The Bible makes it clear that Christians should aim to cultivate a good reputation among non-believers. As long as we don’t compromise on our values, we should go out of our way not to cause offence and to try to get people to think highly of us.
Here are some relevant passages:
1 Corinthians 10:32-33
In 1 Cor. 10:32-33 the apostle Paul tells the Christians in Corinth:
“32 Give no offense to the Jews or the Greeks or the church of God, 33 just as I also try to please all people in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, so that they may be saved.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)
The Jews and Greeks Paul refers to here are non-Christians. Note how he instructs his readers not to offend these people, and also how he says that he tries to please all people so that they may be saved.
2 Corinthians 6:3
In 2 Cor. 6:3 Paul tells the Corinthians:
“We give no opportunity for stumbling to anyone, so that the ministry will not be blamed.”
In this verse Paul is saying that he takes care in what he does, so that the reputation of his ministry may not suffer. What he says here applies to how his ministry was viewed both by fellow Christians and by non-believers.
1 Thessalonians 4:10-12
In 1 Thess. 4:10-12 Paul says to the church in Thessalonica:
“10 . . . But we encourage you, brothers, to do so even more, 11 to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, 12 so that you may walk properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone.”
In v. 12 “walk” is a metaphor for live, and “outsiders” refers to non-Christians. So in this passage Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to live in such a way that their reputation among non-believers is a good one.
Attracting people to Christ
In the passage in 1 Corinthians that I quoted above, Paul gives a reason for why he wants Christians not to cause offence and please everyone: so that people may be saved. And we can be sure that the same reason motivated his instruction in the other two passages, even though he doesn’t make this explicit.
Part of what we are called to do as Christians is attract people to Jesus and the salvation that is in Him. If we have a good reputation among non-believers, this helps to give the Christian faith, and also Jesus Himself by extension, a good reputation in their eyes. And the better the reputation of Jesus and the faith, the more people will come to Him for salvation.
Of course, a great many people will not come to Christ regardless of how we live and act, and this is only to be expected. However, for some, being impressed with the lives of Christians will make the difference between a decision to accept or not accept Him.
Being good neighbours
There are various ways in which Christians can try to cultivate a good reputation among non-believers.
For a start, we should be second to none in how considerate we are to our neighbours.
There have been a few times, for example, in recent years when one of my neighbours has raised an issue with me about something, and I have decided that it would be good if I went out of my way to do what they wanted.
On one occasion, a woman who lives near me had a concern about a small tree in my garden that was next to her fence. She asked me if I would remove parts of it, although I could tell that she would have preferred if it wasn’t there at all. So I went beyond what she asked and got rid of it completely.
I can also think of a time when the people living in the apartment below me complained about a noise coming from my kitchen. So I moved appliances around, and this succeeded in solving the problem. The new layout of my kitchen was less suitable for me, but I reckoned that pleasing my neighbours took priority.
When asked by neighbours to do something, most people will do the minimum possible in response, and will put themselves first. Christians need to be very different in this respect.
Siding with people in their concerns
We can also cultivate a good reputation by siding with people in their aims and concerns.
Most people have strongly-held beliefs about various issues. For example, someone may be passionately against racism. Someone else may be deeply concerned about drug trafficking. And another person may feel strongly about climate change.
If we learn that someone has a strong view on something, and if we believe that this view fits with Christian values, we can let the person know that we share their concerns. Being open about holding similar views can help us to have a good reputation in the eyes of non-believers and can draw them nearer to salvation.
There are more than a few Christians who fail to recognise this. Many downplay the importance of trying to make the world a better place, because they think that we should focus all our efforts on evangelism and ministering to those who are already saved.
Ironically, however, when non-Christians see believers who seem to be uninterested in tackling the world’s problems, it actually often puts them off the faith and hinders evangelism.
Avoiding extreme statements and actions
Something else that damages the reputation of Christians is when they say or do certain extreme things.
For example, from time to time we will all have heard Christians – or at least people claiming to be Christians – who predict the date on which Jesus will return. When the date arrives without this happening, the damage to the reputation of believers and the Christian faith is huge.
Only a few dare to predict the actual date of the Lord’s return. However, it is not uncommon for Christians to predict a time-frame within which this will occur. For example, you will often hear believers say that He will return within 20 years, or something like this. Again, when these predictions fail to materialise, the damage done to the reputation of Christians and the faith is significant.
We should all avoid giving any confident predictions of time-frames for end-times events.
As well as off-putting statements, there are various actions that can seriously damage the reputation of Christians.
For example, there are some believers who refuse to get medical help for illnesses and other ailments. They think Christians should look to the Lord alone for all healing.
It is certainly right to expect God to act often in supernatural healing. But this in no way has to conflict with healing often taking place through ordinary medical means.
When someone refuses medical treatment because they are looking to God for healing, and then this person dies from their illness, the damage done to the reputation of believers and the Christian faith is enormous.
