Many people have made the point that how we live can be an apologetic in and of itself. Apologetics is the practice of giving an answer, giving a defense for the hope we have in Christ as Christians. It involves giving reasons for why we should believe the gospel. Why does Christianity make sense? Why should someone believe it? All of that is wrapped up in apologetics. So often apologetics is thought of as being informationally based. We are giving information and answers, that is certainly true. If we’re not doing that, by and large, we’re not doing apologetics and we’re not being biblically faithful either.
But some people have also said how we live is an apologetic. How do you treat someone? Jesus even seems to say some things that fit this way. For instance, where he says, “Others will know you’re my disciples by your love for one another.” So how we act in loving one another, in loving the body of Christ, actually demonstrates that we are Jesus’ disciples. It communicates something. And that’s helpful. So one of the areas we all have to work through as a part of Christian life, especially today, and I’ll cash that out why in a minute, is we should be concerned who we are seen with. Should Christians care about who they hang out with and who they fellowship with and who they eat with and who they are friends with? Does that matter for the Christian?
Many people today would say, “No, it doesn’t matter.” After all, Jesus ate with the tax collectors, didn’t he? He ate with sinners, so if he can eat with those people, who are considered to be social outcasts, then surely we can eat with anyone. We should hang out with anyone. That’s an oversimplification. It comes from a culture today, even inside the church, that doesn’t like to draw lines, that doesn’t like to deal with there being different categories for how we should act in different settings. That doesn’t mean morality is subjective and it’s just up to us to decide. It does mean different circumstances call for different kinds of responses.
So I want to look at a lot of scripture today, which I know on a podcast sometimes can be a little difficult, but bear with me here. Let’s look at Luke 5:29, which is describing Jesus being at a banquet, and the Pharisees respond to this rather poorly. Luke says, “Then Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with him. But the Pharisees and their experts in the law complained to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance.'”
What he’s getting at is that his message of the in breaking of the kingdom of God exhibited in the person and work of Christ is a message for people who are spiritually in need. So if we only go to the people who have the message or who think they’re good, and this is maybe a backhanded remark of the Pharisees, then he’s not accomplishing his mission. So it’s actually the sinners that need to hear the gospel. That’s a very common sense point, right?
Some people will take this and say, “We should eat and we shouldn’t be concerned with who we’re seen with.” That may be the incorrect conclusion to draw from this passage. There’s some truth there, but maybe it goes too far. Just to put some more context on it, the tax collectors in the day were seen to be the worst of the worst. They were sellouts. They were Jews who extorted from their fellow people to add more in their collection than they actually needed for Rome. We see this in different points in the gospel, where tax collectors are viewed very unfavorably, and Jesus is hanging out with these people, who are extorters of their own people. They’re traitors in some ways. But they need the gospel. They need a physician.
Now, other people have said, “We actually do need to be concerned with who we’re seen with.” Yes, there’s that Jesus passage in the gospels, but what about passages like 1 Thessalonians 5, which in the KJV says, “Avoid every appearance of evil”? So you see, if it even appears evil, we shouldn’t do it. We should be very concerned with appearances. This is one of those cases where using a more modern and better translation can be helpful. No, the KJV isn’t a bad translation, but there are better translations, and a better translation of this verse and its context is something like the New English Translation or many other modern translations have. In verse 21 it starts saying, “But examine all things, hold fast to what is good, stay away from every form of evil. Do not participate in any form of evil.” I think Paul is saying there right after he has said, “Examine all things and hold fast to the good, avoid evil,” hold fast to good, avoid every form of evil. Not the appearance of evil, because that’s actually what Jesus was giving. He was giving the appearance of evil by eating with evil people and not righteous and religiously devout people. But this verse in 1 Thessalonians is probably better explained and translated as saying, “Avoid all forms of evil.” Not the appearance of it, the actual participation in evil.
I actually do think there are two categories of people we should avoid as Christians. We’re going to look at passages to back this up. We shouldn’t just avoid people who are sinners, certainly not, but there are some people we should avoid. The first group would be people who claim the name of Christ and make a practice of immorality. Who claim the name of Christ and proudly go on in their sin when scripture clearly condemns it as sin. We should avoid those people. The second group would be people who are false teachers, who are teaching things that are false and antithetical and damaging to the gospel of Christ. We should avoid those people.
I am very aware today that this sounds very politically incorrect, even in, and maybe especially in, the church. Really? Jesus is love, and yet you’re going to say avoid people? Well, we’re going to look at the very words of Jesus. We’re also going to look at the inspired words in scripture that lead us to this conclusion. Now, some people have said, “I’m not going to let anyone tell me who I can be friends with.” Really? God can’t tell you who you can be friends with? “I’m not going to shun anyone.” What if God actually said there were times when that was what? Sadly and lamentably through tears that you were supposed to do. Would you do it? Am I going to submit even my relationships and who I am friends with and who I hang out with to the standard of scripture, to the authority of Christ revealed there? That’s the question.
