Friday, November 9, 2012

The "Unequally Yoked" Passage in the Context of the Larger Message of 2 Corinthians

Sometimes when you go to school and have a particular interpretation of life, an event, a passage in Scripture, etc., you've been given a false correction, and would have been better had you never been "corrected." This has happened numerous times to me. The problem is that professors don't necessarily know all the facts, but since they're professors, students often figure they understand more than their parents, traditions, or selves. The problem is that professors often tell you what is currently trending in scholarly thought, but contemporary scholarly thought is also not necessarily a beacon of understanding in all things.

To give an example, I originally believed that the great commission read, "Go, preach the gospel . . ." and then was corrected in my undergrad that it was actually, "as you go, preach the gospel." Then, I was later told that participles take upon the force of an imperative when coupled with an imperative, and thus, it should read, "Go, preach the gospel . . ." Then I read a paper in my Advanced Greek Grammar class in grad school that made a good argument that participles only take upon the force of an imperative when they follow that imperative. When they precede it, they set up the situation for the imperative, so that it should read, "As you go, preach the gospel."

Another example is being "corrected" about the use of yom in Hebrew. The word yom, so I was told, could mean a longer period of time. When I studied the word further, I found that it was not used to mean a longer time period than a day at all. I was told the same thing about the word beyom, only to find that it too was not used to refer to a longer period of time.

I'm sure I could find a lot more examples of these things, but today I want to talk about a "correction" concerning the passage in 2 Corinthians that should have never been corrected.

When I became a Christian, I immediately came to the conclusion that a Christian should not date or marry a non-Christian. A Christian who loved Christ more than all things would not then seek an unbeliever as his or her mate for life, a mate that had no love for Christ within him or her. But when I read 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, I saw that the Scripture made the same argument that the Spirit had already made within me. To my shock, when I went into my undergrad, I was told that this text actually referred to business relationships rather than marriage.

Now, I would think that even if that were true, any prohibition to a lesser relationship would certainly include a greater one, so that a prohibition against entering into a business partnership because of a duty to avoid a demonic influence and partnership between the demonic and the Holy Spirit would prohibit a greater contract and partnership that did this to an even greater extent.

However, as I studied the message of 2 Corinthians, a message I'm sure is lost on most commentators of the book, I realized that the passage, even though more generic in its principle, directly prohibits any relationship with an unbeliever that even looks like marriage.

Here essentially is my argument in outline form:

The purpose of the letter is to convey to the Christian community in Corinth that Christians are to see beyond the external, superficial appearance of things, and instead they are to see things as they truly are in Christ. This underlying principle is displayed throughout the book and unifies its otherwise seemingly discorded parts.

I.                 Paul's apostolic authority is found in Christ, not in external prestige and the external qualities one within the world’s systems would normally identify as worthy of authority.
II.                  The gospel itself cannot be discerned through external means, and is instead something hidden from unbelievers who have been blinded by Satan.
III.                Our experience of losing our lives here must see beyond our experience to what God has prepared for us in the spiritual realm.
IV.        Paul now does not consider any person according to the flesh, but as a new creation in Christ.
V.                False apostles often appear as messengers of the light because Satan himself appears as an angel of light, but one must look past appearances an evaluate their message according to the true apostolic message they have received from Paul.
VI.       What appears to be weakness in Paul is actually a display of God's power.  

 Although the passage does not explicitly refer to any application of the principle, the principle of not being unequally yoked must be seen in the context of the entire letter. 

   Hence, one must not assume commonality with another person based upon superficial/external means, but based upon spiritual allegiances, who one really is, and to whom one really belongs. Since Paul is clear that this does not mean refraining from associating with unbelievers (1 Cor 5:9-11), this relationship must be one where the temples are being joined rather than merely existing side by side. In fact, Paul uses this analogy in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20 to refer to the joining of temples in a sexual union. The temple of Christ, he argues here, should not be joined to the temple of a sexually immoral person. In other words, the analogy of combining temples is an analogy that refers to a sexual relationship. 

           Furthermore, the string of descriptions (i.e., having something shared or in common, fellowship, harmony, agreement, inherited portion) all seem to refer to more than mere acquaintance at a public festival and certainly more than just a business relationship.

           Hence, although we can view the text more generically to apply it to other situations where the demonic influence of an unbeliever should not be allowed in a believers life through a close relationship (business, close friendship, etc.), the greatest and more probably, most direct application would be to the marriage relationship with a further application in our day to all romantic relationships and thoughts leading up to that point. Thus, Paul’s statements here do, in fact, apply to the marriage relationship into which one enters. It does not refer to the marriage that has been previously made when both parties were unbelievers, as Paul exhorts the Corinthians to stay in the state in which they were found in Christ; but it does have application even for how one considers his or her unbelieving partner’s advice and influence.  But the main emphasis here is concerning how a believer is to see the world’s influence and the unbelievers therein as those who do not belong to God, so as to direct their steps away from having close ties to unbelievers in any aspect of their lives. Thus, he commands them to come away and be separate from them in this sense.

