Christians often wrestle with how to balance grace and truth in our interaction with non-believers. Consider three scenarios: The couple down the street are friendly, helpful neighbors… and lesbians. Your coworkers take offense when you decline to unwind after the workday by barhopping with them. Your university professor loves to ridicule “fundamentalists” for their naïve faith. Should you, Christian, say something in these scenarios? If so, what, and when, and how?
Dilemmas such as these are not new. First-century Christians seemed “strange” to their pleasure-pursuing contemporaries (1 Peter 4:3–4). They trusted in a cross-centered message that looked feeble to some and foolish to others (1 Cor. 1:18–25). How, then, should they and we live among those who do not share our faith?
The Apostle Paul directs Christians: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:5–6). Christians need wisdom to interact with folks who are indifferent to, uncomfortable with, or hostile to our faith.
Now, Scripture seems to send mixed messages about engaging outsiders. On the one hand, the difference that Christ makes in our lives should be attractively evident to them. Elders must “be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7). All believers should “walk properly before outsiders,” living quietly, minding our own business, and working responsibly (1 Thess. 4:11–12). We are the earth’s salt, the world’s light, a hilltop city, “so that [outsiders] may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). In fact, Christians should be the most agreeable people on earth, not stepping on toes, getting along with everyone: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32–33).
On the other hand, Jesus warns, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:46). We should expect to be despised by “those outside”:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18–20)
The same Paul who said, “Please everyone,” also protested, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). He predicted, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). He experienced it.