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.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    29 replies to "If You Are an Atheist, Don't Talk to Me!"

    • Geoff

      Thanks for discussing this issue. I related to alot of what you had to say and it really helped refocus an issue I have been having with my best friend who is an unbeliever.
      I do want to comment on the issue of people distancing themselves from their unchristian friends once they have gotten saved. In most cases I believe that at first it is necessary for new believers to stay away from their unbelieving friends. When I was first surrendering my life to Christ I was weak and easily succeptible to falling back into the world. Fortunately for me I was bold and already had a good upbringing of knowledge about Jesus so I was sharing my faith with all my unbeliever friends. This eventually lead to most of them distancing themselves from me more than my wanting to stay away from them. Later though as God convicted me of certain environments to stay away from, my lifestyle practices no longer related to those of my unbelieving friends and we just stopped hanging out.
      I say all this to point out that after I had become solid in my committment to stay away from the clubs and bars etc., the Lord started bringing up opportunities for me to run into or call my old friends and when I hung out with them it was done in love and with the intent to share Jesus love and hope with them. They still live the same way, but every once in a while they get curious and want to know how I am doing in my new found faith and this opens up great opportunities to share Jesus with them.
      I liked how you emphasized that Jesus hung out with sinners, because He came to heal the sick and not the healthy.
      God bless, Geoff

    • Leslie

      I came to Christ when I was 15, and I too had the seperationist mentality. My behaviour confused my friends, I should add. Fortunately, I overcame that idiotic mindset over time.

    • Phil McCheddar

      Excellent article! Thank you.

      By the way, I think there is a typo in the 4th paragraph: 1 Cor.6:14 should read 2 Cor.6:14 [Corrected. Thanks. – ed.]

    • Steven Carr

      ‘He had both unbelieving friends and believing friends.’

      What did the disciples believe about Jesus prophesies that he would be killed and rise from the dead?

      What did the disciples believe about the deeds that the Messiah would do?

      What did Jesus family believe about Jesus?

      Who were the beleieving friends of Jesus?

    • Steven Carr

      ‘I liked how you emphasized that Jesus hung out with sinners…’

      Presumably Jesus hung out with unrepentant sinners.

    • Jim W.

      I have a minor quibble with saying Jesus had unbelieving friends. The Scripture does not provide detail on his interaction with specific unbelievers over an extended period of time. Therefore, I don’t think we can assert the “friendship” aspect of his contact with unbelievers. He certainly engaged with unbelievers and in some cases “pursued” them during individual encounters, but to state that he had unbelieving “friends” seems to go beyond the text. The impression I get from reading the gospels is that Christ was willing to meet unbelievers where they were but that his friendship was reserved for those that followed him.

    • cheryl u

      I think I agree with Jim W. I don’t see the Gospel texts as supporting the idea that Jesus had an ongoing friendship relationship with any of the unbelievers that he associated with at one time or another either.

      I am also not at all convinced that the II Cor. 6:14 and following verses only say that we are not to do what unbelievers do. That is certainly included in that passage. But it also seems to me that it says not to be yoked with the unbelievers themselves and I think the verses following verse 14 also bear that out.

    • cheryl u

      It seems to me that this verse is also a caution to choose our friends very carefully because of the influence they are bound to have on us: “Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” I Corinthians 15:33

    • C Michael Patton

      Yes, and there are different types of “friends.” My point is that Christ could call people his friends and family who may or may not have been believers. He was accused of this and did not deny it, but refined it according to his purpose (to help those in need).

      There is a special type of friendship where you do join or “yolk” together with people, but there is most certianly the type of friendship where the relationship is considered a real friendship without joining people in their practices.

      The question comes down to this: How are we defining friendship? My point is that “yolking” with someone is neither a necessary nor a suffient cause for friendship. Yolking is a particular aspect of some friendships.

      Hope that makes sense.

    • Cory Howell

      I was suddenly reminded of the lyrics to an old Petra song:

      Another sleepy Sunday, safe within the walls
      Outside a dying world in desperation calls
      But no-one hears the cries, or knows what they’re about
      The doors are locked within, or is it from, without…

      Looking through rose colored stained glass windows
      Never allowing the world to come in
      Seeing no evil and feeling no pain
      Making the light as it comes from within, so dim…

    • Joshua Allen

      Pretty much all of my friends and colleagues are atheist, agnostic, secularist intellectuals. I cannot remember a time in the last 10 years that I’ve been in a Christian’s house (besides my own house and family members’). Of course, we go to church every Sunday and go to some Church social functions, but that’s the extent of interaction with Christians.

