Q. When Paul was in Philippi, he commanded a fortune-telling spirit in the name of Jesus Christ to leave a woman who had been following his team for many days shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” This raises a lot of questions. Couldn’t it have been considered that the spirit was doing good, in that the woman was announcing the way to ‘the Way’? If Paul were going to silence the spirit, why didn’t he do this sooner? On the other hand, why didn’t Paul just let the woman be, if he’d already put up with her for so long?
Seems to be a good lesson here, insofar as “testing the spirits” is concerned. Can you think of other examples, perhaps where people might even claim that they “have a word from the Lord,” but those people should instead be silenced—some immediately, and others maybe after many days? Seems like a tall order for leaders of the church today—or any time for that matter—to be able to discern.
I think Paul finally silenced the spirit when he realized that all the attention was going to “that crazy woman shouting”—even though she was shouting a valuable truth—rather than to the message he and his colleagues were preaching. I think Paul waited as long as he did because he recognized precisely what you asked about—that the spirit might be considered to be making a positive contribution. But eventually, I believe, he recognized that it was doing more harm than good, distracting rather than attracting. I think that in all of this Paul showed both patience and discernment of exemplary quality.
As for today, you’re right, it calls for very fine discernment to know when a factually truthful message is being delivered in such a way that it’s doing more harm than good. We need to consider not just the content but the effect of words and their tone, expression, and spirit.
Here’s one example—I once attended a public prayer meeting where a participant went on and on, praying for valuable things, but essentially hogging all the time and not giving anyone else a chance to contribute. Finally one of the leaders respectfully asked him to stop and give others an opportunity to pray as well. The man realized his fault and immediately said “Bless you, brother” to the leader, very humbly, and went silent. That felt like good discernment all around.
Things get more complicated when it comes to matters like doctrinal disputes, social hot-button issues, and matters of practice on which the Christian community is divided. One person might feel compelled to speak (to “bear witness to the truth”), while others might feel they were doing more harm than good by the way they were speaking. A tall order for discernment, indeed, but a challenge that church leaders must try to meet, with fear and trembling, and with close reliance on the Holy Spirit.