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Question 61.
Dear Fr Christopher,
Greetings in Christ.
Are Christians allowed to befriend atheists, heretics or people who follow other doctrines/religions?
Are they allowed to associate with them even if they propagandize their beliefs?



Answer to Question 61.

Dear Constantine,

This is probably the most difficult of questions to answer because our relationships with non-believers and heterodox people largely depend on society and where we live. In Cyprus for example, where the majority of people are Orthodox, it is natural that most of the people we have contact with are of the same race and faith, but in a cosmopolitan city like London one cannot but have contact with people from various countries and faiths.
Christ tells us to love our neighbour, to love our enemy and in general to love all people. Every person of every race and every creed is God’s child created in his image and likeness, in spite of the fact that in many people this image has been distorted beyond recognition.
Non-believers are not only people of other race and creed, but also include people of our own race who as infants had been baptized into the Orthodox Church and now as adults have turned their back on God and the Church.
Nevertheless, Holy Scripture warns against having relationships with unbelievers. St. Paul says: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:14-18)
The reason for this and other warnings is that by having close associations with unbelievers there is a real danger of being influenced by their ways and being pulled away from the safe haven of the Church. St. Paul says: “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” (1 Cor. 15:33)
Thus the warning against close associations with unbelievers is to protect the faithful who might be influenced and drawn away. Of course this is a two way thing and the non-believer might be influenced by the believer. Befriending a non-believer for the purpose of sharing the Gospel is very different than becoming their companion. Having a companion means that two people are suited for one another socially in their likes and dislikes. Befriending someone in the hope of influencing them into the faith is something completely different and should not be undertaken by just anyone unless he knows the scriptures well and is himself confident and strong in faith. The problem with this kind of relationship is that by trying to impose your beliefs on someone else, discussions can get very heated and end up disastrously with a full scale personal holy war. The best way to teach others is not with words, but with our way of life, for as Christ said: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)
Living in multi-racial and multi-religious societies, it is only to be expected that relationships with non-believers will develop. If these relationships become deeply involved, either by friendship or romantically, the believer is setting himself up for turmoil. Such relationships can and often does cause the Christian to stumble in his walk. For the sake of love, his relationship with God takes a back seat and for the sake of not offending the non-believing partner, the truths he has learnt about scripture are no longer as important to him.
As Christians, we have to constantly face temptations and the attacks of the world around us. Everything we see, read, do and hear affects us somehow. That's why, if we wish to maintain a close relationship with God, we have to be selective in the activities we participate in, and the people we spend our time with.
Scripture divides people into two categories, those who belong to the world and its ruler, Satan, and those who belong to God (Acts 26:18). These two groups of people are described in terms of opposites all through the Bible; e.g., those in darkness/those in the light; those with eternal life/those with eternal death; those who have peace with God/those who are at war with Him; those on the narrow path to salvation/those on the broad road to destruction, and many more. Clearly, the message of Scripture is that believers are completely different from unbelievers, and it is from this perspective that we must discern what kind of friendships we can really have with unbelievers.
Coming into contact with unbelievers cannot be avoided, but we should by no way take a fanatical standpoint like the Jews during the time of Christ who had no dealings with the Samaritans and Greeks. We must show kindness to all people for as Paul says: “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.” (2 Tim. 2:24-26)
I would say that after all that has been said, we can associate with unbelievers, but this association should be limited and not be allowed to reach a full-scale friendship. If the other person is fanatically involved with his own faith and this association begins to lead to heated religious discussions, then it is better for this friendship to come to an end or at least agree to never speak again of each others religions. There should be no hatred in us or discrimination against people of other races and creeds and we should even pray for them as lost sheep who desperately need help to find their way back to the fold. In all things we should have love for all people for Christ said: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” “John 13:35)

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher