Most new Christians at some point early in their journey with Christ have to start making difficult decisions about who and how they spend their time now that they've given their life to Jesus. Are Christians supposed to associate with people who do less than Christian things?
A short answer from the Gospels: Jesus did.
In Mark 2:13-17, Jesus calls Levi, also known as Matthew, to be his disciple, and draws ire and suspicion from the religious elite. Levi was a tax collector, which at that time meant that he took part in a system that actively disenfranchised his fellow Jews for his own gain. And here Jesus was hanging out with him and all his friends. The Pharisees understandably questioned why Jesus would eat with such people.
Implicit in the Pharisees question is the concern that Jesus should not be associating with those kinds of people. The dangers are twofold:
Have you heard anything like this before? These are the kinds of lessons I’ve heard multiple times growing up in the church. And they are good lessons! In many respects, the pharisees are right. We ought to avoid sin, and we should be aware that others notice with whom and how we spend our time. If they’re looking to us as examples of how to live, then our actions (real or perceived) may influence theirs.
The classic example is with alcohol. There’s nothing in scripture that says it’s sinful to have an alcoholic drink. It’s just sinful and destructive for our lives to get drunk. And for those who struggle with addictions to alcohol, even seeing someone else drink can tempt them to fall off the wagon. So there is legitimate reason for us to care about righteousness and what others see in the company we keep.
However, we STILL see Jesus break these rules. Why? Here's a few thoughts...
1. Jesus knows what it's like to face temptation.
He faced a grueling time of temptation in the wilderness right after his baptism. And he demonstrated that you don’t overcome temptation by cutting yourself off from others, but by confronting it head on in earnest prayer and reliance upon the Holy Spirit.
I remember struggling with lust a ton in high school and college and doggedly trying to pursue righteousness and flee from sin. Men who are trying to keep their thoughts pure in an overly sexualized culture try to get really good at what we call the “eye bounce.”
That was all well and good until I ended up going on my first mission trip to Las Vegas. Where do you bounce your eyes to in Las Vegas!? Everywhere you look there is something raunchy… Except another persons’ eyes. Instead of treating women like objects, either as sexual objects or temptations to be avoided, I learned to look in their eyes and see them as princesses and daughters loved by God.
Fleeing temptation is external. Radiant purity comes from the heart. The kind of purity that Jesus displays isn't casual about sin, but it is so filled with God's love and presence that it meets temptation with transforming goodness. Jesus isn’t worried about falling into sin because he is rooted in God’s presence and sees God’s image in everyone He encounters.
2. Jesus does not seem to care what others think.
He was secure enough in his own identity that he felt free to do what was necessary to meet people in their brokenness. It wasn’t the kind of freedom from care that some use to be belligerent toward others without feeling guilty. It was the kind that allowed him to show compassion to others without worrying about what anyone else might think.
I’d venture to say he understands the argument that others might mistakenly fall into destructive habits if they see someone they respect hanging around it. But he’s decided that it’s more effective for Him to be present with the people who need guidance and show them a better way to live.
I had some pastor friends recently who were sharing on Facebook that they’d signed something called the Nashville statement, which among some other things, was meant to declare to the world that they stood firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. Regardless of where you stand on that issue, there was one glaring problem with this: NOBODY is asking.
The Barna Group did a massive research project in recent years polling young, unchurched Americans to find out what they thought about Christianity. Their results were discouraging, as they found that overwhelmingly Christians were perceived as judgmental, hypocritical, anti-homosexual, too political, insensitive, irrelevant—and boring. Putting out a statement reminding everyone that you disapprove of homosexuality is both unnecessary and unhelpful.
Jesus never took a soft stance on sin. He never minimized it or redefined it. He didn’t try to backpedal issues of righteousness so that it was more palatable to the culture around Him. In fact, His message in the Sermon on the Mount upped the ante on righteousness. And yet he always seemed to be hanging around with sinners. Why did they want to hang out with Him? And why do so few non-Christians want to spend time with Christians today?
My assumption based on my reading of the Gospels, is that Jesus was a lot more likable than many of us are when He interacted with sinners. He didn’t start out by naming their sin, but instead He named their potential. He knew that for most of us, the journey toward righteousness and purity is ongoing - and it doesn’t happen all in one night. So instead of paralyzing with condemnation, Jesus invites sinners into covenant relationship where conviction and sanctification can happen over time.
Jesus wasn’t worried about what others thought of Him spending time with sinners, because He knew our secret: We’re all sinners!
The truth is that none of us are perfectly righteous and pure. We all have sin and wounds and brokenness. We all fall short of the glory of God.
So as we all journey together with Christ, let's show the same grace that Jesus shows us. And let's aspire to the same kind of purity that Jesus showed. The kind of purity that doesn't fear sinners, but transforms through the power of the Holy Spirit.