Relating To Non-Believers

Some years back, Americans mourned the passing of a most unusual boy. David was born with a rare hereditary disorder known as Severe Combined Immune Deficiency that left him completely unable to fight disease. His older brother had already died from the same condition. Doctors immediately placed David in a plastic isolation unit that acted as an artificial immune system. He became known as “the boy in the bubble.” He breathed only filtered air, ate only sterile food, and was touched only by sanitized rubber gloves. David lived for a number of years in this artificial environment, but he never developed the ability to survive exposure to the outside world.

This touching story reminds us of the challenge faced by believers⎯how do we survive exposure to a hostile, unbelieving world? There has been on-going debate over this issue down through the centuries. Verses misunderstood when taken out of context such as, “Come out from among them and be separate” (II Corinthians 6:14-17) have led some to conclude that believers are to have nothing to do with unbelievers. Certainly these verses have important implications for how we are to live, but most evangelicals would agree that complete isolation is not an option. The strong weight of Scripture, the example of Christ, and the commands of Christ make it clear that we have an obligation to engage with unbelievers. The question is not “if” but “how.”

How believers relate to non-believers is an important question to consider as the answer affects not only our obedience to Christ but also our ability to positively impact the world for Him. Scripture underscores the importance of this question and provides clear direction. More specifically, Christ gave two commands that provide a frame-work for determining how believers relate to non-believers.

The Great Commission – This command appears in different forms in the Gospel accounts and in the book of Acts. The most popular expression of it is in Matthew 28:18-20, which reads as follows: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

The Great Commandment – Jesus summarized the requirements of the Law in one great commandment in Matthew 22:37-39, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The first part of the command is vertical in nature⎯it speaks to our relationship with God. The second part of the command is horizontal, dealing with our relationships with other people. Believers can relate to non-believers in appropriate ways by understanding and applying these two commands of Christ.

The strong weight of Scripture makes it clear that we have an obligation to engage with unbelievers.

The Great Commission

It is important to clearly understand the meaning of these two commands. Consider first what is known as The Great Commission. Shortly before the end of His earthly ministry and return to heaven, Jesus commissioned His followers to go into all of the world to make disciples. This is normally understood as a command to Christians to take the Gospel to everyone in the world. (Luke’s record in Acts 1:8 elaborates on the geographical component, with reference to ever-widening circles of witness—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth.)

This command is often seen as the primary responsibility of the individual Christian and of the Christian church — that is, evangelism and discipleship. There is more to the command than just making converts. There is also a responsibility to teach those who respond to the Gospel all things that Jesus taught His followers and to teach in a way that leads to obedience (disciple building).

Another interesting form of this command is found in John 17:18. In what is often referred to as His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus said these words: “As you sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” The thought is repeated in John 20:21 when Jesus said to His disciples, “As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you.”

These words by Christ have important implications for how we are to go into the world. We are sent by Christ into the world in the same way that Christ was sent by the Father into the world. John wrote in his gospel that the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us (John 1:14). He invaded our space. He lived among us and “rubbed shoulders” with us. We are called to “incarnational” ministry because we should reflect the mindset of Christ in His own incarnation. (More will be said about this in a later Pocket PrincipleTM in this series.)

The John 17:18 passage is the Great Commission in a broader form than the Matthew 28:20 passage, which is typically considered to include only evangelism and discipleship (in the teaching and equipping aspects). By saying that He is sending the disciples as the Father sent Him, Jesus is telling them to do all the things they saw Him do, which includes the healing and restorative aspects of His ministry.

There is more to the command than just making converts.


The Great Commandment

Now we turn our attention to the Great Commandment—a broad command that calls believers to take care of their neighbors in the same way that they take care of themselves (Matthew 22:36-40). This command assumes that all people love and take care of themselves, or at least they should. Although we can perhaps think of examples of someone who does not appear to take care of himself, such behavior is not the natural order of things.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 22 raise the question⎯who is my neighbor? Jesus answered this question on another occasion when He told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The clear implication is that we should consider every person our neighbor, no matter their race, nationality, or other differences. Essentially, a “neighbor” is anyone who is in need. The command to show love holds true even if the person in need happens to be an enemy (Matthew 5:43-45).

As we saw earlier, John’s account of the Great Commission offers a broader perspective than that of the other gospel writers. So too does his record of the Great Commandment. John captures in great detail the events of the night before Christ’s execution. Shortly after washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) This version deepens and broadens the implications of what it means for one to love others as he loves himself.

The Relationship Between the Commands

It is clear that there is a relationship between the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, and it is important that we develop a clear understanding of that relationship. John Stott, in his book Christian Mission in the Modern World, discusses the following three ways in which the relationship between evangelism and social action has generally been understood. (1) (“Social action” is the term often used to describe the expression of love when directed toward the overall culture.)

