Q: I’m a young single adult and a recent convert to the Church. Recently a ward missionary told me that I should stop hanging out with my old friends because they drink and don’t share my values. She told me that they could pull me back into old behaviors. But they’re my friends. Is she right, do I need to cut ties with them?
A: I’m so glad you asked this question. Allow me to give a short answer up front and then explain so that the principle is clear. The short answer is that you should never turn your back on friends or family. Period. That said, how close of a relationship you have depends not on whether they share your values and beliefs, but rather on if they respect you enough to not try to influence you away from the path you’ve chosen.
Distancing yourself from a relationship should occur if that relationship is toxic, if boundaries aren’t being honored, or if there’s a continued pattern of abuse or disrespect. Differences of beliefs, lifestyle, or worldview is no reason to disassociate yourself from loved ones. Quite the opposite, it’s the differences that help us to grow into more loving and understanding people.
For the Strength of Youth (and variations of the same principle taught elsewhere) teaches the following when it comes to picking friends:
Choose friends who share your values so you can strengthen and encourage each other in living high standards . . . As you seek to be a friend to others, do not compromise your standards. If your friends urge you to do things that are wrong, be the one to stand for the right, even if you stand alone. You may need to find other friends who will support you in keeping the commandments. Seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost as you make these choices (For the Strength of Youth: Friends).
You’ll notice that this prophetic counsel encourages you to find other friends only if your current peers urge you to compromise your standards and beliefs.
Nowhere in the Gospel does it say that we are to only be close with those who believe as we do. Quite the opposite in fact. How can we influence others for good if we shut them out? How can we learn from their goodness if we cut them off?
Far, far too many people outside of our faith feel shunned, unwelcome, judged, and unappreciated. I know because I’ve met them in my life and in my therapy practice. I’ve read the articles they’ve written. I’ve met the members who don’t let their kids play with kids who are not of their faith. I’ve met the persons outside of our faith who are treated with kindness but not inclusion, as their Latter-day Saint neighbors favor only the company of other Saints.
When we keep to ourselves, we fail in our directive, given to us by the Savior, to be a “light on a hill” and to love one another.
Elder M. Russell Ballard taught:
“The Lord expects a great deal from us. Parents, please teach your children and practice yourselves the principle of inclusion of others and not exclusion because of religious, political, or cultural differences . . . That is our doctrine—a doctrine of inclusion. That is what we believe. That is what we have been taught. Of all people on this earth, we should be the most loving, the kindest, and the most tolerant because of that doctrine” ("The Doctrine of Inclusion," October 2001 general conference)
President Gordon B. Hinckley added,
“We must not be clannish. We must never adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. We must not be self-righteous. We must be magnanimous and open and friendly. We can keep our faith. We can practice our religion. We can cherish our method of worship without being offensive to others. I take this occasion to plead for a spirit of tolerance and neighborliness, of friendship and love toward those of other faiths.”
But how do we do this? How do we live our beliefs without compromise while honoring and respecting those who live and see the world differently than we do? Elder Dale G. Renlund said something that I believe is so perfect:
"We can stand firm in our beliefs and have a loving relationship with those who hold differing opinions. For example, I believe drinking alcohol is a violation of God’s law. So what do I do when I am hosting friends who do not believe as I do? My wife and I arrange to go to a restaurant with them where they can order as they choose to. And when they order wine with their meal, I do not get in their faces and call them out as sinners. Similarly, can I be friends with individuals who are living together without the benefit of marriage? Absolutely. And when I am with them, do I stand up in great indignation and call them to repentance, even though they are presently engaged in behavior I do not agree with? No, of course not. We can stand firm in our beliefs and have a loving relationship with those who hold differing opinions. Let us not forget that the plan of salvation offers the love and mercy of our Savior Jesus Christ to all."
In all of this, we must consider both the guidance of the Spirit and where we are in life. For example, in high school, I immediately vacated any party with alcohol, first because it was illegal for teenagers and also because peer pressure and doing things to fit in were such a part of that scene.
By the time I was in graduate school in Auburn, Alabama, however, it was a different story. I was secure with who I was, alcohol held no temptation for me, and my friends had no interest in changing me or pressuring me to drink. So I’d go to get-togethers, football tailgates, and faculty/student social gatherings where there was abundant beer. Everyone respected me and respected that I didn’t drink alcohol. There was Sprite in the cooler, just for me and the other Latter-day Saints.
Our great Example, the Lord Jesus Christ, dined with prostitutes, thieves, and sinners. However, he was not being influenced by them to do wrong. He was influencing them for good. I’m not suggesting that you follow friends into unholy places where the Holy Ghost won’t be with you. I am saying, however, that discipleship is not a path of isolation and exclusion. It is one of inclusion, of pure love, of understanding, and of seeing the good in people. That’s both good Christianity and good relationship practices.
God bless you. I hope this helps.
JONATHAN’S RECOMMENDED READINGS ON THIS SUBJECT
“Doctrine of Inclusion,” Elder M. Russell Ballard, October 2001 general conference.
“Fellowship with Those Who Are Not of Our Faith,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley, Chapter 20.
“A Letter to Mormons,” Renee Tumulo, LDS Living, August 10, 2017.
Facebook post by Elder Dale G. Renlund, March 28, 2016.