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We are probably one of the most connected generations of all time. We can speak to people across the globe on our phones. We can e-mail them, FaceTime them, text-message them. We live in a world that seeks connection, wants community, preaches peace and tolerance, and loves diversity. One world united together in love—that’s the political dream of our day.
And many churches and professing Christians eat this up. Let’s get all religions together under one roof. Let’s forget our differences. We are all the same underneath, right? Let’s not highlight our differences. Let’s focus on what brings us together. Yet, this flies in the face of Paul’s words to the church in 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.”
That’s not very loving, is it? In the first half of verse 17, he is even more damning: “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord.” Go out from them. Separate from them. That sounds a bit intolerant, right? It doesn’t seem loving. Yet this kind of language is all over the Bible. James 4:4 is equally strong: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” So, what is going on here? Why is the Bible so harsh? How can we live as Christians and be separate from the world? Should I be thinking about buying a plot of land in the desert and starting a Christian commune?
When Paul wrote these words, the church in Corinth was a mess. So-called Christians were engaged in open sin and all sorts of moral and theological compromise. Paul was keen to remind them that a relationship with Jesus was to be exclusive. So, for example, Christians could not claim to worship Jesus and visit the temple prostitutes that were common in Corinth in the first century.
To drive his point home, Paul asks five questions in a row: “What partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor. 6:14–16).
The expected answer to these questions is “none” or “nothing.” Christians live to please God. Unbelievers live to please themselves.
Christians are called to walk in the light. Unbelievers walk in darkness. Colossians 1:13 puts it this way: “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” Jesus is the light of the world, and believers are drawn to Him like moths to a candle, but as for the rest of mankind, they “love[d] darkness rather than light because their deeds [are] evil” (John 3:19).
But is it really true that a believer and an unbeliever have nothing in common? Some Christians feel they have more in common with unbelievers than with fellow church members. They support the same sports team. They have the same politics. They like the same TV shows. But Paul is not talking about what we have in common as people in general. He is talking spiritually. If Jesus has nothing in common with Satan, then the sons of God have nothing in common with the sons of Satan. A non-Christian does not view the world the way we do. We place value on spiritual truths and spiritual things, and they are concerned with the material and this world. They do not live with the afterlife in mind.
Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:17–19:
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
So what does this all mean? Is the Bible saying that in order to avoid being corrupted by the world, we shouldn’t hang out with non-Christians? No. How would we carry out the Great Commission without deep relationships with unbelievers? Think about Jesus. He got into all sorts of trouble for hanging out and eating with sinners. In 1 Corinthians 5, the command is not to associate with one who calls himself a Christian yet lives like an unbeliever. We need more true Christians willing to have friendships with unbelievers, not fewer. The problem is that if we do not separate ourselves from compromised “Christians,” our witness is spoiled.
Some Christians think the answer to worldliness is to shop at Christian stores, go to Christian barbers, and go on Christian holidays. They then wonder why they find it hard to evangelize unbelievers. Others think going out drinking and clubbing with unbelievers to show them how cool we are is the way forward. I don’t know one person who has been converted through this type of “ministry,” but I know of countless Christians who’ve tainted their witness through drunkenness and immorality.
So, how do I know whether I am in a situation that means I ought to completely separate from someone who is not a believer? Here are some things to think about.
When I am with these nonbelievers, do I find myself becoming tempted and falling into sinful behavior?
When I am with non-Christians, am I standing up for the Bible and the Christian way of life or am I keeping my head down and going with the flow so as not to cause offense?
Are the friendships and relationships I have drawing me closer to Jesus or leading me further astray?
Of course we can be friends with non-Christians, but we will never share a spiritual intimacy with someone who doesn’t recognize Jesus as King and Lord. We want to live clearly Christian lives in front of the watching world.