I received this email from someone I know:
It's been quite a while. How are things going? Enjoying your time across the pond?
I'm curious about your thoughts on having close non-Christian friends. I've known my best friend, who is non-Christian, since college. I was the best man in his wedding. His kids call me 'uncle'. So I clearly see nothing wrong with it. I've come across a number of articles, though, that argue that believers should not have unbelievers as close friends, and that the primary purpose of having a casual friendship with them should be to try and convert them. Take, for example, the following:
"We are called to evangelize the lost, not be intimate with them. There is nothing wrong with building quality friendships with unbelievers – but the primary focus of such a relationship should be to win them to Christ by sharing the Gospel with them and demonstrating God’s saving power in our own lives." (https://www.gotquestions.org/friendships-unbelievers.html)
This seems to be a pretty consistent theme across various articles on the topic. I always like hearing your view on various things so I'm curious to hear what you think.
I replied approximately as follows:
Good to hear from you. I consider the idea you mention to be a heresy straight from the blackest, stinkiest pit of Hell.
1. The commandment is to "Love your neighbor as yourself", not "Love your neighbor, but only if they are a fellow Christian." But love naturally leads to friendship, whenever there are shared interests and interactions making it possible.
The author of this article apparently allows for "quality" friendships, but not for "intimate" or "deep" ones—but I'm not sure this distinction makes very much logical sense. Leaving romance aside, what could be more intimate than talking about the most important things in one's own spiritual life?
2. The advice to avoid becoming close doesn't make any sense practically either. Becoming close friends with somebody is THE most effective form of evangelism (certainly in my own experience), but only if it is done sincerely and in good faith.
You can't know in advance when or if a friendship will lead to an opportunity to explicitly share the Gospel in a way that the other person will be receptive to. Sometimes it takes 5 years, 10 years, even 50 years to get to that point. So when are you supposed to show that person the door and eject them as a lost cause?
Imagine saying to a non-Christian: "I'm going to act friendly with you, but all I'm really interested in is converting you. If you don't show any signs of listening to my gospel shpiels within a few months or so, then I'll put up barriers to make sure this doesn't develop into a close friendship. Please don't share your deepest heart-concerns with me, unless you make it obvious that it's a possible prelude to conversion. And I in turn will make sure to never share my deepest struggles with you."
What a horrible thing that would be to say out loud! It makes me feel sick just to write it. Wouldn't any non-Christian quite reasonably be offended by that? Wouldn't it confirm all their worst suspicions about us, as judgmental sanctimonious hypocrites? That all we care about is using them to score religious points?
But you might ask, isn't trying to lead people to Christ and thus saving their souls the highest form of love? Isn't that far more important, and thus loving, than say hanging out and talking about movies or football?
Yes and no. The REALITY of our neighbor's soul is of course infinitely more valuable than any of their worldly interests. That is why the person who gives up their eye, hand, or even life for salvation will find that their true self is the one that is in Jesus.
But, our own CONCEPT of what is going on in our neighbor's soul is in many ways imaginary, and is therefore often much less real than their secular interests. That's why we are commanded to get involved with our neighbors' lives in concrete ways---like sharing meals with them or visiting them when they are sick. It is the concrete person, the same one who loves BBQ and funny Youtube videos, whom Christ came to save. The visible self of our neighbor, is usually the most real self we have access to, and therefore the self we are to love as ourselves.
Of course, the greatest saints share God's perspective on human beings, so it's perfectly fine to tell them to just focus on people's souls. There is not much risk that somebody like Mother Theresa would fail to see somebody's unique individuality because of an excessive focus on spirituality.
But you can't believe any old blowhard neighborhood pamphleteer who claims to have a "passion for souls", if their attitude to the neighbor's kid prattling about Pokemon or something like that is indifference or contempt.
As C.S. Lewis' devil Screwtape writes:
"It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very 'spiritual', that is is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism. Two advantages will follow. In the first place, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, by which, with a little guidance from you, he can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself. Thus you can keep rubbing the wounds of the day a little sorer even while he is on his knees; the operation is not at all difficult and you will find it very entertaining. In the second place, since his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous, he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person, and it will be your task to make that imaginary person daily less and less like the real mother—the sharp-tongued old lady at the breakfast table. In time you may get the cleavage so wide that no thought or feeling from his prayers for the imagined mother will ever flow over into his treatment of the real one. I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment's notice from impassioned prayer for a wife's or son's soul to beating or insulting the real wife or son without any qualm."
