There is a place for a holy disregard for what unbelievers think. But it is small.
We shouldn’t be caught off guard when they “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18) of God as creator and sustainer, as speaker (in the Scriptures), and as redeemer (in the gospel). We need not be bewildered when the world is the world. It’s to our shame when we forget that “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). But for the mercy and grace of God (Titus 3:4–7).
So we have good reason not to be shaken by every opinion from outsiders. But we must beware letting one biblical truth masquerade as the whole. It is far too easy to slouch into an unholy, careless lack of concern about what outsiders think, when the Scriptures say more than simply turn a deaf ear to every word from the outside. You might be surprised how much the New Testament has to say about having a genuine concern for what unbelievers think.
Associate with Outsiders
The apostolic voice with the most to say on this score is Paul’s, and the letter in which he says most is First Corinthians. His first mention of “outsiders” is at the end of chapter five, where he clarifies that his previous instructions “not to associate with sexually immoral people” (1 Corinthians 5:9) didn’t mean the immoral of the world, but the church. His point was not to separate from outsiders, but from the immoral one “who bears the name of brother” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
Christians are on the hook, says Paul, to discern from among our own number when someone’s comfort with sin is so out of stride with the gospel that we must distinguish them from the rest. When their pattern of life has become a blatant lie about our Lord, it is for their own good — and for the sake of others, inside and out — that we make the difference plain. We must “judge,” but the judgment we render is toward our insiders, not outsiders.
What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12–13)
To be true to the church and the world, we must judge within the church. But as the apostle lays on us that burden, he lifts another. “God judges those outside.” We are liberated from the need to judge “the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters” (1 Corinthians 5:10). God’s promised judgment of the unbelieving frees us from feeling the need to be the instrument of their condemnation. Rather, we happily associate with outsiders and seek to be means of their redemption as we focus our energies on impressing them with the gospel of Christ and its counter-intuitive fruit in our lives.
Paul prominently mentions “outsiders” again in 1 Corinthians 14. This time the context is corporate worship, and far from ignoring them, or planning things in such a way as to turn them off, Paul wants to engage them. To win them.
Rather than the unintelligible words of tongue-speaking, he would have us speak prophetically, in terms understandable and clear to all: “How can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Corinthians 14:16). Ultimately, the hope is evangelistic:
If . . . the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Corinthians 14: 23–25)
But care for outsiders goes beyond First Corinthians. Related is the healthy concern for the gospel’s reputation in the Pastoral Epistles. Whether it’s the conduct of widows (1 Timothy 5:14), slaves (1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:10), or young women (Titus 2:5), Paul would have us seek “in everything [to] adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10) and not bring any just reviling on the name, teaching, and word of God (1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:5). He would have us be concerned to “show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2), and have us care that our good works “are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8).
It matters in 1 Thessalonians 4:12 that we “walk properly before outsiders,” and in Colossians 4:5–6 that we conduct ourselves wisely “toward outsiders, making the best use of time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
And as we give an answer, and provide a defense to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is in us, Peter adds his voice to the concern with outsiders: “Do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15–16). Our apologetic is not only carefully chosen words, with a kind demeanor, but a life that benefits others, even outsiders. “This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15).
Ask About Outsiders
Perhaps the place where this strange concern for outsiders catches us most off guard is the grand finale of the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. In verse 7, Paul echoes the first and overarching qualification (“an overseer must be above reproach,” 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7) by fleshing it out like this: the elder “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7). Why this unexpected charge? Philip Towner comments, “Paul’s ultimate motive is missionary in thrust. . . . [I]t is the threat to the evangelistic mandate that would follow from the church falling into disgrace.”
The church is right where Satan wants her when the elders are disgraced among outsiders. Why? Because the devil wants to keep outsiders from the gospel. He wants them to stay as “outsiders” by bringing reproach on the church’s message through reproach on the church’s leaders. Satan loves it when Christian leaders, of all people, give outsiders just cause for disgust. It’s one thing to be a fool for Jesus, but it’s quite another to be foolish just as much on heaven’s terms as the world’s.
Why We Care About Outsiders
Should Christians really care what unbelievers think? The biblical answer is just as much yes (if not more so) as it is no. But most significant is why, and both the apostle’s example and his exhortation agree: that they may be saved.
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:21–22)
Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:32–33)
In the end, we care because God cares. He delights to make outsiders into insiders. He rejoices to bend his heart outward to the vilest offender, and not to leave them outside, but bring them into the sphere of his eternal covenant love.
And he loves to make us frail, former outsiders his means for bringing in more.