an issue. The students argued that there was no RULE that said playing volleyball early was not allowed; those in charge said, “Yes, but out of respect for others you should have KNOWN it wasn’t a good idea!”

    We can make rule after rule to try to cover every misbehavior but people will always find ways around them; ultimately, we still end up appealing to a person’s heart. Why not just point people to the truth and appeal to their heart in the first place? Teach spiritual discernment, if you will?


  3. Lynn Helmuth

    Thanks again for sharing your and Will’s insight on this. I see this so much today. there is serious lack of Discernment and Knowledge of the word. It is more, That is what I want or that is the way we have always done it. Growing up in a church where rules were very important (there was also a lot of good teaching) My experience was that it creates a “as long as no one sees it I can get by with, fill in the blanks and we forget that the Holy Spirit not only knows what we do but also what we think. So it creates man focused theology instead of a Holy Spirit focused life. Thanks again for taking on this subject. I was going to respond sooner but was traveling to a board meeting in PA. and decided to wait until I get home. God bless your blogging. You will never know how many lives are impacted by your sharing.


    1. Thank you, Lynn. I’m encouraged to see people in your generation stepping out of the mold and being brave for Jesus. May we all grow in that “Holy Spirit life!”


  4. Thank you so much! I grew up in a large Mennonite community and attended a Christian school. I found the many rules as a barrier to true spirituality. I found inconsistent spiritual lives within these rules and as a result spent many decades living outside the church or religion. By grace I was restored to faith and began searching for a church home. I was dismayed to find the church adopting a holistic world view of love, peace and salvation as its doctrine. I find the educational institutions and pastors teaching personal efforts to replicate Jesus as necessary to salvation. Peace, love and meditation were the mantras of my generation. I find much the same attitude in the church of today. Discernment and Biblical knowledge leading to a true spiritual view of peace and love in the church is missing today. Seminars and symposiums do nothing to enhance God’s
    truth. 2 Corinthians 13:5 NIV


  5. Browsing

    Jesus told us that goats would graze with the sheep, and that weeds would grow with the wheat, and this would continue until the church is removed from the earth. Yet for some reason, the church is always acting surprised that this is so. More rules don’t keep out the weeds and the goats. You’re right that discernment by the mature is what is needed. And you’re also correct that too much of the church devalues single women. Can you imagine what Jesus will say to them, considering his friendship with Mary and Martha? Women aren’t objects which exist to make the lives of men more convenient. We’re people Jesus died for, and equally his disciples.


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