That's why evangelism is fraught with temptations and perils. To regard ourselves as better. To be more interested in our own (perceived) altruism and righteousness than our neighbor's actual welfare. (Or, to take these potential pitfalls as excuses not do it at all,) This battle is not for wusses. If we reach out it in the face of these fears, it should normally be precisely because our friendship with the person makes us care enough about them to take a risk and share Jesus, ideally in a way that is sensitive to the person's unique interests and needs.
The article also says:
Another detrimental effect of closeness with unbelievers is our tendency to water down the truths of Scripture so as to not offend them. There are difficult truths in the Word of God, truths such as judgment and hell. When we minimize or ignore these doctrines or try to “soft pedal” them, in essence we are calling God a liar for the sake of those already in the grasp of Satan. This is not evangelism.
But being adaptive to a person's needs isn't at all the same as "soft pedalling" the gospel. It's applying it to an actual, God-loved life. Argh! I think this Got Questions author thinks that liking non-Christians actually interferes with evangelism. What could be more wrongheaded? It's a bit like somebody who hears about someone injuring themselves at the gym, and thus decides that the healthiest lifestyle must therefore be to never exercise.
3. It's worth noting that articles like the one above are in many ways based on a spirituality of fear, especially fear by authority figures that children and young adults will fall away from the faith. A parent or teacher who feels responsible for someone else's spiritual development is naturally tempted to be over-protective, and err on the side of caution. But this is a trap, which prioritizes keeping people safe over obeying the will of the Father. It blasphemously supposes that Adam is more powerful to condemn, than Christ is to save.
And it leads to the very un-Christian idea, stated quite explicitly in the first 3 sentences of the article, that spirituality is a function of our environment:
As Christians, we have to constantly face temptations and the attacks of the world around us. Everything we see, read, do, hear, put in our bodies, etc., affects us somehow. That’s why, to maintain a close relationship with God, we have to put aside our old ways of doing things—the things we watch on TV, old bad habits (excessive drinking, smoking, etc.), the activities we participate in, and the people we spend our time with.
It is not so! "To the pure all things are pure." (Titus 1:15), "A man is not defiled by what enters his mouth, but by what comes out of it.” (Matt 15:11). Note how these verses DIRECTLY contradict the opening premise of the author's argument, and how this totally unbiblical idea is snuck in before ever giving Christ a chance to speak.
(That doesn't mean you should go out and destroy your body with drugs; or that God can't help you overcome harmful addictions. But the focus of the above paragraph is entirely in the wrong place.)
Then starting in the fourth sentence, it somehow gets even worse. The article says:
People are divided into only two categories, those who belong to the world and its ruler, Satan, and those who belong to God (Acts 26:18). These two groups of people are described in terms of opposites all through the Bible; e.g., those in darkness/those in the light; those with eternal life/those with eternal death; those who have peace with God/those who are at war with Him; those who believe the truth/those who believe the lies; those on the narrow path to salvation/those on the broad road to destruction, and many more. Clearly, the message of Scripture is that believers are completely different from nonbelievers, and it is from this perspective that we must discern what kind of friendships we can really have with unbelievers.
This is true in an eschatological sense, but note how he conveniently forgets that Jesus told us it was impossible for even the angels to make this separation into two categories prior to the Final Judgement (Matthew 13:24-30). Still less is it possible for us human beings here on Earth to make this kind of distinction, without judging people in a way that is forbidden to us.
So this application of Scripture is amateurish at best, and diabolical at worst.
I am not saying that we should not distinguish between those inside and outside of the Church. But any distinctions we can make between believers and unbelievers in this life must be more nuanced; allowing for more uncertainty and shades of grey, and concerned more with the qualities that are actually observable. It is reasonable to be hopeful of the salvation of the godly Christians we know whose lives clearly exhibit humility and love (even while recognizing that it isn't our place to judge them). On the other hand, we should be very reluctant to express a belief that even an obviously wicked person would be damned if they died in their current state. Because this places limits on God's mercy, and exposes us to the temptation to have contempt for that person.
(I am not saying that such a person can be saved apart from Christ, since none of us are saved apart from Christ. But I don't pretend to know all the means by which Christ can work.)
Note that the passage in Acts quoted is actually about the conversion of St. Paul, and doesn't at all prove the relevant point. Paul was commissioned to preach the gospel "so that they may turn from darkness to light", but this did not require him to definitively know exactly which individuals he preached to were "saved" before or after his preaching. The important thing is that Paul was working to help people be reconciled to God.
