Someone sent me a link to a blog about atheists coming out of the closet. While there is more to the blog than this, something caught my attention that I thought I would take some time here to address.
After talking about the aggressiveness of the “Christian Right’s” attempts to convert everyone, the author says,
“The Bible goes so far as to forbid contact with atheists (2 Corinthians 6:14), thereby stemming debate and preventing the incursion of logical, non-religious ideas entering the flock. Similar behavior is seen in religious cults, where new members are not even allowed to contact non-cult family members.”
At first I thought to myself that this was an interesting caricature, but now I am not sure. Maybe it is and maybe it is not. In other words, while I don’t think that Christians should avoid “contact” with atheists, I do think that many believe that they are supposed to. In fact, to avoid contact with unbelievers (atheists included) is the very antinomy of our worldview. In fact (again), as I will argue, the passage referred to (2 Cor. 6:14) has nothing to do with friendship, much less contact, with unbelievers.
The other day I was at church talking to a Christian lady. As we were talking there was someone whom we had never seen at the church who came and sat a few chairs over. We assumed it was a guest to our church. As we began to talk to him, he was very nice but had an extremely foul mouth. The lady I was with tried to stay engaged but by the third or fourth curse word, she could not take any more. Not only was she mad, she left never to speak to the person again. I thought to myself later, What did she expect? Does she only feel that she can engage with a person so long as he is already like her? Is her presence holier than that of God’s? Would God turn someone away because they talked and acted like an unbeliever? Of course not! Why is it that we sometimes think the ground we stand on is more sacred than God’s? But this is often the way that we act.
How many friends do you have that don’t know Christ? I mean real friends. Better put, how many people who are not Christians would call you their friend? How long would you last in the presence of that of which you don’t approve? The statistics are clear; once the average person becomes a believer in Christ, he or she loses contact with all unbelieving friends within two years. The worst thing about his is that many of us shed our former relationships with unbelievers on purpose, believing it is what we are supposed to do. This separationist mentality often comes from a misinterpretation of 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” Therefore, many believe to be Christian means that we lose all association with unbelievers (especially atheists).
I don’t think this is a good interpretation of the passage. Paul is not telling us not to have unbelieving associations or friends, but not to join together with unbelievers in their practices and worldview. There is a big difference. In other words, the “yoking together” means to join with them in their lifestyle and belief system, and, therefore, becoming like them. This does not mean that we are not to have unbelieving friends.
Let me give you four reasons why Christians should be intentional about having friends that do not know Christ.
They are sick and in need of hope.
Today more than ever we live in a world of hopelessness. People are searching for something to believe, but they just don’t know what and they don’t know where to go. The religious leaders of Christ’s day had this philosophy that was unbecoming of the missio dei (mission of God). Seeing Christ eating and drinking with unbelievers (befriending them), they began to look down upon him. Christ responded by telling them that “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). Sadly, many Christians today would, like the religious leaders look down upon Christ for giving hope to the sick.
They keep you real.
Many of us have been in Christian circles so long that we don’t know what it is like in the world outside of Christianity. Our terminology and thought pattern can quickly turn into “folk theology.” “Folk theology” is having a belief or practice and not knowing why we have it or what it means. You may have quaint sayings or Christian cliché that, if challenged on them, you may be at a loss as to what they mean. In exclusive Christian circles, you may be able to get away with saying, “the Spirit moved me,” but an unbeliever would challenge you saying, “What exactly does it mean that ‘the Spirit moved’?” They unmask our exclusive lingo, often showing its nakedness. Having unbelieving friends keeps you real.
They are not shy about their struggles and ask great questions.
Believers sometimes feel that it is “unchristian” to ask tough questions. We should just take everything “by faith.” Translation: “Take a blind leap into the dark.” This should not be. Believers should always be the first to ask the tough questions, wrestling with difficult issues. The earliest definition of theology given by Anselm in the 11th century was credo ut intelligam “faith seeking understanding.” Unbelievers struggle and have real tough questions that believers should pay attention to. For example, an unbeliever may have a real struggle with the doctrine of hell. Many believers would bypass the difficulties of the question saying that it does not bother them because the Bible teaches it. “If the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” mentality. While it is true that the Bible teaches it, it is a great difficulty that believers need to recognize. Hell brings great distress to the hearts of unbelievers, and it should bring great distress to our hearts as well. Hell is a reality, but some people make the doctrine of hell very cold. Unbelievers ask good questions that believers need to have seriously struggled with and considered.
Because Christ had unbelieving friends.
Christ was on a mission to reconcile the world to Himself. He had both unbelieving friends and believing friends. He sought to win the lost and to disciple the won. There was a great balance in his ministry. As mentioned earlier, Christ was continually being accused of associating too closely with those outside the fold. The way I see it, if the self-proclaimed religious leaders in your life are accusing you of the same, you are in good company and in more concert with God’s mission than they. If you want to follow Christ’s example, associate with all those in need.
The atheist may have pegged many Christians who believe that they are not supposed to have contact with unbelievers, but he has not pegged Christianity. Our mission is dependent upon our contact with all people, sharing God’s love, atheists included.