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‘By their fruit you will know…’ what?

Fruit-apples-on-treeHow do we make our minds up about complex ethical issues? How can we decide between people we respect—Christians leaders, friends even—who offer conflicting advice about what the right decision is, what God’s will is in a difficult or challenging situation?

An ever more common appeal is made to Jesus’ saying in Matt 7.16:

By their fruit you will know them.

At its worst, this saying is used to closed down any discussion of the issue at hand, and functions as a kind of shorthand for ‘If they are nice people, we ought to believe what they say.’ After all, if someone is kind, considerate and sounds pleasant—and that is how God wants us to be—how can they be misleading us over a decision about Christian life? It doesn’t take much thought to see the problem with this.


There are plenty of verses in Scripture warning us of those who offer ‘smooth words’; just check out Ps 55.21, Is 30.10, Dan 11.32 or Rom 16.18. And in a passage which is well-known in some circles, Paul warns Timothy, as he passes on to him the baton of leadership, that ‘the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Tim 4.3). We only have to glance at the prophetic tradition to see that, very often, God called his servants to say some difficult things to his people that they really did not want to hear. Most of them would not have passed the ‘fruit’ test in the way it is commonly used today!

And yet that is only half the story. There are just as many times when the NT implores us to be gentle with our words and winsome with our speech, avoiding causing unnecessary offence even if we are expressing some hard truths. ‘Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt’, says Paul (Col 4.6). ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,’ says Peter (1 Peter 3.15)—but with a proviso: ‘do this with gentleness and respect.’ And it is equally clear that Christians often manifestly fail to do this. I wince inwardly when I remember the times that I acted as though it was more important to win the argument than win the person.


So how does the manner of our speech relate to the value of our argument? And what did Jesus mean by the saying about ‘fruit’? There is one thing we can be sure he did not mean: that his teaching would be uncontroversial and easy to take. ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ he claims (Matt 10.34), to set people against each other, even within their own family. And, ironically, this saying comes in the context of Jesus sending his disciples out on a mission to proclaim the ‘peace’ of the kingdom of God (Matt 10.13).

When we read Jesus talking about ‘fruit’, most of us read into this Paul’s idea of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ from Gal 5, that is, personal qualities formed in us by the Spirit. But the language of ‘fruit’ in Matthew’s gospel has a different emphasis. When John the Baptist calls for ‘fruit worthy of repentance’ (Matt 3.7), he isn’t thinking about inner qualities so much as visible actions of obedience to God’s commands (Luke gives some examples in the parallel passage Luke 3.7–14). Both John and Jesus link the lack of such ‘fruit’ to God’s coming judgement—John is his teaching, and Jesus in the enacted parable of the withered fig tree (Matt 21.18–19). In doing this, they are both linking the idea to the OT prophetic tradition, calling for the people to return to obedience to God. Deuteronomy offers two tests of the prophetic; the best known is the test in Deut 18.22, that if what the prophet has said ‘does not come to pass’ then the word is not true. But Deut 13.1–6 gives a more important test; even if the prophet’s words do come true, they are to be rejected if they lead the people away from God. Jer 23 applies this to the prophets’ own lives; if they don’t demonstrate obedience to God themselves, don’t listen to their teaching.

This doesn’t completely solve our dilemma when presented with conflicting views on what is right. But it does help us when looking for ‘fruit’; it is as much about conforming to the teaching of Scripture as it is about character. We cannot separate the two, and shouldn’t use the latter to justify compromise on the former.


This article first appeared on Christian Today on 11th May


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4 Responses to ‘By their fruit you will know…’ what?

  1. John Oliver May 14, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Thank you for this post Ian.
    I’m also aware how in my own life my speech, or more often my inner speech, thoughts and feelings, are in tension with the fruit that I understand God wants, and sometimes in his grace, still produces.
    It is also a tension when leaders of admirable and fruitful ministires get it wrong in other parts of their lives. This month’s Christianity Today (US) editorial mentions two current situations, one US, one UK, where the admirable and Godly good fruit seems to be alongside rotten and damaged fruit.

  2. David May 14, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    Thanks Ian, thoughts I shall take to heart and hopefully exemplify when speaking to those who differ from me.

