The holidays are here, and my social calendar includes school parties, office parties, and home gatherings with family members who are either unsaved, or might be Christians but are feuding or not walking with the Lord. How do I balance my opportunities while showing Christ’s love?
I feel for you particularly regarding family relations. There are problems in my own circle, and the holidays amplify old wounds and memories. As Christians, we belong first to Christ, and through Him we have a Father God that never fails. We also have spiritual brothers and sisters united by the Holy Spirit. But relationships on earth, both inside and outside the body of Christ, are not all functioning as God intended. Some even seem irreparable.
I think your question breaks down in two categories.
Unbelievers and their desires
Some friends and family members don’t claim to be Christians. Their lives are worldly and sometimes excessive. What do you do when social invitations are being sent or received? In 1 Corinthians, Paul offers the following insight:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:14-16).
The sins of unbelievers are real and troubling, but practical holiness is not even possible for them. They need salvation. God judges those who are “outside” (1 Cor. 5:9-13), and my responsibility is to present a complete gospel to them so they can escape from judgment and find Christ while there is still time. But it is also evil to give approval to sinful activity (Rom. 1:32). I must love them as someone for whom Christ died, while knowing their sinful actions are why Christ had to die. He already did that work for me, and I can share the good news with them.
So, go as far as you can in work, meals, recreation, etc. without compromising your own testimony. Know that you will be exposed to attitudes, language, and ideas that require prayer and scripture to purge back out. Also, if alcohol is being served, an early exit may allow you to spend some time with people and be a testimony for Christ, while limiting your exposure to the ungodly behavior that may arise later. Pray for wisdom, and plan through the situation in advance when possible.1
We can look in the gospels, and see how our Lord spent most of his time reaching out to sinners. It was usually either in public spaces, both with individuals and groups; or in private homes for group meals. I suggest these can be among the “safest” combinations of venues and numbers. Table fellowship, in particular, satisfies two of everyone’s basic needs (food, and relationships) while limiting the poor behavior that might appear in other settings.
Believers with serious problems
This one is difficult. If I claim to belong to Christ, I place myself under His standard for practical walk (1 Jn. 2:6). I claim to share in fellowship with God and have a brotherhood with all other believers. That’s an amazing privilege, and there are consequences for willfully abusing it.
God alone can work on problems inside the heart. But when a professing believer’s outward activities exceed God’s limits, His other children are sometimes called to act. One example is in Matthew 18. If your “brother” (or sister) has something against you – regardless who started it – you must go to that person as an individual (v.15); if that fails, then with two or three more (v.16); then finally before the local assembly (church, v.17). After that, to you he is like an unbeliever of poor character (v.17). You can still try to reach him in shared activities, but with all the safeguards you would use with unbelievers.
The extreme case is in 1 Corinthians 5. It can be heart-rending to obey, and many Christians have been tripped by it:
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother [or sister, i.e. in Christ] 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 (1 Cor. 5:11).
First, he “bears the name of brother.” It’s not up to me to decide if that profession is genuine. He chooses to wear it. “Guilty” means a persistent lifestyle, not just a moment of failure that is actively being counseled, and hopefully, resolved. The “guilty” believer is self-righteous and won’t repent. Some Christians respond to this passage by ignoring it. Others say it applies only to communion at the local church (assembly). But the instruction “not to eat” is preceded by “not to associate.” That means being identified with that person in a way that suggests shared interest or relationship. If the word translated “to eat” is referenced in a Greek lexicon or Bible dictionary, it simply means “taking part in an ordinary meal.”2
As difficult as that is, it’s nothing compared to what happens if serious, willful sin is allowed to slide for months or years. The attitudes will take root in other people and eventually damage many relationships. Do keep a line of communication open, if possible, with the clear understanding that you want to talk about Christ and His desires. God is able to break down the hardest hearts and build something new and useful. When godly restoration is possible, pursue it eagerly. But we can’t carry on the relationship like usual, pretending there isn’t a huge problem.
How much depends on you?
To wrap this up, I recommend Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The phrase “if possible” recognizes that some situations are impossible. The other person will only fight. Commit it to God in prayer and let Him do His work. “So far as it depends on you” means you have examined your own heart before God and His word, and He is not showing you any thoughts, bitterness, anger, or other unresolved sin that you are contributing. You have reached out where you can, and set boundaries where you can’t. Just keep in mind the difference between setting boundaries and raising walls. Boundaries are soft lines with access points and can easily be adjusted when the situation changes. Walls of bitterness or resentment, once erected, become hardened (Prov. 18:19).
I hope that helps, and wish you our Lord’s wisdom and blessing as you continue through this year’s end. To all my readers: What are your thoughts on this difficult subject? The PT team would like to hear from you in the comments field below!
1. A popular saying in sports and business is “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” You can’t predict all outcomes of a situation, but thinking through a couple possibilities can help you avoid the obvious traps later.
2. The one exception would be a spouse of the sinning believer, provided the spouse is able to safely continue with the person during that difficult season. The two are “one flesh” (Matt.10:8) and that unique bond is only interrupted if the situation is severe enough to require immediate separation or even a divorce. That is a lengthy study we can’t take up here.