So That You May Discern…

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Romans 12:2​

[1] This verse about discernment is widely regarded as part of the two verse​​ “hinge” in St. Paul’s very carefully structured letter to the Romans. Romans 12:1-2 serve as the transition from his consideration of the meaning of the gospel to his ethical exhortation. In just a few words Paul evokes a holistic impulse that links together all the dimensions of the whole human being, that links together faith with everyday being and doing.

[2] Or so I came to realize as a graduate student in the mid ’90s, learning from ground breaking New Testament scholars who were doing fresh work on scripture and ethics at that time.[1] Their work edified me both personally and professionally. I even wrote one of my field exam essays following the lead of Lutheran New Testament scholar Walter Taylor who argues that Romans 12:1-2 as that transition does more, it also lays down the foundational concepts shaping Paul’s moral reflection in the final four chapters of that letter, which are Paul’s most thoroughly reflective moral exhortation.[2]

[3] The informative description “About JLE” on this journal’s home page mentions that JLE is published as part of the work of the Theological Discernment Team (emphasis added) in the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (what a mouthful!) As Director for Theological Ethics on that Team with responsibility for the publication of JLE, I thought it might be salutary to give some particular attention in this month’s issue to the idea of “theological discernment,” a term foreign to many. The point of this JLE issue, after all, is to provide readers a glance at the “who” of the “publishing team” and the “what” of formative ideas and perspectives that shape JLE’s purpose and role. The notion of discernment speaks about both the “who” and “what.” It is formative for me personally and the term “Theological Discernment”–chosen by the Churchwide Organization before I ever became part of the Team–signals significant ideas regarding the teaching office of the bishop.

[4] “Theological discernment” is not only foreign to many but is sometimes accused of being one of those $5 terms that the church should avoid. True enough, it is not an everyday term and requires some explanation but I infer from the way these accusations are launched that the objections are guided by something more. The complaints suggest, often, that the term smacks of “philosophical” academics and high theory. Of course when it means that, it is not salutary. However, Paul’s reliance on the term (δοχιμαξω, in Greek) translated here in Romans 12:2 as “discern” should both put such accusations to rest and suggest something more is at stake in the idea of “theological discernment.” I cannot hope to attend to all that is at stake but several aspects are especially relevant to the publishing of JLE. I want to highlight the aspects of response and discern, conversation and community.

[5] Paul’s salutary, if kernel-like, notions in Romans 12:1-2 as the all-important hinge from gospel proclamation to ethical imperative should look familiar to those who think much about ethics, since it points to a dominant “Lutheranly” Christian approach. Paul’s structure in Romans and his other letters, positions the moral life as a response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I hasten to add that the content of this response does not draw its content solely from “just religious stuff” or the “gospel” itself–we know that many of Paul’s moral ideas bear the marks or employ the terms and maxims of the culture in which he lived.

[6] The consistent structure of his letters presents a clear message, none-the-less, that Christian life and reflection is shaped fundamentally as a response to God’s promises. In response to God’s action upon us we are called to share the responsibilities of God’s work in the world. I like to hope that such a responsive theme shows through in the long arc of JLE’s essays and it is clear that the archives of JLE’s essays demonstrates its commitment to employ a wide range of human knowledge and practices as fodder for consideration.

[7] In Romans 12:1-2 Paul also urges that Christians should not be conformed to “this world,” meaning the one shaped by sin, but rather to be transformed by the renewal of “mind,” which should be understood here as the whole human being. These admonitions have often been intellectualized or “spiritualized” but those false reductions are contradicted precisely when one understands these two verses serve as the hinge and foundation of Paul’s moral reflection in this letter to the Romans. As I indicated earlier, Paul’s words here evoke a holistic impulse that links together all the dimensions of the whole human being; his ideas link together faith with everyday being and doing. The lived response to God’s life-giving work in Christ is not, then, primarily rule-following or logical deductions from Christian principles or the development of the virtues or an immediate knowledge of what to do in the situation. Rather God’s grace calls forth moral discernment, a holistic effort bringing together principles (mind) and character (heart) within the conversation of a community that attends carefully to rules, circumstances and context as it seeks to understand “what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

[8] Paul’s use of the term “discern” suggests he has at least some awareness that the moral life has an ongoing character that requires the practice of sorting out how to be and do. That fact is now writ large in contemporary society. Living in this contemporary world with unprecedented human power requires discernment at a level that Paul probably could hardly comprehend. That is, living in this society requires effort and practice to determine what is good, right and fitting among rapidly changing circumstances and among the diverse and mind-bendingly multiple claims for loyalty or of legitimacy that beckon us as individuals and a church. The term also suggests the need for critique and sustained interpretation, which is, in fact, the work of ethics.

