Question: "How should a Christian relate to non-Christian friends?"
Answer: A Christian should relate to non-Christian friends the same way Jesus related to those who did not follow Him. We can look at a few of the ways Jesus related to people and imitate Him as we relate to our non-Christian friends:
1. Jesus was kind, even when people didn’t understand Him. The people were perpetually confused about who Jesus was and why He was in their midst. Yet Mark 6:34 records that, when He “saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” The arrogant challenged Him; He responded with kindness (Luke 10:25–26). The needy drained Him; He responded with kindness (Luke 8:43–48). Roman soldiers and religious zealots killed Him; He responded with kindness (Luke 23:34).
Jesus was prepared to be misunderstood, so He could have patience and kindness with non-Christians as He explained how to have a relationship with God. We need to remember that as His followers we, too, will be misunderstood. Jesus warned us, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Even when hated or misunderstood, we should always respond with kindness.
2. Jesus always spoke truth. Even when His life was at stake, Jesus always spoke the truth (Matthew 26:63–65). When we are surrounded by non-Christians who do not worship God or hold to our values, it is tempting to remain silent or compromise Scripture in order not to offend. We sometimes see this happening with famous Christians when they are asked about homosexuality or abortion. Rather than stand solidly on the truth of God’s Word, some cave to peer pressure.
The magnetic pull toward pleasing those we are around is a universal human problem. But, as Christians, we are to be “salt and light” in this dark, flavorless world (Matthew 5:13–16). We are not to beat people over the head with our views (see number 1, above), but we are also not to compromise truth. Jesus spoke what was needed in the moment regardless of personal cost. He spoke what people needed to hear. We must do that, too.
3. Jesus never lost His identity. Although surrounded by non-Christians every day, Jesus did not allow culture or its opinions to alter His identity. Even Satan could not shake Him (Matthew 4:1–10). Jesus knew who He was and why He was here. As Christians, we must be secure in our identities in Christ so that even the most vocal opponent cannot shake us. Jesus ate, drank, and journeyed with non-Christians every day, but He never set aside His identity as the Son of God and could, therefore, say truthfully, “I always do what pleases [the Father]” (John 8:29).
4. Jesus knew His purpose (Mark 1:38). A great threat to our own souls in befriending non-Christians is that we can easily lose sight of our purpose. The world does not share our biblical values and is eager to draw us away from devotion to Christ. While we can enjoy friendships with non-Christians, we must do so with the awareness that we are citizens of another kingdom. We are here as ambassadors for the King (Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20; 2 Corinthians 5:20). We can participate in activities and relationships with unbelievers, but only to a point. We must be ready to say a polite, “No, thank you,” when asked to step outside our purpose. It may not be outright sin we are encouraged to pursue, but many other things can lure us away from pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3). Materialism, secular assessments, temporal values, leisure, entertainment: all can threaten or topple a Christian’s pursuit of purpose. When we keep our eyes on the prize—as Jesus did—our relationships with non-Christians can be enjoyable and fruitful for both them and us (Hebrews 12:1–2).
5. Jesus was selective about His closest companions. Despite the fact that Jesus interacted constantly with non-believers, He reserved His most intimate connection with His hand-picked disciples. Even among the disciples, He chose three—Peter, James, and John—to share the most private times in His life. Only those three witnessed His transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–9). It was those three who accompanied Him to the Garden of Gethsemane the night of His arrest (Mark 14:33–34). The model Jesus gave us is that of selective intimacy in relationships. While we are to be kind to everyone, serving any way we can, we should be careful about those we allow to get close to us. Our closest friends carry great influence and can lead our hearts away from God’s plan for our lives.
If Jesus had to be careful about those He allowed to get close to Him, we must be careful, too. We need to seek out those who share our faith and our love for the Lord, remembering that “we are the temple of the living God” (see 2 Corinthians 6:14–16). We can love and serve our non-Christian friends as a way of honoring God and demonstrating how much God also loves them.