Are You a Friend of Sinners?

Dec 14, 2015 |Candice Gage
Two young adult millennial men talking in a coffee shop

What does it mean to be a friend of sinners?

Many of us grew up listening to sermons in youth group that echoed Paul's admonishing question: "What fellowship has light with darkness?" And although that message may have served a different purpose in our younger years, we'd do well to pause and reconsider the message in our lives as young adults.

Pastor and writer Jonathan Parnell notes in his article "Three Tips on Being a Friend of Sinners" that the accusation of friendship with those outside the community of faith was directly applied to Christ. He clarifies: "The precise phrase — 'friend of sinners' — is mentioned twice in the Gospels, in Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34. The naysayers of the day, the religious aristocracy, criticized Jesus as a 'glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' They called Him this because it was true. He was a friend of sinners."

So if this accusation was accurately applied to Christ, maybe Christ followers should consider being friends of sinners also.

As Christians living in the U.S., it can be easy to find ourselves stuck in the "Christian bubble." We grow up attending Christian schools and colleges, and then as adults, we attend Sunday services and Bible studies. We look for jobs with moral environments, sometimes working in ministry or parachurch organizations. We talk about evangelism and may even, on occasion, volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

But are we friends of "sinners" — unbelievers? Do we, like Jesus, sit around the table with people who think and live in ways that are foreign to our comfortable Christian culture?

Speaking from my own experience, befriending those who are different than I am — especially those with different religious convictions — has been one of the most faith-shaping experiences of my life. I've learned that even as believers have much to offer people outside the Christian faith, unbelievers also have much to teach us. Here's a bit of what I've gleaned:

Learn to listen

In the church, we talk about evangelism. We talk about sharing the gospel and experiencing freedom from guilt. We talk about the immorality of the world and we philosophize about whether anyone can be good without God.

I didn't see a problem with these attitudes and strategies until I started spending a significant amount of time with people outside church circles — "sinners." I learned that the thing that is missing from our church talk and tradition is a clear understanding of the real people who make up the masses outside of Christianity.

In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells a story about living with non-Christian hippies for a month. He writes, "Until this point, the majority of my friends had been Christians. In fact nearly all of them had been Christians. I was amazed to find, outside the church, genuine affection being shared, affection that seemed, well, authentic in comparison to the sort of love I had known within the church."Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 209-210. Because of his preconceived ideas about non-Christians, Miller admits that this discovery surprised him more than it confused him.

In the Christian bubble, we can develop ideas about outsiders that are inconsistent with reality. But when we become friends with these people, we find that many are loving, kind, generous, accepting and forgiving. We discover that, while standards of morality may differ, most people live with moral concerns. We realize that people of other faiths often practice devotion, and people without any religion may wrestle with spirituality.

If we want our evangelism strategies to be relevant, we need to get to know the people we are trying to reach. It's time to see nonbelievers as people trying to figure out life in the same world we are. It's less about "us and them" and more about "us" collectively, as we're all fellow creatures of God the Creator.

Tell the story

As Christians, we know we have a gift in the Christian faith that should be shared with the world — Jesus Christ. In our friendships with unbelievers, we have a daily opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ in their lives.

I live in the Bible Belt where most outsiders have at least had significant exposure to Christianity — often growing up in the church. Some would even identify as Christian, though they have little interest in what they see as hypocritical church communities. When I hear their stories, I can often relate and I, too, wouldn't want to be a part of the groups they describe.

An example of telling our story more clearly can be seen in the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright's account of how, when he was a college chaplain, he would invite unbelieving students to tell him about the God they said they didn't believe in. He writes in his book Jesus and the Identity of God: "So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally 'intervening' to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share His heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of 'spy-in-the-sky' theology: 'Well, I'm not surprised you don't believe in that god. I don't believe in that god either.' At this point the undergraduate would look startled. […] 'No,' I would say; 'I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.' "

When non-Christian friends share their jaded impressions of Christianity, we have the opportunity to clarify misinformation and share truth.

Expand your social circle

As we acknowledge our calling to follow Christ in our friendship with the world, it can be challenging to know where exactly to begin. How do we break out of our Christian bubble and diversify our social lives? Here are some ideas to help you take those first steps:

Suspend judgment. Outsiders may not live like we do and they may not talk like we do. They may even have habits and opinions that make us uncomfortable. As much as possible, set aside your personal views and get to know people right where they are. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone. Practice empathy.

Experience life together. Build friendships with unbelievers the same way you would with new church friends — in the midst of life. When you're at work, eat in the office lunchroom or go out for lunch with your coworkers. Make hobbies social — take a class or join a library reading group. Join a sports league or take a cake decorating class. Volunteer at a secular non-profit.

Maintain Christian support. Our friends influence us just as we influence them. This truth often proves to be one of the blessings and one of the risks of friendship. We will need other believers to help keep us accountable to our values so we don't compromise our spiritual health by becoming detached from the larger Christian community.

Offer friendship

In his Christian classic The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning discusses the importance of extending friendship to those outside the faith. He writes: "To evangelize a person is to say to him or her: you, too, are loved by God in the Lord Jesus. And not only to say it but to really think it and relate it to the man or woman so they can sense it. This is what it means to announce the Good News. But that becomes possible only by offering the person your friendship — a friendship that is real, unselfish, without condescension, full of confidence, and profound esteem."Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1990), 120-121.

When we offer this kind of friendship to unbelievers, we have an opportunity to model Christ's love to them.

Copyright Candice Gage 2015. All rights reserved.

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