Pastor John, over the months, we have had piles of e-mail questions from listeners who want to know about the certain boundaries we should have in place as Christians regarding our friendships with non-Christians. What are some categories to keep in mind here — where would you draw the lines?
Two Sides, Same Christian
We have to find the line between ignoring two seemingly opposite commands. One side is,
“Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33)
“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.
“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 all these commands and wisdom proverbs on the one side that say, “Watch out, hanging out with corrupt people can lead to your corruption.”
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” (Luke 7:34) because that is, in fact, what he did so often. And you have got Paul saying, “When I say don’t hang out or separate yourself from sexually immoral people, if you think I mean the world, then that won’t work, 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 and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:10). 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.”
Worldliness or Holiness?
We have these two sets of admonitions, and we have to discern which ones apply when. So I would say ask these two sets of questions:
1) 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, say, movies or on television or in language that you weren’t once hard to, but sensitive to? That is the first question.
2) And the second question is, 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 and the things they laugh at they don’t regard as offensive. The things they watch in movies they don’t regard as a problem. The language they use — they don’t think it is a big deal. The way they spend their time — that is the way they would like to spend their time, which really shows that they are not loving these people with a Christlike 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 ruins good morals’ on the one hand and Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners on the other hand.