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Many Bible passages teach Christians that we should avoid temptation and evil influences (see Proverbs 4:23; 6:27; 13:20; 22:3; Matthew 5:8; 6:13; 18:8,9; Romans 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:33; Genesis 39:7-12; Psalm 26:5; 1 Peter 4:3,4). On the other hand, other passages show us that Jesus was a friend of sinners, prostitutes, etc. (see Luke chap. 15; 5:27-32; 7:36-50). How can these concepts be harmonized?
First, please observe that both of these concepts are Bible teachings, so we should not neglect the one to obey the other. We must not deny the fact that we should seek to avoid evil associations, but neither must we deny the fact that we should seek to save sinners and this requires being with them. Consider these observations:
Jesus compared this to a physician who tries to cure people of disease (Luke 5:32). The physician does not like the disease and does not condone the fact it exists in the patient's life, let alone does he want to catch the disease. His association with the sick person is for the express purpose of trying to help them eliminate the disease. This expresses the attitude we should have toward sin in a sinner's life. Note passages about rebuking sin and refusing to fellowship it: Revelation 3:19; Galatians 6:1,2; James 5:19,20; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Ephesians 5:11; 2 Timothy 4:2-4; 2 John 9-11; Ephesians 5:11; Proverbs 17:15; 2 Corinthians 6:17-7:1; 1 Timothy 5:22; Psalms 1:1,2; 1 Corinthians 15:33; Romans 1:32; Acts 7:58; 8:1; 22:20.
When people have been shown the truth but reject it, and even worse when they try to influence us to accept and practice error, then we must back off from our relationship from them, as described in the verses about evil influences (note Matt. 15:14). This requires, among other things, that we must always constantly consider who is influencing whom. If it becomes clear that people are not listening to our efforts to lead them to truth, and especially if it becomes clear they are leading us to compromise with sin, then we need to back off the relationship.
That is, Jesus associated with sinners at morally upright or at least morally neutral places, such as meals in people's homes (see the examples above). Although He did try to teach prostitutes, there are no examples in which He frequented brothels to try to do so. Likewise, we should not conclude that befriending sinners means we should go into the taverns and casinos or attend wild parties to try to find people to teach. We may teach those kinds of people, but we do it at other times and other places, where they are more likely to be receptive and where we are not so likely to be tempted to participate in or appear to justify sin. (Note Psalm 26:5; 1 Cor. 8:10-12).
All of us need to learn to teach, but some Christians are not yet ready to teach. We may need time to be grounded in truth before we face people who are hardened in sin and may shake our faith, instead of us moving them.
This is especially true with regard to sinful habits that a new convert is struggling to overcome in his own life. The principle of "evil companions" would especially teach us that we need to avoid those people and places that have entrapped us in the sins that we are trying to overcome. We must avoid those people and those circumstances to whatever extent we need to do so in order to overcome our evil habits. Perhaps later, after we have overcome the habit and grown up in Christ, we can go back to those people to try to teach them the truth. But even then we must not do so in times and places where they are actively participating in their immorality, such that they may be a temptation to us to return to evil.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2006
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.