Friday, January 05, 2024

Too Hot to Handle: Friendship and Testimony

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Earlier this season, TV host Ellen Degeneres took some serious flack for sitting side by side with former U.S. President George Bush at an NFL game in Dallas, especially because she and Bush appeared to be having a good time with one another. Twitter promptly erupted into the usual outrage-fest, with commenters calling Bush a “war criminal” and so on, obliging Degeneres to defend herself:

“I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different.”

Tom: No shortage of Christians expressed approval of Degeneres’ comments.

Normalizing Mass Murderers

On one level, who could disagree, IC? Public discourse would be a lot more pleasant if everyone were willing to treat others more decently. But strangely, despite his overheated rhetoric, I find myself with the tiniest twinge of sympathy for the position of people like actor John Cusack, who tweeted that Degeneres was “normalizing mass murderers”.

Now, I don’t personally think George Bush is guilty of mass murder, and neither do most people. But let’s take Cusack at his word and accept that he really does. I can see a certain logic in the position of the person who thinks sharing jokes with a real, honest-to-goodness mass murderer — let alone calling yourself his friend — is poor optics. At bare minimum.

The Christian position on associating with immoral people has always been best spelled out by Paul in 1 Corinthians, “God judges those outside.” My question is this: Is there ever a time when that doesn’t hold, and you decide to keep your distance from immoral unbelievers of one sort or another?

Immanuel Can: Sure. Acts 19:9 has one case: it’s the case of the person who is “becoming hardened”. That is, they have a heart not yet (or possibly not ever) prepared to receive the gospel, and so speaking further to them can increase their obduracy, and hence increase the difficulty of reaching them at the right time, if such should one day come.

Tom: It can also be a huge waste of time banging your head against a brick wall. The Christian has to decide where his efforts would be most productively spent.

IC: Sometimes you have to back off, just so you don’t make things worse. But that would only happen when you had first tried, and had seen that such a person was reacting repeatedly with hardness.

Friendship with Immoral People

Tom: Okay. What does “friendship” with an immoral person look like then?

IC: Well, the first thing is that friendship with people who have been immoral is unavoidable for a Christian, simply because that describes most of us.

Tom: Quite so.

IC: Moreover, Christ himself was accused of excessive fraternization with drunkards, prostitutes and traitors, was he not? But these were not hardened sinners, persisting in their evil and rejoicing in it, but wounded people who were drawn to him for relief. How should the Physician not associate with the sick? The crucial test, I would say, is this: in the terms of building an association with them, are they coming your way, or are you coming theirs?

Where is the Line?

Remember back in the 1980s, the fad for “seeker-sensitive” community churches? I remember one critic of the process asking something like this: “In our building of all these bridges with the world, are we sure the traffic is all going one way?” It’s a good question.

Tom: I guess what I’m trying to get at is where is the line, or is there a line at all? Could at Christian sit and share a joke with Hitler while he was issuing orders to the commandants of his death camps? I think most people would say that’s probably a bad look for a believer, and not a great testimony to Hitler either. So there’s a line somewhere, but where might it be drawn? You might have dinner at the house of a publican, and in the process come in contact with a seeking prostitute. That’s fine, though the disciples cavilled at it a bit. But today, it would not be reasonable for a Christian to go hand out tracts at a strip club in the middle of a performance, I suspect.

So yes, the question is which way the traffic is going. I think that’s a good way to look at it.

Two Types of Relationships

IC: Now, here’s a real problem for the sincere Christian, though. It’s that there are two types of relationship one can have with people. We might call them “instrumental” and “genuine”. In a genuine relationship, we are interested in another person, not for what we can get out of them, and not for something we can make them do. We are interested in them as persons. And that means our friendship with them has a certain quality of unconditionality — we will love them for themselves, and without condition that they do or say what we agree with. However, in an instrumental relationship, our reason for being friends with them is that we hope to get them to do or be something that we already have in mind. We are associating with them with a surreptitious purpose, one of which they have little or no understanding, and which they have not consented to making a condition of our friendship with them.

The question, then, becomes this: how do we cultivate interpersonal relationships with the unsaved that are genuine rather than instrumental? Doesn’t the fact that we have a back-pocket motive in seeing them won to Christ amount to making our supposed friendship with them less authentic? But if we don’t take the gospel to them, then in what sense are we loving these people, since we are keeping out of the relationship the very best thing in the world for them?

Can you help, Tom?

Tom: That is a very real problem.

Sneaking Up on the Unsaved

Part of it is that even in a genuine relationship, the Christian’s primary concern is going to be for the salvation of the other person — not for the purpose of receiving reward, or a pat on the back, or the feeling of having done one’s duty, or out of fear of being judged by God or man, but out of genuine, heartfelt love. We really believe knowing Christ is the very best thing that can happen to anyone, and that nobody on earth is truly complete, fulfilled or realized in their humanity without it. So it’s a great goal.

But when we approach someone without being clear to them that their salvation is a major driving factor in our interest, we are, as you say, associating with them with a surreptitious purpose. We are leading them to believe other things about our motivations, and in many cases, those suspicions may prove true.

But Christ and his apostles never snuck up on the unsaved, did they?

IC: No. But of course, they had consistent lives. In the case of the Lord particularly, there was no difference between being knowing him socially and knowing him spiritually ...

Tom: Did he even do ‘socially’? I wonder.

