Jesus was a friend of sinners. This is clearly established throughout the gospels. Jesus was among them, in relationship with them, respected by them and evidently they enjoyed his company enough that they continued to seek him out. In all of this Jesus didn’t sacrifice the content of his character or the clarity of his gospel message. Yet, it seems as though many of us in the church today find this oddly challenging – and some even argue that it’s not possible for strong believers to be in these kinds of consistent social settings, and even authentic friendships, with non-believers. So, which is it? Well, given the priority of scripture, and specifically the life of Jesus, I would prefer to come down on the side of being a friend of sinners. How do we do that, though, in a way that is faithful to his word, and honors God all the while? Consider these principles, and weigh your own life against them.
1. Integrate, don’t isolate.
Jesus was not just a friend of sinners; he was regularly among them. Don’t miss the importance of this. Place matters. I think we often forget how insular our lives can be as Christ-followers in 21st century America. As believers we have lives built around our churches. In many ways this is healthy. Gospel-fueled community is a necessary element to our sanctification. There is a problem, however, when the entirety of our community is other believers.
In the church we have grown adept at the creation of a quasi-Christian sub-culture. We have changed to definition of “counter-cultural” from a robust, biblically faithful definition to mean Christian t-shirts, Christian music and Christian sports leagues. We even offer Christian business directories because, I can only assume, we believe Christian plumbers are more effective at unclogging toilets than those who do not believe. The upshot of all this Christian sub-culture is that we can live our entire lives without ever actually relating to non-believers, and we do all this thinking that we are somehow honoring God.
This complete isolation from the culture at large doesn’t reflect Jesus’ behavior, nor the rest of scripture. Across the spectrum of God’s word we see a pattern of integrating into the culture, while both displaying and declaring the gospel message and so offering a counter-cultural message in the midst of the culture. As residents of the kingdom of God, we find ourselves living now as we will live then, when God’s kingdom is fully consummated. This kingdom living foreshadows God’s coming kingdom and exists as a kind of gospel apologetic among non-believers.
2. Be a friend to sinners, not just friendly to sinners.
I think it’s important to note that Jesus was not just friendly to those who did not believe. More than that, he was a friend to them. He was often invited to be at their parties, he was regularly engaged in friendly, yet curiosity-driven conversation. Too often we miss the importance of genuinely loving, and befriending, those who do not share our beliefs.
When we befriend only those who believe like we do, we communicate (often non-verbally) that only believers have value. We diminish the image of God that is present in every person – regardless of belief, and we set ourselves up as somehow morally superior to those who disagree with us. Each of these responses is an example of an anti-gospel at work in our hearts. We must be cautious to not just be friendly when we are around non-believers, and make sure that we are, in fact, offering genuine and authentic friendship to them.
3. Be a friend and share the gospel.
Finally, it is imperative that our friendships with non-believers be real, authentic friendships and not simply a means to an end. I cannot count the number of times I was told to be friends with non-believers so that I can share the gospel with them. This is a tragic categorical mistake. Rather than befriending non-believers so that we can share the gospel with them, I would suggest that we befriend non-believers and share the gospel with them. The phraseology is pretty similar, but the distinction is enormous.
When we befriend people, so that we can accomplish something, we turn them from people into projects, and we turn friendship into a sales technique. In short, we have become bait and switch salesman that use something as genuine as friendship as a means of enticing unwitting people, even if what we hope for them is the very best. What’s most awful about this technique is the deceit that undergirds it. We hold our friendship out as a carrot, but it masks our real goal of getting to something else. Even when gospel sharing is our goal, we cheapen the gospel we share – and the friendship we offer – when we engage this way.
Instead, let us recognize that every person is created in the image of God, and is therefore infinitely valuable. Let’s recognize that every person is fascinating, and has a compelling story. Let’s treat each person as God treats them – as recipients of his grace, and befriend them simply because the love of God in us compels us to love everyone, and the grace of God displayed in our lives has transformed us to a person who is intimately interested in others. As we offer genuine friendship, then, let us certainly make sure that the gospel is a part of that friendship. We share the gospel with our friends just like we share every other important part of our lives with them. In fact, we wouldn’t be good friends unless we shared with them the most important, life-changing truth we know, but let’s not cheapen it with cheap sales techniques that are cloaked in deceit.