Association with Unbelievers

As a recent convert to Christianity, I find your writings extremely helpful in understanding my new faith. As I find myself agreeing with the Calvinistic outlook and abandoning my lifelong humanistic/liberal outlook, I realize this shift in worldview is the work of God, since my past beliefs were in complete opposition to Scripture. One cannot simply reverse their way of thinking on a mere whim or even a determined decision.

But now I have a question. One of my neighbors is a [homosexual, adulterer, etc.]. Before my conversion I considered her a friend, but now I know that her lifestyle is wrong and repugnant, and I am confused as to how I should regard her. What should I do? Do I stop associating with her? Do I pray that she will repent and believe in Christ? How should I conduct myself in social settings with unbelievers?

A Christian’s life is in constant opposition to the non-Christian outlook and agenda, and as long as a person is a non-Christian, he lives every moment of his life as a rebel against God’s kingdom and his people. Therefore, on this spiritual level where things really count, the Christian and the non-Christian maintain a constant hostility against each other. Although this should not translate into physical violence, this by no means lessens the enmity between the two. Undiscerning people regard physical violence as more dangerous or more worthy of attention, but the conflict on the spiritual/intellectual level runs much deeper, and carries greater long-term influence and significance. 

This does not mean that you have to be abusive toward unbelievers all the time. However, there must always be a clear awareness of what they are, so that when interacting with them you will not operate on the wrong assumptions about what kind of people they are and where they stand. Many Christians are often tempted to allow a sense of solidarity with men to override their obligation and allegiance to God. But God is pleased with those who will put him front and center in all that they think and do (Exodus 32:25-29; Numbers 25:3-13; Deuteronomy 13:5-16; Deuteronomy 33:8-11). A number of hurdles in theology and apologetics exist for many believers precisely because of this — on those issues they stand with men rather than God. Otherwise, there is no reason that a Christian should  have any hesitation or difficulty in answering a challenge such as, say, the so-called problem of evil. It has never been a rational problem for Christianity, but when the objection is raised, believers sometimes sympathize with men’s bitterness against God, and allow a problem to be formed where there was none in the first place.1

You are generally permitted to associate with unbelievers, but there are biblical restrictions and exceptions, which I cannot enumerate here. In any case, you must no longer behave toward them the way you did before, and you must abandon the idea of maintaining intimate and meaningful relationships with any of them. Since your deepest commitments are now vehemently hostile to theirs, it is no longer possible to have the deepest kind of communication and comradeship with them. Even the closest relationships between Christians and non-Christians must remain superficial. Anyone who disagrees with this either compromises their Christian commitments, or fails to understand what it is to have a truly deep friendship. 

This reality finds its most acute expression in the marriage relationship. Now, of course a Christian must not marry a non-Christian, so we are considering a marriage in which one of the two unbelievers converts, or in which a Christian marries a non-Christian in defiance against God’s command. Since the marriage relationship is supposed to be the closest possible relationship between two human beings, this is also the closest possible relationship between a believer and an unbeliever, but because such a relationship is doomed to come far short of what marriage is intended to be, it is also the most tragic. In fact, in a relationship where two people are supposed to become one in spirit and in body, these two individuals are divided at the deepest level, torn apart by the vast gulf that separates heaven and hell. This separation is already present and manifest in their daily life, and unless the other person also converts, one day it will become complete and permanent.

In contrast, the marriage vow between two believers is taken from God’s own word (Genesis 2, Ephesians 5, etc.) and taken before God as their witness. Their ability to fulfill this vow comes from their constant contact with God’s power in sanctification, and their confidence in each other is also derived from this reality. Just as a Christian relies on the Holy Spirit to sustain his spiritual life, and to grow in knowledge and holiness, he depends on this same power and grace to make progress in his marriage. On the other hand, there is no power and no promise for the non-Christian who takes the marriage vow. He relies on his own moral integrity and ability, and since he has neither of these or at best only an appearance of these, his marriage and all his relationships — like all his thoughts and activities — are without meaning and substance. 

The question of how much we are to interact with unbelievers is frequently mishandled. People err toward both extremes. There are those who think that we must deliberately disassociate with unbelievers as much as possible, but this extreme is not common in our circle. Rather, there is sometimes a need to correct a misapplication of the teaching that believers are to be “in but not of the world.” Some Reformed and Evangelical believers carry this very far, riding on their version of the “cultural mandate,” their denial of any “sacred vs. secular” distinction, and the false doctrine of “common grace.” This line of thinking is sometimes used to excuse their licentiousness, and their lust for worldly culture, amusements, and associations. But to be “in” the world, or even to be very involved in it, does not mean that we are to embrace and befriend it.

