Associating with those not of our faith can potentially cause challenges, even compromises to our faith and morals. Articles appearing in the WBTS publications have highlighted the extreme cases where doing so can have devastating effects on a person. (For example, here are three such articles: w13 2/15 24; jr 59-60; w09 2/15 20) Especially in possible romantic attractions, things can go wrong – even if all that goes wrong is that a person’s moral resolve is impacted. But don’t mistake “even” to be a minimizing of the danger. After all, jeopardizing our relationship with our Creator is no small matter. First, we do in fact damage that relationship. Second, we give Satan a cause to “taunt” God because of our disobedience. Third, if we have any conscience at all, it is most likely now beating us.
Yet even non-romantic association can be dangerous. Perhaps workmates want to go out for a drink after work. Everyone is of legal age and so are you. So you don’t see any concern there. However, are those workmates moderate or heavy drinkers? Are they known to get into brawls? Is their language full of expletives (TV “bleep” words)? If you don’t know, maybe you need to get to know your work associates’ attitudes towards leisure activities a little better before agreeing. Also, if such relaxing becomes frequent, we who are Jehovah’s Witnesses need to ask if it is impacting our spiritual activity.
It is not always easy to see potential pitfalls and so the direction we as Jehovah’s Witnesses receive is merely: "Don’t." Don’t do it because number one, our own heart can deceive us; and number two, the person we are considering association with may not have the same high standards as we do, no matter how religious they claim to be. By illustration: Why try to see how close you can come to a fire without getting burned? Indeed, the official publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses all seem to apply the term “worldly” in an all-encompassing manner to include anyone who is not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Understandably, those who are not of our faith definitely chafe at the idea of being considered less than upright. But even individual members of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be questionable association, and the publications have also warned about those things. So the advice is not intended to make us self-righteous, but to protect us and make our lives less complicated.
But is it reasonable to think that all non-Witness associates are evil and going to ruin us spiritually? I don’t think so. Considering the foregoing, I want to now share something I told a person who was hurt by the way we use the word “worldly.” He is a married man, a father of several children, deeply religious, and pretty much a wholesome person. I said: “In my personal estimation, a ‘worldly’ person would be one whose moral compass and rudder are broken as they drift in the tumultuous waters of degraded lifestyles.” I then told him I would never insult him by calling him “worldly.” In fact, we would never intentionally insult anyone.
So why do we use such a broad brushstroke in defining those who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses? Back in the first century, there was a designation of those who were “Jews” in contrast to those who were “Gentiles.” Jesus himself used the phrase “a man (or men) of the nations.” It was not intended as an insult but in context, it usually wasn’t a flattering or positive picture such terms painted in the minds of early Christians. Today, among Jehovah’s Witnesses, that seems to be the way the term “worldly” is used. Although it is not intended to be an insult or hurtful, in retrospect, I can see how some might take it that way so I avoid using it all together. To me, those not Jehovah’s Witnesses are “associates” and in very rare cases, I may even consider them true friends. That doesn’t mean I regularly seek their association, it is just that I recognize them for their sincere and kind ways.
Many individuals in our faith have non-Witness relatives. We visit them, love them to some degree or another (each family dynamic is different), and we hope the best for them. Most of us would not label our own relatives as “worldly,” especially in a derogatory sense. But we know our relatives better than we know strangers, so we know how to handle them if things get uncomfortable. (In my own case, my mother condemned my conversion from Catholic to JW. When I married, she said I wasn’t really married because I didn’t marry in the Catholic Church or by a Catholic priest. Then, when my first child was born, she had the gall to tell me the child was illegitimate. After that incident I swore I would never talk to her again. I didn’t want to subject my children to her cruelty. I don’t know if she thought she held some influence over me that she could affect my decision. If so, she found out very quickly she was wrong.)
At age 65, I still respect the guidance we receive regarding non-JW associates. And while I am neither arrogant to think nothing can adversely affect me nor sloppy with my personal application of the advice, I’ve learned to what extend my association with non-JW individuals can go without it affecting my spirituality. I have a former business associate that I converse with occasionally. He and I have photography in common. We both are in our sixties, both worked for the same department, both raised a similar-sized family, both have a similar personalities. I don’t feel threatened by anything he does and I am authentically happy to hear from him. At a local mom/pop coffee shop I frequent, I’ve gotten to know the husband and wife owners. My wife and I enjoy chatting with them when we visit. They always come around the customer side of the counter and give us both a hug. They know my wife and I are JWs. I’ve had scriptural conversations with their adult son who also works there. One scripture I keep close in mind is the famous John 3:16 along with Matthew 22:39 and Acts 10:28. I ask myself, “If I don’t show genuine kindly love to my neighbors (e.g. “worldly people”), how will they ever be drawn to appreciating my beliefs?”
Actually, when the man I was conversing with mentioned that he knows I’d never consider him a friend because I’m taught he is worldly, I had to stop and think for a moment. I haven’t used that term in years. It is actually a conscious decision to avoid using it. I would much rather look for the good in people. If, after a number of observations, I realize a particular person is crude or abrasive in manner and speech, I would definitely discontinue association or at very least attempt to limit my interactions with such a person. But just because someone is not yet my spiritual brother is no reason for me to be rude, aloof, or self-righteous.
Regarding Acts 10:28. Contextually, Peter was talking about not judging others as being unworthy of the Good News merely due to ethnicity. However, even the attitude of viewing non-Witnesses as “defiled or unclean” is the point I am making. To disparagingly refer to someone as “worldly” is not at all considerate, or kind in a Christian manner.