In several places in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, the godly person is counselled to keep away from the wicked who are corrupting influences. In Psalm 119:113-120 (the ‘Samekh’ strophe), the Psalmist expresses his desire for them to leave him alone.
115 Away from me, you evildoers,
that I may keep the commands of my God!
There have been many groups throughout church history who have emphasised the wisdom of avoiding close association with the godless. Verses such as 1 Cor 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good character.” or 2 Cor 6:17 “Come out from them and be separate” are often cited as evidence that as Christians, we are to keep our distance from the ungodly.
But there has been a marked shift of emphasis in recent years. Now the desire is to be “missional”, to develop good relationships with those who don’t know God and to be a “friend of sinners” like Jesus was.
Are these two incompatible perspectives? Or can they be integrated in some way?
We need to begin by acknowledging the fact that it is possible for us both to be an influencer of those around us and to be influenced by them. Becoming a Christian does not make us magically invincible to temptation. Jesus touched the unclean leper and it made the leper clean. But if we are honest, we don’t always find the transfer works that way for us.
Going into situations where you regularly succumb to temptation and blend in with those around you is not being missional, it’s being foolish. But completely withdrawing from unbelievers around you is not being spiritual, it’s being disobedient to the great commission.
So how did Jesus do it? I won’t attempt to give a comprehensive answer, but here are a few brief thoughts. He brought the presence of God with him into every situation, shining light into dark places rather than hiding his light away. He loved and accepted others, but he wasn’t a people pleaser; he was willing to confront where necessary. He chose to mix with sinners in contexts conducive to meaningful conversation, such as shared meals.
We do need to beware being influenced by evil, but the solution is not monasticism. For an example of how to live a holy yet missional life, we need look no further than Jesus.