[9] No, the imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself” and the directives of the Ten Commandments are not up for discernment; they are givens. But what exactly leads to well-being for a particular neighbor? What exactly does each of the Ten Commandments mean in relation to groups of neighbors in a pluralistic and technologized world filled with volatility, ambiguity, cross currents and competing claims? And what about the needs of the natural environment, which has a moral standing we as humans long have ignored? Sometimes the moral avenue is reasonably clear but most often the means are not obvious that lead to the genuine well-being of the neighbor, of groups of human neighbors and of the natural environment. The rules, principles, analogies and stories from scripture or from previous moral tradition provide critical markers and guidance but discernment is still necessary, and that requires conversation and community. Even the most learned or spiritual person cannot understand or know enough to discern the will of God alone.

[10] Theological discernment, rather than being an individual exercise or an academic pursuit, suggests this corporate dimension; it is a communal exercise that serves the work of the church. It also understands theology differently than as an exercise designed to uncover or defend the truth of religious propositions. It signals the need for community-wide conversation toward the purpose of greater theological understanding and faithful rationale. A traditionally Lutheran way to categorize God’s work in the world is through the interrelated governing strategies of law and gospel; theological discernment serves both.

[11] As the web page for the Theological Discernment Team puts it. “Theology is a conversation. It involves speaking and listening, understanding and sharing understanding, and it consists of words written or spoken among two or more people for a specific purpose….” The web page also adds that this mode of theology is to seek the language, conversation, and action responses that “give the most winsome expression to the compassionate mercy and liberating hope found in Christ.”

[12] The most common metaphor for theological discernment that we on the Team employ is the good old fashioned church potluck. Many, many different kinds of cooks bring dishes to such a potluck and everyone partakes in food and conversation. Some of the cooks may be professionals, others consider cooking an avocation. Some cooks make tried and true recipes while some like to innovate. Some enjoy cooking and others just come to partake, but all are invited and involved. Everyone is nourished.

[13] JLE provides a particular kind of nourishment within our church’s potluck of theological conversations; it serves a particular role within the wider conversation which the Theological Discernment Team seeks to foster. JLE’s place and role within the work of the ELCA, then, quite naturally is expressed as one of discernment regarding theological ethics. Often, and rightly, the role of JLE is expressed under the rubric of “community of moral deliberation” (See Jim Child’s essay), and there is a great deal of overlap with that concept. The term discernment, though, highlights some different dimensions. It places JLE’s work within the larger purview of the church’s whole work since discernment is necessary on the part of God’s church.

[14] Theological discernment suggests that JLE as an online journal has a broader scope than simply supporting the ELCA’s activity as a community of moral deliberation on particular issues. JLE contributes to more than what’s being discussed within the ELCA, per se. It includes voices that are not Lutheran and topics that are not even on the ELCA’s deliberative radar. On occasions when the voice or topic is not Lutheran or when JLE explores ethics from a more, say, sociological than churchly bent, these are relevant as a contribution to a wider social dialogue. That kind of contribution follows since God’s work in the world is not solely about churchly activities or solely about expressly religious concerns. But if God’s work in the world is so camouflaged, then discernment is necessary to help identify that work so that we may join what God is up to.

[15] At the same time, the notion of theological discernment brings discipline to JLE’s purpose since its long arc is not for the sake of conversation, per se. JLE’s overarching purpose is discernment regarding ethics in a way that contributes to greater theological understanding and faithful rationale across the whole ELCA. The articles in JLE can contribute to moral discernment beyond the Journal itself, influencing lives and, at times, even the development of ELCA social teaching documents. JLE’s role in the broadest sense then, can be said to aid what Paul urged his readers and what we must be about in this contemporary society: “discern what [is] the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”


[1] Some well-known examples include Wayne Meeks, Wolfgang Schrage, Richard Hays, and Dieter Betz, all of them were publishing work in the late 1980s or 1990s exploring scholarly questions about scripture and ethics or the moral life.

[2] Walter Taylor; “Obligation: Paul’s Foundation for Ethics” Trinity Seminary Review, 1997 Fall/Winter; Volume 19:2.

Roger Willer

Rev. Dr. Roger Willer serves as Director for Theological Ethics on the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. He also serves as Publisher for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.