Friendship Evangelism and the Fifth Commandment

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.    –James 4:4

“Friendship evangelism” or as it is sometimes called, “lifestyle evangelism,” or “relational evangelism,” or “relationship evangelism,” is definitely a heresy. That means it is a popular teaching in the Church, but it schismatically divides people away from clear Biblical doctrine. I’m not saying that everyone who uses these expressions is definitely a heretic or is practicing heresy in their relationships with others. The first occurrence of this teaching that I know of, was in Arthur McPhee’s Friendship Evangelism: The Caring Way to Share Your Faith (Zondervan, 1978) and then later in Joseph Aldrich’s Lifestyle Evangelism: Learning to Open Your Life to Those Around You (Multnomah, 1981). I haven’t examined these books, so I can’t tell you for sure what the extent or level of their heresy is. But what I can say is this: some version of friendship evangelism exists today in evangelical churches; and it is a consistent enough idea for me to say that its not a matter of just one person’s opinion. It’s a widespread idea and even a teaching on some occasions. It seems that the mere titles of these books, and the use of their phrases “friendship evangelism” and “lifestyle evangelism,” which are still used by Christians today, seem to suggest that these teachings were either embodied by or originated with McPhee and Aldrich. The years 1978 and 1981, when these books came out, seem to hint that they are the source of the teaching, when we hear what George Hunter III has to say:

Once, churches were not conversant with this principle, and they believed that contacting strangers (say, at street corners or door-to-door) was “the way to do evangelism.” But the first generation of Church Growth teaching, in the 1970s and 1980s, liberated many churches from this myth and established the “relational evangelism” paradigm within serious churches (The Apostolic Congregation, Abingdon Press, 2009, p. 62).

So its clear that church leaders devised the friendship evangelism approach to appeal to a wider audience, and get more people in their seats, without offending them on tough moral and theological subjects. It was motivated by money and power and ecclesiastical ambition, to implement “church growth” ideas, rebel against traditional evangelism like preaching lordship salvation in the public square, and going door-to-door; and create a new, dare I say, antinomian approach to evangelism. A heretical form of evangelism that did not call men to repent from sin, or believe in the blood of Jesus, but which—at least in the way it is practiced by most people today, to “preach the gospel at all times: and use words if necessary,” a phrase that is falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

Use words if necessary? Using words is the only way to preach the Gospel, at least if you’re going by the Bible. Mark 16:15, 16, 20: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation…Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned…Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” Unless there is a gospel-word spoken, we cannot expect that God will do any miracles or coincidences to confirm that which has not been spoken by some ashamed-of-the-gospel approach called friendship evangelism. It sounds caring. It sounds loving. Friendship. What a nice word. Yes, it is a nice word, when it’s applied to real Christian friends. But Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). Jesus commands us in Mark 16 to go open air preaching and pray for people to be healed. Never does he ever command us to be buddies with people, zip our lips about the gospel, and through our kindness, maybe invite them to church, and put it all on the preacher’s sermon to save them. Half the time pastors don’t preach evangelistic sermons. Many preachers do sermons on tithing, many others on love, or others on being conscientious voters. Few if any preachers preach the Gospel message of salvation from an eternal Hell by repentance, faith in the cross, and obedience to the Bible. I could have a lot more friends than I have, but I choose not to. I understand that consistent humor, a secular personality, and loads of tolerance can get you to build a friends network pretty quick. I had to build friend groups several times when my parents moved us to different states. But then I became a Christian; and then I read the whole Bible; and now God is my best friend. I also fear offending him whom I love. If anyone that fears God ever wants to come along for the ride, they are welcome to; but if not–as is most often the case, then they can just stay away. That’s okay with me.

Not only is friendship evangelism unbiblical, not only is it unreasonable, but another thing: its unethical: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). This is essentially what all of this boils down to: cussing, listening to cussing, tolerating nudity and profanity in movies, in jokes, in sexual innuendos, in materialism, in self-interest and economic competition, etc. Basically, living a secular lifestyle, which has its one Christian moment on Sunday morning at a lukewarm church. Using gratuitous profanity and even f-words is a new thing that Millennial Christians are now embracing. Its full-blown antinomianism, and only a few theological Calvinists are really saying anything about it, like Mark Jones. It’s a heretical teaching because it goes against James 4:4 and other Scriptures, it goes against godly church tradition on the nature Biblical evangelism, and it goes against the likes of John Wesley who faced it in his day, and spoke at length against it in his sermon “On Friendship with the World.”

