A friend of mine sent me an email asking me my take on the following question:
I have a question…does having a non-christian friend preclude you from having a deep and meaningful relationship? Does not having the same “spiritual” foundation and being different mean you can’t have a real relationship with someone? But you can have a superficial relationship with that person….and that Christians have agape love, and the “non-christian’ only has “phileo” or whatever that brotherly love thing is.
I just heard that today, and am wondering if all Christians really believe that.
Here is my rambling response:
I need a break from accounting. This question will give me that! I’m not gonna proof it before I send it though
When I was a younger guy, there was a t-shirt that showed a friendly smiling icthys Christian fishy swimming against the stream of menacing, frowning and saber-toothed piranha fishies. The shirt said Go Against the Flow and it quoted Romans 21: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world…
I’ve long hated that shirt because it communicates two completely false ideas: That Romans 12 is about doing the opposite of the world and that goodness only resides with Christians. Or to state it more pointedly as a corollary, Non-Christians are evil.
Add to this another factor that Christians believe the only purpose of relationship with “non Christians” is to convert them and you have a fairly complete picture of how many Christians — particularly evangelicals — view their relationships with non Christians: they are evil people who must either be converted or opposed. Even the very phrase “non-Christian” belies the perception that we view relationships with people in terms of the condition of their relationship with God. Of course, we make this judgment ourselves, even though no one has the slightest clue as to where each person is in their relationship with God. I personally do not use that phrase; I prefer “undiscipled person” instead. I feel more comfortable assessing a person’s patterns of discipleship than I do in judging their heart and mind’s affiliation toward God.
I believe most Christians have difficulty loving undiscipled people regardless of whether that person ever confesses discipleship toward Jesus. I see at least two forces that cause this lack of relationship: an overemphasis on the teachings of Paul and an incomplete reading of John 17. Paul’s attitude toward salvation seems to me to be very works oriented and when people falter, Paul seems to respond with a black and white assessment of the issue and a fairly harsh response to human sin. I think this fuels a lot of the motivations Christians have toward moralism, self-righteousness, and judgment. These manifest in several ways, the most pronounced being perhaps opposition to homosexuals.
In John 17 (and Romans 12, as well as other places like the story of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abdenego), there is definitely a teaching oriented around separating ourselves from the order of the world. But people miss two important facets of John 17: we are told we are to remain IN the world but at the same time to not be OF the world. In other words, don’t identify too closely to the world but also, don’t be so separatistic that you completely lack an ability to relate to other people. The second facet often missed is Jesus’ promise that our interaction with the word is what keeps us from being too tightly identified with the world. This is important:
The solution to avoiding tight identification with the world is not withdrawing from it or opposing it but by having a relationship with the Word and the word. I believe people miss this because they have a tighter relationship with church or moralism or self-righteousness than they do with Jesus. And when all you have to protect you from the world is church or moralism or self-righteousness, then it makes sense to oppose the world because those aren’t enough to protect you. But if you have a relationship with the vital Word (and you actively work out what the hell that actually means to you philosophically and practically) then tight identification isn’t as much of an issue. (I make this claim but dont have time to defend it. Think about it for a bit and let me know what you think).
Is it amazing that we even have to ask the question you did? A new command I give you: love one another. All men will know you are my disciples if you love one another. How have we perverted that? Debate one another. Judge one another. A new command I give you: protest against each other’s sins. All men will know you are my disciples if you protest against each other. All men will know you are my disciples if you are rigid, graceless moralists to one another.
So my answer to your question is: absofuckinglutely it does NOT preclude you from a relationship with a “nonChristian” friend. That close relationship is precisely the kind of relationship that reveals God to people. If we quit trying to get people to come to our church or read the Bible or listen to Christian music or protest against homosexuals and instead just had a great friendship with them, how things could change. If Christians valued messy, vague, imperfect relationships more than they valued morals or politics or sexual orientation, other people might find Jesus a lot more attractive, interesting and worthy of pursuit.
Oh and one more thing: the relationship should be one of equals not one where we are showing them the way to live. Too many Christians go into relationships thinking they will show others the right way. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” But when we acknowledge our own messed up lives and spirits and minds and we come to a good friend needing their support and their counsel, that’s a relationship of equals. If all I ever do is try to convert or guide my friend, it’s just a sales pitch and it’s not about love.
For me, my perspective on relationships with other people changed when I got to a place where I was okay with people going to hell. I think I mentioned that to you before. I don’t like that reality and I’m not entirely sure I believe it as it is taught but when I stop viewing myself as a Jesus salesman, I can be open to relationships with people who are just as messed up as I am and just as cool and good as I am (if not more!).
Check out the movie The Big Kahuna with Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. It’s a slow movie but it’s basically about what you’re asking along with a much deeper set of questions about evangelism, separation from the world, honesty and love. It’s a genius flick.