So let’s look at a passage in 1 Corinthians 5. This is Paul starting out in the first verse saying, “It’s actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you. The kind of immorality that’s not even permitted among the Gentiles.” In other words, it’s really bad. “So that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife.” That’s a euphemism for incest. “And you both are proud. Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful and instead removed the one who did this from among you?” What is he assuming should have happened? He hasn’t even told them to do it yet. He’s assuming that what they should have done because of this unrepented, proud sin is remove the person from the church, to not spend time with them, to not include them in the fellowship. If this person is going to claim the name of Christ and participate unrepentantly and proudly in sin, he says they should have removed them.
He goes on in verse nine to say, “I wrote you in my letter,” his previous letter, “not to associate with sexual immoral people.” See, Paul’s actually telling them not to associate with certain people. But he clarifies: “I didn’t mean the immoral people of the world. I didn’t mean the sinners and the tax collectors and those people,” to kind of make this parallel with the Luke passage. “Or the greedy or the swindlers or the idolaters. Because,” Paul says, “you would have had to go out of the whole world.” In other words, if you couldn’t associate with any sinful person, you’d never associate with anyone. But he says, “But I’m writing to you now to not associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral or greedy or an idolater or verbally abusive or a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside?” That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is yes. God will judge those outside the church. He’s saying, “Remove the evil person from among you.” It is the church’s job to judge those inside the church. Yes, that’s what scripture teaches. Very politically incorrect today, but very true.
He’s saying, if there’s someone who lives in prideful, unrepentant sin as a practice, yes, we all sin, but we do not make a practice of doing so unrepentantly or pridefully if we are Christians, then we should not spend time with such a person who does that. We shouldn’t even eat with them. This is parallel to what Jesus says in Matthew 18, where he gives this practice of what to do if someone is living in sin or if they sin and they’re discovered and you go to them as an individual, you go to them with one or two people, but you get to the end of that list and if they have not repented, he says, “If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.” In other words, when he’s talking to Jews, have nothing to do with that person. They would not have associated with Gentiles or tax collectors. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have; he’s saying this is what you do, and so this is what you actually should do with someone who lives in unrepented sin.
So there is a category of person that we should be concerned with being seen with and being associated with, and it is people who claim the name of Christ and live in unrepented sin. That is actually a bad apologetic to be seen with them. It communicates something that is opposed to the gospel of Christ: namely, that you can take the name of Christ and not jettison your sin. That you can take the name of Christ and not submit to his Lordship and not actively try to submit to his Lordship.
The second category of people would be those who are false teachers, who are intentionally and actively teaching things opposed to the gospel of Christ. 2 John talks about this in verse seven. John says, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, people who do not confess Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh. The person is a deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out so that you do not lose the thing we have worked for, but receive a full reward.” In other words, do not get sidetracked by this false teaching. It’s a huge issue. It can actually sidetrack people in their faith. He goes on to say, “Everyone who goes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of Christ does not have God. The one who remains in his teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching,” in other words teaches something else, “do not even receive him into your home. Do not give him a greeting, because the person who gives him a greeting shares in his evil deeds.”
He’s saying if there is a false teacher, someone who denies the gospel, and this affirmation that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, that Jesus is the Messiah who came in the flesh, is a shorthand for all of the gospel, the work and person of Christ. If they don’t confess that, if they teach something contrary to it, I should say, don’t welcome them into your home. Don’t have fellowship with that person. Don’t even give them a warm greeting or perhaps any greeting, depending on how you read this passage. Yes, that seems harsh today. But what do we do in giving a greeting and a welcome to those people? We make it seem like their teaching isn’t a big deal.
The interesting thing about all these passages that we’ve looked at so far, and we’re going to look at some more, is that it doesn’t affect the salvation of someone else if we eat dinner and we’re friends with someone who’s involved in unrepented sin and they’re not a Christian. No, I don’t think so. We shouldn’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians. But what does it communicate if we give fellowship to those who teach doctrines that damage and damn the soul? That is so much of a larger concern, and that is why the Bible at every point takes such a hard line at false teaching. We do not trifle with it, we don’t make compromises with it, we don’t link arms with it, we don’t link arms with evil. That is what false teaching is that leads to hell. It’s a false gospel that cannot rescue the soul.
