If you do your job as a Christian, someone will always Associate you with evil sinners.
Imagine you invite three people for dinner into your home: a neo-Nazi, a Sexualityism1 activist who hates Christians, and Donald Trump. You don’t approve of their behavior. You tell them so. You also connect with them over shared interests. (Maybe you all like the same anime.) And you share the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what you do, as a missionary.2
You manage to have a nice dinner, and then snap a few photos. After your guests leave, you share one or two photos on social media. You say something like, “Enjoyed dinner with X, Y, and Trump, discussing our differences, similarities, and sharing the gospel of Jesus.”
Then your guests share these photos too, in their own special ways.
The neo-Nazi puts white racial supremacy propaganda all over his hashtags.
The Sexualityism activist is nice about you, but slanders other Christians and Jesus.
Trump or his publicist tweets out whatever they do because I’m not even going there.
And before you know it, at least three entirely different species of troll are clubbing at your virtual door and maybe your physical door. This person eats and even poses for friendly photos with tax collectors and sinners! He has been Associated with white supremacy, Sexualityism, and a divisive political figure. Outrageous. It’s simply outrageous!
Welcome to the world of Evil Associations. In this world, doing your job as a Christian—living in community with flawed or terrible other Christians, and sharing the gospel with a dead-in-sins world—always, always gets you Associated with some bad person or group.
In fact, Christian fantastical fiction fans may have it worse, because they get associated with at least five different bad(?) groups:
- Christians, because that’s what we are;
- escapists, because we enjoy fantastical stories;
- legalists, because we have some moral views;
- licentious Christians, because we don’t agree with some notions of “evil” stories;
- and worldly compromisers, because we don’t think popular culture is all good or all evil.
I’m sure this has happened to you. It’s happened to many others too. You’re not alone:
- As we saw last week, some Christians were disturbed or angered by a video in which male ballet dancers performed in a New York City church. Right or wrong, these viewers Associated the dance with “effeminate” men, or some other kind of sin.
- An internet acquaintance of mine, Karen Swallow Prior, who teaches English and literature at Liberty University, ministers to nonbelievers, including to alternate-sexuality advocates. This angered quarrelsome “discernment” bloggers, who slander this professor and Associate her with people who hate a biblical view of marriage.
- Christian apologist and scholar Dr. James White, who has spent decades debating people from other religions, including Muslims, changes his format once. In January he joins a Muslim scholar, Dr. Yasir Qadhi, for a two-part dialogue (not debate) about the differences between Christianity and Islam.3 Months later, quarrelsome “discernment” bloggers and radio host(s) get ahold of this information. They go and Associate a Christian brother with compromisers, “useful idiots” to be duped by terrorist-sympathizing Muslims, who want to destroy the United States and overthrow the Constitution with sharia law.
Shameful, just shameful, all this I hear about @DrOakley1689. Why does he eat with tax collectors, sinners, and Muslims?
— E. Stephen Burnett (@EStephenBurnett) July 20, 2017
In all this, I must fight my own Associations. As I mentioned last week, I also instinctively Associate ballet dancing (or dancing in general) with something not natural or human—though dancing is one of the most human activities in the world and I’m wrong. It’s hard not to Associate all discerning Christian bloggers with internet slanderers. And it’s very hard not to Associate all of White’s attackers with prophecy-crazed, gold-hoarding nuts.
In these cases, we need to look to Scripture for wisdom, not the internet or our feelings. Does it glorify God if we avoid all possible associations with sinners or things used for sin?
Does Jesus condemn association with sinners?
Several Scriptures warn against one type of Association with sinners, but not others.
- It’s good to associate with sinners to love and share the gospel with them.
Jesus’s hypocritical enemies condemned Him for personally Associating with sinners:
And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”4
To the Pharisees, getting near a sinner meant you were yourself sinning—a wrong view.
- It’s bad to associate, as professing Christians, with a falsely professing Christian.
But Jesus and His apostles warn against associating with false(?) Christians in the church:
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. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”5
Paul says we shouldn’t enable a Christian who claims the faith but isn’t acting like it. He contrasts this with the notion of separating from the very dark world that needs us: “since then you would need to out of the world,” a thought unthinkable to godly missionaries.
- It’s bad to associate the label “Christian” with leaders who don’t teach the gospel.