Of course, those entering the Church and being baptized should be told that they are renouncing the work of Satan and being reconciled to Christ, because (normatively speaking) that's what ought to be happening. But this does not exclude hypocrites being falsely numbered as Christians; nor does it exclude the possibility of salvation for certain individuals known to God, who are not visible members of the Church, but are still in some kind of relation to Christ, which is not seen from the outside, and may even come as a surprise to that very person.
4. Finally, it's not the example Jesus gave us. He was willing to make friends with sinners at parties, including types of companionship that were sufficiently intimate that they caused the Pharisees to question Jesus' own morals!
On this topic, the article you link to also abuses the Book of Proverbs:
The book of Proverbs has a few wise verses on believers befriending non-believers: "The righteous should choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray" (Proverbs 12:26). We should stay away from foolish people (Proverbs 13:20, 14:7), from people who lose their temper easily (Proverbs 22:24), and from the rebellious (Proverbs 24:21). All these things represent those who have not been saved.
Uh, no. These proverbs aren't at all about avoiding "non-believers" or the "unsaved". First of all, that's ahistorical. "Saved/unsaved" simply wasn't a theological category in Judaism, back when Solomon wrote Proverbs. (For example, it wasn't until later that the concept of a final judgement and afterlife was explicitly taught by prophets.)
(There is an distinction made in the Old Testament between Israelites and foreigners. Such passages are a bit more relevant theologically to the relationship between Christians and to those outside the Christian Church. However, this is not the same distinction as saved/unsaved—since there's nothing in the Old Testament suggesting that all Gentiles were obliged to convert to Judaism, nor that everyone outside of the nation of Israel was automatically condemned by God. Anyway, the Book of Proverbs does not take much notice this distinction since it is more about categorizing wise behavior in the abstract. Indeed the word "Israel" is never used in the entire book, after the first verse!)
Secondly, as I've said, the unsaved are undetectable. We simply can't tell whether people are unsaved by external examination, that's for God to judge.
Finally, this reading defies the literal meaning of the text. For example, Proverbs 22:24 merely says:
Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person,
do not associate with one easily angered,
which includes many believers I regret to say! (Conversely, there are many placid nonbelievers which are not described by this verse.) This verse says zero, zip, nothing, about whether or not the easily angered person is "unsaved", either now or at the Final Judgement.
The reason is given in verse 25:
or you may learn their ways
and get yourself ensnared.
In other words, the goal is to avoid getting your own life caught up in grievance mongering. There's no magic that prevents this from happening when the angry person is a fellow believer. (And you certainly don't need to judge the other person's state of salvation to figure out whether they are causing you to get angry more often.)
And like many other proverbs, this is not even a commandment, just practical advice that may or may not be applicable to your particular situation.
Yes, it may sometimes happen that the wisest course of action is to cut off a friendship. If your association with a specific person is dragging you down morally, without you doing them any good in return, then of course you should re-evaluate that relationship, whether or not the other person is a Christian. (Assuming the relationship is of a purely voluntary nature, rather than e.g. a close family member, or someone you have a duty to care for.) But this should not be done priggishly. In such sad situations the need for separation usually arises from our own moral shortcomings; if we were more like Jesus we would be able to interact with arbitrarily bad sinners without being corrupted by them.
I do agree with the article that Christians should not marry or romantically date non-Christians. (Although like St. Paul, I would make an exception for pre-existing relationships, since Christ came to heal, not to destroy.) That is a different situation entirely; since marriage is a vowed, permanent one-flesh union, and there it is essential for the spouses to have union in their fundamental goals, if at all feasible.
The same would hold for any other vow of inescapable fealty to a non-Christian person or institution. But there are not many such vows available in the modern era, besides marriage! The medieval world was chalk full of orders of knights, monastic vows etc. while for secular moderns, marriage is pretty much the only vow-based relationship which remains.
Regarding your best friend: (1) are you helping him to become a better person than he would otherwise be? (2) And is he helping you to become a better person than you would otherwise be? And (3) does he know that you are a Christian, and that your faith is important to you? If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then you have no grounds for concern.
But, you might consider being more intentional about looking for openings to have spiritual conversations with him (unless you are already doing so), when and if the situation arises. It doesn't need to be stereotyped or overbearing, just leaving a door open in case something develops. The details depend a lot on the personality of your friend. Some people live for a theological cage match, while with others you have to tread softly or you'll spook them. You're the one who knows him, not me. So you have to trust your own instincts, and the leading of the Spirit.