Can Christians be “Friends” with Non-Christians?

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

Can Christians be “Friends” with Non-Christians?

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“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”[1]

A common Christian polemic against Islam is that the Quran forbids Muslims from taking “friends” from among the Jews and Christians. However, when we see what the Quran actually says, it is forbidden to Jews and Christians as “guardians” or “allies” in preference to Muslims, especially when those Jews and Christians are hostile to Islam.[2] In verses dealing with associating with non-Muslims, the Quran uses the Arabic word “wali” (ولي, plural أَوْلِيَاء), which carries a wide variety of meanings (including “friend” but also “guardian”, “protector”, “ally” etc.), whereas the word “khalil” (خليل) has the limited meaning of “close friend”.[3] In addition, the Quran states clearly that kind treatment to those who do not fight against Muslims or show them hostility is allowed.[4] But what about the Bible? Are Christians aware of what their “scripture” teaches about associating with those who reject the gospel? This article will provide biblical and patristic evidence that befriending non-Christians was forbidden for Christians.

The Evidence: 2 John 9–11

            Clear evidence comes from the second “epistle” of “John” (2 John), verses 9–11:

“Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”

The unknown author of this letter did not mince words regarding associating with unbelievers. A Christian was forbidden to greet such a person or to let him in his house.[5]

Of course, modern Christians may interpret these verses differently and try to sanitize the meaning to make it less restrictive. However, in doing so, such Christians would deviate from the teachings of their beloved church fathers? As it turns out, they were unanimous that Christians should not associate with non-Christians and used 2 John 9–11 as scriptural support.

First, let us establish that the people that “John” banned Christians from letting into their homes included a “wide range of heretics”, according to Bede “the Venerable” (d. 735). According to Bede, “John” included Jews and anyone who denied Jesus’ divinity in his blacklist. In his commentary on 2 John 7,[6] Bede stated that (emphasis ours):

“[t]his verse might apply to a wide range of heretics. It may refer primarily to those who believed that Christ was incarnate but who understood this in the wrong way by denying some aspect of it. Perhaps they rejected the idea that his flesh was real or that his soul was as ours. Or perhaps they refused to accept that he was truly divine, or that his Father was really God or that the Holy Spirit was really Almighty God. John may even be referring to those Jews who, rejecting any link between Jesus and God, deny that Christ has come in the flesh but are waiting for the antichrist, to their own damnation.”[7]

Also, even if the unknown author of 2 John was speaking specifically of “heretics” who professed to be “Christians” only, and not pagans or Jews in general, it would be reasonable to conclude that the author was still urging his followers to avoid any contact with a particular group of “non-Christians” (since “heretics” would not be considered “orthodox”). But, as we just saw, this was not the view of Bede.

Earlier church leaders, including Tertullian, Ambrose of Milan, Hilary of Arles, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Didymus “the Blind”, and Basil “the Great” all interpreted 2 John as forbidding any association with “heretics” or non-Christians in general. Below is a list of their respective commentaries, which are taken from the book Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (emphasis ours).[8]

  1. Tertullian: “Although we ought to be seeking at all times, where ought we to seek? Among the heretics, where all is foreign and opposed to our truth, with whom we are forbidden to associate?”
  2. Ambrose of Milan: “Since it is written that we should avoid such people, how can we not assume that someone who associates with Arians is also an exponent of their heresy?”
  3. Hilary of Arles: “Here you see an example of excommunication in the New Testament, both from table fellowship at home and from table fellowship in church.”
  4. Irenaeus of Lyons: “By wishing that we do not even give them a welcome, John, the Lord’s disciple, made their condemnation even stronger.”
  5. Clement of Alexandria: “John forbids us to greet such people or to offer them hospitality, which in the circumstances is not at all unkind. But he also warns us not to argue or dispute with people who are unable to handle the things of God, lest we should be taken away from the true doctrine by clever arguments which have the appearance of truth. Furthermore, I think that it is wrong to pray with such people, because during times of prayer there is a moment for greeting and sharing the peace.”
  6. Didymus the Blind: “Anyone who dwells in the doctrine of the gospel and who acts according to its teaching will separate himself from those who think and act differently.”

These commentaries are crystal clear. However, we saved the best for last. Basil “The Great” plainly stated that Christians cannot be “friends” with non-Christians. He condemned Christians who did take friends from “non-Christians” as those who “do not love the Lord”:

It is obvious that those who make friends of people who speak falsely about God and who even eat with them do not love the Lord who made them and who feeds them. Instead of being content with that food they are led away into blasphemy against the one who feeds them.”