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.6
The apostle John warns about anyone who “comes to you” with anti-biblical teaching. They shouldn’t come “into your house,” that is, to teach in your home (the only place you could have church meetings back then). You don’t “greet” them either. Back then, that didn’t mean just saying hello, but actively showing you’re spiritually aligned with this person.7
As Christian fantastical story fans, how can we practice good Associations and avoid bad Associations?
Aye, there’s the rub. Because we’re all still figuring this out, aren’t we?
This goes double for situations that aren’t in local churches. Here the limits for teaching and membership are much clearer, e.g., “Only qualified Christians allowed, but everyone else is welcome to stop by and be our friend and get our love while learning the gospel.” The local church’s goal is to work differently. It has “genre” limits. If you make the local church look like the world, or try to make the world look like the local church, things go bad.
But in all other areas, things are fuzzier.
You can’t treat an organization, friend group, website, fandom, or conference like a church!
At the same time, we must clarify what beliefs, and behavior, do or don’t align with Jesus.
Lord willing, for my part, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to balance these two missions. Already these challenges have begun, even thanks to my work at Speculative Faith:
- Of course, people Associate fantastical fiction with evil magic/sorcery, or at best a waste of time when so many people abuse entertainment, while really, shouldn’t be only preach the nonfiction gospel and not be distracted by all this worldly stuff?
- At least one novelist who wrote for SpecFaith now Associates himself (no outside help needed) with the “alt-right” movement. Another writer, whom I personally recruited for a guest article or two, has gone on to disavow the biblical gospel of Jesus; he now favors a “liberal”/progressivist version of Christianity. Both articles remain up. So if someone wanted to, they could Associate this web ministry with either of those false movements. They could accuse us and ask, “Why didn’t you predict these guys would go there?”
- I also write for for Christ and Pop Culture and for Christianity Today, and some folks (even a family member or two) aren’t thrilled that I’m now Associated with them. Doesn’t CAPC have a “social justice warrior” bent? Doesn’t Christianity Today write about heretical teachers as if they’re Christians, and fail to condemn other unorthodox movements?
- And of course, if you say anything positive about, say, Trump, I would get Associated with his nastier fans (nationalists who go too far, along with racist). But if I say anything negative about Trump, I’d get Associated with his nastier enemies (country-club elitists who can’t confront the evil media). Say nothing at all? That’s likely the wisest course, but then people can rightfully charge you with being complicit with (a) dictator(s).
So far, all that’s quiet. But in an internet age of hot takes and impulsive reactions, it’s only a matter of time. In fact, this ministry and others want to reach even more fans, to promote Christian-made fantastical stories and a Christian view of all fantastical stories. So it is inevitable we, and I, will get Associated with sinners no matter what we do.
How do we address these situations when they arise?
On a case-by-case basis. In love. With respect and gentleness, yet truth. And always, always, based on Scripture over emotions.
Especially as we head into the Realm Makers conference next week (Reno, Nevada, July 26-30!), please pray for this ministry of Speculative Faith. Pray for all of our writers and allies, and their various Associations with others. Pray for the Realm Makers organizers! And pray for the success of our future projects, for Jesus’s sake and our readers’ glorification of Him.
- “Sexualityism” is my term for the nation’s fastest-growing religion. Its believers value sexual preferences and expressions as the highest purpose of humanity. They view as their enemies any other religious believers who hold other values or gods as higher. ↩
- All Christians are missionaries, whether in their immediate area, or in faraway lands. ↩
- Night one (video): Hosted by a biblical church, not in the worship service, and with free tickets and promotion so people knew what they were getting. Dr. White asked Dr. Qadhi questions about Islam so the audience could understand this religion better. Night two (video): Hosted by an Islamic center nearby. This time, Dr. Qadhi asked Dr. White questions about Christianity, including specific questions about Jesus and the gospel, so their Muslim audience could understand Christianity better. Despite similarities to an “interfaith dialogue,” in which (liberal?) players cover over their differences and make nice, at no time did doctors Qadhi or White dismiss their differences. They acknowledged them openly, and by the end even addressed a big question: how do you love and serve your other-religious neighbor when you and he both believe the other is literally going to Hell someday? ↩
- Mark 2:16-17 (ESV). ↩
- 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 (ESV). ↩
- 2 John 9-11, ESV. ↩
- I’ve found Dr. James White’s reminder about this text helpful at 2 John 9-11 Examined. Many people have thrown this text against White for his supposed “receiving” of Qadhi into God’s house to teach. But as White points out, Qadhi was never presented as a Christian teacher in the way the apostle John condemns. They made their differences very clear. ↩