When you’re out and about, how do you identify other Christians?
I’m not talking about the people you know are Christians: the ones you witnessed being saved or friends you’ve had for years. I’m talking about everyone else. Does a sincere-sounding “God bless you” make you think, ahh, a brother in Christ! The presence of a cross pin or a Jesus-friendly bumper sticker? A particular set of political views? Attendance at a local church?
For all of us, I’m sure, there is a collective set of identity markers and clues that scream to us fellow believer. When I see an ichthus on the back of someone’s car, I often assume they’re a Christian (even when they’re doing 60 in a 45). When a member at a church I visit shakes my hand and says “God bless you, honey,” I tend to assume they’re a Christian, too.
But the Bible tells us that’s not how you identify Christians.
In a roundabout way, Matthew 7:16-17 tells us that we will identify non-believers – and therefore believers – by their fruit: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.”
The question, then, is what constitutes fruit. And this is where I fear a lot of us slip up. Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness…” Fruit exhibits the “fragrance” spoken of in Song of Solomon 2:13. Fruit is synonymous with “sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22).
What you’ll notice is that fruit in any context is a product of the Spirit, of God’s presence and sanctifying work within a person. Fruit is something that grows over time, that mirrors a person’s growth in Christ, and that results in a believer becoming more Christlike in behavior and manner.
That isn’t something you can identify in the two seconds it takes to greet someone at church. It isn’t something you can always discern even after a few conversations. Identifying a person’s spiritual fruit requires engaging with that person over a period of time, observing their life, their behavior, and their attitudes.
I fear that in our jobs as self-appointed “fruit inspectors,” many of us can forget that. Playing who’s the believer? is a dangerous game. Being saved doesn’t gift us with a Christian radar that faultlessly alerts us to the presence of other believers. Anyone can wear a cross necklace. Anyone can say “God bless you.” Anyone can adopt a certain set of political views, or attend a church. Certainly external markers can be evidence of the fruit of Christ in someone’s life, but if we treat them as the only evidence, we run the risk of misidentifying our Christian brothers and sisters: of shutting out those who don’t “look” like believers to us, or christening as believers those who may not be.
When I was in high school, I dated a guy whose sole aspiration in life was to be the roadie for a local band. His style influenced mine; in my senior year, I once memorably procured a pair of leather pants, a Myrtle Beach Bike Week shirt and some blood-red lipstick, and went out to dinner with him. The rest of the time I was a very self-evident goodie-two-shoes who wore perfectly acceptable clothes and an icthus ring on one finger. Changing into those leather pants didn’t change my faith or my Christianity. Neither did the lipstick. I was 100% the same Christian before and after. And yet I wonder how much that simple change in clothes might have shifted the perceptions of people who didn’t know me: would “fruit inspectors” identify me as a believer, or not?
It’s important to be careful and to be cautious. The Bible warns that it’s easy to mistake deceivers for believers; our “fruit sense” is, from what I can tell, not all that good. In the end, the best way to identify someone as a Christian (or not) is to simply get to know them: to talk to them, to engage with them, to listen to what their words and their actions tell you over time. To reduce that process to the presence or absence of a few external symbols raises the possibility for error enormously.
And it also means you might miss some brothers and sisters along the way.