How are Jesus’ Followers Supposed to Treat People Who Believe Differently?
Jesus’ followers are called to be in the world, but not of the world. When followers of Jesus retract from the world, they are modeling a false picture of who God is in Jesus. Rather than standing far off because of the brokenness of the world, Jesus entered into the world and took the brokenness on himself. He put on flesh and became a person, taking the sin of the world into himself.
He calls his followers to do the same. In his “high priestly prayer” in the garden before his execution, he even prays, stating explicitly, “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one.” And in the great commission, given after his resurrection, he again explicitly says he is sending his followers out into the world. “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” “Go therefore and make disciples…”
Followers of Jesus are expected to be involved in what Judaism calls “the repairing of the world,” taking the light and good news from Jesus into the darkest parts of the world. But unlike what many seem to think, this does not mean an aggressive assault on those we disagree with. Jesus models this as well, as he had a reputation as a friend of sinners, a drunkard, and a glutton. He was friends with those he disagreed with. Followers of Jesus are called to the same: to lay down our lives, in fact, for those we disagree with.
Paul confirms this ethic in his letter to the Corinthians. When addressing a previous statement about how they should handle issues of sin, he says, “I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I mean that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.” (1 Cor 5:10–12)
So, it seems that the ire and judgment that many of Jesus’ followers aim at non-believers should, in fact, be aimed inward at those who claim to follow Jesus already. This too, though, requires careful consideration. Back to the garden before Jesus’ execution, he prays that his followers would be united, “one as I and the Father are one.” He says that his followers will be known by the way they love one another. Because of this, we must be careful how we approach judgment, accountability, and correction, even among those who claim to believe like us.
Therefore, the wise approach seems to be to withhold much judgment and show extreme generosity with love and grace, regardless of who we are dealing with and regardless of how much love and grace they show us. It’s the very kind of reckless love that the God of scripture seems to be about and for which Jesus was executed for demonstrating.