a good tree cannot bear bad fruit


A little while ago, I watched Matthew Vines deliver an hour-long message on all of the passages in the Bible typically use to condemn gay men and women. It was a beautiful message, and I highly encourage all of you to listen to it when you have the time. Hopefully it will be encouraging– and challenging. But, one of the things he said that’s really stuck with me is the way he talked about Matthew 7:15-20. I was practically raised on the Sermon on the Mount, so Matthew 7 is a passage I’ve heard before, many times. However, the way I’d grown up meant that there was only one possible understanding of what Jesus meant by “false prophets” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” A false prophet was many things, but it all essentially boiled down to someone who wasn’t a fundamentalist like we were. And they talked about good fruit and bad fruit, but they never really explained what it meant. I sort of made the connection between good fruit and the Fruits of the Spirit, but “fruit” usually meant “how many people you’ve convinced to pray the Sinner’s Prayer in front of you” . . . so, it was a bit of a tangle, for me.

However, Matthew Vines pointed out something, and it helped the light turn on for me. If the whole of the Law and the Prophets and Jesus’ ministry is Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, then it stands to reason that the difference between good fruit and bad fruit is love. If an interpretation of a passage, if a doctrine that you hold to, does not encourage you to love your neighbor as yourself, then it’s not good fruit.

St. Augustine put it a bit better:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

On Christian Doctrine

This seems like a really good starting place. Love.

And, as I’m working through how I think, what I believe, and how I work with the Bible, figuring out how it should be a part of my life, there’s a few things that I’m reaching for. Yesterday we had an amazing discussion about sola scriptura and how we handle Scripture (seriously, you guys, it was spectacular), and some of you articulated some of the things I’ve been mulling over. There’s one comment in particular I’d like to share, since InsanityRanch put it so well:

First, both Jews and Protestants have what you might call a “democratic” tradition of Bible reading. That is, the Bible is not the sole province of an educated elite. At least in theory (and largely in practice) everyone is supposed to study the Bible . . .

That said, there are some interesting differences as well . . . . [One being that] Jews read Bible with commentary. When I first started reading the Torah, I read it with Rashi (11th c. genius commentator on the Bible and Talmud.) The idea that the text of the Bible is free-standing is profoundly unJewish. There are layers and layers of commentary, so interwoven that it’s impossible to read a Bible passage without also thinking of the various strands of commentary on that verse. One has a sense of the different ways the verse has been read through a long history. Reading in this way makes the text seem very much less cut and dried, less susceptible to a single, simple interpretation.

As a consequence of reading with commentary, Jews have read in community, and the currency of community was questioning. Any interpretation offered for a verse tended to evoke a challenge, with one reader arguing according to R. So-and-so’s commentary and another reader arguing according to R. somebody else. This process made it hard to hold calcified interpretations of textual meanings… though of course, not impossible.

I think the idea of reading in community is paramount, and I think this is something that has been lost– or perhaps never present, I’m not sure– in evangelicalism and some Protestant environments. We gather together in church on Sunday, sometimes we do Bible studies or small groups together, but that’s about all we get in community, and it’s somehow separate from how we read Scripture. It seems that there’s been a strong emphasis in evangelicalism on “reading the Bible for yourself” that the result has been a highly Individualistic approach to Scripture. Somehow, though, instead of this resulting in what InsanityRanch described above, it seems that the Modernism so entrenched in evangelical philosophy results in us putting consensus above all other goals. There’s only one right way to interpret a passage. And, in America, with our individualism and exceptionalism and the fact that the evangelical church is so politicized, we wind up with that “one right way” usually feeding into a really harmful and dangerous status quo.

Being willing to embrace the possibility of not knowing when it comes to our Bibles is discomfiting. But, understanding that the Christian faith is not supposed to exist in isolation, but in community,I think could be a really strong first step.

All of this has somehow led me to re-evaluating a deeply ingrained belief that I’ve grown up with, a belief that seems to be synonymous with Protestantism and evangelicalism alike: that Scripture is the final authority, that Scripture alone is all we need to live our faith. And regardless of how the Reformers originally meant this (since Luther himself believed that some parts of Scripture don’t need to be listened to coughcough James)– what it has come to mean in evangelicalism could be encapsulated in the phrase “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

In the theology course I’m taking, they present a concept called the “Stage of Truth,” which some of you are probably familiar with. Some traditions present this similarly to the Wesleyen Quadrilateral, except the Stage of Truth is more prioritized and hierarchal than that. In Protestant and evangelical sola scriptura traditions, the Stage of Truth looks a bit like this:

stage of truth

Scripture, of course, is at the head since it is the final authority in a Christian’s life. But I’m looking at the other elements on this “stage,” and I’m wondering about a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and I’m looking around at the world around me, and I’m wondering if something like Experience or Emotion doesn’t belong closer to the front.

