Guilt by association

Guilt by association by Robin Compston

A Flawed Argument?

Any argument that tries to demonstrate guilt by association is, as far as some are concerned, a flawed argument, and those who use such reasoning do so because they have no substantial case to make and so resort merely to personal attacks. If it can be shown that any criticism amounts to no more than a charge of guilt by association, then the critic will surely be forced onto the defensive and compelled to acknowledge with shame the weakness of his case. Why then do some insist on using this argument in the context of religious associations?

For the Christian, the issue arises in connection with the matter of biblical separation, the duty on all Christians to separate from error in obedience to the command of God. The Lord warns us that association with error brings harm, and this is true whether or not we practise the same error ourselves.

Separation from the World

First, our duty is to separate from the fallen world out of which we have been called. Paul urges believers to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret (Ephesians 5:11-12). It is a source of shame and therefore of guilt if we speak approvingly or even indifferently about the things which go on in the world as if they are not particularly serious. The only safe approach is to reprove them for the works of darkness they are. By doing so, we can hardly disassociate ourselves from them more clearly.

The apostle also exhorts the Corinthians, Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14). Though these words are often used with reference to marriage, their primary application is to the believer’s separation from the world. To be yoked with, to have fellowship or communion with, unbelievers in matters of faith is forbidden. All these terms imply an association and the association itself carries guilt whether or not we participate in the same things. The sin consists in trying to make common religious ground with those with whom we should have no common ground. Instead we must break the association, Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you (2 Corinthians 6:17). We ‘touch’ when we associate with what is unclean, when we put together two things which God has said should be apart.

Separation from Compromised Believers

Secondly, God commands his people to separate even from other professing Christians if they do not walk in obedience to his word. The church of Corinth was commanded to put out of their midst one who had committed fornication (although following repentance this individual was, after a period of time, to be restored and reinstated into the church). The same applies to those who begin to move away from sound doctrine and teach another gospel. The Apostle John made this abundantly clear when he wrote,

Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds (2 John 1:9-11).

Such is the importance of true doctrine and such is the destructiveness of error that strong steps need to be taken. Those who assist false teachers and support their work become partakers with them of their evil deeds and so of their guilt. Here is guilt by association because John insists that we may become a partaker with the false teacher, not by actually teaching the same things that he teaches, but simply by greeting him, or wishing him well. Something is shared because there is approval of the one teaching falsehood, and because, unlike the Apostle John, the non-separatist does not draw attention to the problem. Error is to be exposed, not ignored or fudged; love for the truth demands hatred of error. Of course the separatist needs to watch himself to guard against self-righteousness and hypocrisy, but if he is zealous for the truth he cannot remain silent; of course the separatist also needs to exercise discernment so as not to get things out of proportion and treat a minor matter as if it was a major matter, but he must also exercise courage when he sees an issue of real importance.

Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul commands the church to withdraw from all who walk disorderly, the disorder in mind being the failure to work for a living.

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you … And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed (2 Thessalonians 3:6-7, 14).

If this ‘lesser’ disobedience requires such a firm response, then certainly compromise in the area of gospel truth or of divine worship demands nothing less. The purpose of the required dissociation is that the disorderly one may be ashamed, but if the church at Thessalonica had refused to listen to Paul then they would have thwarted the Lord’s remedial work in that one’s heart.

Summarising the effect of bad associations, Paul says, ‘Be not deceived: evil communications [or evil company] corrupt good manners’ (1 Corinthians 15:33).

Living in a Fallen World

However not every association with those who do wrong confers guilt. Paul clarifies this for us so helpfully in his instructions to the Corinthians,

I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).

Christians may work alongside non-Christians, study with them, even live with them in the same family without harm; God does not call Christians to go out of the world altogether. Such natural and secular associations do not convey guilt. Of great significance in assessing the consequence of an association is the question of how it was entered into. There can only be guilt by association when the association in question is entered knowingly, voluntarily, and deliberately.

[Scripture rejects the idea that there is any guilt by association on the basis of entirely natural associations,

The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him (Ezekiel 18:20).

Guilt is a very personal and individual matter and cannot ordinarily be transferred from one person to another. No one is suggesting that guilt by association means that the guilt of one becomes the guilt of another; actual sin must be committed on both sides. Bad association brings guilt just because it involves disobedience.]

The world only becomes a source of guilt for the Christian when he or she begins to rely too much on non-Christians for consolation and solace, or turns to the world as a source of sinful pleasure, or joins with unbelievers in some religious activity. Associations with the world become problematic when they cause us to try to hold in common what we should not have in common. Of course association may lead to participation which carries its own guilt, but association with what is forbidden is itself blameworthy.

