Should Christians serve with unbelievers?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Would God be cool with Christians joining forces with people of other religions to work together to fight against police brutality, rape, murder, racism, sexism, sex-trafficking, and other injustices plaguing other societies? I personally don`t think he would have a problem with it as long as we don`t worship their gods. After all, we have to live and mingle in a world with people of different faiths every day. Some Christians will get mad at you because you have Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist friends. But I don`t think God likes that We are commanded to love and serve everyone — no matter what religion they are. 

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for submitting this question. It’s a complex one, though… although I tend to agree with your main point, that if we join any other people in doing good, then we will have added to the “net good” in the world… and how could God be against that? Nothing is ever that simple, of course… and I think that some cautions are in order. But overall, I believe that God is cool with Christians fighting against evil or doing good deeds — even when non-Christians are in the mix.

You’ve question shows that you are already aware of what would be my first caution — “don’t worship their gods” …  but this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The nation Israel did not heed God’s warning when they conquered Canaan (Deut. 7:3). They intermarried with the Canaanites… and the false gods eventually won the battle. God had to send his people into captivity because they walked away from him a step at a time, and they went so far afield that there was no coming back. This is the quintessential cautionary tale about “mixing.” When God’s people start saying things like, “What’s the problem if I…...?” … that is making excuses to sell one’s future.

However, this issue is nuanced. We cannot perform the Great Commission unless we mix with non-believers (Matthew 18:16-20). That’s how it works… but we have a more complete toolbox than did ancient Israel. We have the completed testimony of Jesus Christ, we have God’s word… and we have the indwelling Holy Spirit. With all these in place, it would seem that we are in great shape!

But this battle for the souls of men will be no rout. Paul spoke well about the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) because this is a real fight. If we don’t arm ourselves as Paul taught… and if we do not comport ourselves as spiritual warriors… the devil can land blows that will affect our physical lives, our family lives and our financial futures. How many well-intentioned Christians have engaged the world “for Christ” … but have ended up being absorbed by the world instead? That’s a major lesson from Israel’s sojourn in Canaan (Ezra 9:1-4) … and it’s an ongoing danger for believers today (1 Peter 5:8) … and this is the primary caution concerning your question.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2, NIV, emphasis mine)

But you were asking specifically about joining forces with the “good” people of the world — people-of-conscience — what would be the harm as long as we stayed faithful to God? One harm is that you might be teaching the wrong lesson — that we see God as one who considers “good works” when he decides who will go to heaven. But the truth is quite different than the average person’s assumptions about this. God disavows such people… and he even calls them evildoers!

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)

Now, I understand that we cannot begin every mixed engagement with disclaimers about what we believe. That would be weird… to say the least. But working towards a common goal builds interpersonal connections that could ultimately turn evangelistic… or at least apologetic. Do you remember this teaching from Jesus?

“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” (Luke 18:18–19, NIV)

Goodness comes from God… and only from God. The “random processes” that Darwinians insist brought us to where we are today could not explain the morality found in human beings. Now, immorality certainly exists, too. This is a plank on the Christian platform! But humans can only detect evil because we have an intrinsic sense of goodness to compare it with (Gen. 1:27). Admittedly, it’s a “broken” goodness. This is why we need redemption. But… and this is critical… the fact that something is broken means that it exists; this is why people who don’t believe in God do “good works” too. God gave us all the capacity and the impulse to do good… and conscience to tell us when we failed (Romans 2:14-15).

The Christian worldview has the best explanation for the phenomenon of a present-yet-imperfect morality, and by working with moral-yet-unbelieving people we can showcase God’s goodness. But that testimony will only go so far without a push. People of the world do not like the idea of redemption… because redemption is about sin, not goodness. But they do like the idea of working to please God… and this is a problem. By working mutely beside them, we could be teaching them salvation-by-works. However, if we are indeed building relationships with the goal of evangelism, then this is a step in the process and not the end of the lesson. As such, I don’t consider any reasonable methodology to be off the table.

My next caution has to do with identification. We belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:23). If that is true — and if we should even proceed down that path — how do we go about joining forces with non-Christians to pursue our common goals? (1 Corinthians 6:15-17). For example, unregenerated people-of-conscience want to remove human suffering… and so do we. But if we do it with them… how much are we “with” them? There is no protocol here except to educate people because the issues of identification are more philosophical than biblical.

