You Will Know Them By Their Fruits
Sometimes as Christians we may feel like we are standing in the middle of the road between two positions. We hear one person or group speak very strongly about how to answer a particular Bible question, and we agree with what we hear. But later we may hear another person or group speak about the same question and their explanation might be a little different than the first answer we heard. In fact, the second answer may be very different, and yet we find their arguments to be compelling as well.
What is happening to us? Are we just afraid of alienating anyone that may understand a subject differently than we do? Do we just need more conviction? Are we just so unsatisfied with the truth that we are subconsciously open to anything that might be different?
These are real problems that can affect Christians, but there is another possible reason why we may find ourselves feeling like we are standing in the middle of the road. We tend to want simple answers that fit well with our current level of understanding, but this can lend itself to extreme positions. Many times our answers may just be a reaction to bad positions that we have heard, but because we lack the experience and knowledge to recognize why a position is bad we simply take the opposite extreme. However, as we grow in our understanding we will find ourselves moving away from extreme positions and so we may feel like we are standing somewhere in the middle.
“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:18-20)
What Jesus says about false teachers may seem cut and dry, and we might draw the conclusion that identifying a false teacher is easy, but is it always easy? Jesus says, “You will know them by their fruits.” Then He says, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.” That's a pretty definitive statement. But Jesus also says that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. That’s a definitive statement, too! So, what do we do when we think someone may be a false teacher (a bad tree), but they appear to be bearing some good fruit? We could all probably look back to times in our lives when we were bearing good fruit and bad fruit as we went through the growth process. If we continue to grow, we may very well go through more times like this in the future. Does this make us a false teacher?
Notice further that a tree is not to be cut down because it bears bad fruit. It is cut down because it does not bear any good fruit. This is a helpful and important point about identifying false teachers. Bad trees do not bear good fruit. If a person is a false teacher, they will not be able to hide it for very long. False teachers are not people who may have bad ideas or who come to wrong conclusions. False teachers are people who cling to bad ideas even after they have been shown the weaknesses of their positions. If they can get someone to agree with them, they can tell themselves they are justified in their position. Thus, their bad ideas slowly begin to dominate their teaching until they are no longer bearing any good fruit.
We may be afraid to bear patiently with one whose teaching concerns us because we fear they will turn souls away from the truth, but we should be equally wary of trying to cut down a tree that Jesus doesn’t want us to cut down.
Here are a few things that might help us go through this process together:
1. Speak to be understood. We should know when we are at a point where we are thinking about changing our mind about a question, and we should express this when we talk about the subject.
2. Ask for counterarguments to a new position that we are considering, and listen to those counterarguments with an open mind.
3. Do not hide the fact that we are feeling inclined to think differently about some things. Secrecy is a tactic of false teachers, not conscientious seekers of truth. Trust requires openness.
4. Listen patiently to people who talk about changes in their thinking. We should want to create an environment where people can be helped through the learning process.
5. Don’t try to set traps for people to get them to say things that are wrong. This is how the Pharisees treated Jesus. We shouldn’t want people to say things that are wrong, and this will not build the kind of trust that is needed to help one another grow.
6. Balance our concern about false teaching with an equal concern about discouraging a brother or sister by overreacting. Bad ideas are a pretty natural part of the learning process, but through love and patience we can help one another to prune them away.