The Evidence: 1 Corinthians 5:9–11

            While the unknown author of “2 John” prohibited Christians from associating with unbelievers, Paul, the known author of 1 Corinthians, prohibited Christians from associating with “immoral” believers as well:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother 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.”[9]

Here as well, the writings of the church fathers offer some insight. According to these early Christian scholars, Christians should not tolerate “immoral believers” and instead should “expel” and “avoid” such people. The following commentaries are taken from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture as well (emphasis ours):[10]

  1. Origen: “Immoral unbelievers cannot harm the church, but immoral believers corrupt it from within, which is why they must be avoided and expelled.”
  2. Ambrosiaster: “Paul means that it would be better to die than to mix with fellow believers who sin like the fornicator in question, because death would put an end to it sooner rather than later.”[11]
  3. Theodoret of Cyr: “Obviously if we are not to eat ordinary food with such people, we are not to admit them to the Lord’s table either.

Interestingly, Paul did not seem to share the same attitude concerning non-Christians, as is quite evident from the passage above and elsewhere,[12] although one group of immoral “believers” he condemned were “idolaters”. Obviously, an idolater would not be a “believer” but an unbeliever. However, notice the similarity between Paul’s restrictions placed on Christians in associating with such people with the restrictions “John” placed in associating with non-Christians.

Conclusion

            The commentaries shown above provide sufficient evidence that Christians were discouraged from associating with non-Christians or “immoral” Christians. Anyone who professes a doctrine different from trinitarian Christianity cannot be “welcomed”, “greeted”, or shown any “hospitality”, and anyone who professed to be a “Christian” and yet committed “immoral” deeds could not be welcomed in the church or outside of it. Ergo, Christians cannot maintain friendships with non-Christians or any Christian they deem to be “immoral”. Most modern Christians, of course, conveniently ignore these rules.

And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!


[1] 2 John 10–11. All Bible translations are from the English Standard Version.

[2] For example, see Surah al-Maeda, 5:51:

“O believers! Take neither Jews nor Christians as guardians (awliyā)—they are guardians of each other. Whoever does so will be counted as one of them. Surely Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.”

All English translations of the Quran are from Mustafa Khattab’s The Clear Quran.

[3] For example, Surah an-Nisa, 4:125 states that Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) took Ibrahim (peace be upon him) as a “close friend”:

“And who is better in faith than those who ˹fully˺ submit themselves to Allah, do good, and follow the Way of Abraham, the upright? Allah chose Abraham as a close friend.”

[4] Surah al-Mumtahanah, 60:8–9:

“Allah does not forbid you from dealing kindly and fairly with those who have neither fought nor driven you out of your homes. Surely Allah loves those who are fair. Allah only forbids you from befriending those who have fought you for ˹your˺ faith, driven you out of your homes, or supported ˹others˺ in doing so. And whoever takes them as friends, then it is they who are the ˹true˺ wrongdoers.”

Nevertheless, it is not allowed for Muslims to take non-Muslims as “friends”, “protectors”, or “allies” over other Muslims.

[5] As we will see later, Paul forbid his followers from associating with anyone who claimed to be a Christian (i.e., a “brother” or “sister”) but committed sins like sexual immorality or idolatry. Obviously, friendship would be out of the question with such a person.

[6] Verse 7 states:

“I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

[7] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Volume XI [electronic edition], ed. Gerald Bray (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[8] Ibid.

[9] 1 Corinthians 5:9–11.

[10] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1–2 Corinthians, Volume VII [electronic edition], ed. Gerald Bray (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

[11] If this advice is followed by Christians in America, then possibly nearly half of all Evangelicals should be shunned by their fellow Christians. According to a recent poll, 46% of Evangelicals accept premarital sex in a “committed relationship” (https://churchleaders.com/news/381586-pew-evangelicals-premarital-sex.html). The numbers are even worse for Catholics. 62% of Catholics stated that “casual sex” is “sometimes or always acceptable”.

[12] Ambrosiaster even plainly stated that “that none of this [Paul’s restrictions against “immoral believers”] applies to relations with unbelievers.” It would be interesting to see how Ambrosiaster would have reconciled Paul’s instructions with those of the unknown author of 2 John. Unfortunately, as far as we can see, there are no extant writings on 2 John that can be attributed to Ambrosiaster.

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