Because in my lived experience, I’ve felt the horror of Deuteronomy 22 being the final authority in my life. I’ve felt the full, brutal weight of the fact that Scripture doesn’t have bodily autonomy or individual agency well articulated in its pages, and I know what that does to a person. I’ve spent most of my adult life (what little there is of it) struggling under “biblical patriarchy” and having to fight with all of the voices screaming at me that being on my own is rebellion against my father. I’ve been depressed and been told that I must “take every thought captive” and that “perfect love casts out fear” and that I’m just not loving God enough, that’s why I’m sick.

And all of these ideas have come from having a “high view of Scripture,” and believing that what it said had complete authority over my entire life. That I had to force myself into alignment with the “clear teaching of Scripture” because it was the only authority I had. If the Bible had something to say about an idea, well, that was what I had to believe. That was the opinion I had.

I didn’t know that all of that was heavily predicated on interpretation, on the fundamentalism I was raised in, that it wasn’t the Bible but an interpretation of the Bible– but thinking like that was actively discouraged by everyone I knew. Pastors and evangelists and missionaries and Sunday school teachers and professors and Bible study leaders and speakers and teachers all telling me that This is what the Bible says This is what the Bible says and somehow they all sounded the same so I believed it.

And it wasn’t until that I understood that my life matters and my experiences matter and what I feel about people matters that I started re-examining what the Bible so clearly says. When I placed my Bible in tension with my life, and the people I care about, and what I can reason to be true, what so many before me have observed to be true, some things became a lot more simple. It wasn’t until I’d set aside my “high view of Scripture” that loving my neighbor really became possible.

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  • Love this… I love how articulate you are about your journey. Let me preface what I’m about to say with- I understand, on some level, what you’re struggling with, because I left the church when I was 18. After a very traumatic experience, and the loss of my dad, I decided God was nowhere. What kind of God would allow these things to happen? What kind of God allows little children to come to harm? I was done with God, done with church, done with all of it.

    It took me 13 years to come back, and a lot of searching to find a church that both believed the Bible is the absolute, infallible Word of God AND that not one of us has a true handle on “what the Bible clearly says”, that it’s entirely possible to completely misunderstand and misinterpret, and it’s imperative to spend time studying, both as individuals, and as a community, in which we love and support one another, and continually learn and grow.

    With all that said… I will throw one small monkey wrench into your idea that “Experience and emotions belong closer to the front of the stage”.

    The fact is, emotions are not a good indicator of reality. Emotions, in fact, are the worst possible way to sort through anything. Experience isn’t much better, if we’re talking about considering only our own, individual experience.

    My experience was that families don’t talk about bad stuff that happens. My emotions told me that dying was easier than living. My experience taught me that all men who drink alcohol and smoke are mean and dangerous. My emotions taught me to be afraid of anyone who expressed affection, because they wanted something from me.

    Those are MY experiences and emotions, and it took years of counseling to sort reality out of those, and give my kids different experiences, and to learn to handle my own emotions in ways that don’t cause them harm.

    See where I’m going with this?

    Just because our “gut feeling” is that a tradition or teaching is wrong, doesn’t mean it is. Take, for example, the teaching of no sex before marriage. The cultural take on it is that it’s old fashioned, out of date, and no longer valid. However, since the sexual revolution we’ve seen divorce rates increase dramatically, rises in teen pregnancy and single-parent households, child abuse and neglect, and a myriad of other social problems. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing the feminism or civil rights babies out with the bathwater, but, I would argue that a casual attitude toward sex is not healthy for society as a whole. At some point, we missed the boat. I believe that the admonishment that a man and a woman become “one flesh” is not so much a huge mysterious bag of righteousness, as it’s been made into by some in the modesty movement, as it is a warning that our bodies, and our sexuality, are something to be treasured and respected, and shared with care, not just tossed out there, given freely in every encounter.
    (My feelings on matters of modesty and sexuality are best reflected by the Secret Keeper Girl ministry- they teach young girls self-respect, and encourage moms to teach modesty as a self-esteem booster, rather than an “OMG hide yourself so the evil boys don’t see your body and have dirty thoughts!!!” approach. They also address boys’ issues, but to a lesser extent. I wish there were a similar ministry for boys, that focused more on a healthy body image and healthy view of sexuality, rather than on “marrying a virgin”. :-p But that’s a rant for another day.)