I have addressed this topic elsewhere with illustrations from various biblical passages. For example, Christians often justify unbridled socializing with unbelievers on the basis that Jesus associated with sinners. Of course he did that, but he always took control of each situation to accomplish a spiritual purpose, and if these Christians would do exactly that, then there is no reason for us to oppose their interactions with unbelievers. But I am concerned that most of them are just liars when it comes to this, deceiving themselves and attempting to deceive the rest of us. At any rate, this time we will consider the following passage from Paul:

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

The context of this passage is church discipline. Paul had written to the Corinthians on the subject, instructing them “not to associate with sexually immoral people” (v. 9). This first entails an intellectual evaluation of a person’s lifestyle based on God’s revealed moral precepts. Then, if it is determined that he stubbornly persists in immoral conduct, he is to be expelled from and shunned by the community of believers — “With such a man do not even eat.”2 To pursue this biblical procedure is to “judge” someone. Contrary to a popular misconception, Scripture does not teach a simple “judge not,” but it forbids only inaccurate, superficial, and hypocritical judgment.3 In fact, our passage is one of many that requires Christians to judge people.

In this context, judgment demands both an evaluation of a person and a corresponding action against him. This helps us understand what Paul means when he says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?…God will judge those outside” (v. 12-13). He does not mean that Christians must not evaluate the character and behavior of non-Christians — he just got through calling them immoral, greedy, swindlers, and idolaters (v. 9-10). In fact, he says that if we refuse to associate with all such people, even when they are unbelievers, then we will have to leave this world altogether (v. 10). The implication is not that it is good and harmless to associate with unbelievers, but that the world is full of these immoral people, so that it is impossible to completely avoid contact with them. Therefore, the passage does not teach against being “judgmental” at all — rather, it is one of the most judgmental passages in Scripture, requiring the Christian to acknowledge that the world is full of immoral unbelievers.

The passage says that we are not to “judge” those outside the church because to “judge” in this context means more than an evaluation of a person’s doctrine and conduct, but it also includes the execution of disciplinary action against him that involves an entire body of believers. To “judge” someone in this context means to “Expel the wicked man from among you,” but the non-Christian is not “among” us in the first place, so this kind of judgment does not apply. So this — corporate and official disciplinary action against unbelievers — is not the business of the church, but Paul adds, “God will judge those outside.” On the other hand, when the context is such that “judgment” refers to an accurate and non-hypocritical evaluation of belief and conduct based on biblical revelation, then there is no doubt that Scripture requires us to “judge” every non-Christian (Romans 3:23). To deny this is to deny the whole spectrum of Christian doctrines, including the depravity of man and the necessity of redemption. 

Our interest here is whether Christians should shun all immoral non-Christians. Paul gives a negative answer, but this comes within the above context and cannot be universally applied without discrimination or qualification. Also, what reason does he offer? And what does his explanation imply? Again, Paul states that it would be impossible to shun all immoral non-Christians, because all non-Christians are immoral people, and they are everywhere. The only way to avoid them is to leave this world. At least in this passage, he does not say that to shun non-Christians is morally wrong in itself — he states only that it is practically impossible to do so. And at least in this passage, he does not say that to associate with non-Christians is in itself a desirable thing, but only that it is a practical necessity. Therefore, based on this passage, one cannot assert that the opposite of not shunning non-Christians is to befriend them and to have intimate and meaningful relationships with them.

Of course there are other reasons to associate with unbelievers. Besides the practical impossibility of avoiding them completely in social and business transactions, God has commanded us to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ before all people by our words and deeds, through which God will summon to faith those whom he has created and chosen for salvation, and harden those whom he has created and chosen for damnation. But nothing in the entire range of our activities before the world requires us to become intimate friends with unbelievers. And in fact, it would be a spiritual, intellectual, ethical, and practical impossibility to do so — again, unless either the Christian or the non-Christian compromises his deepest commitments, in which case either the Christian is no longer a Christian, or the non-Christian is no longer a non-Christian. Therefore, although it is indeed possible for a Christian to be on friendly terms with a non-Christian on a superficial level, an intimate and profound communion is completely out of the question.



1 See Vincent Cheung, “The Problem of Evil.”

2 Blessed is the man who knows even one church that obeys this biblical command. Is there among us someone who “calls himself a brother,” but who is “sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler” (v. 11)? Is there anyone among us who calls himself a Christian, but who is a homosexual or an adulterer, or who is dishonest in his business, or who gets drunk? Scripture commands us to throw him out. I suggest that any church leader who refuses to teach and enforce this command should himself be thrown out of the church.

3 See Vincent Cheung, The Sermon on the Mount.