There are few topics in the Christian faith as varied as the response to this question. How a person answers this question will ultimately dictate many of the ways in which a church will interact with the world. This answer also shares to the world around the church, how that church interprets the Gospel, as well as their foundations of Theology
Where are the Treatment of Unbelievers Discussed in the Bible?
The verse that is used most often used when discussing interaction with non-believers is 2 Corinthians 6:14-16:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
The problem with using this verse solely is twofold. First, using any scripture outside of understanding the context is not only dangerous but leaves room for a person with power in a church to insert their own “spin” on the verse and still be able to call their stance “biblical”. Secondly, this is not the only scripture that discusses unbelievers in the New Testament. In order to fully understand what is being said, we must search the full counsel of scripture, not just three verses in one book. What we find is more balanced approach then what is seen in the first verses above.
Full Context of “Unbeliever”
In the context of the entire Bible we find quite a different narrative thean what is seen in three verses removed from context. Since during Jesus’ life there were no actual Christians, He treated all people like unbelievers. So how did Jesus treat unbelievers?
He Met Them Where They Were
As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. 10 Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus did not put up walls between those who did wrong, as a matter of fact he eagerly sought them out. Here Jesus is showing us that we must seek out and reach out to those that don’t believe. Jesus wants us to be intentional about building relationships with unbelievers. I think it is in those relationships we gain a deeper understanding of how Jesus desires to interact with us, regardless of belief.
He Healed Unbelievers
I have always found it interesting that in many cases Jesus provided healing without belief being a requirement before giving out blessing. So many times we use belief as a precondition for love, acceptance and belonging in our churches. Jesus did quite the opposite.
33 And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34 Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him.
He Taught Unbelievers
I cannot emphasize how important it is to understand that every interaction Jesus had was with a non believer in Jesus being the spiritual Messiah. Every lesson He teaches is a lesson to unbelievers.
So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, 2 and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. 3 Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. 4 When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” 6 And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. 7 So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” 11 So when they had brought their boats to land, they 1forsook all and followed Him.
He first taught the disciples, and by Jesus’ example they trusted. We are called to the same. We should evangelize by example, not by street preaching. Letting the Gospel sell itself as amazing when seen in your life, not your mouth.
He Fed Unbelievers
30 Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. 31 And He said to them, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. 32 So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves. 33 But 6the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him. 34 And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things. 35 When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. 36 Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves 7bread; for they have nothing to eat.”37 But He answered and said to them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to Him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?” 38 But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they found out they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties. 41 And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. 42 So they all ate and were filled.
I have always found the most fascinating part of this act is seen in who physically feeds the unbeliever’s who are hungry. Christ creates the food, but the duty of feeding falls unto the disciples. In many ways today we are the same. Jesus has provided, but as His hands and feet, we are to feed and fill the unbeliever. We must never forget the sacred duty we have been given to feed the unbeliever, without qualification or reservation.
Is the Bible Contradicting Itself?
The astute learner has begun to ask themselves “It appears the Bible is contradicting itself.” In my opinion this really isn’t the case. In the case of 2nd Corinthians, the unbeliever is likely those within the church who “know better” but don’t do better. These are not people who have no faith. These are people who are in the church and challenging authority. A reoccurring theme in this epistle is that of the sufficiency we can find in God in the midst of our own personal weakness. It is His power rather than our strength that allows us to both endure and triumph in the Christian life. There were believers who by their actions were acting as unbelievers. It is my opinion these unbelievers and those encountered by Jesus were two entirely different types of people. Jesus was dealing with people who did not know. Paul was dealing with believers who were getting out of hand and challenging authorities.
So how Should We Treat Unbelievers?
The answer seems quite clear. We are to feed, teach, heal and reach the unbelievers without exception and without preconditions. If we truly seek to follow Jesus, there is plenty of evidence in the gospels He had deep concern for the unbeliever. His real irritations were almost always with the religious establishment and the status quo.