    I do believe that our feelings, emotions, and experiences are absolutely a valid filter to apply when interpreting Scripture, but that we should also keep a firm grip on reason, and consider tradition as well, as we move forward. I think many of us are spiritual teenagers- discovering the big world outside our parents’ religion for ourselves… But while we’re rebelling and deciding to do things differently, we shouldn’t discount our parents’ experiences and wisdom (tradition), either. Sometimes Mom and Dad do know best. Not always, mind you, but sometimes.

    Just my two cents.

    • Rachel

      The problem with saying that experience and emotion are not trustworthy is that they are, in the end, all we have. “Reason” is just an idea that we encounter or experience. We cannot know any truth that is apart from our limited (flawed?) ability to perceive and interact with the world. The big danger is in thinking that our own, often isolated experiences and emotions define reality. that is the beauty of community (and sometimes even tradition). It allows us to enter into the experiences of others and be enriched by their understanding. Wasn’t that essentially what counseling did for you? Isn’t that what discussions like this are trying to do?

      • The ending of your statement- that our reasoning needs to be done in community- is exactly what I was getting at. My comment was meant to address the fact that those of us who are on a spiritual journey are sometimes in danger of rejecting the wider wisdom and tradition of the Church altogether, in our search for truth that makes sense to us.

        Here’s an example: I see a lot of comments here from “recovering” fundamentalists (which makes me laugh- I often say I’m a “recovering Baptist”), some of whom reject fundamentalism categorically. Any time we reject an entire category of thought, I think we miss an opportunity to glean truth.

        Do I accept all fundamentalist teaching? No. Do I believe some things are fundamentally true, and that the Bible is the infallible word of God? Yes. (with the caveat that we often misinterpret it- the Word is infallible, WE are not.)

        My second point is; our personal experiences and emotion are absolutely important to filtering and understanding Scripture. The Bible is sometimes referred to as the Living Word- I believe that God speaks to us through our lives, and through our experiences, as much as through Scripture. My point is, it’s not the ONLY, or even the most important, filter we use to study the Word. Historical context, reason, literary form, those are all valid and important filters as well.

        I’m not trying to steer the argument in the opposite direction, just offering up the idea of keeping our journey between the lines. 🙂

  • Chris

    Really well-stated. I was thinking about my comment yesterday regarding verbal plenary inspiration, which is most definitely a “high view of Scripture.” I don’t know if it gets any higher than that. It’s certainly been from such a rigid position that a lot of contentious and harmful doctrine has been kept alive in the church.

    Community as the answer is brilliant. The problem humans have (and I’m lumping the entire race in here, as this isn’t endemic to just the church) is that, for the most part, we want to defer to authority and someone in an office. By now we’ve all become so institutionalized that we just accept the offices of a hierarchical authority and the “rightness” they supposedly possess. Questioning the mere existence of positions such as elder, pastor, and so forth becomes an excuse for others to label us as rebellious, backslidden, or downright heretical.

    Wade Burleson wrote an article about authoritarianism in the church ( My favorite passage as it pertains to your post:

    “The King James Version unfortunately translates the Greek word diakonia as “office” in Romans 11:13, but diakonia is always elsewhere properly translated as “service” or “servant.” Christians serve others and any leadership in the church flows from this selfless service and oversight of others; pagans seek offices that grant authority so that their leadership (lordship) over other people is inherent to their positions or titles….When Christians act like pagans, they turn their homes, churches, and organizations into structures of authority where everybody is coerced to submit to the authority and control of another person in a higher ‘position’ of authority. The equality of New Covenant believers in Christ is lost because Old Covenant Levitical forms of authority are imposed on Christian ministry.”

    Of course, at some point we must discuss within a community setting just what diakonia means. 🙂

    Great discussion!

    • Chris

      Realized I left out the connection between the Burleson quote and your post: When we set up authorities to tell us what to think of the Bible, we dismiss each believer’s ability to decide for themselves, and for the community InsanityRanch described to take place. Doing away with millenia-long unbiblical concepts of authority is paramount to achieving this.

