By Brett Christensen — The only reason you and I are in Christ’s church is because we have heard the pure message of salvation as taught in scripture, and have believed it with enough conviction to obey it and continue in it. That’s not true of anyone outside the Lord’s church, whether they’re in some humanly established alternative church or even irreligious.
It’s good news that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the tragic corollary is that those not in Christ are not new creatures. We in Christ have an unassailable hope; those apart from Christ are living without hope. If God means what he says, then we cannot deny these truths. So the unpleasant reality about any person or group which has not followed God’s instructions on how to get into Christ is that they’re without God, without hope in this world, not having the forgiveness of sin which is available in Christ.
That puts a gulf between us and those who teach an alternative way (i.e. different to the way taught in scripture) of becoming a Christian and receiving adoption into God’s family. One of the grimmest realities we deal with as God’s people is that if anyone teaches a different way into Christ, they are peddling false hope, selling a lie. Paul pronounces God’s curse upon them.
It’s not a case of “what unites us is greater than what divides us”, as Paul bluntly reminds us in 2 Corinthians 6:14-16. What divides “us” from “them” is crucial, an eternal divide. This causes me anguish akin to what Paul describes at the start of Romans 9. Yet, for all the sorrow I feel, I know that my Lord doesn’t expect me to give the right hand of fellowship to those not in his church. Quite the contrary.
But what does God expect me to do? That’s simple: Christ calls us to love our neighbors and even enemies, to show unfailing love by helping them whenever we have opportunity. This goes for the misguided church-goer as much as for the godless heathen. Priscilla and Aquila didn’t shy away from helping Apollos, nor did they publicly denounce him. They took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. That’s the help he needed, and that’s the help they offered. They truly loved him as Christ commanded.
Thankfully Apollos accepted their help. Regrettably, many who need God’s way explained more accurately resist our attempts to help, some resentfully, or mockingly, even violently. We know that down through the ages, those in the religious establishment—Catholic and Protestant included—have inflicted horrible persecution on Christ’s followers. But that doesn’t negate Christ’s command for us to love them, and pray for them.
Colossians 4:5-6 instructs us to “walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (NKJV). So in dealing with those outside the Lord’s church we must be pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and without hypocrisy. In showing them Christ in us, we’re to exemplify hearts of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience—things everyone outside God’s family needs to see in us. It does the cause of truth no favors when we neglect “the weightier matters” of Christ’s law.
A part of walking in wisdom towards outsiders is to make a distinction among them. With some it’s a case of “leave them alone; they are blind leaders of the blind”. We have much work to do for the Lord, and limited time. Good stewardship of the time and resources God has given us avoids squandering it on those who resist the Holy Spirit. What’s more, some are wolves in sheep’s clothing. As Christ warned his apostles, we must be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves.
But others show “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”. We don’t know who among them will have a heart disposed to eternal life. Our job is to share the testimony of Jesus Christ in word and deed. We can be gentle and forbearing to all, meekly instructing those who oppose, if God perhaps may grant them repentance, to a full knowledge of the truth.
So, while we are not to be unequally yoked with them, we mustn’t be arrogant or cold toward “nominal Christians”. Christ shows us a better way. If possible, as much as depends on us, we should be at peace with all—religious or not. As one church-goer said to me, “You have to love us anyway”. Exactly. (And with most of them, that’s not hard at all.) They may reject us because of our commitment to what God says in his word, but let’s never close our hearts to them. At the same time, let’s never confuse having open hearts with compromising our commitment to the pattern of sound words given in scripture, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.
Brett Christensen, a self-supporting preacher in Australia, was born again in 1981. He obtained a diploma at the Macquarie School of Biblical Studies in the mid-80s, and lives on the southern edge of Melbourne. He has three adult children (two sons and a daughter) and two daughters-in-law, all of whom are Christ-followers. Brett writes books, articles and spiritual songs, and most of his teaching work is with the congregation of Christ in Melbourne’s Southeast. He and his wife Lesley enjoy hiking, and their website is peopleofGod.info.