This makes far more sense in the context, as the entire point of the work is to convey that Christians need to build their view of the world and other people based upon Christ and their reconciliation to God through Him, i.e., the gospel Paul has preached to them, rather than basing it upon a superficial assessment of the world and other people. When one seeks a marriage relationship, therefore, it ought to be based upon who one is in Christ and therefore accept or reject such a relationship based upon what is spiritually/eternally true of the individuals involved. 

As the Corinthians are to evaluate Paul's ministry, the gospel, death, other people, etc. beyond the way the world thinks about these, so they are to think about romantic relationships/partnerships from an eternal perspective, according to the identity of the individuals in relation to Christ.

If Christ is the center of life, the true identity of the Christian as a new creation who needs to be reconciled to God in all things, dating or marrying an unbeliever is antithetical toward who he or she is and needs to be. There is nothing in common. There is no fellowship that can be had. There is no equal pull on the yoke that would bring one to his or her proper destination in Christ. The demonic pulls in one direction, toward destruction and death, and Christ pulls in another, toward holiness/reconciliation to God in all things and life. 

But the final thing that makes me think that this directly refers to marriage (or, in application, any relationship that mimics marriage, e.g., dating, living together, etc., in our culture) is that fact that God will not be a Father to the person who does not separate him or herself from the demonic. The passage states that this adoption comes as a result of "coming out from them" and being "separate." Notice the language of "separate" as opposed to being joined together in marital/sexual union. But the key here is that judgment occurs, in accord with the judgment that takes place throughout the Old Testament when a believer unites with an unbeliever in sexual/religious union.

Our religions are contrary, and so a union with an unbeliever is a denial of the faith, a statement that one loves the demonic more than Christ, that he or she wishes to live contrary to the separation to which God has called him or her. Hence, being unified with the children of death causes one to remain in death, as one cannot be saved while deciding to inject a deadly poison into his or her soul.

So the passage makes little sense if this merely refers to business partnerships as some have suggested. It also doesn't make a whole lot of sense if referring merely to going to a festival with unbelievers, as the language used has little of that in context, and Paul would have already addressed this in 1 Corinthians 8-10 more specifically. It would be odd for him to address it here more generically. Instead, the passage makes sense within the context of the whole work when we understand that associations with unbelievers are fine and good (how else will you preach the gospel and do good to others in the world?), but entering into more intimate relationships with unbelievers is being unequally yoked and a rejection of one's allegiance with Christ in order to be aligned with the devil instead.

So there was never a need for a correction, and I'm sure it's done more damage than necessary to teach otherwise. Maybe professors, at least if they are Christian, should first stop and ask whether the Holy Spirit may have placed certain teachings within the community for a reason. Maybe it's because that teaching is the right one, and modern scholarship, which seems to have a lot of knowledge with very little understanding of how that knowledge fits together these days should be seen as second tier to the Church. Just my two cents on that.

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them
    and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.”
“Come out from them
    and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”

(2 Cor 6:14-18)


  1. I look at the picture Paul used, a yoke. Its what causes one animal to pull in the same direction, for the same cause, in unity, in the same direction. They look back and see the work they achieved in that unity.

    I think this verse can be applied to many scenarios where the disciple of Christ would set aside something of their calling to venture with unbelievers in order to achieve a goal, endeavor, or simply the relationship in and of itself.

    Our yoke should be with Christ, if we happen to find ourselves walking near other unbelieving individuals, so be it, but we should be careful how we are co-yoked with others. Specific circumstance often require prayerful and thoughtful application of other principles with this one to determine the right and wrong courses of action.

    Two might agree on the principle of "non-yoking" but differ in application. I am not sure I would use the term "intimate" to define when yoking occurs. This term often limits more than perhaps it should. When two animals are yoked, I don't see intimacy involved as most would define or understand it.

  2. Hi Jon,

    I agree. There are many applications. The point I was making is that this passage primarily refers to the romantic union one has with another, rather than some business union. The imagery of temples joining, the call to be "separate," and the idea that two animals are yoked together in a union, as a single animal, together with the words used for fellowship, shared interests, and shared inheritance makes me say that this union is primarily one of a sexual union. The verse in Leviticus is a call to not "touch" what is unclean, and I think this carries over to the Pauline passage with the other imagery used to refer to "touching" unbelievers (touching is a term that Paul would have read as sexual when in reference to another person).

    I agree that this should be understood to prohibit anything that begins to enter into such a relationship that would end in this, and that we can apply this principle to business, friendship, etc.; but the overarching sentiment would apply in all situations where one was considering entering a romantic relationship.

    That such relationships are on Paul's mind with the Corinthians is clear from passages such as 1 Cor 6:9-20 and 7:39.

    All of this fits into the context provided to us by 1 Corinthians and the immediate context of the book. If Christians are to see beyond the superficial and judge all things according to their relationship to Christ, then an unbeliever is off limits in terms of any intimate union.

  3. I should say that the yoke that makes two animals one is the perfect analogy for the two becoming one flesh, so the sexual union is primary here, but it seems that the yoke imagery refers to the romantic relationship, i.e., marriage in Paul's context, to which such unions belong.