Social action as a means to evangelism

In this view, evangelism is seen as the primary or ultimate goal while social action is viewed as a means to help accomplish that goal. It is the bait or the hook that attracts people to Christ. This view is open to the charge of hypocrisy because the action—the good deed offered—may not be a genuine expression of love but merely a means to an end.

Essentially, a “neighbor” is anyone who is in need.

Social action as a manifestation of evangelism

This view suggests that our good deeds are part of the preaching of the gospel. Social action is part of the message itself, a natural and practical form of expressing the Gospel. There is support for this idea in Jesus’ ministry in that His words and deeds were inseparable and mutually reinforcing. Each helped to define the other (John 14:11). The problem with this view is that service remains a subset or part of evangelism and may be seen to have little or no validity or value apart from it. Granted, loving service is a form of preaching in that it is a practical expression of our words. However, the perspective of social action as a manifestation of evangelism still tends to limit social action as a means to an end.

Social action as a partner of evangelism

There are elements of truth in the two preceding points of view.
Social action does often lead to effective evangelism. Evangelism should demonstrate a concern for the whole person, not just for his or her soul. However, John Stott and many other evangelicals prefer a third perspective—that of social action as a partner of evangelism. In this view, evangelism and social action belong together but are also independent of each other. Each is an end in itself and is not simply a means to the other or a manifestation of the other. They both stand alongside the other as expressions of true love. As the Apostle John writes in one of his letters, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth.” (I John 3:18)

A worthwhile exercise is to read through the Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Christ, taking note of the things He said and did. Try to read with an unbiased perspective, letting the record speak for itself. You will find that Jesus focused on meeting the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people. Sometimes more attention was given to one aspect than to another, but there is no indication that Christ considered them to be either mutually exclusive or inextricably linked. He never held back from challenging a person with his spiritual need (as we sometimes do out of indifference or fear), nor did He make acceptance of Himself or His message a requirement for healing.

Many of Jesus’ healings were gifts to those who apparently did not express faith before or after they were healed (at least we have no evidence that they did). He healed these people out of His pure compassion for them. The healings had value in and of themselves, regardless of whether they led to belief in Him as the Messiah.

In this view, evangelism and social action belong together but are also independent of each other.

Because of differences in personality, gifts, calling, and life situations, people may naturally focus more on evangelism than on social action, or vice versa. However, each has validity without the other. It is also important to remember that all Christians have been commanded to do both, at least at some level. Sadly, some Christians either don’t understand or are not obedient to the commands of Christ. The situation is compounded by life in the Western world where spiritual concern (evangelism) has largely been relegated to the “experts” (pastors, evangelists, etc.) and social concern has largely been left to the state or official agencies. “I tithe” or “I give to charity” or “I pay taxes” can become excuses for us to not walk in obedience to the clear commands of Scripture.


Priority of the Great Commandment

It is best to see the primary instructions about how to relate to non-believers as loving our neighbors as ourselves (the Great Commandment). The Great Commission is one expression of the Great Commandment, although it is a very important and central component of it. Part of loving our neighbor is to care for his soul and eternal destination. Love compels us to tell everyone in the world the good news of the Gospel (II Corinthians 5:14-15,20). However, the Great Commandment is broader in scope. It governs all interaction with non-believers, not just what we should say or do when we are sharing the Gospel with them.

Another reason the Great Commandment may be seen as the primary guiding principle for how we are to relate to non-believers is the context in which it was given. A teacher of the law confronted Jesus and tested Him by asking which is the greatest commandment. In effect, he was asking, “Of everything that we are expected to do, what is the most important?” Christ responded by quoting from the Old Testament, and He indicated that His answer captured all that was written in the Law and the Prophets. Love God and love others. This summarizes everything we are called to do, and it provides the framework we need for relating to non-believers.



Christians should love non-believers regardless of their response to the Gospel. They should love them before they hear the Gospel and after they hear the Gospel. They should love them whether or not they are willing to hear the Gospel at all. For example, providing humanitarian aid for those in need is always the loving and right thing to do regardless of whether it leads to an opportunity to share the Gospel.

He (Jesus) never held back from challenging a person with his spiritual need, nor did He make acceptance of Himself or His message a requirement for healing.

The one who is willing to be used of God and desires His guidance will be shown by the Holy Spirit in each situation what is the right thing to do, whether it is ministry to physical needs, ministry to emotional needs, or ministry to spiritual needs. Obedience to the commands of Christ and to His leading is what is required of the believer. “As the Father has sent me.” “As I have loved you.” What powerful statements regarding the awesome responsibility and opportunity we have to carry on Christ’s ministry on earth!


• Describe any way this study has influenced your thinking about social action and evangelism.

• How do you see the Great Commission and the Great Commandment at work in John 4:43-53?

End Note: 1. John R. W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 25-28.

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