Immorality Past or Present

I want to back up to something you said earlier to the effect that friendship with people who have been immoral is unavoidable for a Christian, because that describes all of us. That is quite true: “Such were some of you.” But the question I’m really asking here is not about people who have been immoral in times past on one occasion or another, but about people who are going on being immoral while you’re being friends with them, such that friendship with them can cause reasonable third parties to wonder whether by your ongoing friendship you’re actually offering their sin a kind of cover, or even endorsement.

And really, to answer that question, we’re going to have to first clarify what we mean by the word “friends”. That can mean different things to different people. But I’m not talking about accepting an invitation to grab a bite at lunch with a co-worker. I’m talking about being in someone’s life on a regular basis; a you-go-to-their-place, they-come-to-yours sort of thing.

IC: So you mean, “Can you be in somebody’s life as a real friend, on an ongoing basis, even if they aren’t a Christian, and don’t show any evidence they want to be one — and also are immoral?”

Tom: That’s pretty much it.

Appearing to Endorse Sin

I guess the question is “Is my ongoing testimony to this person worth the loss of testimony to others that may occur as a result of appearing to be endorsing this person’s sin?”

IC: I guess that takes real discernment to know. Is there an actual danger of one associating the reputation of Christ with that particular sin, or is the distinction between your choices and your “friend’s” going to remain clear to others? That would obviously depend on the nature of the sin, and on the circumstances of your association, I would think.

Tom: Agreed. And if we maintain a clear testimony about right and wrong with everyone we associate with, this may never be a problem for us. The lesbian who is very clear that you believe she is going to hell unless she repents of her behavior is not in any danger of being lulled into some kind of moral stupor by your ongoing kindness to her. Love has to be accompanied by truth.

Analyzing the Optics

IC: Fair enough. Do you feel any residual concern that people outside the relationship might not know how to interpret your association with such a person?

Tom: Yes, totally. I’m looking at the scriptures trying to figure it out myself. The whole Bush/Degeneres thing left me, at least in some respects, agreeing with both sides. But in the end, I think that what you have actually done and said has to stand on its own before God, regardless of what others might perceive you to have done or said. Their perceptions may be tainted by all sorts of things that we can’t control. The Lord certainly had his share of detractors, and their condemnation of him did not in any way reflect reality. So long as we are genuinely following in his footsteps, I would be fairly unconcerned about the public reaction.

That said, I’m not unaware that we can easily deceive ourselves into believing we are acting like the Lord Jesus when we are really only doing precisely what we want to do.

Social and Spiritual

IC: Well, at the end of the day, I’m wondering if the problem doesn’t emerge from the fact that it’s possible for us mere humans to live a social life distinct from a spiritual one … that we’re not enough “one thing all the time”.

Tom: That is certainly an issue. I remember a good friend telling me a while back that he had pretty much managed to become the same person with everyone he knew. Both he and I recognized that as a good thing. Consistency and transparency are truly Christian virtues, assuming we are consistent and transparent about doing good.

IC: Going back to your question about whether or not the Lord did “social” stuff: I’m thinking he did. I think not just of the wedding at Cana, but also of his visit to Simon the Pharisee’s home. There didn’t seem to be an up-front promise of any spiritual activities in either case, though of course, later there were.

Tom: Fair enough. I suppose the difficulty is in discerning whether the Lord went into a social situation knowing that it would become spiritual. You and I would say he did. But that’s not an ability Christians can necessarily duplicate.

IC: Yeah, I’m sure he did, too. The Lord seemed to know what would happen in spite of the nature of the event, not as a product of it. Maybe that tells us that we ought to have the same perspective about purely “social” events — that under the direction of the Spirit, they can turn into spiritual occasions despite their professed mandate.


  1. I am not so sure the way you are going about it here makes it all that clear with regard to friendship. From my perspective and experience I would say that one must apply a scale to how friendship is measured and relationships are labelled. E.g., friendship strenght implies usually a degree in proprtion to commonality of interests and basic beliefs. It would be difficult for someone with principled beliefs of a Christian religious nature to have a good and solid friendship with a highly immoral person continuing to live a life based on a homosexual lifestyle. There may be, at least for me, a degree of acquaintance possible but not really friendship. That's why you have the natural "birds of a feather flock together" phenomenon. I have found myself in situations where acquaintance itself (one example a former manager, seemingly solidly married with children)seemed sufficient for the other party to try to initiate friendship and test for your willingness to actively come to their (concealed) point of view of life. I therefore think that the true active Christian will (or should) always be friendly but wary at the same time choosing the appropriate degree of a relationship without giving in to the current public misguided hype about friendship.

    1. Agreed. The word "friendship" is used by different people to cover a fairly wide spectrum of relationship dynamics. Some people will tell you they have 300 "friends", meaning no more than that they have met 300 people and know their names and a few facts about them, or that they are "liked" a lot on Facebook. Others would look to biblical examples like David and Jonathan for their model of friendship, and everything else pales in comparison. Here, we are somewhere in between those extremes.

      I have found it is possible to care deeply for unsaved people and consider them friends, at the same time being fully aware of what's missing in the relationship because they do not know Christ. As you rightly point out, it's a huge hole.

    2. ... and, of course, I neglected to point out that we started off talking about friendship in the same way Ellen Degeneres was talking about her association with George Bush, and mostly because she used the word first.