Though Jesus gave us a clear example of One who ate with, befriended, and even seemed to prefer “traitors and sinners”, Paul tells us we have nothing in common and so to avoid them in 2 Cor. 6:14-16. He doesn’t give any “unlesses” or “except fors”. Paul, in true Pauline style, makes no bones about where he stands on this. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.”
I’ve heard many explanations for Paul’s strong rebuke of the Corinthian church. One is that the image is of two animals yoked together to pull a plow. When one is strong and robust (a Follower of Christ) and one is weak (a follower of another faith), the plow will simply pull in a circle and not accomplish what it was meant to do. Every plowman knows that you only yoke two similar animals to avoid this fate. Another is that this is a situational admonition, given because of a specific incident previously reported to him. Remember, this is the same church that was celebrating a man’s affair with his own stepmother as an example of a believer’s freedom in Christ from the law. The reasoning is simple: Paul had to tell this to this particular church because this church was messed up!
But how do we reconcile this today? Do we avoid those who do not believe, per Paul’s instruction? Do we tolerate them as an unavoidable part of our society? Do we go out of our way to befriend them as Jesus did, hoping to influence them for the better? How can we read this?
A few more thoughts to really confuse the matter. While we give a lot of press to Jesus’ befriending of sinners and tax collectors, this is not an overly common occurrence in the Gospels. When it happens, we talk about it all the time. But while there are a few times that we find Jesus eating at the house of a non-believer (Zachaeus and friends come to mind), He was also meeting with Pharisees. Yes, His disciples included a tax-collector, considered a traitor to the Jewish people, but He also called a Zealot, a Jewish freedom fighter, and a large percentage of them were common fisherman.
The danger of taking Jesus’ lead and befriending people who don’t follow Him is that we may be influenced away from our own faithfulness without making any inroads with the gospel. The danger of taking Paul’s lead and avoiding people who don’t follow Jesus is that our witness goes unheard and people die eternally.
So which is right? Well…