A Friend of Sinners
Harmful and sinful practices often begin with perfectly good intentions. Sometimes the problem is the over-emphasis of one point of righteousness to the exclusion of other equally important principles. This was a distinctive failing of the Jews in Jesus' day (Matthew 23:23). The same attitude can be and is a problem among Christians today.
For instance, one might read Jesus' warning about riches in Matthew 19:23-26 and decide, at all costs, to avoid the evil to which riches can lead. But, ignoring such passages as 1 Timothy 5:17-19, Ephesians 4:28 or 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12, he quits a good-paying job and thus becomes a burden to others. I am sure all of us would agree that such an one had become unbalanced, and downright sinful in his effort to flee from a specified danger.
While I have seldom heard of the example above among brethren, there is one area of wide-spread imbalance which, I believe, does exist and is hindering our efforts to reach the lost. I am speaking of our prevalent practice of completely isolating ourselves from any meaningful association with people in the world.
Now it is indeed true that the Bible abounds with warnings of the evil influence which our associates can have on us (1 Corinthians 15:33; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17). In reaction to these and other warnings, could it not be that we have become unbalanced? We "hole up" in our comfortable church buildings and classes, limiting our association to those of "like precious faith," with the possible exceptions of those who have already expressed some interest in the truth. Oh, it's true that we occasionally may take expeditions "out into enemy territory" and invite an "outsider" to services or to a Bible class. And (don't miss the point) we should extend such invitations. The imbalance is that we have largely ceased to be "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world" that Jesus intended us to be (Matthew 5:13-16). What good is the salt if it's isolated on the table in a fancy container? What good is light if it is hidden under a basket? We've got to be "amongst 'em" if we're going to influence 'em! Jesus, our greatest Example, was viewed as "a friend of sinners" (Matthew 11:18-19). The lonely, sin-sick and suffering saw Him as their friend -- not as the Pharisees with their isolationist, "I'm better than you," "touch me not" attitude. In this respect, are we not sometimes closer in identity to the Pharisees than with our Lord?
Of course we must beware the evil influence that unbelievers can have -- just as we must beware the evil influence that worldly ambition and the riches of this world can have upon us. But keep some balance here. The only ones from whom Christians are specifically commanded to withdraw association are incorrigible brethren (1 Corinthians 5:5-11). Take a close look at verse 10 in that passage.
Like our Lord, let's become "a friend of sinners," not in order that they might influence us back to the world - but that we might be able to influence them to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.