Bad Advice from a Pastor: Separation of Christians and non-Christians
Toward the end of my semester at New York University (NYU), my roommate threw up all over my carpet after getting drunk with her swimming buddies. I made the mistake of relaying this to my pastor at the time. Let’s call him Pastor Joe. I honestly never found the appeal of getting drunk and having a hangover, and not only that, I considered drunkenness (even ingesting alcohol at the time) sin.
During the summer, my summer roommate decided to bring a guy home and sleep with him in the same bed in our room. Wow. They thought I was sleeping but I crept out of the room and went home to my mother’s house on Long Island that night. After telling Pastor Joe about this particular incident, he said to me:
You don’t need live in filth and ungodliness such as your roommate throwing up on your carpet and other roommates bringing guys into your room. You need to get out of that and go to a Christian college where you can grow in your faith, love, and knowledge of the Lord.
I did as Pastor Joe said. And while God used my decision to bring about good, I now recognize that leaving NYU was one of the worst decisions I could make as a Christian.I now believe my pastor’s advice went against Jesus’ teaching to be “salt and light” to the community around me. I believe Jesus would have wanted me to stay at NYU despite all the “ungodliness.” The approach I may have had at the time may not have been good. I was an aggressive “evangelizer,” trying to win converts at every opportunity and not really trying to build relationships. It is only now in a more mature Christian faith (and after reading the book unChristian, which I highly recommend) that I now realize separation from non-Christians does not mean cutting off ties with them entirely. And this is the problem with most Christians today: we live in our Christian communities with our Christian friends, go to our Christian church, and try to live our Christian lives. While we are called to encourage and exhort each other, separation by same-religion (or even same-denomination) association should not be so ubiquitous. Christians engaging in friendships with non-Christians should be the norm. This is Jesus’ model for us.
What does Christian separation mean?
The oft-quoted verse to justify separation from the world is from II Corinthians 6:17 in which Paul quotes the Old Testament:
Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord,
In reading the context of the passage (v. 14-16), I have understood it to encourage Christians not to marry non-Christians. (What leads me to believe this is that Paul has referred to the body of a believer as a “temple of God” in other passages.) For example, one could say Solomon was unequally yoked when he married his foreign wives because they caused him to turn from the God of Israel to worshiping idols. I don’t believe he’s saying “don’t become friends with non-Christians” or “don’t associate yourselves with non-Christians.” Jesus engaged in real, relational friendships with people who were not believers. However, by coming into contact with Jesus, their lives were transformed. Even if people didn’t believe in Jesus, their lives were better off by being around him. Can non-Christians say that their lives are better off because they came into contact with a Christian? That should be the goal.
Engaging in real friendships with non-Christians
What does engaging in a real friendship with non-Christians mean? It means loving them and loving them well. It means not looking at a person and seeing a potential convert for Christ (which I admit, I used to do); it means looking at a person and seeing that person for who he or she is, weaknesses and strengths. Would I love it if all of my non-Christian friends believed in Jesus? Sure! But even if they never become a believer in Jesus Christ’s deity, I am still called to love them for them.
When Jesus chose his 12 disciples, he chose wildly different people: poor fishermen and a rich tax collector, politically left wingers and right wingers, a doubter and an overanalyzer, an impulsive person and a careful, hesitant man. Jesus also chose someone who would never be fully sold that Jesus was the son of God, a messiah to revolutionize people’s lives spiritually rather than politically. Jesus chose Judas as one of his 12 disciples.
This wasn’t a mistake. If you’ve read the Bible, you may recall that Jesus went up on to a mountain to pray about who these men would be. For three years, Judas followed Jesus, saw him perform miracles, and socialize with different kinds of people. In the end, Judas felt that 50 pieces of silver was worth more than Jesus’ promise of entering an eternal kingdom. But Jesus showed love to Judas anyway. Jesus spent time with a man he knew would betray him and still engaged in a real friendship with him. I still believe Judas’s life was better off by being around Jesus. (Or at least other people’s pockets were better off by the thief possibly stealing less.)
This is the kind of sacrificial friendship and sacrificial love Jesus calls us to. It is difficult. It will hurt. But none of this takes place when Christians do not reach out and have friendships with those who do not share the exact same faith.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Time for Christians to show the world that we are indeed Jesus’ disciples.