Good and Fruitful Servant
The debate between faithfulness and fruitfulness can be entertaining, but is it even right?
I’ve been seeing many posts, of late, making a clear distinction between faithfulness and fruitfulness. I get the semantic difference but I also think that making those hard and fast lines do more harm than good. What you have essentially done is pit two things against each other. I get it, though. We not only live in a realm where influencers reign, but provocateurs also have a slice of that pie. Hot takes that are pithily packaged, perhaps even palindromically, get more play.
But is it true?
I surmise that people are so attached to faithfulness as opposed to fruitfulness because it absolves them from a results orientated obedience. It’s attractive because all I have to do is to show up and do the work. This is, however, a symptom of a deeper issue and misunderstanding of fruits in general. A theology that renders fruits as a barometer of one’s grit and determination is already working from a severe Gospel deficit.
Think about how fruit is described in Scripture. Fruits are a measure of authenticity (Matt. 7:20). They are how you glorify God and is a mark of a true disciple (John 15:8). It is the very reason for Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom. 1:13). Fruits aren’t just a ministry paradigm either; it is the evidence of one’s salvation (Gal. 5:22–23).
Allow me to gratuitously quote Tim Keller (Center Church) on the false dichotomy between faithfulness and fruitfulness:
The church growth movement has made many lasting contributions to our practice of ministry. But its overemphasis on technique and results can put too much pressure on ministers because it underemphasizes the importance of godly character and the sovereignty of God. Those who claim that “what is required is faithfulness” are largely right, but this mind-set can take too much pressure off church leaders. It does not lead them to ask hard questions when faithful ministries bear little fruit. When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.
The toxicity of my own harsh self-criticism is compounded by my perfectionism. Therein lies my crippling conundrum: I am driven by work yet it is never the work that brings me satisfaction. Work, or better yet, fruits of my labor, creates an infinite feedback loop, a ruthless oscillation between being left wanting and being driven to the very precipice of madness. It is this obsession of self that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of perpetual dissatisfaction, which ironically is never fulfilling. And so Keller’s paradigm is a tough pill to swallow.
When you consider the nature of ministry, and conceding the fact that it is God and God alone that changes the hearts of people, you’re not just stuck between a rock and a hard place — you are smack dab in the middle of a paradox. How is it that I called to bear fruit when God is the one that bears it?
I believe that the debate, on either side, is asking the wrong question; I don’t think it’s as absolute as faithfulness vs fruitfulness. Ultimately, it is about your gaze. If you find yourself leaning heavily on one side of the fence, ask yourself why. Why is it that you are an ardent advocate for a version of faithfulness void of any accountability? Or if you find yourself crippled by the burden of a fruit-emphasized mentality, why is it that you are so fixated on the fruits?
In either case, the problem is that your gaze is on yourself and not on Christ. A philosophy of ministry of faithfulness without true and habitual accountability is hiding behind the masquerade of busy-ness without substance. A mantra of a fruits-or-bust type of ministry lends itself to being perpetually disappointed and a low self-esteem at best, and a gospel-less ministry at worst.
Until you remove yourself as the main coefficient of this Gospel equation, you won’t have the requisite perspective to realize that the main imperative, the main call of the disciple is not to do but to be.
 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5, ESV)
You don’t have to lecture a tree or plant to bear fruit. If it is receiving enough nutrients, it will bear fruit. I am almost tempted to define “abide” here as the ever-so colloquial term “chill”. To remain. To hold fast. To keep on, keeping on.
Do you see, now, the follow of the either-or proposition of faithfulness over fruitfulness? If we are abiding in Christ and readily being replenished by the person and work of our savior, we needn’t ask such false dichotomies; rather, like Mary at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10), when we abide in the true vine, we don’t dare entertain the questions about our own faithfulness or fruitfulness but wholly devote ourselves to the faithfulness and fruitfulness, par excellence, of our savior.