One of the more difficult gifts of the Spirit to understand is found in 1 Corinthians 12:10, where Paul mentions “discernment of spirits.” It is one thing to interpret his concept of the singular Holy Spirit, “the one and the same Spirit” in the next verse. But what does he mean by “spirits,” plural and printed with a small “s” in the NRSV? The matter is complicated by the fact that there is an obvious play on words in English. The same is true in Greek, where pneuma can refer to the Holy Spirit, the wind, spirits in people, even demons throughout the New Testament.
The question about Paul’s meaning is worth raising because of our situation in the church today. In the PC(USA) and in the Christian family in general, we are struggling with the discernment Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 12-14. What is the true church? Who is in and who is out? Are there many approaches to truth? Who has the right “spirit”? If there is only one Body of Christ, and only one Spirit, why is there so much division, and why are so many of us tempted to say to fellow Christians, “we have no need of you”?
What are the “spirits” that must be discerned? Although they may refer to various kinds of ecstatic speaking in tongues and proper interpretations – the gifts mentioned next – they probably point to much more, at least to the prophetic preaching mentioned just before this reference to “spirits.” The closest parallel is found in 1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, … .” This is similar to the introduction to 1 Corinthians 12:3, “… no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Let Jesus be cursed’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
Today we might interpret “spirits” in these passages more broadly to apply to various points of view people have, prophetic teachings or stands they take, sermon messages, programs, action plans, methodologies or mission strategies they adopt. The “spirits” are not just what is inside people but what comes out of them and what they do.
What, then, does it mean to discern the spirits? The Greek verb which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12:10, diakrinō, generally means “to make a distinction, to differentiate, to pass judgment on something or someone” (4:7; 11:31; 14:27). A different word, dokimazō, is similar (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:28; 2 Corinthians 15:5; Galatians 6:4 etc.) and means “to put to the test, examine.”
The problem for Christians today is that many of us do not differentiate among spirits using the singular criterion in 1 Corinthians and 1 John about belief in Jesus Christ but add plural requirements. You have the right kind of spirit only if you believe additional things. You preach and act in the correct spirit only if you say or do what is acceptable or agreeable to us. Otherwise, we have no need of you.
Paul points in a different direction in 2 Corinthians 13:5 when he indicates that before we judge others we need to test ourselves (dokimazō): “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless you have failed to meet the test!”
Perhaps before we can discern genuine spirits in others we should determine whether the One Spirit is truly in us.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, N.Y., and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.