Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.” – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 ESV
There is a huge difference between being a conduit through which God’s redeeming grace can flow to the lost and becoming, as Paul describes, unequally yoked with them. It was Paul’s desire that the Corinthians would be gracious and loving to all, but he feared that they would turn the love of God into tolerance and His graciousness into an inappropriate excuse to associate with the ungodly. Paul had already witnessed their unacceptable handling of the man in their congregation who had been having an affair with his stepmother. Rather than mourning over this man’s immoral behavior, they had arrogantly approved of it, allowing him to remain a part of their fellowship. But Paul had read them the riot act, boldly stating, “You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.” (1 Corinthians 5:2 NLT). Paul’s concern is that the Corinthians would see his appeal to grace as meaning that they should accept anyone and everyone, regardless of their behavior or lifestyle. Paul knew that we must meet people where they are in order to share the gospel, but that the power of the gospel would not allow them to remain in that same state, unchanged. The good news of Jesus Christ is transformative and life-changing.
Associating with the lost is necessary in order to share with them the hope available to them through faith in Jesus Christ. But Paul differentiates between casual acquaintances and unhealthy associations. The issue here is one of a believer being in a close relationship with an unbeliever. Most often, this passage gets applied to marriage, and rightfully so. But it has more far-reaching application, covering everything from business partnerships and even close friendships. The imagery Paul uses is that of a yoke. It was a common farming implement that teamed two animals together in order for them to jointly pull a plow. The idea of being unequally yoked had to do with putting two different animals with two different temperaments in the yoke together, such as an ox and a donkey. These two different animals have different physical characteristics and personalities. They would not naturally associate with one another. So in putting them in a yoke together, they would pull at different speeds and actually fight against one another, making the process of the work inefficient and unacceptable to the farmer. Their efforts would be wasted and the farmer’s goal of plowing the field, thwarted.
This is what Paul has in mind when he tells the Corinthians not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. That kind of partnership is unacceptable. He compares it to light and darkness, righteousness and lawlessness. Unbelievers, by virtue of their unredeemed state, are under the control of Satan. So why would a follower of Christ willingly align themselves with child of Satan? Yes, that sounds harsh, but the apostle John reminds us of its reality.
Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous. But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning. But the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God.So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. – 1 John 3:7-10 NLT
Paul is in no way suggesting that believers have NO relationships with the lost. That would be impossible. In fact, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:
When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. – 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 NLT
But he is warning about developing or maintaining unhealthy alliances with the lost. To do so is counterproductive and puts us in a position where our allegiance to Christ will be strained and hampered. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are the temple of God. Then he uses a variety of Old Testament texts to drive home his point. Just as God had chosen the people of Israel to be His people, believers had been hand-picked by God to be members of His family. They had been separated by and consecrated to God. So God expected them to disassociate themselves from the other nations that surrounded them. “Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17 NLT). As Peter points out, we are to live as aliens and strangers on this earth, as if we don’t belong here, because our real home is in heaven. We are Kingdom citizens. We have a different homeland and answer to a different King. And while we are on this earth, we are to operate as His ambassadors, accomplishing His will by doing His work. And that will become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible, if we align ourselves with those who do not share our allegiance to Him. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter: “But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15 NLT).
As children of God, we are to constantly submit ourselves to the will of God. We are to serve Him at all times. But if we allow ourselves to become unequally yoked to a non-believer, either through marriage, friendship or a business partnership, we will find ourselves in constant conflict. We will discover that our “plowing partner” has a different agenda. Rather than working together, we will fight one another, accomplishing little when it comes to God’s Kingdom work. It is one thing to share the gospel with a lost individual. It is another thing to share life with them. We must love the lost and be willing to share the hope of Christ with them. But we are never to forget that in their unredeemed state, they are still enemies of God, living in rebellion against Him. Our goal for them should be their salvation. Our purpose in associating with them is that they might know the love of God and be set free from their slavery to sin and death. But ignoring their sin in order to enjoy their friendship is dangerous for us and, ultimately, a sign of a serious lack of love for them.