Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Loving Your (Insert Wrong Idea Here) Neighbor As a Friend

By John Mark Renolds @ www.scriptoriumdaily.com

Bottom Line: Christians should forcefully oppose wrong ideas while loving their neighbor.

Disclaimer: This post is written for Christians about Christians. It assumes a working knowledge of Christian vocabulary. These reflections were motivated by thinking about C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves.

Sometimes my Christian friends are concerned that I have other good friends who are not Christians or who have false beliefs.

Should Christians be friends with people who are wrong?

This is a particularly difficult question for American Christians.

Most Americans find it hard to really dislike any large group of people and so will fail to even understand the question. Many will be offended by it. Shouldn’t good people be willing to be friends with anybody?

Not quite anybody they hasten to say, the specter of Hitler in the back of their minds.

We know we should dislike the Nazis and that friendship with one of Hitler’s (now very aged) minions would be verboten, but they are so far beyond normal humanity that even bringing up the Nazis is considered in bad taste in Internet argument.

They are so exceptionally evil as to prove nothing about anything.

What about ideas not quite so bad, but still very, very bad? Could one be chums with Joe the K.K.K. member? Could one be friends with Bob the drug dealer? What of Sally the Stalinist?

Americans (to our shame) don’t take ideas very seriously. If Joe is a nice guy, the fact that he is a Communist is unfortunate but no bar to friendship. Most Americans would not even pause, especially if Joe is buying the drinks.

We don’t like ideologues and who can blame us? The person who cannot endure the slightest disagreement without splitting a community, church, or club is the bane of any leader’s life. But Americans run the risk of becoming so intolerant of ideologues that we forget the power of ideas.

Bad ideas lead to bad consequences. Bad ideas (such as racism, misogyny, or socialism) lead to death, destruction, and poverty.

Bad ideas should, at the very least, strain a friendship, especially if the ideas are very bad.

When should it end it? How much support can I give to my neighbor who is wrong?

I think it depends on the depth of the friendship and the nature of the bad idea.

Having a positive relationship with a person who is wrong is one way of helping them become “right.” Since there is a positive good to having a friendship with a wrong person, we should not refuse the possibility lightly.

This much we know. The Bible is clear that we should love our enemies. It is hard to imagine loving someone, praying for them, without having any relationship with them.

This love included praise for the heretical Samaritan.

Saint Paul also says (I Corinthians 9: 9-13):

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

The fundamental rule seems to be: God judges outsiders. If my neighbor is someone “outside” the household of Faith, I can leave his condemnation to God. I can argue with this neighbor, witness to him, boldly proclaim the Gospel, but his judgment is in the hands of the Almighty.

He has not placed himself under the authority of the Church.

Willful evil from members of our Church community must be dealt with forcefully.

Excommunication is too little practiced in the modern Church, but you cannot excommunicate a secularist, Mormon, or any other non-member for fairly obvious reasons. Shunning Church fellowship with an atheist or denying him communion will not (on the whole) do much to wake him up to his error.

Aside: We also must distinguish between a person exploring an idea and practicing it. One could consider (as a serious academic exercise) if Mormonism is true, without being a practicing Mormon. False ideas can harm, but only if we fail to recognize them as false and embrace them by putting them into practice.

Second aside: A man might also be better than his proclaimed ideas (or worse!). A man might say he does not believe in morality, but then behave as a gentleman. There are (I have been told) people who proclaim fidelity to Christ, but then behave as cads.

I would rather have the first man as my plumber. Our business relationship could be cordial and long lasting! I would also (every once in a while) point out that I thought him better than his ideology.

The Biblical assumption is that the bar for fellowship with a non-Christian is lower than the bar for a Christian. The remainder of this discussion will be about friendship with the (insert wrong idea here) non-Christian neighbor.

Defining the types of friendship would require a book, but fortunately such a book has already been written. Aristotle was the first to write extensively of friendship in his Ethics and C.S. Lewis made good use of his categories in The Four Loves. I will borrow freely from both!

Let us examine being friends with an (insert wrong idea here) neighbor as “colleague.”

The level of friendship I will call that of “the colleague” is a close working relationship centered around a common cause or interest. If we see what it would take to spoil this relationship, then it might help us more generally.

If you cannot endure a man as a colleague, you will not pick him as an intimate!

Aside: Don’t mistake me. I don’t think we have to be “friends” with everyone to obey the law of Love. You can love a man without making him your friend or colleague. I can wish better for a man who joins the Communist Party, but I shan’t be working with him. Still refusing friendship is itself a major decision, a breach of community, that will seriously impact opportunities for my Christian witness. It should not be done lightly.

