What Does “Unequally Yoked” Really Mean? Part II


Part II – Exegesis and Beyond

 Systematic Theology compares scripture with scripture and sees things that the original writer never had in mind.

– Jon Paulien

So what is the meaning of the verse? We have seen the situation in the church at the time of writing – wrangling over leadership, low spiritual standards, and importantly, the intense activity of false teachers who opposed Paul’s teachings and made life difficult for him and his junior pastors. We have also seen briefly that the general context around the verse is one of reconciliation after the rifts are healed between the apostle and his church. We are now ready to consider the text itself. We’ll take an X-Ray of it and look at its original literary skeleton.

The Unequal Yoke

Do not be unequally (ἑτεροζυγοῦντες) yoked with unbelievers (απιστοι).

It turns out the exegetical meaning is not difficult to ascertain. The famous phrase “unequally yoked” is translated from the word ἑτεροζυγοῦντες (heterozugontes). It comes from two word stems. The first is ἑτερος (heteros) meaning different. The second is ζευγνυμι (zeugnumi), which is a verb meaning “to join, especially by a yoke.”[1]

The imagery then is of two oxen bound together around their necks with unequally sized yokes. In ancient Israel, oxen were yoked to keep them at par as they pulled ploughs over the fields to prepare the soil for planting. The yokes needed to give balance to the oxen, so they could walk apace with each other, and so that one would not tire more quickly than the other. If the yokes were not the same size or weight, one ox would be more sluggish than the other, and there would be immense strain on both as they try to keep in balance.

So to be unequally yoked means to be connected or associated with another or other person(s) on unequal, mismatched terms. But who are the unbelievers?

The Unbelievers

From the textual context and the setting, it is quite safe to conclude that Paul is still speaking of his detractors. He has shown that they are false teachers, and now he asks that they break off their ties with them. As we have seen, directly before saying so he insists that he and his fellow ministers are God’s ambassadors (5:20), and implies that coming back to God means coming back to them. It makes no sense then to continue or reinstate connections with those who were bringing error and division between them.

There are those who believe that there is reason to include all non-Christians in the scope of unbelievers. Their reasons are two-fold: first, Paul also uses the word απιστοι (apistoi) with respect to pagans elsewhere in his epistles. Second, Paul appears to lay down his definition of the gospel in I Corinthians 15:3,4 as the facts of the death and resurrection of Christ. For many people, people who believe in these tenets are Christians. But given the immediate and historical contexts, it is more likely that Paul is concerned about securing his position in the affections of the Corinthians, and alienating the false teachers.

So in a nutshell, the answer to the question is this: in the context in which he wrote, “do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers”, Paul simply meant, “Do not associate with those false teachers who have been giving us such a hard time.” This is the exegetical meaning of the text; this is what it said in the 1st Century, to the Corinthian church audience.


Not So Fast – There’s More

We may have determined the meaning of the text in its immediate context, but we have by no means figured out what it says to us today. Exegesis is doubtless integral to the process of theologizing. Sometimes exegesis alone is sufficient, insofar as it helps us to clarify the meaning of the specific text or passage as intended by the author.

As Jon Paulien has put it, “Exegesis has to do with finding out what a writer was trying to communicate to that original situation, determining his or her intention for the text. It asks the question “What was the writer really trying to say?”” Significantly, he observes that among several of its attributes exegesis is “unchanging”. What an author said and meant two thousand years ago, for example, cannot be changed.

However, in the process of doing theology, we must often move beyond exegesis. Yes, the original author had a specific idea, problem or situation in mind, but that does not mean that the text is forever closed to just that single idea, unable to be applied to any issue beyond its time. To hold that would be to paint a static picture of the Bible that limits its relevance for our present context and challenges. As Paulien points out, “As important as exegesis is, we can’t stop there. God’s intention for scripture is not limited to the original human author’s purpose but is expressed through it.”[2]

To be clear, then, a strictly exegetical conclusion cannot go beyond its immediate meaning in time and place, unless the subsequent circumstances either remain unchanged, or are otherwise arranged in such a way that they warrant the same meaning.