It is a teaching that enables abusers. I have found its adherents to twist around the fifth commandment: “honor thy father and thy mother” (Exod. 20:12), to mean that children of all ages (little ones, teens, and adults) should respect, honor, visit, comply, yield, and not-gospel-preach-but-silently-endure the insulting, maligning, persecuting words and actions of non-Christian parents! I don’t think that is what God had in mind when he gave mankind the fifth commandment! Revelation 21:8 lists the categories of people thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone: gospel cowards (they are mentioned first), unbelievers, the hateful, murderers, pimps, witches, idol worshipers (Paul included greed as idolatry), and habitual liars. With the exception of murderers and pimps, most friendship evangelism advocates today would expect that all Christians should “honor thy father and thy mother,” even if they are impenitent sinners. Richard Baxter, in his Christian Directory said, “A wicked child of godly parents is one of the most miserable wretches in the world,” but he makes no reference to the godly child of wicked parents; and I think part of the reason for this, is that there could be very little theology that has been done on that subject. William Gouge’s Of Domesticall Duties, Part V: “Duties of Children,” is arguably to most comprehensive work of Puritan theology on the subject. The closest thing that Gouge comes to when considering the abuses of parents towards their children, is to call these the “infirmities” or weaknesses of parents. Children are charged to overlook their parents’ “weaknesses” and be willing to defend their reputation publicly. Essentially, Gouge argues that to honor father and mother is to try and maintain their good public reputation and image, and to look at them with rose-colored glasses. But reality is, the line needs to be drawn somewhere. Terah–Abraham’s father–was a pagan; and according to Jewish tradition, he was an idol maker that endangered his sons’ lives in the fiery furnace at the hand of Nimrod, with Haran ending up dead (Josh. 24:2; Genesis Rabbah 38:13); and God commanded Abraham to leave his “father’s house” (Gen. 12:1); Laban was an idolater, deceiver and oppressor, and God led his son-in-law Jacob away from him (Gen. 31): see the movie Jacob (1994); and Saul was a demon-possessed narcissist that tried killing his son-in-law David on many occasions. Led by God all the way, David lived in caves and avoided Saul (1 Sam. 18-24): see the movie David (1997). The Bible writers didn’t shirk away to tell these things about the lives of Abraham, Jacob, and David; and so, I don’t see anything wrong with talking frankly about abusive parents, if necessity puts it upon us. To paint a dishonestly rosy picture of a bad parent, would probably require breaking the ninth commandment: “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exod. 20:16).

When issuing the fifth commandment, I think its common sense to say that God was expecting fathers and mothers to be godly and follow the other nine commandments; and that children should not rebel against these God-fearing parents and their godly principles, or else God will not bless them with long lives. Like the prodigal son who had a godly father, but who had rebelled against him out of pure self-interest (Luke 15:11-32). That was an example of breaking the fifth commandment. But the way that friendship evangelism people today, perhaps since the late 1970s, teach the fifth commandment: is that even abusive, godless, toxic, secular, anti-Christian parents should be honored, and put up with, respected, etc., and that your whole life you are to honor them by being around for visits and Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthdays, allowing them to “enjoy” their grandkids—and to non-judgmentally just allow them to teach, mentally and emotionally influence, and affect your children spiritually—and even confuse them—all while you are trying your best to “train them up in the way they should go” and “raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4), thus creating massive confusion, division, and discord within your children’s hearts and minds. How is that conducive to mental health, and peace, and love? If this is your case, then take it from Jesus: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (Matt. 10:34-36). Self-interested and competitive grandparents would easily try to make their grandkids side with them against their own Christian parents! Massive confusion and discord, and again, schismatic heresy can only result from this—not only in matters of spirituality and doctrine, but also in the creation of dysfunctional family relationships. Amos 3:3: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred!” (Gen. 12:1).

It never ends if you refuse to acknowledge that friendship evangelism is truly a heresy from the Word of God! I agree with Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, who once said, “Friendship evangelism is neither friendship nor evangelism.”



Update: 3/16/21

Further Thoughts on
“Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” In Relation to Abusive Parents


1. Mark Driscoll – How Can You Honor Bad Parents?If parents are impenitent and still abusive, honoring them most definitely does not entail putting yourself or your children in harm’s way (visiting them).

2. John Piper – How Do I Deal With Christian Parents Who Don’t Acknowledge That They Abused Me? – Hopefully try for a Christian counselor to bring reconciliation; but if they refuse that, or remain impenitent and abusive, then at least don’t harbor hate in your heart. Romans 12:19: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.

