Provocative Bible Verses: Do Not Be Unequally Yoked With Unbelievers

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” 2 Corinthians 6:14 (NASB)

In recent weeks I have had several people quote this verse to me. They have done so in an attempt to explain why Christians should never be a partner with or cooperate with people who are not Christians. In the context of the discussions it is clear that they are talking about not partnering with non-Christians on any level. Is that really what Paul intends? Are we to not have any dealings of cooperation or partnership with people who do not share our faith in Christ?

If Paul meant that we are to have no association or dealings with unbelievers then I have found my first ever, clear example of the Bible being in contradiction with itself. In fact it would mean that Paul is in contradiction with himself in his communication to these same Christians in Corinth. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says that he never intended for them to have no association with “sinners” since to accomplish that they would have to leave the world. Paul actually pushes in the opposite direction. We are to be engaged with the lost people of the world so that they come to know Christ. We are Ambassadors for Christ. We are Witnesses to Jesus. We cannot do that if we don’t engage others in some kind of relationship. So the question is, what kinds of relationships are legitimate between followers of Jesus and those who are not and what kinds of relationships are forbidden.

The New American Standard Bible that is quoted above says that we are not to be unequally bound together with unbelievers. The old King James language says “Do not be unequally yoked”. The words are reminiscent of Deuteronomy 22:10 which says not to yoke together a oxen and a donkey in the same team pulling a plow. The two would be mismatched and result in disaster. Being yoked together is a particular kind of relationship. It is one of being bound together. It is one that you cannot easily extricate yourself from. Another good word of translation for yoked would be “mismatched”.

The most common understanding of this verse is that Paul is telling Christians not to marry an unbeliever. He clearly said this in his first letter to the Corinthians. That is an appropriate interpretation and application. Contrary to the wisdom of our age that says what we believe is really not important in the grand scheme of things and that two different religions should have no problem living under the same roof, the reality is the opposite. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you have no business entering into a marriage with a non-Christian. For starters, that which is most important in your life, or at least should be, your relationship with Christ, is not important to that potential spouse. You are starting off like that oxen and donkey trying to plow a field together. It just doesn’t work. More than that, as a follower of Christ you are united with Christ and He dwells in you by the presence of the Holy Spirit. With your spouse you are also to become one. You are to be united in a deep and very real spiritual way. That can’t happen if your spirit is united with Christ and theirs is not.

But the imagery and context here goes beyond that of marriage. The verses following 6:14 bring to mind images related to worship. The Corinthians had a huge problem living in the midst of numerous temples to false gods and a society that was built on such idolatry. Paul is telling the Corinthians to make sure that they keep their fellowship with Christ and their worship of God free from the pollution of idolatry. The references to the Temple, to idols, to Belial, and a quote from Leviticus and Isaiah bring the worship context to the foreground. This is a verse about compromising who God is and our worship of Him. We are not to mix with the religious practices of the idolatry of the world.

That does not mean that we can’t be a business partner with a non-Christian. We certainly need to be wise about the dangers that can result in having two different world views. It does not mean that you can’t have a business contract with a non-Christian. It doesn’t mean that you can’t cooperate with a non-Christian for a common cause. If a Muslim and a Christian and an Atheist all want to end abortion then there is no reason not to work together. They may have different reasons for wanting the same result but that is no reason not to find common ground for common good.

We need to be very careful in declaring that we are not to engage with, and work with, those who do not follow Christ. The danger is that we will draw into our own little Christian ghetto more and more. We cannot be salt if we are not in contact with the world. We cannot be light if we are hidden under a basket. The answer is not withdrawal. The answer is wise engagement under the influence of the Holy Spirit and guidance of God’s Word. We need to know where the line is and be sure not to cross it. That line would be whenever we are so “yoked” together that we are bound and unable to extricate ourselves or when the involvement clearly endorses the worship of false gods. With those two safe guards we are to be Ambassadors who engage the world for Jesus sake.