In the modern West, we Christians have developed our own sub-culture. Inside this ‘Christian bubble,’ we are free from the influences of popular media, entertainment, and education. As adults, we choose our friends carefully, and we choose our children’s friends even more carefully.
And while we are relatively safe in the ‘bubble’, can we be effective servants of Christ and ambassadors of his kingdom while staying on our self-made sanctuaries? Can we, and more importantly, should we form meaningful friendships with atheists and non-believers?
Christians should befriend atheists and other non-believers. In doing so, we are being faithful to our call to reach the lost. But we must proceed with wisdom and discernment.
The Great Commission
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”- Matthew 28:18-20
Before his ascension, Jesus provided his disciples with some important instructions that have come to be known as the Great Commission. This was a command to share His message with all people groups so that they too may know Jesus and believe.
The book of Acts shows that as the disciples followed Jesus’ instruction, they witnessed pagans, philosophers, and others who had not even heard of Israel’s God, much less Jesus.
Our witness to the world will not be meaningful outside of forming friendships with the people that we are hoping to reach. Peter went into the home of the Roman commander, Cornelius. Paul went to riversides and academic centers to connect with people. He even testified to jailers and prisoners alike while he was imprisoned.
Following in the footsteps of the ancient church, missionaries go into new places, learn local languages and customs, and form bonds with people in order to share the gospel with them. And our witness is not limited to our words. In fact, it is the witness of our lives that gives credence to our words.
Friendship Opens Doors to Share the Gospel
Jesus befriended a Samaritan woman at the well, and she proclaimed the arrival of the Messiah to her village. Jesus welcomed the company of tax collectors, seen as traitors and enemies to his peers, so that they might repent and believe in response to his kindness and grace.
When we live faithfully among non-believers, we carry the light of Jesus into the darkness. If you were leading someone out of a dark room with a flashlight, you would shine the light in front of their feet so they could see, instead of shining it directly in their eyes.
The same is true of the spiritual light that we carry. It is the kindness of friendship, not the hostility of judgment, that leads people into the light.
The Value of Friendship with Non-Believers
We may find that friendships with atheists and other non-believers sometimes present challenges. We may be tempted to engage in activities that are not pleasing to God. And when we resist such temptations, we might even be ridiculed for refusing to go along with our friends.
When we resist such temptations, our faith grows stronger and speaks louder. Our non-believing friends may not understand our choices at first, but they will observe our behavior.
Peter writes that we should live such good lives among the pagans that even though they accuse us of doing wrong, they will see our good deeds and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12).
The witness of our character and behavior will plant seeds, which may lead to questions, and opportunities to share. Some of our friends may want to know more about what makes us different.
More than most non-believers, atheists, in particular, have given some thought to God’s existence, and have weighed different ideas and beliefs with intentionality. As a result, an atheist friend will often ask good questions. And more importantly, he will ask sincere questions.
Peter further instructs us to always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks the reason for our hope. But we must do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). So, just as our actions must be rooted in faithfulness to God, our words must be rooted in the kindness of friendship.
So Can We Be “Unequally Yoked?”
If we are to be friends with non-believers, and even atheists, how can we make sense of Paul’s instructions to not be unequally yoked with non-believers (2 Corinthians 6:14)? Isn’t he saying that we can’t be friends? Not at all. Paul is warning that we must not let the practices of non-believers become our practices. He is advising that we cannot blend Christian and non-Christian teachings together and compromise our truth.
And for this reason, it is important that, as Christians, we also form strong relationships within the church. Our most intimate relationships and friendships should be with our fellow believers so that we can continue to grow in our faith, and stay accountable to the truth.
This is how we are able to remain steadfast as we befriend and interact with the non-believers that God leads us to.
A Word of Caution
Remaining grounded in our relationships with other Christians also helps us to discern which friendships with non-believers are too dangerous. Sometimes, the enemy uses other people to try to throw us into confusion. In other situations, the temptations to engage in sinful behavior are too great and must be avoided.
The righteous choose their friends carefully,
but the way of the wicked leads them astray.
Friendships that expose us to addictive behaviors should be avoided by those who are susceptible to such addictions. And it is seldom wise to pursue romantic relationships with non-believers.
From time to time, we may find non-believers engaging us with ridicule or with questions meant to challenge and attack our faith. These are situations where our Christian brothers and sisters will help us exercise discernment and caution.
Jesus has made us the light of the world, and he has done so because the world is a dark place, in need of his light. And so, we are to carry his light of friendship and grace to those who don’t know him. But in doing so, we must remain plugged into our source of power, so that our light shines bright and does not get snuffed out by the darkness.