I remember too well the day I quit my non-Christian friends.
I was just 17, a senior, cheerleader, and popular at school, and my youth pastor preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:33: “Bad company corrupts good character.” Here Paul is rebuking the people of Corinth for being influenced by those who taught bad doctrine—specifically those who were claiming the resurrection of Christ did not take place.
But my pastor took this verse and used it to warn us, impressionable teenagers, of choosing the right (and not choosing the wrong) friends.
He urged us to pick friends who would build us up and not tear us down. He made the legitimate case that “you become like those you hang out with.” He argued the dangers of evil and the ways the enemy can suck us asunder without our even realizing it. He successfully planted in my heart the reality: I am corruptible. And I am particularly corruptible by friends who aren’t Christians.
And so I made a choice.
At that time I had a considerable amount of non-Christian friends. I had done an “OK” job walking the line between my “church life” and my “school life.” But I began to withdraw from the people that did not know Jesus, people who I had invited to youth group for years, friends who I had talked with about my faith more times than I could count.
I’ve always wondered if I did the wrong thing. When I pulled back from those friendships, did I lose their influence on me? Or did they lose my influence on them?
Many of us who grew up in church may have heard similar warnings. We know we’re supposed to reach out to non-Christians, to invite them to church and tell them about Jesus, but we’re warned not engage too far, to beware their influence on us.
And in a lot of ways, it’s a wise warning that we be friends with the “right kinds” of people. I’ve heard it said that you become like the five friends you hang out with most.
But I’ve begun to wonder if some of us have swung too far in the direction of disassociating with those who are not believers.
I’m ashamed to admit that up until five or so years ago, I didn’t try much to befriend people who were outside my Christian circles. Oh sure, I was kind when we bumped into each other. I said hello on the baseball field, that kind of thing. But did I invite them over for dinner? Did I ask them to coffee? Did I invite them to see a movie? No, I never engaged them beyond a cordial “Hi, how are you?”
The truth of it is, they made me anxious. I was concerned about whether they would be a good influence on my children. What did we have in common, anyway? I stuck very closely to making sure my relationships were centered around people whose morals I thought I could trust, which was based on whether someone was a Christian or not.
Is this the example Jesus modeled? Yes, He had a close group of friends with whom he spent considerable amounts of time. But He frequently engaged in new relationships, sharing a meal and conversing with people who did not believe. Many of those people, actually, were societal outcasts—prostitutes, corrupt tax collectors, thieves, Samaritans.
Some of Jesus’ last words to His disciples were not “stay away from those that might corrupt you.” Instead, they were to go out and make more disciples, baptizing new believers, inviting them into the joy that is salvation.
Are some of us so guarded, surrounded only by Christians, listening to Christian music, children attending Christian school, reading Christian books, a Facebook and twitter feed full of Christians who talk, think and act just like us, that we now cease to be able to engage and interact in the world of non-Christians?
After all, it’s not only non-Christians who are “bad company.” In that Corinthians passage, Paul is warning about other religious people. Is it possible, even, that a Christian could be “bad company”—that a fellow “believer” could corrupt our character?
Consider the very legalistic “Christian” who has attended church for decades but does not live in a life-giving, vibrant, authentic faith. Or what about the “Christian” friends who are culturally Christian and pray occasionally, but do not spend much time pursuing the spiritual disciplines, reading Scripture or submitting their days to the Father who goes before them. Perhaps the title “Christian” alone is not the best measure in determining whether or not a friend is “bad company.”
How then, do we keep ourselves from being “corrupted”? First of all, we must recognize that our corruption comes from within ourselves. Our hearts are prone to wander, and we can’t blame that entirely on others. But there are ways we can practice resting in God, a posture that will keep us from being misled by others.
To be honest, I am most easily influenced down a negative path when my own disciplines are lacking. John Ortberg said: “Habits eat willpower for breakfast.” At the risk of sounding legalistic, the harsh reality is, it is easier to be tempted away and enticed (by anyone, even fellow Christians) if we are not actively pursuing and nurturing our relationship with Jesus. This includes the spiritual disciplines of prayer, communion, Scripture, meditation and many others.
When we are moving about this world in community with Christians and non-Christians alike, we are more likely to be swayed when operating out of our own flesh, when we are not abiding with the One who is in us.
And I’ve also learned it is easier to be corrupted when I am in isolation, including physical, emotional and spiritual isolation. I believe Jesus sent out the 72 in Luke 10 two-by-two because He knew they would need a companion for the journey.
We hear this idea throughout Scripture: “It is not good for man to be alone.” “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work.” “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
Sometimes we need a friend we can confide in—a friend in the flesh who wants God’s best for us. Often we need prayer—and we cannot receive prayer from a friend who doesn’t believe. We need wisdom, insight and the encouragement of people who are walking beside us in this journey of faith—who are coming from the same point of reference, with Scripture and the Holy Spirit as their guide.
We are corruptible creatures, and we are never “safe” from the Enemy trying to lure us away. But we are also His answer to reaching those that don’t know Him. We must learn the art of engaging with those He loves.