  • Hilary

    I just read that post about ML, that was a good conversation. For myself, Martin Luther is forever tied to what I learned in my word (coughEuropeancough) history class in high school. I read a several page article about him, his history, and various theories about his personality and mental issues. It’s the last sentence I’ve never forgotten: “When all is said and done, there are grave difficulties with psychoanalyzing the dead.”

    For me, the bible hinges upon what Rabbi Hillel* said, when challenged to define all of Jewish law on one foot: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others. That is the enire Torah, the law and the Prophets. Everything else is commentary, go and study.

    It’s not enough just to react with the empathy of “I don’t want to be treated that way so I shouldn’t do it to another person.” There has to be the follow up, go and study. What does it mean to not oppress another human being? How can I do that and actually be efffective, not just give myself a feel-good moment? What does this part of the bible mean, in context, in historical context, is there a translation issue I should check out (I think Christians should have an equivalent of Bat/Bar Mitzvahs, were teens practice learning enough Greek to read a passage out loud and translate it for themselves. Even if it is only a few paragraphs it would open them up to the issues in translation.)

    And like what IR said, how has this part of the bible been used before? Who interpreted it? Who had the power to enforce it, and what were their posiitions of power to protect? What is the communal history and tradition of the bible, and what, to get back to your original statement about fruits, have been the effects of those interpretations and traditions throught history. Especially to the people who didn’t have the voice to decide which understanding to enforce.

    *Hillel was a 1st century relgious leader and sage in Israel, a generation before Jesus. Rabbi is a title awarded post-humously through the generations, historically he was part of the Parushim, a Pharisee.

  • I’m not sure if you’ve read “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”, but I hear fantastic things about it (I haven’t read it), and as I’ve understood from people that I trust on this kind of topic, it delves deeply into the fact that the biblical literalism practiced by current evangelical denominations was invented in the 1840s explicitly as a way to protect and advance the cause of anti-abolitionism.

    That single point changes everything you start to understand about these ways of reading the Bible. When you understand that this entire system of theology was invented and perpetuated as a way to justify literal ownership of people, it (IMO) begins to make significantly more sense. It was the first time in theological history that “What the Bible plainly says” became a significant motivating factor in theological discussion. Now, obviously I’m not implying that evangelical christians today think we should bring slavery back (though I’m sure you could find a few), but rather that when you understand that the hermeneutic was invented as a means to protect the power and privilege of straight white American males, the fact that it’s continued to be used as a vehicle to protect that same power and privilege makes significantly more sense.

    Fred Clark and Rachel Held Evans have both done some nice writing on this topic, and I’d highly recommend their writings on the topic, as they’ve both expressed it much more clearly than I can.

  • awesome post!

  • When I saw the title of your post, I cheered! I was not let down when I read it, either. We had that verse hammered into us, as a way to justify judging others. I love the back and forth in the comments section, too. Reading the Bible in community is how it was done. Prophets in the OT read the sacred texts to the community, then struggled to apply what it said to that community in that particular setting. Much of the NT is a series of letters, read in community to gatherings of believers. Great post, and great insights from those who commented.

  • You continue to teach, I thank you for that. Since I read the Bible along with commentary, much of it in the Jewish tradition I suspect I get a different view. My starting point though was much more traditional.

  • (In passing, though this is becoming a habit.)

    When reading that passage, it seems to me that one might reasonably read the next few verses as well, as a reminder that one could be wrong in one’s beliefs, and to have a care. It seems to me that the whole of chapter 7 gives advice for a spiritual path that is in conflict with the one you were raised in. Don’t be judgmental, don’t teach the unready, but do seek, “do unto others…,” and beware of deception and self-deception.

    On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve rediscovered some heresy or other. There’s a huge literature on that sermon, after all, and I’ve scarcely read any of it.

  • Very well said. Reason, emotion and experience need to be equal for balance.

  • Excellent post! The title of the sermon at my church yesterday was “Why Church? Because Community.” I think this must be the theme for my week – very appropriate for Thanksgiving week!

    I learn so much from your posts and your other commenters. Thank you for hosting this community!

  • I think it’s entirely possible that yes, Jesus may have been referring to love, when he used the word ‘fruit’. But I also wonder whether it’s even more simple than that. In that passage, he’s referring to prophets. Are we all prophets? I dont think so. What is the expected ‘produce’ from a prophet? Prophesy. In the Old Testament we see prophets sometimes making statements about what is expected to come to pass. If a prophet prophesies that something is about to happen, and then if that prophesy proves to be inaccurate, I’d say we have a case of bad fruit.