We all need to be on our guard against believing extreme and unbiblical things. And we need to be just as careful about what we say publicly.
Avoiding going public about attempts to claim things in faith
Another way in which the reputation of Christians can be unnecessarily damaged is when they go public about claiming things in faith.
There are times when we pray for things that are, humanly speaking, more or less impossible, and we attempt to claim the answer in faith.
This is a very biblical thing to do. For example, in Mark 11:24 Jesus teaches:
“Therefore I tell you, all the things you pray and ask for - believe that you have received them, and you will have them.”
Realistically, however, attempts to claim things in faith in this way are only sometimes successful.
You will occasionally see Christians who are clearly trying to claim something in faith and who publicly declare that they will get the thing they are praying for. Wanting to be as bold as possible, they say openly that they are sure that their prayer will be answered. However, if it isn’t answered, their reputation is seriously damaged.
I can think of a good example of this from the build-up to the 2016 American presidential election.
At this time, many Christians were supporting Ted Cruz as the Republican candidate. I saw a TV interview with a young Christian man who said he was confident that Cruz would win the Republican nomination, despite his relatively poor standing in the polls, because he was the most God-fearing candidate and God would find a way for him to win. It seems clear that this Christian was trying to claim Cruz’s victory in faith.
It is not my intention here to comment on whether or not Cruz was the most God-fearing candidate. Nor do I want to criticise this man for trying to claim Cruz’s victory in faith.
My point is simply that he made a big mistake in going public with his prediction that Cruz would win the nomination. Cruz, of course, didn’t actually win, and making a false prediction that God would make this happen, even if it came from good motives, was very harmful to the reputation of Christians and the Christian faith.
When we attempt to claim things in faith, then, we should usually not go public about what we are trying to do.
I have given a few examples of how Christians can try to cultivate a good reputation in the eyes of non-believers, and I have highlighted some of the pitfalls to watch out for. There are many other areas of life too, where we can take steps to foster a good reputation. It is up to each Christian to seek God personally to ask Him what they should do.
The more people there are who think highly of us, the more people there will be who think highly of the Christian faith, and by extension of Jesus Himself. This means that the better our reputation is, the more people there will be who accept Jesus and the salvation that is in Him.
Another part of the picture
Although Christians should take steps to have a good reputation among non-believers, this is not the whole picture.
The Bible also makes it clear that it is normal for us to cause offence by what we believe and do. Devout people of God in Old Testament times, Jesus Himself and the early church can all be found repeatedly on the pages of Scripture offending people.
In fact, in Mark 13:13 Jesus even goes so far as to say:
“. . . you will be hated by everyone because of My name.”
“Everyone” here should be understood as a hyperbole, i.e., a deliberate exaggeration for effect that involves no attempt to deceive. In reality, not every single non-believer hates Christians.
Nevertheless, this word does show that it is very common for us to be hated.
Similarly, in 2 Tim. 3:12 Paul says:
“. . . all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
Obviously, causing offence will always precede persecution.
So it is normal for us to ruffle feathers, offend people by what we say and do, and be hated. We must never compromise on our values, and standing firm on these will inevitably mean that many non-Christians take offence. In other words, choosing to do the will of God will inevitably mean that in some ways we gain a bad reputation in the eyes of many non-believers.
The truth of the matter is that non-Christians tend to react to us in very different ways. For many, their dislike of what we believe will outweigh any other factor. However, for others, their overall attitude to us will be positive if we are taking steps to foster a good reputation, and some of these will be drawn to the faith.
So, as long as we stay true to our values, we should go out of our way to cultivate a good reputation in the eyes of non-Christians and thereby make the Christian faith seem more attractive to people.
Avoiding unnecessary differences from the surrounding culture
On a related note, it is important to understand that in morally neutral issues Christians should be as similar to the culture they live in as possible. There are some Christian fringe groups that live very differently from the surrounding culture, even in matters that involve no moral issue. However, this is a big mistake.
When someone becomes a Christian, their life will change radically. The upheaval will be significant, and we shouldn’t ask people to change in any way that isn’t necessary. We should want the transition from unbelief to faith to be as obstacle-free as possible.
To demand, or even request, that people live in counter-cultural ways that are not required by Scripture is a very harmful thing to do.
For those who become Christians, it will make their life more difficult than it needs to be.
And it is also bound to put some off becoming Christians in the first place. Many people have a limit to how much change in their lives they think they can endure if they become a Christian. For some, the prospect of giving up a sinful lifestyle is about all they can face. If such people are then told, or led to believe, that they should follow various (unbiblical) customs as well, it is inevitable that some will choose not to become Christians.
When people choose not to come to Christ because they are not prepared to renounce their sins, pick up their cross every day and follow Him, then so be it. However, when people choose not to come to Him because Christians are demanding that they follow unbiblical customs as well, that is a real tragedy.
I would suggest that on the Day of Judgment many Christians among fringe groups will have a lot to answer for in this respect. They are putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of people receiving salvation.