      The topic of Christianity comes up with relative frequency, and my friends know that they can talk to me about it. They also know that I completely reject the atheist, materialist reductionist viewpoint; with good reasons; and that I won’t budge.

      Anyway, it’s not an attempt to defend my lack of separation, since I do wonder about this at times. However, it was a somewhat deliberate choice, since I believe that separation raises its own issues.

    • Leslie


      I am a big Petra fan. Thanks for reminding us of that classic number.

    • Jugulum

      Josh Allen,

      I have no criticism of your involvement in non-believers’ lives. But the relative non-involvement in believers’ lives should make you wonder, too—more so, actually. Our relationship with brothers & sisters in Christ is supposed to be a defining, distinguishing characteristic of Christians.

      We’re called to active involvement, concern, care, discipleship, etc.

      It’s unfortunate that holiness is sometimes seen as being set apart from the world, rather than being set apart to God, and to each other.

    • Joshua Allen

      @Jugulum – Good points, and I agree.

    • Steven Carr

      So who were the believing friends of Jesus, who believed him when he said he would rise from the dead?

    • mbaker

      “So who were the believing friends of Jesus, who believed him when he said he would rise from the dead?”

      I’d think those who took what He had to say seriously, no matter who they happened to be.

    • David Carrington Jr.

      “Would God turn someone away because they talked and acted like an unbeliever”

      Swearing is acting like an unbeliever? I’ve heard many a Christian swear.

      Are they not “True (TM) Christians” or something?

    • rayner markley

      I guess by keeping us ‘real’ is meant that we do not become entirely isolated and alienated from the world as in a sect or cult. The mentality of we have secret knowledge that no one else does. Or we cannot participate with outsiders any longer. Actually, Christians can do many wonderful things with non-Christians—say, join a birdwatching club, or in Japan participate in tea ceremony on a social occasion.

      I always thought of 2Cor 6:14 as referring to marriage, but there’s another kind of yoke that these days we call ‘bonding.’ Activities like those mentioned above cause bonding with non-Christians as well as Christians. We even bond with a pet dog; now there’s unequal yoking.

    • Geoff

      So does anyone have an opinion on new believers hanging out with unbelievers and having the temptation pored on them to stay in the old man activities that could pull them away and prevent them from being grounded in good soil? I think it is a natural process that believers should disengage with their unbelieving friends and I would understand why they might be a bit confused as to the new creation I have become. After one has been grounded in good soil so to speak I think it is great to get out and even contact old friends, but with the intentions to draw them to faith in Jesus and it seems the relationship would be drastically different as far as bonding goes.

    • C Michael Patton

      Geoff, yes, I do think that it is wise to stay away from temptation. If hanging with old pals give you temptation to join with them in their practices, we need to stay away.

    • Phil McCheddar

      Michael said: There is a special type of friendship where you do join or “yolk” together with people.
      But I would end up with egg on my face if I did that with a non-believer.

      @ Steven Carr – Check out the New Testament’s meaning of belief in Jesus, especially the Gospels. It is not as narrow as you are trying to make it.

    • rayner markley

      How true! We all need to reclaim our spelling here—grammar too.

      Michael: ‘If hanging with old pals give [gives] you temptation to join with them in their practices, we [you] need to stay away.’

      I hope you’re not implying that all practices of nonbelievers are wrong just because they are nonbelievers. Sometimes we can even learn good practices from them—and unfortunately bad practices from Christians.

    • mbaker

      Just as Christians don’t need to shoot dope with a heroin addict, or get drunk with an alcoholic to witness Christ to them, we don’t have to live a completely monastic life to ‘prove’ we are Christians.

      I have several unbelieving friends whom I respect. They are good people who live moral lives. My concern is for their salvation, not that they will somehow taint me simply because they haven’t accepted Christ.

    • Joshua Allen

      I have several unbelieving friends whom I respect. They are good people who live moral lives. My concern is for their salvation, not that they will somehow taint me simply because they haven’t accepted Christ.