This has ramifications for the sermons we listen to and the books we read and the books we recommend to people, or tell other people we are reading. If I’m reading some person who has horrible doctrine, I’m not really going to share that with other people who are not discerning enough to know that that could harm their soul. I’m not going to hang out with someone who is going to communicate to the people I’m mentoring or discipling that, hey, this person’s cool. I’m good with them. Because if I’m compromising about how I think about the largest concerns in life, which are what we think about God and the gospel, then I’m endangering other people.
Paul, writing to the Galatians, speaks of those who brought in somewhat of a deviation of the gospel, which he declares to be a completely different gospel. He tells them, “Let this person be condemned to hell.” And in verse nine he says, “As I’ve said before, and now I’m going to say it again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell.” Am I trying to gain the support of people or am I trying to please God? Paul knows this is not politically correct, even back in the first century. He is saying, basically, it is better for the false teacher to be condemned to hell than for them to continue teaching their false gospel, which will lead others to hell. That’s such a hard teaching.
So, do we really think that Paul, who is pronouncing an anathema, a curse of God, on people here would say, “Let them be condemned to hell,” but hey, let’s go grab some coffee later today and hang out. No, I don’t think that’s the case. Would he reason with those people from the scripture? Would he try to demonstrate their error? Yes, I think he would, but he’s not going to hang out with them and extend the right hand of fellowship.
Paul, once again, in Romans 16, says, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause division and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine you have been taught. Avoid them.” He’s wrapping up his letter to the church in Rome, and he says, “Avoid those people who create obstacles through contrary doctrine.” Now, you might be thinking, “Didn’t he say to watch out for those who cause division?” The people who are holding a firm doctrine are not causing division. The people who are leaving the established truth in scripture and that the church has held onto are the ones causing division. So us holding to that and calling out error is not dividing. The error in the division has actually already occurred if we have gotten to the place where we need to call out the false teaching.
Now, to some people this sounds unloving. Really? Shun people? How could that be loving? Well, Jesus tells us to. We’ve looked at passage after passage where either Jesus himself or the inspired writer has said to do this in certain circumstances. When either the person is a false teacher or when they claim the name of Christ and are living in unrepentant, prideful sin. Yes, we go to that person individually. We try to plead with them for their soul to turn and repent. Yes, that is a given and we should do that. But when we get to the end of that prescribed process, if they are still claiming the name of Christ, that is when we take that action. Do we just see a friend or a pastor who has started teaching a false gospel and just not even talk to them? No, we go to them and we reason to them if we’re able to and have that sort of relationship. But if that doesn’t work, no, we do not maintain that friendship. We don’t maintain a friendship with those who are actively leading people straight to hell through what they’re teaching.
Now, there are going to be exceptions to this. I’m trying to knock this out in broad categories. Wisdom really matters here. There are so many other points we could bring out. But on the one hand, yes, Jesus ate with the sinners who need the gospel, and that’s who we should eat with. We must go to where the sinners are to give them the gospel. We can’t avoid that. But we must remember that how we live is actually an apologetic. It does communicate something. So if we are chummy with false teachers, we’re making it seem like those concerns aren’t actually that big of a deal. If we’re chummy with the person who lives in prideful, unrepented sin, we are communicating that that sin, that lack of submission to the Lordship of Christ for someone who claims the name of Christ is not actually that big of a deal. We, in effect, kind of baptize either the teaching or the behavior by our relationship.
I will tell you, if you go through this process with someone who is a false teacher or who is living in prideful, unrepented sin, it’s not always pretty. It’s a difficult, trying process. I have sat down with people and implored them to turn from their false teaching. I have sat down with friends of people who have been false teachers and said, “Scripture sadly, lamentably, difficultly calls us to not befriend this person.” That’s what scripture says. It didn’t go well. It ruined some relationships. But those relationships could not have been maintained in the face of those behaviors anyways, nor should they have been, because that communicates something that is incorrect about the gospel, and that must be our primary concern. If you can’t compromise that due to any other concern, the message of how men are made right with God is the most important message we could ever be clear on. And how we live and our doctrine both communicate to that.
2 Timothy says, “Watch your teaching and watch your life, and this way you’ll save yourself and others.” And when people compromise on that knowingly and unrepentantly and pridefully, we must take the difficult action of separating ourselves so we communicate something that is actually accurate as opposed to something that is inaccurate. Do we still eat with the sinners? Do we still have friends who are non-Christians? Gosh, I hope so, because how else are we going to share the gospel with them? But there is another category that we must think through how we’re going to respond, and it’s becoming a big issue. There are people today, all the time, who are starting to compromise on the truths that the church has long affirmed, like sexual ethics, the authority of scripture, the sufficiency of Christ and his work. And so we must take those seriously and stand for them even if it takes a personal cost in our personal lives.