We must watch out for the sort of company we keep:
Sadly, some basic Christian teaching that has served God’s people well for centuries tends to get overlooked by contemporary Western believers. What earlier Christians had always tended to believe, accept and act out for so long is today often being ignored or repudiated.
Here I refer to one aspect of this: the company we keep. There seems to be a lot of fuzzy thinking on this by too many Christians. If in the past some believers went too far in isolating themselves from the world and non-believers, things have gone to the other extreme today.
Far too many believers think they can just mingle and interact with the world and those in it with no problems arising. But who you hang around with matters. Other people can have a huge influence on you, for good or evil. So we must choose our company wisely. We must discern who we should be spending time with and hanging around with.
And we must decide which folks we need to avoid. The Bible has plenty of admonitions and commands about such things. Here are just some of the obvious texts on this. Psalm 1:1-2 is quite well known in this regard:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
Also, I just read again Psalm 26:4-5 which says this:
I do not sit with men of falsehood,
nor do I consort with hypocrites.
I hate the assembly of evildoers,
and I will not sit with the wicked.
And Proverbs 1:9-19 speaks about ‘The Enticement of Sinners’:
Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
My son, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”—
my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil,
and they make haste to shed blood.
For in vain is a net spread
in the sight of any bird,
but these men lie in wait for their own blood;
they set an ambush for their own lives.
Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain;
it takes away the life of its possessors.
The New Testament also addresses this theme. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says this: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’.” And in 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 we read: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?”
What we find in James 4:4 is quite strong and quite clear: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Those are just some of the biblical passages which warn us about the sort of company we keep. But some critics at this point will be ready for a fight: ‘Doesn’t the Bible talk about how Jesus was a friend of sinners?’ Well, let’s look at those passages briefly.
Matthew 11:18-19 says: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” The same thing is found in Luke 7:33-35.
And in Mark 2:15-17 we read:
And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
A few remarks can be made here. That Jesus hung around with sinners is not surprising. There were no other sorts of people Jesus could have hung around with. We are ALL sinners – every single one of us. So for Jesus to simply be anywhere on planet earth would mean he was in the company of sinners.
But the real issues here are these: why did Jesus hang around with sinners, and how did Jesus hang around with sinners? The Mark 2 text above already answers the first question: Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That was his mission. That was his purpose in coming to earth. As Paul put it in 1 Timothy 1:1: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
So we know why he came and why he spent time with sinners. But just how did he ‘hang’ with sinners? It should be pretty clear from the gospel accounts, as well as the sorts of passages I listed above, that we know what he did NOT do.
He did not come to have a good time, to party, to be cool, to fit in, to be inclusive, to be part of the scene, to be accepted, and to be liked. He came to fulfil his mission: he hung around with sinners with the express purpose of pointing out their need (they are sinners headed to a lost eternity), and he came to show them how salvation could take place (leaving their sin, repenting, and having faith in Christ).
As one meme making the rounds on the social media puts it: “Jesus didn’t eat with sinners and tax collectors because he wanted to appear inclusive, tolerant, and accepting. He ate with them to call them to a changed and fruitful life, to die to self and live for him. His call is transformation of life, not affirmation of identity.”
Far too many believers seem to think they can just go out and party and have a good time with non-believers, as if that is all that Jesus did. Um no. Jesus loved sinners enough NOT to let them remain as they were. He came to change lives. He came to set the captive free. He came to seek and to save that which was lost.
And that should be our mission as well. Sure, how that gets teased out in our interaction with sinners needs some care and prayer. If a pagan friend invited you to some rave party where drugs and sexual immorality is taking place, that may not be the best way to reach your unsaved friend.
There may not be hard and fast rules here as to what you should do as you have company with non-believers. Going out with them bar crawling and getting drunk is obviously a no no. Perhaps going with them to a rock concert might be acceptable.
The point is not to make a long list of dos and don’ts here. The point is to be in the world to save as many out of the world as we can. Acting just like the world does is not how we do this. But as mentioned, isolating ourselves, living in a cave somewhere, and never having anything to do with non-believers is not the way to proceed either.
My point here is to take seriously the verses that I first listed. We are NOT to ‘walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers’ and so on. Again, how exactly this determines just what we do today in our interaction with the lost requires some discernment and wisdom.
Avoiding all sinners in Pharisee fashion is not the way to go. But I suspect that the real problem for too many Christians in the West today is being carbon copies of the world and those who live in it. We are so much like the pagans all around us that there is nothing in us that would make them want to leave their sin and come to the Saviour.
Let me wrap things up with a few pertinent and hard-hitting quotes:
“There was a day when the world followed the Church. She took the initiative; she was aggressive. But it has changed now, and we are down on our knees imitating the world. The Church is like a poor old withered hag, rather than the beautiful, full-blooded bride of the Lamb we are intended to be. That we should stand by the world’s highway and stretch our withered hand for a dime from the world is a disgrace.” A. W. Tozer
“The tragedy of the twentieth century especially has been that the Church in her folly has been trying to accommodate herself to the world, thinking that by doing so she could attract it. But the world expects the Christian to be different, and it is right – this is the New Testament emphasis. It is nothing but a departure from New Testament doctrine that ever tries to make the Church ingratiate herself to the world; the Church is meant to be, and is, essentially different.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones
“The sin of worldliness is a preoccupation with the things of this temporal life. It’s accepting and going along with the views and practices of society around us without discerning if they are biblical. I believe that the key to our tendencies toward worldliness lies primarily in the two words ‘going along’. We simply go along with the values and practices of society.” Jerry Bridges
“Would that we could see the wall of separation between the church and the world made broader and stronger. It makes one sad to hear Christians saying, ‘Well, there is no harm in this; there is no harm in that,’ thus getting as near to the world as possible.” Charles Spurgeon
“I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call earth ‘home.’ Before you know it, I am calling luxuries ‘needs’ and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached people drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming about the triumphs of grace. I sink into a secular mind-set that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness. And I thank God for those who have forced me again and again toward a wartime mind-set.” John Piper
“The weakness of so many modern Christians is that they feel too much at home in the world. In their effort to achieve restful ‘adjustment’ to unregenerate society they have lost their pilgrim character and become an essential part of the very moral order against which they are sent to protest. The world recognizes them and accepts them for what they are. And this is the saddest thing that can be said about them. They are not lonely, but neither are they saints.” A. W. Tozer