Associating with False Believers

However when it comes to association with false teachers, or with compromised believers who are walking in a state of disobedience to the Lord, the situation is entirely different. There are altogether different standards to be applied within the kingdom of heaven which for one thing mean that moral matters must be taken much more seriously. I am not at liberty to have any fellowship with a professing Christian who is guilty of adultery, even though I may rub shoulders on a daily basis with non-Christians guilty of the same sin. What unbelieving worldlings do is in one sense not our concern.

For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

Of course we desire that all people obey God, but during this life the judgment of the world is pending. However, the judgment of believers and those who profess faith in Christ is not pending. God requires us to apply now the standards of his law within his kingdom to preserve the integrity of that kingdom as far as we can.

Not only are moral matters to be taken much more seriously, but so also are matters of doctrine and practice within the church. Here we are talking about relationships of a religious kind and for those to be approved by God, we must ensure that the people we associate with are standing on the same foundation, preaching the same gospel, trusting in the same Christ, and seeking to live in obedience to his word according to the light that they possess. Scripture commands that if the error is serious, then any relationship must end. This is partly a straightforward matter of obedience to God. We may not actually be doing the same thing as those we associate with – failing to abide in the doctrine of Christ, or giving way to idleness – but the fact that we associate with those who are doing such things brings guilt upon us, because God has told us withdraw from them. If we ask why God commands this, then the answer should be obvious: by separating we avoid sowing confusion by commending those who we should warn against, we safeguard our testimony, we protect ourselves from the harmful influence of error, and we hope to have a corrective influence which leads those in error to repentance.

Old Testament Examples

How can we be in any doubt that wrong associations involve guilt when God so explicitly forbade Israel to form them? They were not to make any covenant with the idol worshippers whose lands they were dispossessing,

Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee (Exodus 34:12).

Nor were they to rely on the surrounding nations for their defence and make treaties with them instead of trusting in the Lord,

Woe to the rebellious children, saith the LORD, that take counsel, but not of me; and that cover with a covering, but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin: That walk to go down into Egypt, and have not asked at my mouth; to strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, and to trust in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the strength of Pharaoh be your shame, and the trust in the shadow of Egypt your confusion (Isaiah 30:1).

Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay on horses, and trust in chariots, because they are many; and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the LORD! (Isaiah 31:1).

To do so was to abandon faith, and the guilt of these associations is evident from the punishment of the Lord that followed the making of them.

The closest association of all is marriage, and the effect that man and wife have on each other is enormous. It is not surprising therefore that Israelites were forbidden to allow marriage of their sons and daughters with the people of pagan nations around them,

When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son (Deuteronomy 7:1-3).

Naïve Associations

Sometimes naivety or lack of care leads us into an alliance which we should not have made, and it is only the subsequent troubles that teach us the foolishness of what we have done. Bad associations bring danger, but that danger may not be perceived at first. Jehoshaphat joined forces with Ahab to fight a battle which he had no business to fight.

And Ahab king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat king of Judah, Wilt thou go with me to Ramothgilead? And he answered him, I am as thou art, and my people as thy people; and we will be with thee in the war (2 Chronicles 18:3).

As a result he narrowly escaped with his life and deservedly received a severe rebuke from the Lord,

And Jehu the son of Hanani the seer went out to meet him, and said to king Jehoshaphat, Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the LORD? therefore is wrath upon thee from before the LORD (2 Chronicles 19:2).

We must align our tastes with the Lord and say with David, Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? (Psalm 139:21).

Not Simply a Fallacy

But what exactly does the term ‘guilt by association’ mean? There is a fallacy that goes by the same name, a logic error resulting in defective argumentation, which has little to do with what is being considered here. The guilt by association fallacy takes various forms, all of which involve an attribute that belongs to one entity being falsely predicated of another. In one form of the fallacy an entity that has nothing to do with a group is identified with that group just because it shares a single attribute with members of that group, but without also possessing many other defining characteristics of the group. So someone might argue as follows: Social security is a state-funded old age pension; the Nazis supported state-funded old age pensions; therefore social security is bad. Likewise, a trait of a single member may be falsely attributed of all members simply because they all belong to the same group. For instance: Harold Shipman was a doctor; he used his position of trust to murder his patients; therefore no doctor can be trusted. Other forms of this fallacy attempt to associate individuals in a way that reflects badly on one of them, just because they hold some shared characteristic in common. Often those who argue in this flawed way are making an emotional appeal which tries to incite prejudice against one party on the basis of some imagined connection with another discredited party. These false forms of association have little in common with the real association that is encountered when the Biblical command to separate is ignored. The guilt involved in the failure to separate from error does not come from an association of ideas or a false attribution of properties, but from a real personal association with all the dynamics involved in human relationships.