  3. David Shepherd May 18, 2015 at 11:27 am #

    Ian,

    We’ve seen recent examples of how this kind of rhetoric about fruits is being exploited. As I read reports from those attending the Shared Conversations on other blogs, it’s becoming clear that the church’s conservatives are being cast as merely risking little more than their preciously guarded opinions in such encounters and not their salvation faithfulness to biblical revelation.

    In contrast, LGBT individuals are presented as venturing into the conversations with extreme trepidation, knowing that there are many hard-line con evos who are only too eager to penalise them with denigration and banishment. Their uncertainty over whether the conversations might really be a ‘safe space’ is constantly reiterated.

    Those, who attended the Shared Conversations and are in favour of the church affirming same-sex relationships, may appear to treat with objectivity those holding opposing views. Indeed, one such writer on another blog, Richard Coles, refers to the opinions and arguments expressed during the event as significantly more nuanced that he had previously assumed.

    Nevertheless, considering other statements in his report. (See Changing Attitudes blog), it is clear that any of those who reject the notion of an accommodation, far less affirmation, will be viewed as follows:

    1. Heartless: by perpetuating suicide, since every other alternative, except church affirmation of same-sex sexual relationships, is unrealistic and will lead LGBT+ youth taking their lives for lack of a compassionate ‘safe space’.

    ‘Had we not declared UDI and merely settled for what was on offer then a lifetime of unfulfilment and disgrace lay ahead – if at all, for then the statistics for attempted suicide among young LGBT people were dizzyingly high’

    2. Dangerously draconian: for imposing the sanction of clergy discipline on ministers who abandon their previously avowed commitment to the church’s teaching for their ‘legal right to marry one another’. This is despite such discipline also being perfectly legal according to the Equality Act 2010.

    ‘We were invited out of our trenches to meet in neutral territory, if not safe territory (how can it be safe when LGBT people can be sacked for availing themselves of the legal right to marry one another?)’

    3. Intransigently intolerant: for rejecting the notion that those who oppose same-sex sexual relationships on scriptural grounds should embrace their accords toon in order to maintain the semblance of Christian unity as a sign to the world.

    ‘Very skilled facilitation helped us not to return too often or for too long into these entrenched positions. What we began to do was to explore opportunities for accommodation in an atmosphere which aimed to produce something like the Christmas truce so memorably celebrated in Sainsbury’s sensitive seasonal advert last year.’

    I think we can guess who are considered to be on the ‘wrong side of history’ in this heart-warming comparison.

    By those in favour of same-sex marriage recognition, it is considered a secondary matter that the same world would interpret capitulating on prophetic and apostolic writ to be proof that, if the scripture is wrong on such a major aspect of the human condition, it’s other declarations about what undermines our relationship with God are also equally suspect.

    4. Legalistic and emotionally incorrect: for not granting LGBT+ couples the same marital rights to found families as heterosexuals.

    It is routinely ignored as a legalism that promoting the unrelated same-sex spouse’s parental ambition would undermine the parental rights of ‘their’ child’s other natural parent. (This was heartbreakingly illustrated by the recent case in which a mother, in the absence of a firm surrogacy arrangement, was forced by an English judge to hand over her baby to the child’s gay dad and his lover. She was also gagged from commenting on the case).

    The use of ‘by their fruits’ rhetoric is a shell game. It encourages us to contrast the innocuous same-sex couple, so full of beneficent mutual devotion, who just want what we all want (i.e. to build a strong monogamous union and exercise their ‘right’ to form a family that reduces the other procreative partner to a non-parental third party), with the villainously mean-spirited conservatives. Cast the former as warm and Christ-like and the latter as cold and pharisaic.

    Do that for long enough and you might just forget about the child whose right to both of its natural parents was undermined by the enforcement through marriage of the intentional parenthood of an unrelated same-sex spouse.

    Once those opposed have been demonised with such deft subtlety, conservative evangelicals might well be considered earnest and calm in expressing their beliefs, but it will be hard to shake the caricature of being heartless, draconian, intolerant and legalistic puritans.

    And then they can exercise the facile type of discernment that you’ve described by claiming, on those grounds, that ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’!

  4. Chris Perry June 2, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    I didn’t understand most of this ; cant you people speak a more plain English.

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