A secular person (probably) wants to relieve suffering as the primary and end goal — and we believers understand that we have to relieve suffering first. But this is neither our primary nor our end goal. We know that suffering will not cease until after Jesus returns. So, our primary goal is to make people who can manage suffering — disciples… and the command to do so were Jesus’ last words to us (Matthew 28:18-20).

We and that people-of-conscience would share a common work-flow, but we would be working under different paradigms. As such, “joining forces” can only be a functional joining, not an ontological one. We would still be intrinsically distinct because we are Christians categorically. But the problem with this is what it has always been: the wheat and the tares look alike… and Jesus has warned us that we would make mistakes in identifying them (Matthew 13:24-30).

That being said, I personally believe that it’s okay to identify with non-Christians under certain circumstances. For instance, it’s a good feeling to identify as co-servants in a soup kitchen or as co-laborers in building a playground. But it is a step too far to say that doers-of-good are our brethren because they are bearing the same kind of fruit as us. Non-Christians are not saved — they are not born again by the blood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:12-14). This is the identifying stain (1 Peter 1:17-21) … and it’s the difference between heaven and hell.

My next caution has to do with separation. God calls his people to be separate (2 Corinthians 6:17) … but two of your points are well taken: unless we lock ourselves up in the church building, we cannot help but mix with nonbelievers. That’s how life works. But more importantly, how can we serve people (with an eye towards leading them to Christ) unless we mix in among them and engage them meaningfully? We can’t… and I can see where fighting a common foe or working for a common good would be highly meaningful activities for all persons-of-conscience — for the saved and for the unsaved. And here, we can take a lesson from Jesus.

The people were amazed that Jesus stopped to engage the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26). She belonged to a hated people group… and she was a woman, no less! But Jesus gave her the clearest confirmation in Scripture that he was the Messiah… and she carried the good news back to her people. Jesus also engaged with prostitutes, tax collectors — the high profile “sinners” of his day. Many became his disciples… and one wrote the Gospel of Mathew! (Mark 2:13-17). The lesson here is the one you already know: believers come from the pool of nonbelievers. So, where else would we fish? … or how else would we work the Great Commission?

But the cautions about separation are still well taken. Christians are categorically separated as the children of God. This gives us the advantage of being able to mix in with the world without fear of losing our salvation (Romans 8:1). But since we take the name of Christ, we should also think like him. This is why we should take the mind of Christ, too… not just the name (1 Corinthians 2:16). But we should make an effort to look like him, too — and this is reason enough to avoid even the appearance of evil… so note this well: it is not hypocrisy to try to look better than we actually are. In fact, it’s an unavoidable consequence of emulating Christ! But most importantly, it’s a communication… and judging by how turned-off people say they are by hypocrites, the communicative power of the life lived is well attested.

What about our freedom in Christ? We certainly have that. But Jesus did not say, come to me and do whatever you want. He said, "Take my yoke upon you..." (Matthew 11:28-30) … and here’s the thing: we can indeed do anything we want — good or bad! — and without fear of losing our heavenly home. But we can’t just do whatever we want under the yoke of Christ. Taking his yoke implies that we will follow his directions like we would those of an oxen driver. Now, today’s people will chafe at that image. But this little saying tells an important truth: everyone wears a yoke. It’s just that Jesus’ yoke is easy and light in comparison to the world’s.

Don’t get me wrong here. I affirm the libertarian free will of humankind — and this means that we can act any way we want. But the fact that Jesus wants disciples — and not just believers — tells me that if we are following him then we are not free to do just anything. We need to get with the program — which is my final caution.

Jesus established the Church to do his work in this age… not the Red Cross. As a merely practical matter, why add unnecessary layers between the marching orders (Mat. 28) and their execution? Now, I get it that churches are filled with imperfect people… and many can be a bit of work. But it is important that we do Christ’s work through the local churches. Now, if your church is not doing its job there, then it’s on you to make your church better in that area. But whatever you do, I’d take a breath before running off to join the circus.

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