Both the New and Old Testaments include sobering, no-nonsense warnings about false prophets and how to avoid them. The one that I suppose I’ve read most often is Matthew 7:15-20.
15“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
I may be absolutely wrong, but I’m not aware of any passage that addresses judging a teaching by its fruit; rather, the teacher is to be judged this way. Is that just semantics, or is this an important distinction?
I’ve recently started reading a book called “God and the Gay Christian” by Matthew Vines. Matthew is a gay man who shares the results of his journey to understand scripture as it relates to homosexuality. This is an issue I’ve avoided, because, quite frankly, I’m not sure I like what the Bible says about it. This is not the kind of Christian I want to be, so it’s time to try to understand it better. I’m not sure where this particular book will take me but I want to be open to and objective about both the conservative and liberal arguments.
One of Vine’s opening arguments in favor of homosexuality in a Christian context is that the teachings against homosexual practice have yielded bad fruit. He goes on to address specific passages, but this initial idea intrigued me and I feel like it applies to more than just this issue. I’m trying to test it and having a difficult time. I don’t want to over-paraphrase, but I think it would be fair to say that Vines believes that trying to change or repress homosexuality in an effort to live a faithful Christian life often yields bad fruit: a tortured soul and body. He supports this argument in much greater detail, but I’m going to leave it at that for this post. So… does this hold water?
First, I tried to compare it to other teachings that might yield similar fruit. I think most people can feel pushed to the brink and even over the edge by repressing desires. The question, though, is whether the desire is good. Most would agree that feeling suicidal because you’re desperately trying to resist the urge to hurt another person doesn’t mean you should go ahead and give in. On the other hand, repressing the desire to reach out and help someone in need can drive us crazy, too, and for the most part, we should seek opportunities to do that. The problem is that it seems to me a teaching can yield lots of different fruit, depending on the student and the implementation. But when I looked at passages about fruit, as I mentioned above, it isn’t the teaching at issue, but the teacher: Matthew 7:20: “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” But what are those fruits? Are the fruits of a prophet the teachings themselves or the fruits of those teachings? We know, for example, that a prophet should confess Christ (1 John 4:2) and that the things they say should come to pass (Deut 18:22). Those things alone could be fruits. So could the prophets’ personal traits. Galations 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Presumably, a teacher can be God-honoring and exhibit the fruits of the spirit, but also occasionally perpetuate a bad teaching. We are all sinful.
So, if you made it this far, I would really like to know what you think. Can we judge a teaching by its fruit? Does Vine’s argument work?