What Does “Unequally Yoked” Really Mean? Part I

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 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

– 2 Corinthians 6:14, NIV

The Text and its Uses

How people often use the text

II Corinthians 6:14a is one of those verses that divide people. It is used by ministers to discourage congregants from entering marriage unions with people non-Christian faith, or with people who are not members of their particular denomination. Truth be told, some denominations make a bigger deal of it than others. Among the strictest and most forceful proponents of this application of the text are Seventh-day Adventists.

For example, the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, citing several warnings in the Spirit of Prophecy against marriage between “the believer and the unbeliever”, strongly discourages “marriage between a Seventh-day Adventist and a member of another religion and strongly urges its pastors not to perform such marriages.”[1] Similarly, the Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook discourages ministers from officiating at such marriage ceremonies, referring in more specific terms to non-Seventh-day-Adventist marriages. [2] Both statements cite II Corinthians 6:14 as at least part of the defense.

If you’re Adventist then you’ve probably heard it said that marrying an “unbeliever” constitutes a grave spiritual capitulation – possibly even apostasy. That’s pretty strong language, wouldn’t you say? Is it justified on the basis of this verse?

The rhetoric, however, seems to be changing. More and more you’re hearing ministers say “You’re free to act on your faith, just bear in mind the potential difficulties,” and “There is nothing wrong with marrying a non-Adventist as long as they are Christian.” The reasons for this growing openness are many.

Some of them are theological; how do we correctly interpret Paul’s strongly worded admonition in II Corinthians 6:14(a)? Is the text saying what we say it says about marriage? Almost everyone agrees “unequally yoked” denotes interpersonal relationship of some kind, but of what kind? Is it about marriage at all?

For example, commenting in a paper entitled Marrying an ‘Unbelieving’ Partner: An Exegetical Study of II Corinthians 6:14, one Ghanaian-based theologian asserts, “This relationship has nothing to do with marital relations…” He further concludes, “Theologically speaking, it seems appropriate to encourage interdenominational marriages.”[1]

Those concerned with the theology seek to establish a clear guide for the life of a church that appears to be increasingly double-minded on a foundational aspect of church life – marriage and family.

Others are missiological in their concerns; how can the church effectively reach others outside our faith? A few people call that marriage evangelism. Still others are possibly rather ecumenical in outlook, quite probably without realizing it. The mission concern is usually expressed by attending such marriage ceremonies, as a show of support and solidarity with our member as well as the non-Adventist spouse. The goal is winning the non-member with our love and open embrace.

Increasingly, others have community in mind, because more and more among us are marrying outside the faith. We do not wish to alienate them from our communities and fellowships; there is no reason why marriage should divide us and break perfectly good friendships. This particular concern tends to lead to a “silence is golden” approach to the issue.

But a difficulty arises. These differing positions breed uncertainty in a congregation of young people looking for partners, and for direction. What is to be believed, and how are such unions to be handled in the church? Our concern today is primarily theological, but it is also practical: Is it or is it not a sin to marry a non-Adventist? What does “unequally yoked” really and truly mean?

The Setting

The culture and ecclesiology of Corinthian church

In order to truly understand the text we need to understand the situation into which Paul wrote it. There was a very specific ecclesiastical and emotional climate in the church in Corinth when Paul wrote, and it has a significant bearing on how the text is to be seen.

Paul wrote this verse in a letter to the church in Corinth, probably around 52 to 55 AD, while working in Ephesus. He had earlier been with the church Corinth, working there for a year and a half to establish them in the faith.

Corinth itself was a reconstructed city. In its former days it was a bustling port city, supporting trade between eastern and western Europe and the Mediterranean. It was utterly destroyed in 146 BC by the Romans, who prohibited its rebuilding. It had been famed for sexual profligacy and generally decadent morals. The expression “to Corinthianize” meant to fornicate, and “a Corinthian girl” was a colloquial expression for a prostitute or sexually promiscuous young lady.

However in 29 BC Julius Caesar commissioned its reconstruction, and the ancient city was restored, this time under Roman rule. The Romans brought in a mixture of people to inhabit the city; freedmen from Rome, Jews, and Greeks, among others. It was made the capital of the region of Achaia, and was the seat of its proconsul.[2]

Paul likely established the Corinthian church around 51 AD. While the city itself was not the den of sexual carousing it used to be, its multi-cultural population was nonetheless a strong influence for worldliness and sexual laxity on the church. After Paul left for Ephesus, Apollos, and possibly also Peter labored in this new church. One of the first issues to emerge then was that various members of the church identified more with one or other leader, and soon factions began to form around personalities.

In fact, this situation, in addition to the sexual laxity that was creeping into the church, prompted Paul to write four times to the church. The first letter, which is lost, dwelt primarily on the sexual problem. We know this because Paul refers to it in 1 Corinthians 5:9. The second letter, Corinthians B, is the biblical I Corinthians. It likewise dealt with sexual immorality, but also with the leadership issues we have mentioned:

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task.