Significance of Associations

Associations are formed with a purpose in mind. They cannot be formed without the prior establishment of common ground. Can we have any common ground with those who damage the cause of Christ? If I knowingly enter into an association with someone who has preached a gospel which attracts adherents on the basis of some pragmatic device, pleasing to the carnal mind, then I have agreed to remain silent on this issue, otherwise the alliance between us would not be viable for as soon as I raise the matter there would be a breach between us. Associations with error therefore stifle admonition.

Associations open the door for influence, for there must be a certain amount of trust in place for any association to exist. That trust will allow ideas and practices to flow more easily between the allied parties. Unfortunately, experience shows that this movement is usually in one direction only.

Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Ask now the priests concerning the law, saying, If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No. Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean (Haggai 2:11-13).

What was true for Israel in the symbolic physical realm by touch is true for us in the more significant spiritual realm by association: by such contact the clean is made unclean, but the unclean is not made clean. When one church whose worship is regulated by the word of God, enters into an alliance with another church whose worship borrows from the styles and fashions of the world, the influence is likely to be in one direction only. To warn of guilt by association is therefore not a matter of simplistic stereotyping, but a recognition of real effects which those in close contact always have on one another.

Factors to Consider

Do we then have to worry about all the beliefs and opinions of those we associate with? No, when entering into an alliance with another Christian, we are not expected to take account of their sense of colour, their views on keeping pets, their attitude to taking exercise, whether or not they practice home schooling, or even their political opinions – such things are irrelevant – but we certainly are to consider their adherence to the gospel, the nature of their worship, the methods of evangelism they advocate, for these things are at the heart of the association we are about to form. These ought to be the things that establish common ground on which we can proceed to work together. If there is no common ground, then we must think again.

There are beliefs which are so important to the Christian that he should never risk compromising them. It would be wrong to risk any appearance of evil by associating with those ideas: it would be foolish for a Christian to do business with a gambling institution, just as it would be sinful for believers to receive those who preach any gospel other than that which Paul preached. In our association with the world it is moral matters that are particularly at issue; in associations between Christians it is also matters connected with doctrine, worship and evangelism that must be considered. These are of fundamental importance because the church is defined in terms of what it believes – Christianity is a religion involving adherence to certain truths. These truths are non-negotiable for the believer. Therefore in our work for the Lord we cannot associate with anyone who denies these beliefs.

Sensitivity to Current Trends

Furthermore, if there is a dangerous trend currently in vogue among the people of God then the issues surrounding this trend become correspondingly more important, and our approach to them rightly becomes more sensitive. Constant vigilance and the exercise of discernment is called for when an enemy is lurking outside the city walls. We must deal with matters in the context of what has already taken place and not be naïve. When Shimei went from Jerusalem to Gath, it seemed like a small matter, but in the circumstances it cost him his life, for there was a history behind this act (1 Kings 2:36-46). When Christ responded with such devastating criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, saying some of the most severe things that he ever said, it was in response to their relentless hostility and opposition throughout the three years of his ministry. Due to generations of unbelief as well as their own unbelief, Christ warned the Jews of his day that on them would come the punishment for all the righteous blood shed upon the earth from the beginning. There are times when a response at first seems out of proportion, but not when we take into account the entire context of the action; so too in the area of separation.

When the churches are assailed by some new device of the devil – for he never ceases in his attempts to bring them down – and when some churches fall victim to these attacks, then those who discern the danger are naturally on their guard lest their own churches should succumb to the same problem. Under these circumstances there is a healthy suspicion towards what might seem like friendly overtures of affected churches. For this reason the leaders of the Jews rebuffed the overtures of help they received from their adversaries,

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the LORD God of Israel; Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither. But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us (Ezra 4:1-3).

In the same way Nehemiah was on his guard when Sanballat sent to him saying ‘Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono.’ He responded with cold disdain, ‘I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?’ (Nehemiah 6:2-3). He recognized in their innocent sounding invitation a further effort to disrupt the work. Today, it seems that there is a flood of worldliness come upon the churches and some have been deceived into opening their doors to it, even preparing a chamber in the courts of the house of God for a modern day ‘Tobiah’ (Nehemiah 13:4-8). There is a tendency for some churches today to assimilate the world’s culture into their midst and to blur the difference between the church and the world; naturally pastors become more watchful against such errors. In these circumstances, to form an association with a church that is deeply into these things is to take a very significant step.