When can I be “colleagues” with a man who is wrong (in non-Church work)?

My thinking to this point suggests I can be a (colleague level) friend:

1. when the error is not serious. Surely trivial errors are not the basis for the evil of denying friendship.

Suppose my friend believes that Babe Ruth is still the “home run” king. This error is trivial unless this foolish error is relevant to the common task. This brings us to a second suggestion.

2. OR when the error is serious, but is not relevant to the task at hand.

My Catholic friend who is pro-life can be a colleague-friend in my pro-life work. Yet, I think the Catholic Church gravely mistaken for believing the Pope is the sole and universal head of the church and that this error is serious. This leads to a second suggestion.

3. AND when the serious theological error is held by a person “outside the Church.”

I am not a Roman Catholic so disciplining their doctrinal errors is not my job.

They are outside my Church. However, at some point it would be cowardice to my Faith not to point out my disagreements and try to witness to my Roman friend about the truth. Theological error is more serious than mere “moral” error (to the extent they can be separated), but judgment of it is in the hands of God for those outside my Church.

4. AND when serious error is not directly empowering a civil (non-theological) evil that should be known (via natural law) as evil by all rational men.

Since all men are sinners, it would be impossible not to deal with sinners as colleagues. (Nobody could, for example, deal with me!)

If my working with Bob the known pro-choicer directly empowers abortion, then I cannot be a friend to Bob.

If on the other hand, Bob is my plumber, then if my working friendship with Bob MAY indirectly empower his pro-choice views (by giving him money for plumbing which he then gives to the Democrat Party), but it is still acceptable to continue my professional relationship with Bob unless I feel unable to (sometimes) point out the evil of Bob’s views. This brings me to my final suggestion:

5. AND when a person practicing the evil is open to hearing my point of view.

Being willing and able to state disagreement strongly in such a friendship is one way of preserving integrity in it.

6. AND when the friendship does not publicly associate me with the evil or wrong idea.

Will my work with Bob the Pro-Choice Plumber lead other reasonable people to assume I am soft on abortion? I think not. Will my vote for Bob the Pro-Life Catholic/Mormon/Atheist lead reasonable citizens to think I am soft on theological disagreements with Catholics/Mormons/Atheists in a polity such as the one we have in the United States? No.

7. AND when the putative friend can also express their point of view, but can (with you) then agree to disagree.

No believer could have a colleague who was a fanatical secularist who could never give his secularism a rest.

Let us try a test case to examine the suggested limits to friendship.

Suppose Bob the political candidate is an atheist. Can I work for his campaign? Can we be friendly political colleagues?

I think the answer is “maybe” even though atheism is a serious error. Atheism is a serious theological error (!), but God will judge Bob for it. If Bob has better views on the issues than any other candidate and is the sort of (inconsistent!) atheist who wants what is good (culture of life) in the political realm, then I can gladly give him my political friendship.

If Bob is willing for me to continue my apologetic work denouncing atheism as an idea and is willing (occasionally) to hear an argument against it, then I am willing to work for Bob as a political candidate. I see no reason that such friendship would lead others to think I am “soft on atheism.”

I have had such friendships in philosophy (and continue to have them) without being one bit soft on bad ideas. I can love the person who is wrong without loving their ideas.

Finally, as Christians we must balance the courage and confidence of our convictions (Jesus is Lord!) with a desire to love and serve others who are wrong. We cannot just “be friends with everyone” nor can we simply abandon all friendships with those with whom we have serious disagreements.

The call to courageous love is difficult, but then followers of the Christ Crucified should expect nothing less.


John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester.

Dr. Reynolds' first book, Three Views on the Creation and Evolution Debate, was co-edited with J.P. Moreland. His latest book, Towards a Unified Platonic Human Psychology, is a close examination of Plato's view of the soul as seen in the Timaeus. Several of his technical articles have been published on philosophy of religion as well as popular articles in journals such as the New Oxford Review and Touchstone.

Dr. Reynolds lectures frequently on ancient philosophy, philosophy of science, home-schooling and cultural trends. He regularly appears on radio talk shows, including the Hugh Hewitt Show, and actively blogs on cultural issues.

Dr. Reynolds and his wife Hope have four homeschooled children: L.D., Mary Kate, Ian and Jane.

By John Mark Reynolds @ www.scriptoriumdaily.com

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