If I had a dollar for every time I or someone else took a Bible verse out of context or coined a cute phrase commonly mistaken for a Bible verse (“Once saved always saved!”), I would give them all to missions and the nations would be glad. We often approach Scripture casually. We search for particular words or topics that interest us that day and squeeze it to fit an existing belief. The combined powers of church marquees, preaching sound bites and a lazy approach to the study equal a poor understanding of God’s word. This was demonstrated in my own life two days ago.
Even if you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church, you might’ve heard the phrase unequally yoked. When the topic of Christians dating non-Christians surfaces, the faithful immediately run to 2 Corinthians 6:14 – “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (ESV) I confess, this is one of my denomination’s favorites (right behind Matthew 18:20). Many dads have squashed many dates in its wake. God wouldn’t put His holy stamp of approval on dating relationships or marriages comprised of a believer and non-believer (as a side note, many wrongly use this text to denounce interracial marriage).
Previously, my understanding of this verse was second-hand. Even though I had read it before, clearly, I had never studied this passage intently; the meaning hinged on what I heard. As a result, I’ve held a false understanding of this text for years.
One of Paul’s reasons for this letter was to remind the Corinthians of their calling and his. Corinth was still largely pagan and the new Christians were struggling to live like Jesus. Paul reminded the Corinthians that God has called them to the ministry of reconciliation. He then stressed at the beginning of chapter six that nothing would prohibit the gospel’s progress. It’s at this point that Paul gave the command in verse 14; he followed it with a string of rhetorical questions to illustrate the absurdity of such a partnership. As temples of the living God (vs.16), the distinction of His children is imperative to their sanctification and witness.
Curious: nowhere in this section nor in the entire body of the letter will you find a reference to or teaching about marriage. This command was given to prohibit close relationships with nonbelievers where camaraderie was the highest goal. Such a union could lead to sinful pursuits of mutual consent, the downfall of the Christian and the smearing of Christ’s name. The New American Commentary phrases it accurately:
“Paul has in mind an alliance with spiritual opposites and the image of harnessing oneself to someone who is spiritually incompatible….Those who bear Christ’s yoke (Matt 11:30) cannot share it with those who deny Christ. Those who harness themselves together with unbelievers will soon find themselves plowing Satan’s fields. One can only be a true yokefellow (Phil. 4:3) with a fellow Christian.” (pp. 331)
This explanation fits the context and is in agreement with the entire letter. Chapter seven of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is largely devoted to marriage and even includes instructions for Christian-pagan marriages (for those who came to faith after marrying). It seems that if revisiting this topic for the same church, he would use similar language and clear phrases like, “Do not be married to unbelievers.” Further, the imagery of being yoked together does not reflect marriage. Animals of identical make-up, strength and purpose were placed in a yoke to plow a field. When Paul writes to the Ephesians, he compares marriage with Christ’s relationship to the church; two very different but indispensable members of a unique covenant, one to love and lead, one to love and follow. There is no biblical evidence that Paul has the marriage relationship in mind in 2 Corinthians 6.
Having said that, this does not mean a Christian can obediently date or marry a non-Christian; the comprehensive teaching of Scripture is clear. The dangers Paul warns about here are multiplied when Christians consent to marry pagans; God does not command against unequally yoked platonic relationships and then condone marriages of the same nature. Paul gives greater clarity in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” 1 Corinthians 9:5
The word translated “believing” holds the meaning of a fellow sister in the Christian faith. Paul was reminding the Corinthians he and his fellow workers had the freedom to marry but emphasized those women must be Christians.
In Ephesians 5, Paul’s instructions assume that both husband and wife are Christians. If one is not, practicing this teaching is impossible, leaving the individual in rebellion to God and out of His will. These relationships cannot satisfy the chief end of marriage (to display Christ’s relationship to His church) and will not receive blessing, yield fruit or expand God’s kingdom. The principle in 2 Corinthians 6:14 absolutely applies to marriage even though it is not directly referencing it.
You might ask, so what’s the big deal? Does it matter that someone might interpret this verse wrongly? Will anything really be lost? Our task in reading the Bible is not to prove traditional beliefs. It isn’t to look for verse band-aids to fix problems. It isn’t even to prove someone else wrong. When I open the Bible, it should be a serious endeavor to seek God’s truth in His word. It isn’t my word; I’m not at liberty to play fast and loose with it. However, if you’ve learned anything, you know not to take my word for it.
Article on same subject for Christian teens by Emily: