Do you know that strip club down by the airport? You've probably never been in there. You likely have no interest in going in there. The only reason you even know about it is because your uncle, the one you have to pick up from the airport every Thanksgiving, makes a joke about the sign that says they have an all-you-can-eat buffet. (It's a lame joke made lamer by the fact that he tells it the same way every year.)
You might be thinking to yourself, “Um . . . what?” Yeah, I was surprised too. But that is the argument many Christians have been making lately. Oh, they don't make that argument directly. But that is the implication of their argument (whose logic they often fail to follow to its conclusion).
Their argument, in enthymematic form, is:
Since Jesus [had dinner with/partied with/hung out with] sinners in the places where they congregated, we should do so too.
The problem with this argument is not that it is wholly false but that it is partially true. If it were false, we could rebut it and move on. But because it contains a kernel of truth we have an obligation to try to salvage it and fashion it into a respectable and biblically sound form.
The first way we can fix the argument is by adding an obvious clause:
Since Jesus [had dinner with/partied with/hung out with] sinners in the places where they congregated, we should do so too when they are not engaging in sin . . .
As the Apostle Paul said, in order to avoid associating with unrepentant sinners we “would need to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9). We therefore don't need to be concerned about eating, partying, or hanging out with unbelievers in a place where no sin is occurring (at least openly).
We could have made that argument without needing Jesus as an example. But what happens when we consider how using Jesus as a model affects the claim?
Let's first examine how adding Jesus can make the argument, in one sense, completely true. As God, Jesus is always immanent in spirit everywhere in the world. There are no hidden places in which sin and evil is being committed where Jesus in not present with the unredeemed. So too should we be present with Jesus—in spirit—through prayer for unrepentant sinners. While we may never lean against the railing in the strip club down by the airport, it is covered with fingerprints of broken people who need our prayers.
Spiritual presence, however, is not usually what is meant. The argument implies that since Jesus was physically present with sinners, that we should also be physically present with the unrepentant. For several reasons, this claim is much more problematic.
The first problem is that we don't know whether it's true. While it's likely Jesus sat down to eat with sinners, there's no evidence he ever rose from a table with anyone remaining unrepentant. It's possible, even likely, that some who ate with Jesus (such as during the feeding of the 5,000) left as unrepentant sinners. But, if so, it was not for lack of effort on the part of Jesus.
In Luke 15, we find the oft-quoted claim made about Jesus by the Pharisees: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” What is often left out is the lengthy reply Jesus gave in response. After hearing their charges, Jesus tells three parables—about Lost Sheep, a Lost Coin, and a Prodigal Son—each with the same theme: rejoicing over the repentance of sinners. There is no evidence that Jesus ever ate with sinners and did not call them to repentance.
So we can update our problematic enthymeme with our second addition:
Since Jesus [had dinner with/partied with/hung out with] sinners in the places where they congregated, we should do so too when (1) they are not engaging in sin and/or (2) when we do so for the purpose of calling them to repentance . . .
But even this is not sufficient. The Bible says that Jesus ate with sinners and called them to repentance. There is no place in Scripture, however, that says Jesus was uncritically present when sin was occurring or when an action that mocked God was taking place. In fact, in the most famous example of Jesus being in the presence of an act where sin was taking place and God was being mocked—a scene recorded in all four Gospels—he made a whip of cords and drove sinners from the temple. Do we really think this same Jesus would “bake a cake” to celebrate a sinful union he himself considered an “abomination” (Lev. 20:13)?
We can therefore update our problematic enthymeme with our second helpful addition:
Since Jesus [had dinner with/partied with/hung out with] sinners in the places where they congregated, we should do so too when (1) they are not engaging in sin, (2) when we do so for the purpose of calling them to repentance, and/or when our presence does not condone sin or the mocking of God . . .
While this would appear to be sufficient to fix the argument, there is one more, rather peculiar, addition we have to make. In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul commands us to separate ourselves from fellow Christians who are engaged in sin:
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.
This is truly a hard saying. Our culture has conditioned us to believe that “loving our neighbor” requires accepting them as they are. We now excuse all manner of behavior that our holy God finds abhorrent simply because someone we know—friend, family, coworker—is engaged in such openly sinful behavior. We don't want to appear intolerant or judgmental or “unloving” by separating ourselves from their presence. But Paul makes it clear that if the person engaged in sin is a believer we shouldn't even eat with them.
Now we can complete the problematic enthymeme in way that makes it Biblically sound:
Since Jesus [had dinner with/partied with/hung out with] sinners in the places where they congregated, we should do so too when: (1) they are not engaging in sin, (2) we do so for the purpose of calling them to repentance, (3) when our presence does not condone sin or the mocking of God, and/or (4) when the sinners are not our fellow believers.
Hopefully, this form of the argument is something that all believers can agree on. But for those who do not, cannot, or simply will not accept this formulation, I leave you with this final plea.
Please stop arguing that Christians should be forced to violate their conscience unless you are willing to be consistent in its application. On this issue, what our culture accepts cannot be used as the standard. Fifty years ago, racism was tolerated while sexual sins were publicly denounced. Today, the situation is reversed. Many Christians (surprisingly, even some Anabaptists) are now willing to argue (or at least imply) that the state should be able to force Christians to serve at celebrations of sexual sin. Yet, these same people will likely balk at claiming that we should be forced to serve celebrations of racial sin.
If, like the Pharisees, you want to bind the conscience of all believers to a standard that is difficult, if not impossible, to support by Scripture, the least you can do is to argue for its broad application. Tell us that the white baker is not only obligated to serve a same-sex wedding but that the African-American baker is obligated to bake a cake for the Aryan Nation's national convention.
If you want us to follow your legalistic argument, then at least have the courage to follow it to all its logical implications.