2 Corinthians 3:4, 5

The third letter, called Corinthians C, is also lost. It is often called the tearful, or severe letter. We know about it because again, Paul alludes to it in II Corinthians 2:4: “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” The context for this letter is that Paul had earlier visited Corinth, after I Corinthians had failed to deliver his desired results. In fact, he warned in the letter that if they did not change, he would “come to [them] with a rod of discipline” – I Corinthians 4:21 [brackets mine]. He did exactly this, when the letter, along with the young Timothy who was to be its courier and implementer, failed to quell the chief dissenters in the congregation.

So true to his word, the determined apostle made a “painful visit” to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 2:1). Obviously, this visit, too, was not successful. Paul got in into confrontations with leaders and teachers who challenged his apostolic authority and teaching (2 Corinthians 11:13). He was unable to establish his own authority, or win over the church in its entirety. His visit was brief and painful, and he left disappointed.

But Paul was not the type to easily give up. He wrote his “tearful letter” to implore them to reconsider, and to deal decisively with those who fostered wrong doctrine that condoned laxity in sexual and moral standards. This time he sent the letter by Titus, whom some commentators think may have been a more forceful person than Timothy. The errand was a success, and eventually Titus met Paul at Macedonia, bringing good news; the Corinthians had finally been persuaded, and he had successfully dealt with the false teachers, re-established harmony and the authority of Paul as their pastor.

The jubilant Paul then writes Conrinthians D – the biblical II Corinthians – to express his unbridled joy.

“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.”

2 Corinthians 7:8, 9

For Paul, all that effort, though it brought strife for a short while, was worth it:

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret… See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. [3]

2 Corinthians 7:10, 11

He is even conciliatory enough to beg forgiveness for his offenders if they have repented:

The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.

2 Corinthians 2: 6 – 8

So by the time II Corinthians is done, all is well and happy in Kojokrom. This is the historical, cultural and ecclesiastical (church) setting into which Paul writes II Corinthians, the letter in which our text of controversy resides. It comes to us, then, in the context of an attempt by Paul to re-insert himself into the body politic of his church, establishing himself and his associates like Timothy and Titus in authority, while distancing his opponents from influence and authority amongst the flock.

The Context – Literary Power Play

The text in the context of its literary unit

So we’ve seen the historical context. It’s time to quickly inspect the literary context as well. Our verse is set not only in a place and time, but quite obviously in a larger body of text as well. As with all writing, it is influenced by this textual “environment”. So it’s worth a look in.

The Literary Unit Of II Corinthians 6:14

It is often useful to identify a literary unit in order to determine the big idea, general motivation or indeed the circumstantial cause of a given statement.

Most authors agree that this verse occurs within a literary unit that begins from 6:14 and ends in 7:1.[3] But as a whole, this block falls nicely in place within a larger unit beginning right from the first verse of chapter 1.

So let’s do the trace. Chapter 1 begins with perfunctory greetings. This is typical of Paul. Remember, he is in particularly high spirits, so his greetings are quite earnest. He has hope that any pain they go through now will give way to reconciliation. He recount how he intended to visit them again, this time in joy, but was unable. He stresses that he and his associates are not master over them, but fellow laborers with them. The strain continues through chapter two, stressing full reconciliation and forgiveness for the offenders.

By chapter 3, the Corinthian believers have become “our epistle written on our hearts” (v. 2). In chapter 5, Paul develops his theme in light of ultimate reconciliation between God and humankind through Christ. He urges them, “we implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God” (v. 20). By implication, Paul wants them to be reconciled to himself and his associate ministers, since it is they who brought them the gospel, and since they are God’s “ambassadors”. Chapter 6 strengthens the plea with emotion. “We are not withholding our affection form you, but you are withholding yours from us… open wide your hearts also” (v. 12,13).

So this is the immediate textual context of verse 14a. It is a logical development on the preceding verses. Paul cautions the Corinthians to not be “unequally yoked with unbelievers” only after imploring them to be yoked again with himself. Verses 14b – 18 employ Old Testament references to emphasize the point of separating from the so-called unbelievers and reuniting with God (and by implication, with Paul). In 7:2, 3 Many see Paul’s plea as reaching a crescendo as he asks them to “make room for us in your hearts… you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you.”

So just how does this background help us to unpack Paul’s meaning in his famous “unequally yoked” statement?

Stay tuned for Part II – The Exegetical Meaning of II Corinthians 6:14a


References

[1] The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Ministerial Association, Seventh-Day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring:  General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2010), 148.

[2] The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Ministerial Association, The Seventh-Day Adventist Minister’s Handbook (Silver Spring, Maryland: n.p, 2009), 175 – 76.

[3] Daniel Berchie “Marrying an ‘Unbelieving’ Partner: An Exegetical Study of 2 Corinthians 6:14”, Valley View University Journal of Theology 3 (2014), 71.

[4] D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005), 268, 269.

[5] Truncated

[6] Freeman, Julian. “An Exegetical Analysis of 2 Corinthians” 6:14 – 7:1. 2008. Retrieved from http://julianfreeman.ca/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/greek-exegetical-paper-2-cor-6-14-7-1-reformatted.pdf


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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.