For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
What does Paul mean when he says we should not be partners with the “immoral, impure, or greedy” person? More specifically, what does he mean by “partner”?
Let’s cover the obvious first. He doesn’t mean that we should be completely isolated from the world. We’re called into the world in order to share the love of Christ with the world. Jesus Himself spent a lot of time with sinners without violating this – or any – command of God.
On the other side, it’s obvious that, at a minimum, we shouldn’t participate in sin ourselves. We shouldn’t be immoral, impure, or greedy. At least Paul means that we shouldn’t sin, but I think he means more than that here. He’s already called us to live obediently. No, his concern here is with believers “partnership” with people in their wicked acts.
Lessons from the Old Testament
The first Scriptural reference that comes to mind – since my pastor is currently preaching through Kings – is the story of Jehoshaphat. It’s an interesting story because it’s not very cut and dry. Jehoshaphat, who was the good king of Judah, allied himself with Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. His first alliance was for a war. He rode out with Ahab to fight Ramoth Gilead. The battle was a trap that God set for Ahab, who was mortally wounded. Jehoshaphat (who was dressed up like Ahab) had a brush with death, but was spared by God (2 Chronicles 18:31). Later, Jehoshaphat had an alliance with Ahab’s (almost as wicked) son Joram. In this case, God gave the alliance victory, but only because of Jehoshaphat (” Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not pay any attention to you.”) So, Jehoshaphat didn’t suffer any consequence for his military alliances with Ahab, at least nothing explicitly stated in Scripture. But, there’s an important clue that Jehoshaphat shouldn’t have made this alliance and was only spared because of he otherwise served the Lord.
Here’s how Jehoshaphat’s story is wrapped up in 2 Chronicles 20:
35 Later, Jehoshaphat king of Judah made an alliance with Ahaziah king of Israel, whose ways were wicked. 36 He agreed with him to construct a fleet of trading ships. After these were built at Ezion Geber, 37 Eliezer son of Dodavahu of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat, saying, “Because you have made an alliance with Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy what you have made.” The ships were wrecked and were not able to set sail to trade.
This follows the principle from Ephesians 5:6-7. Jehoshaphat partnered with a man under God’s judgment, and because of that experienced some of that judgment himself, though he was also spared from what could have been a lot worse.
The other example that comes to mind is when Israel was about to be invaded by the Babylonians. To try to avoid military defeat, they turned to Egypt. Here’s what I wrote last year:
As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.
Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).
The news this week offers two possible modern examples. Both are political and controversial. Sorry about that. I’m less interested in an individual’s conclusion on the matters, than on illustrating the process.
The Wedding Cake: Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. Phillips refused to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding and was found in violation of an anti-discrimination law. Phillips appealed to the Supreme Court. The legal question (or one of them) is over whether baking a cake is an artistic expression and thus protected speech. If it is, then the Court will likely rule for Phillips. Or, the court could view the case through the lens of discrimination and say that Phillips refused to bake the cake simply because his customers were gay. If they do that, then they will likely rule against Phillips.
Legal questions aside, we can also view this case from the perspective of Ephesians 5:7. Was Phillips right morally to refuse to bake the cake for the gay wedding? If we believe what the Bible says about homosexual behavior, and we see baking a wedding cake as – to some degree – a religious expression and thus even an act of worship, then Phillips decision makes sense. He would be actively and creatively partnering in an activity is morally objectionable.
But how far should Christians take this? An owner of a auto body shop in West Michigan once said he wouldn’t provide services to gay couples. That seems like a different kind of thing altogether. I’m sure it wouldn’t be legally protected, nor do I think it falls under Ephesians 5:7. Why? Because the auto body shop owner isn’t partnering in any sinful behavior, he would just be working on a car. His would be a clear act of discrimination from a legal perspective, and unwarranted from a biblical one.
The Sleazy Politician: We’re less than a week away from a special election for an Alabama senate seat. The Republican in the race is Roy Moore, a man who has portrayed himself as a man with Christian values. He has, however, been accused of sexual assault against girls, by multiple people. He denies these charges, but even what he has admitted to is creepy. It’s hard to prove one way or the other what happened but the volume of accusers, plus the things we do know, make him look guilty (to me, anyway). If we believe he is being falsely accused, that’s another matter, but if you believed he were guilty, would voting for him be a violation of Ephesians 5:7?
