In Matthew 7:16-21, Jesus tells us how we can know "them." We know "them" by their "fruits":
"Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth devil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them."
Who is "them"?
As best I can tell, "them" are the true followers of Christ, the authorized representatives of God, the members of his true Church. Meanwhile, "fruits" seems to refer to the inevitable byproducts of "them" and/or the effects of the true Gospel made manifest in the lives of "them," potentially visible for others’ viewing and inspection. If I recall correctly, this theme gets expounded upon in either LeGrand Richards’ "A Marvelous Work and a Wonder" or James Talmadge’s "Articles of Faith" (I can’t remember which one). And it also gets considerable airtime in the modern-day Church. To cite one example, consider Dean L. Larsen’s talk in the November, 1985 Ensign, appropriately entitled, "By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them." Elder Larsen says:
"Those who receive the gospel are expected to manifest its fruits in their lives, not only for their own benefit and blessing, but for the purpose of drawing others to the truth … In significant ways their lives will manifest the fruits of the gospel and set them apart as a beacon to all who are seeking for light and truth."
In short, we should expect the "fruits" of the Gospel to be on display, assuming we are "them." In the aggregate, God’s chosen people should manifest certain qualities that result from our gospel living and commitment to Christ’s true teachings. And consequently, astute observers should be able to conclude that we are "them." This all sounds right to me.
But now consider a conversation I had with some members of my ward about a year ago: We were discussing the rationale offered by a disgruntled investigator as to why she wasn’t interested in affiliating with the Church anymore. Nothing original here… she was offended by many members of the ward, felt that the ward as a whole was judgmental and uninterested in her welfare, and was unimpressed by what she saw as a lack of commitment to true gospel princples. And I’m sure you can guess what everyone’s response to her was: "Don’t judge the Church by the members! Judge it by its teachings!" "The Church is perfect, but the members aren’t!" And so forth. For as long as I can remember, these responses, and others like them, have been thrown around by Church members with reckless abandon. And why not? They sound perfectly reasonable enough. After all, just because someone affiliates with the Church, it doesn’t follow that they will be a particularly good representative of its teachings. We all fall short, often miserably so. To draw conclusions about the teachings of Mormonism based upon the behaviors of its adherents is to confuse the pristine message with the gritty reality of individual members trying (and perhaps failing) to apply that message in practice.
But this just raises the question: Are we to know "them" by their "fruits," or aren’t we? Which is it? Is it appropriate to make judgments about the Church based upon the behavior, traits, or qualities of its members, or isn’t it? If the answer is "Well, only sometimes," then when are those times exactly?
I suspect the answer, for most LDS members, is: "Yes, it’s appropriate to judge Mormonism by its fruits, but only if those judgments make the Church look good." In other words, the "right" answer is: "Our good fruits tell us much about the tree, but our bad fruits don’t tell us anything about the tree, thank you very much!"
Perhaps what Christ really meant in verse 17 was "Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit and devil fruit, and a corrupt tree bringeth forth both good fruit and devil fruit also. Thus, thou shalt not draw any conclusions about the tree, based upon its fruits." (Maybe we can get the Church to adopt the "ABT" — Aaron Brown Translation — complete with this inspired reading, and we can put it in the footnotes of the new non-KJV "official" Bible that everybody seems to want so badly). :) But the problem here, of course, is that if both the good tree and the corrupt tree are putting forth both types of fruit, why the heck did Christ bring up this business about fruit trees to begin with? Seems like the metaphor is completely unhelpful, and the whole sermon was a bit of a waste.
Aren’t the principles "By their fruits ye shall know them" and "Don’t judge the Church by its members" in tension with each other? Aren’t these two contradictory approaches to the very same issue? Isn’t our tendency to invoke both principles an example of our trying to have our fruitcake and eat it too? Should people come to conclusions about the truth of Mormonism based upon the qualities of its members, or shouldn’t they?
Obviously, as members of the Church, we want to apply the "Don’t judge the Church by the members" principle in the case of the disgruntled investigator, and the "By their fruits ye shall know them" principle in the case of a satisfied investigator who is impressed by the ward members. But why should we? Just because it’s convenient? Just because these particular applications of the arguments lead to the "right result" from an orthodox LDS perspective? Put differently, why wouldn’t the disgruntled investigator be correct in replying: "No, I will judge the Church by the members! Christ said "By your fruits ye shall know them," this ward contains the only Mormons I know, and they clearly are not displaying the "fruits" that would suggest they are true followers of Christ. Therefore, I have to conclude that they are not!"
For that matter, why wouldn’t it be appropriate for a non-disgruntled investigator to say to the missionaries: "Sorry, but although I think the members of this congregation seem very Christ-like in lots of ways, this laundry list of good Mormon qualities I’ve drawn up just isn’t relevant at the end of the day. I don’t judge the Church by the members, but rather, by its doctrines and teachings only, so the wonderful qualities of the Mormon people can’t weigh in the Church’s favor!"
Is there a way to justify our use of these respective principles the way we want to use them, short of admitting that we’re only doing it because we’ve calculated it will lead to results that makes the Church look good? If not, are we merely indulging in ad hoc invocations of principles that we don’t really believe in?