In writing to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them of the maxim, “Bad company ruins good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33).”
Paul writes this relative to the acceptance by some in the Corinthians congregation of the false doctrine that there would be no resurrection, asking them, “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12; ESV)?” He concludes that their willingness to believe such heretical ideas was itself corrupt, urging them to “wake up from their drunken stupor,” and “do not go on sinning (1 Corinthians 15:34).”
Interestingly, the phrase was evidently not original to Paul, and has been attributed to the Greek dramatist, Menander, who wrote plays about three hundred years before Paul wrote his epistles. Menander was fond of such moral sayings. It is further speculated that Menander might have himself adopted the saying from the works of Euripedes, written about a hundred years earlier. It is very likely that the proverb was one well known throughout all of the Grecian world, hence Paul’s use of it.
Paul inspired use of the phrase is also a reminder of the truth of the idea it conveys: the people we associate with influence our behavior, and if we associate with the wrong people, they will influence us in the wrong way. This is such an obvious and observable truth that even the pagan world knew it to be true. Still today, we have additional, similar expressions, such as the reminder, “if you lay down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas.”
This possibility of good people being corrupted through poor choices in terms of their associations is something God warns us about more than once through His prophets and apostles.
David prayed, “Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies (Psalm 141:4; ESV)!”
Later, David’s son, Solomon would write, “My son if sinners entice you, do not consent,” adding, “my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths (Proverbs 1:10, 15; ESV).”
In the New Testament, we are reminded of the truth that, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6),” an admonition to be aware of the corrupting power of sin, not just within an individual, but within a community. Likewise, Christians are admonished, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? (2 Corinthians 6:14; ESV)”
Some, cautioned about such matters, are likely to protest that Jesus ate with sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11, etc) and therefore, they reason, God wants them associating with such people. It is true that Jesus did use any and every opportunity to preach to others, no matter their life condition, and Christians are, like Christ, also called to take the Gospel to every person (cf. Mark 16:15). Likewise, just as it is not the well, but the sick who need a doctor, so too the sinful are those who need salvation (cf. Mark 2:17). Further, the Bible most certainly teaches that Christians are not expected to try and leave aside all association with sinful people (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11).
Yet, Jesus did not eat with sinners as a peer and a friend; He ate with them as a teacher, urging them towards repentance, not allowing their sinful ways to influence His behavior. Likewise, we note that the Scriptures warn us against being yoked to sinners in such a way as to be “unequally yoked” – harkening to the image of one bull in a yoke pulling the other bull crooked because it is larger and stronger
Christians, being in the world, are always going to have worldly associations of one sort or another, but God reminds us to be careful so that we are the ones being the influencer, not the one being influenced. This is true in matters of morality, and also, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, in matters of doctrine. If we are going to imitate Jesus, we must do so righteously, making sure we are not merely looking for an excuse to hang around with people we shouldn’t be hanging around with.
Jesus taught His followers to be the salt of the earth. Salt is influential, changing and affecting those things it touches. But if the salt were to lose its saltiness, Jesus reminded, it also would lose its value (cf. Matthew 5:13). There are few ways so easy for a Christian to cease being an influence for good than by allowing poor choices in companions to corrupt their own thoughts and behavior. Instead, we should be doing all we can, in word and in deed, to be influencing others for the good.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.