Character, of course, matters. We do not treat the distinct actions of a person in isolation, as if they were a series of disconnected events. We rightly see patterns in a person’s behaviour and we form judgments about that person’s character. It is not therefore bias when we have an expectation that someone who has compromised the gospel in the past, will continue to do so in the future. The Lord Jesus Christ said of one whom his disciples criticised, ‘There is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me’ (Mark 9:39). But of the Pharisees he said, ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ (Matthew 23:33).

Spheres of Association

Does all this mean that I can only associate with those who hold exactly the same beliefs as I hold and who follow exactly the same church practice as the church I belong to? Certainly not! We must not practice some misplaced form of separation as some exclusive groups have done in the past. Separation should not divide earthly families as if believers and unbelievers cannot sit down to eat together in the same house, nor do we try to un-church those who clearly belong to the Lord. There are different spheres within which different degrees of association are appropriate. I may have fellowship with a truly converted believer at work whose church has a quite different doctrinal stand to my own. This is simply to take account of the historic development of Christianity over the centuries. But if that believer was a Bible teacher, it would be inappropriate to invite them to preach in my church. The differences between us are such that we share a common gospel but also have many differences. Personal fellowship would be right, but not an invite – assuming I have the authority to do this – to the pulpit of my church.

Then again, there may be another Christian with whom I may have much more in common and who it would be perfectly in order to invite to teach occasionally in the church I belong to. However, because he does not subscribe to the confession of faith on which that church is founded, it would not be right to allow him to become a church member. Those within the same church should have the highest degree of unity and should be able to obey the Bible’s command to be of one mind. So yes, we can associate with many who do not hold exactly what we hold, but within due bounds.

Practicalities of Dissociation

But what about the practicalities of disassociating from error? The separatist position is mocked by some who caricature it in an extreme and unreal way. The separatist is portrayed as one who is obliged to separate from someone who has shaken hands with someone who has shaken hands with a well-known false teacher. This parody begins to resemble the hygiene program that follows the outbreak of a new lethal virus. Of course anyone who took this extreme position would have to be regarded as unbalanced in his judgment. But is this caricature entirely honest? Are we talking about a mere handshake? No, in many cases we are talking about working relationships between churches or Christian institutions supposedly to advance the gospel in which there is prolonged opportunity for the influence of one on the other, and where steps have been taken to cement that relationship. Are those who speak like this not afraid to mock what is a clear requirement of the word of God? Do they lack the discernment to see where the next satanic attack is coming from?

There must of course be room for discretion when it comes to separating from other believers who are in error. We have to ask, how much do they know? Is the person concerned a young convert who has never studied the issues but who has sufficient spiritual instincts to take the error seriously when it is pointed out to them? Or is this someone who knows exactly what they are doing and has settled it in their hearts to continue down this path of compromise even though it contravenes clear Biblical principles? The person may belong to a group which is well advanced in some particular error, but they may be uncomfortable with the stance of the group and be in the process of changing their position. Such people need to be encouraged, not to be separated from. Christ’s treatment of Nicodemus differed from his much harsher language towards the Pharisees in general. He obviously distinguished between the group at large and one within that group who had begun to question Jewish orthodoxy.


The associations that we form reveal a great deal about us. When Israel began to stop trusting the Lord and to depend instead on the nations around her for protection, she betrayed her lack of faith and her willingness to lean more on the arm of flesh than on the arm of God. What she did in the political realm is a warning to us in our private and church connections. God regarded this lack of faith as sin and duly punished Israel for it; those associations brought guilt just because they existed. Likewise, when evangelical churches make agreements to work together with liberals, or when they join with other so-called evangelical churches which have substituted a false man-centred gospel for the true gospel, they inevitably become guilty before God. It is not possible to bring the world into our churches by abandoning a distinctive Christian lifestyle, or to fraternise with other churches that neglect these standards without angering the Lord. Nor can we abandon ourselves to contemporary worship with all its importing of music which deliberately imitates the music of the world, far less can we set up courses to actually teach how to do this, without trying the Lord’s patience to the limit. When we repeat the same sins which God has already punished in the past, do we imagine that it is of no consequence to him and that he has somehow changed his mind about these things? The choices we make about the associations we form show where our sympathies lie. Let us take care to honour the Lord by building links with those who care deeply about his standards and who remain alert to the issues of the day.

He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed (Proverbs 13:20).