Like the cake shop question, it’s not entirely clear. What is a vote anyway? What message are you sending with a vote? Is it always a decision between two evils, or can it just be a decision between two “bads”. Do you have an obligation to vote for one or another or is it okay to opt out? Indeed, would a Christian be obligated to opt out in this case? (See this excellent post by pastor Kevin DeYoung on Voting in a Two-Party System)
If I were voting in Alabama, I would opt out for multiple reasons, and one of them would be to avoid violating Ephesians 5:7. To me, a vote is an endorsement. It sends a message. It’s a partnership. It’s what sends a person into office. So, in this case I could not in good conscience partner with someone who appears to me, based on the evidence, to be a wicked man. Neither could I vote for someone who supports abortion. Again, for me this would be partnership in a systematic evil.
Questions to ask
Both the Old Testament examples, and the modern day examples, illustrate that it’s hard to know where to draw the lines. Why would Jehoshaphat experience judgment for creating a fleet of trade ships with Ahaziah, but not for the shared military campaigns with Ahab and his son? Should we avoid putting money into mutual funds because we could be funding businesses with unethical practices or goals? How bad does a politicians character or policies have to be for us to refuse to vote for them? There’s considerable gray area here, and it can be hard to know what constitutes partnership and what doesn’t. But that doesn’t get us out of the obligation of doing the hard work. Complete isolation or disregarding the command aren’t options. We’re called to the hard work of wisdom – and grace towards others in hard decisions.
When faced with a possible instance of “partnership” with someone engaged in doing wrong, these diagnostic questions might be helpful to ask:
Will this partnership cause me to participate in an evil act? There’s nothing wrong with driving a car, but if you’re driving the getaway car for an armed robbery you’re knowingly providing material support to someone doing wrong. Even if you’re a taxi driver and it’s your job, if you know what you’re doing, it would be wrong to participate.
Will this partnership lead me to moral compromise? The initial establishment of the agreement might not be wrong in itself, but it could lead to later compromise. For instance, getting involved with someone with shady business practices, or getting support with a lot of strings attached, is a good way to lead to moral compromises down the road.
What message does this partnership send? Not only: “What do I mean by this partnership?” but “How will this partnership be reasonably understood?” Voting for a sleazy politician sends a message, intended or not. It sends a message to political parties that they don’t need to put forward a candidate of character. In this case it sends a message that all this talk of the importance of character and morality doesn’t really matter when it comes to election time. Specifically baking a cake for a gay wedding would be reasonably interpreted as an endorsement of that wedding. On the other hand, buying mutual funds would probably not be see as an endorsement of every company that the mutual fund is split between.
How significant is the partnership? Jehoshaphat’s partnerships with Ahab weren’t mere business transactions. They had an alliance. The more meaningful an alliance the more dangerous it would be to participate. Voting for someone is different from running their campaign, for example, though both might be a problem. This also gets to a related question: What do you know or what should you know? If I sell a car to someone who uses it to run down some pedestrians, I’m probably not guilty of anything. But if I knew that he was going to use the car for that purpose, I’d be guilty as sin.
There are probably more diagnostic questions we could ask, but my main point is that we need to ask them. This is an area where simple answers don’t often work. We need the Holy Spirit to grant us discernment.
A quick personal story: I work in the area of aviation, and have frequently worked on projects for the U.S. military. I would constitute this a partnership. I had to wrestle with the question of whether or not I was okay with working on aircraft which would likely be used in military operations to deploy troops or fire weapons. If I objected to military force (or America’s use of military force) I should have avoided this partnership and either asked to only work on civil projects, or found another job. I decided, ultimately, that if I were conscripted I would serve in the military. Since I would not object to serving in the military, I decided that my very tangential role in the “military industrial complex” would not be a problem. My point here is simply that we need to do the work and ask the questions. By God’s grace, He will bring all things to light. That light gives us guidance, but it also exposes evil and makes it open to judgment. We need to be illuminated by the light, not exposed – and judged – for partnerships that displease God.