Yes, our parents were right when they told us to be very careful who we befriended. They warned us that if we mingled with the wrong crowd, we might become like those we spent time with.
The Bible says as much:
Proverbs 13:20 (New Living Translation)
“Walk with the wise and become wise; associate with fools and get in trouble.”
1 Corinthians 5:9 (New Living Translation)
“When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin.”
Yet, while the reference in Proverbs is a general rule and the verse in 1 Corinthians only applies in certain contexts (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-13), a Christian simply cannot and should not completely avoid sinful company. (Remember, doing so would mean we couldn’t even associate with ourselves. We are sinners, too.)
Because we have been called to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16)! That means we will be a formidable force for good in our communities and world. As salt, we will strive to hold back moral decay. As light, we will strive to push back moral darkness.
Essentially, we have been called to influence our culture for good and God’s glory (yes, that means we are called to be leaders). And to do that, we must spend time with those we desire to influence.
But, let me tell you something else: It is an unfortunate truth that the first people to condemn you for being in close proximity to “sinners” will be self-righteous, religious folks. Many of them will condemn you even though your intent is to be with the unsaved so you can influence them for good.
The religious folks did it to Jesus. They’ll do it to you.
Mark 2:13-17 (New Living Translation)
“Then Jesus went out to the lakeshore again and taught the crowds that were coming to him. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me and be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed him.”
“Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with such scum?'”
“When Jesus heard this, he told them, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.'”
As a Christian who is called to influence your culture for Jesus, you need to surround yourself with godly relationships (not “religious” folks but folks who are genuinely sold out for Jesus). You will need those relationships to encourage you when life gets tough. You’ll need those folks to lovingly confront you if you wander into sin.
Yet, you cannot limit yourself to “church folks.” If you are to be the person of influence that God has called you to be then you must spend time with “sinners.” People will ridicule you but that’s just part of being an obedient follower of Jesus.
Whoever said that it would be easy to be a Jesus-following person of influence … has never actually done it.