3. Catholic Answers – “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” and the Alcoholic Parent – If they are abusive, then “honor thy father and thy mother” doesn’t mean “enabling or agreeing with every darn fool thing they decide to do, especially if those things are destructive to themselves or to us”…but “if they need something to hold their lives together, that you’re helping them to provide that…you’re trying to do a good job to see to their physical well being…the second thing…we don’t owe obedience to our parents, we owe them honor…we should conduct ourselves in such a way that makes people say, “Chris done been raised right.”

4. John Wesley – On Friendship with the World 1.25 – “But must I not be intimate with my relations; and that whether they fear God or not has not his providence recommended these to me?”…Parents…You cannot part with them while they are young; it being your duty to “train them up,” with all care, “in the way wherein they should go.” How frequently you should converse with them when they are grown up is to be determined by Christian prudence. This also will determine how long it is expedient for children, if it be at their own choice, to remain with their parents. In general, if they do not fear God, you should leave them as soon as is convenient. But wherever you are, take care (if it be in your power) that they do not want the necessaries or conveniences of life. As for all other relations, even brothers or sisters, if they are of the world you are under no obligation, to be intimate with them: You may be civil and friendly at a distance.

5. James Miller, “Review of Dr. Forward’s Toxic Parents,” in Nurture and Admonition – “Abusive parents lack sensitivity and usually do not apologize for hurtful behavior…If we want to be good parents who do not provoke our children or adult children to wrath (Eph. 6:4), then I think it would be great to keep some important things about parenting in mind…the types of behaviors and character traits that you might find in an abusive parent: 1. bad temper and relentless criticism, 2. career idolatry, 3. extreme physical punishment for small failings, 4. producing intimidation and constant fear in children, 5. joking about a child being ugly, stupid, or unwanted, 6. manipulating a child with threats, guilt, or money, and 7. showing the child that no matter what they do, they can never please you…I would encourage the saints reading here to note that Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi had fathers like this; as did many Christian saints throughout church history…too many to name. Know that you are not alone: God is willing to adopt you as a Father! (Rom. 8:15)…At the bottom of it, controlling parents feel inadequate about themselves and try to “feel needed” by their children…they try to make their children feel insecure without them. No matter what they choose or think, it is made out to look like they are going to fail without their guidance…The children are meant to feel like morons who cannot think for themselves and need their parents’ wisdom all the time…Controlling parents will use an endless array of guilt-trips on their adult children…if they can’t be happy, then nobody deserves to be happy…Verbally abusive parents insult their children openly and indirectly. They might make brash out-in-the-open statements about the child being ugly, stupid, worthless, or unsuccessful in something. More often they might make indirect statements out of the corner of their mouths, in order that others in the family don’t recognize it as abuse—such as teasing, sarcasm, insulting nicknames, putdowns, or cracking cruel and belittling jokes at the child’s expense (which goes against Ephesians 5:4). This sounds a lot like Proverbs 26:18-19: “Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death, is the one who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!’”…If a father treated his son this way all the time growing up, wouldn’t it sound like a joke to him, if God expected him to “honor his father,” without hesitation? (Exodus 20:12). How can he do this? He can bear it patiently, get out of the house as quickly as possible, and pray for him; but he doesn’t have to pretend that his father has behaved honorably; nobody is saying that God wants you to honor men who have shown you nothing but disrespect and stirred up hate in your heart. God would expect you to remove yourself from them—“Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful” (Psalm 1:1)—but God would want you to say, “I forgive my dad, because he didn’t know what he was doing,” and try to move on with your life without his negative influence (Luke 23:34). Of course, the same thing applies to mothers and daughters.”

Update: 4/4/21

6. God is reasonable. The same God that said, “honor thy father and thy mother” (Exod. 20:12), also commanded Jacob to flee from his cruel pagan father-in-law Laban (Gen. 31:3). Abraham, however, probably came close to doing so, yet was commanded by God to leave his father Terah’s pagan family after he died (Gen. 12:1; Acts 7:4). Some orthodox rabbis like Shmuel Goldin believe that Terah began to question his pagan religion after Nimrod killed Haran, and intended to learn about God Most High in Canaan (Gen. 11:31; cp. 14:18-20), and that maybe he ran out of strength in his old age, and was not able to complete the journey to Canaan.

Update: 6/15/21

7. Evangelism has its limits. Friendship evangelism is usually applied to family members. It presumes no gospel or Bible talk is allowed–its all just about “living by example.” That’s totally un-Biblical–I could list a string of Bible verses showing this. Verbally communicating your faith in the gospel is part of being a Christian (Mark 16:15). If your family rejects it, then they are really rejecting you. They might want a worldly part of you without the Christian part–but you shouldn’t accept that. What did Paul do? Acts 18:6: “But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.'” He gave up on them.

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