When we look at the harms, the accusations and the criticisms of American Christianity, the defense is often this: “But look at the success!” Questioning the church is perceived as a threat to the success of the church, which prevents us from asking very important questions and (sometimes) from acknowledging very dangerous ills. What God is doing, in spite of our sins, often becomes a justification for those very sins.
The ways we perceive success help drive our behavior, inform our institutional structures and justify any means that reach toward that success. Christians often view success in mathematical terms (more church attendees, more baptisms and more people being saved). This poor conception of success has done more harm to the Christian church than good. It has, after all, excused Inquisitions and Crusades.
The basic Christian posture is that success is a fruit of the Spirit. It is a perversion of the verse that says, “you will know something by the fruit it bears” (Matthew 7:16, 20). Our popular interpretation of this teaching is flawed, unbiblical and unhelpful, yet we continue holding this perverted logic to our own detriment (and the detriment of the people we are called to love and serve).
The Western view of success is preoccupied with production. We view ourselves and our institutions as a machine and the product as our fruit.
Scripture tells us explicitly what the fruit of the spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Note that these are all internal manifestations. We are not meant to be measured by the responses of others, but by the character produced within.
Ignoring, perverting or misapplying these verses is one of the main underlying causes behind the troubles of today’s American church structure. We measure a pastor by the number of congregants he attracts. We measure a church by the number of baptisms they perform. The standard we hold the church to is one of external production and performance. We value charisma and call it a gift of the spirit, all the while ignoring the truly evangelistic, shepherding and prophetic gifts of our congregants (including pastors) simply because we cannot see or hold (or count) their impact.
There are two ways we misuse this teaching from Matthew 7:20. The first is overtly superficial. We look at money, published works, and worldly notoriety as some sort of spiritual measure. This is why our deacon lists are so often filled with businessmen – we equate economic success with some kind of spiritual acumen. The worldly standard of success is a far cry from the Biblical one. Until we adjust our paradigm of success to match the Kingdom of God, we will continue to be divided within ourselves – until we cannot stand altogether.
The second way we misinterpret the fruit of success is harder to talk about. There are some truly great, spiritual results happening in our churches. The Sunday morning experience is a thing of supernatural beauty and eternal value. People are coming to faith, being baptized, starting their own churches and transforming their communities. The problem is not that it is happening, but instead the mindset around it. Let me be clear: these things should indeed be celebrated, but not as “fruit” of anyone other than the person making the choice and the God to whom they are choosing. It is not that churches, and all individuals, do not influence others in sometimes beautiful, positive and eternal ways. However, it is an overreach to claim their responses as a “fruit” of the Spirit.
Consider this: when a person is baptized in a church, the church takes credit for it by trumpeting the influence of the church on this person’s life. Conversely, when a person leaves the church, the church usually puts the blame squarely on the defector. “It is their choice,” we tend to say. So, when someone makes a personal choice toward belief, we see it as the fruit of our ministries — but when they leave, we see it as their personal, private failing.
As uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, there are plenty of places in Scripture where external spiritual success is not only de-emphasized but downright absent. What do we do with Job or Jeremiah? What about when Jesus tells his disciples to go and shake the dust off their feet if a town won’t listen to them?
We can’t have it both ways. If we don’t claim ultimate responsibility for the bad spiritual choices of others (and we shouldn’t), we cannot try to claim it for the good ones.
When our influence affects others in a positive way, that is often a side effect of the true spiritual fruit we are bearing. That might sound like semantics, but let me remind you that worshiping the things God creates rather than God as Creator is the very definition of idolatry.
According to Scripture, spiritual success (the fruit) is internal obedience, not the external response to our obedience. The disciples are not chastised for people who do not believe, neither are they celebrated when people do.
Toxic leaders can produce great numbers, manipulate emotional responses and be used to influence legitimate spiritual experiences. In fact, they are often very good at it and are heralded for doing so. We will overlook a lack of internal peace, gentleness or patience if the external evidence of success is there.
The sense that God is moving is not inherently evidence that we are healthy. It is evidence that He is God. Unfortunately, toxic leaders and broken structures often continue in churches because their ill-defined “success” prevents us from responding to criticism, adopting humility and evaluating truth.
Success in the Kingdom of God is quiet. The applause is in Heaven. There are few medals to reinforce our efforts and indeed very little tangible evidence. We do our best and God moves in His mysterious ways. The Father, who sees what is done in secret, rewards in secret (Matthew 6:4). By seeking tangible recognition, external evidence and the immediacy of rewards, we set ourselves up for an enterprise that looks much more like the world than we care to admit.
As for that verse in Matthew 7:20, “you will know something by the fruit it bears,” that verse is toward the end of The Sermon on The Mount (a sermon almost wholly occupied with turning the world system on its head). It is sandwiched between a passage that talks about how narrow and difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and another passage that warns of self-deception and the very misinterpretation of verse 20 we are so often guilty of. “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7: 22-23).
Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? That is because, according to Jesus, the fruit is not about what is being produced in others, but what is produced within. By focusing on the former over the latter, we create a hierarchy of spiritual ability (celebrity pastors for example), undermine the value of every human life in the Kingdom, and build temples of machinist production rather than structures of vibrant missional movement. To focus on the fruits of the Spirit, explicitly stated, is the key to re-shifting our dangerous perspective on the Christian definition of success and the fruit we are called to bear.