Pastor John, what balance or boundaries should we have regarding our friendships with non-Christians?
We have to find the line between ignoring two seemingly opposite commands. One is, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33) or, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). Paul is talking about tolerating people in the church that you should excommunicate.
“A lot of people justify hanging out with worldly people because they are worldly Christians.”
Now on the other side, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). So you have got all these commands and wisdom proverbs on the one side that say, “Watch out! Hanging out with corrupt people can lead to your corruption.”
Eating with Sinners
Now on the other side, of course, you have Jesus who not only ate with tax collectors and sinners, but he was called the friend of tax collectors and sinners because that is, in fact, what he did so often (see Luke 7:34). And you have Paul saying, when I say don’t hang out with, or separate yourself from, sexually immoral people, I don’t mean the world, because then you would have to go out of the world (see 1 Corinthians 5:9–10).
He doesn’t mean, don’t associate with the greedy, swindlers, idolaters. In that case, you would need to go out of the world. So Paul is with Jesus in saying, “No, you are going to be thrown together with these people. You should take opportunities. You should become all things to all people in a biblical way.”
Two Questions for Discernment
1. Who’s transforming whom?
So we have got these two sets of admonitions, and we have to discern when each set applies. I would say, ask these two questions: First, which way is the transforming influence flowing? When you are with someone, are they being transformed or are you being transformed? Are you being drawn to minimize the value of holiness? Have your standards been compromised? Are you being made callous and hard toward things in movies or on television or in language that you weren’t once hard to, but sensitive to?
2. Are you loving or conforming?
Second, are we loving these people for their sake — that is, that they would come to faith and they would become godly — or do we really love them because we love what they enjoy and really just like being with them in their worldliness? I think a lot of people justify hanging out with worldly people because they are worldly Christians. And they feel at home with those worldly Christians: they don’t regard the things they laugh at as offensive. They don’t regard the things they watch in movies as a problem. They don’t think the language they use is a big deal. The way their friends spend their time is the way they would like to spend their time, which really shows that they are not loving these people with a Christ-like love that is ready to die to change their behavior and change their patterns. They are just conforming to them and calling it love.
So those are the two questions that I think help us navigate between bad company corrupts good morals on the one hand, and Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners on the other hand.