      Yes, this describes my situation as well.

      This situation presents a rather tough challenge. Salvation involves repentance, but practically none of my friends would consider themselves in need of forgiveness. They were all remarkably moral children, are very moral adults. They would never dream of major sins like adultery or avarice, and never engage in the other sins like lying or jealousy. In many ways, far more sincere than many of the backbiting and two-faced Christians I grew up with.

      Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m placing them on a pedestal. They are committing the gravest sin, which is to reject God. But when they are approached with testimony from a changed sinner, it falls on deaf ears, since they don’t consider themselves sinners. There is a large swath of population who fall into this category, and I think they are the hardest to reach. The only way I know to reach such people is by gently pointing out the epistemological errors in their worldviews, and hope that they are sincere and motivated enough to investigate further.

    • mbaker

      “Salvation involves repentance, but practically none of my friends would consider themselves in need of forgiveness. They were all remarkably moral children, are very moral adults. They would never dream of major sins like adultery or avarice, and never engage in the other sins like lying or jealousy.”

      Well said, Joshua. You have described some family members of mine perfectly. They were ‘saved’ as teenagers but have since decided that they didn’t need the cross to cleanse them of their sins, if they just continue to be ‘good’ people. They belong to a church now which teaches Jesus as a good man, but not the son of God, and therefore no one’s Savior. One honors God simply by being a moral person, and doing the right things. There is no heaven or hell, because when you die you simply go to a ‘higher level of conciousness’.

      You are right, it is very hard to reach such people with the true gospel message, because they see no reason whatever to repent. In fact, they feel that would actually be denying who they are. Rather than seeing a real need for Christ, they accepted an altar call when they were teenagers simply because they felt it was the right thing to do. Later on, they admitted it was pressure from the family and the church to be like everyone else, but they never believed in their hearts.

      I wonder, if the truth be told, how prevalent that is among Christians nowadays, who show up for church every Sunday because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, but deep in their hearts they are still atheists.

    • Hjalti Rúnar Ómarsson

      For example, an unbeliever may have a real struggle with the doctrine of hell.

      I don’t know of any unbeliever that “struggles” with the doctrine of hell. How to the unbelievers you know “struggle” with that doctrine?

    • David Rudel

      This is the first time I had heard that verse being used in this way. I had always taken it as a reference to marriage. Though, looking back at the passage, I’m humbled to see that is itself a rather naive claim [just another instance of accepting 7th grade catechism that had not until now been washed away by reading the Bible for myself.]

      I don’t think Jesus conduct [or indeed Paul’s own letters] can really be taken to describe relations between believers and _atheists_. There is a difference between believing in a false God and believing in no God.

      Nor is it a simple case of saying “If they believed in idols, it means they did not believe in the true God…which is really all that matters.” The theological [if it can be called that] question of God was a very different matter back then. It was not a question of believing in God or not…but more a question of which ones one worshipped. Even ancient Israelites appeared to suffer from a certain degree of Henotheism [acknowledging many gods while worshipping only one] at various points.

      Similarly, “unrepentant sinner” is not the same thing as atheist OR idolater. It could not really be said that any of the Jews were “atheists” or even idolaters, even those who failed to see Jesus as the Christ. This is most certainly true during Christ’s ministry, before He was even known as the Christ to anyone but His own disciples.

      I think there might be something to the rather conservative interpretation of 2 Cor 6:14 (though applying it in the way of the T-shirt shown is hardly what I have in mind). The question is, if we do take a pretty “hard-line” view on that verse, how is the most Christ-like way of applying it in today’s world?

      Early Christians were united by the fervent expectation of Christ returning to claim His kingdom…modern Christians are instead united by abstract doctrinal claims, most of which were not even held by original Christians… does that change anything? I would think Christians doing this today would end up doing it for the wrong reasons…which is worse than not doing it at all [even if we do assume, which is a pretty big assumption, that a very conservative interpretation of the passage is an accurate one.]

    • […] Christians on alcohol, R-rated moviesFive loaves and two fishesQualifications of a youth pastor If you are an atheist, don’t talk to me! Me, myself and God Bible study/small group vs. a gospel/missional communityTalking about the wrath […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.