In other words, since 1Corinthians 15:1 – 4, provides the “rule of faith”[3] (the gospel) as Paul articulated it in his day, we can only conclude that the “unbelievers” of Corinthians 6:14a are the same today if we determine that the present articulation of our faith as Seventh-day Adventists is either the same as found in 1 Corinthians 15:1 – 4, or is such that it makes no further, significant modifications to that articulation of the gospel.

But what does it say to us today? What happens when we frame the question not in terms of what Paul intended to say two thousand years ago, but in terms of the needs of today – “Should Adventists marry non-Adventists?” The questions that exegesis attempts to answer, first of all, come from the text of the Bible. The true exegete will go the text with no preconceptions, no preferred outcomes, and indeed with no questions, except “What are you really saying”? But to rely purely on exegesis as the means of answering a twenty-first century question is a false start in the theologizing process. And make no mistake; inter-denominational marriage, particularly as it relates to Adventists, is a twenty-first century question. At the earliest it is a post-biblical-era question. Why do we say so?

Well, because as far as we know, Christian denominations as they exist today were not present in first century Corinth. Modern denominations developed at the earliest as a post-Reformation phenomenon. At best in Paul’s day you had a movement of Judaizers, Jewish Christians who meant to impose as much Jewishness as possible upon their Gentile brethren. Later, certainly after Paul, you had Gnostics, and much later ideas like Marcionism, Monarchianism, Arianism and a host of others appeared. Some regard these as the beginnings of denominations. It is more likely that they were rather schools of thought within a largely unified – though not uniform – Christian tradition.

Today denominations have different names, leaders, beliefs, liturgies, everyday life practices, and worldviews. Seventh-day Adventism as a denomination was obviously then not in Paul’s sights as he wrote that verse in the 1st Century. So the cannot speak directly to how Adventists should handle the issue of inter-denominational marriage.

Secondly, as we have seen, the verse is not directly concerned with marriage at all in its original intention. So exegesis alone cannot provide an answer to a question about marriage of any kind or in any context. If the verse then is to remain alive and useful to us today, we need to take a more holistic approach to finding out what it could mean in our present context. Systematic theology is the way to do this. Sure, exegesis is a good – even necessary – first step. Millard J. Erickson rightly observes, “the systematic theologian is dependent on the work and insights of the laborers in the exegetical vineyard.”[4]. Further, Paulien warns “systematic theology can produce wrong conclusions if it is not based on a thorough and careful exegesis of the text.[5] But we must go beyond exegesis.

You can skip this block; it’s mainly just additional information.

Answering Some Objections

There are some who are not comfortable with this approach. They ask, “Shouldn’t we stick with the Bible at all times? Must we find in the text what is not there intentionally? Doesn’t it all become merely an academic exercise?”

These are, on the surface, legitimate concerns. After all we have the original meaning, which we are much surer of; why do we need to re-interpret or expand it?

First Systematic theology is really a study of textual implications. What are the implications of the text for us today? It does not reinterpret the text per se – it finds, and retains the original meaning, but then it also does the responsible thing of asking what the implications of that meaning are today. In the case of our verse, for example, if we were to stick with the original meaning, then we couldn’t apply it at all unless we also had a church with false teachers coming in and opposing the work of true gospel ministers, which we do. Now here comes the magnifying glass: do Paul’s words apply to individuals as well as to the church? Do other types of relationships (like marriage) provide room for negative spiritual influence (false teaching)? Does our perception of falsehood depend on the amount of truth revealed at a given time? I’m sure your answer is yes to all three questions. If so, then you, like me, cannot escape systematic theology.

Second, Systematic theology does not expand on any text – it shows that often the text is already larger than we used to see. It recognizes that the word is larger than the author’s original intention. The product therefore is as authoritative as that of exegesis. It is exactly what Jesus and the disciples did with the Old Testament texts that so inflamed the Pharisees and Jewish teachers. You see, they were pure exegetes.

The Systematic Christ

For example, In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus showed that the commandments on adultery and murder were larger than the literal acts (vv. 21, 22, 27, 28). Adultery included impure thoughts, and murder includes hateful feeling. Again, for the Pharisees, the Sabbath was merely about physical rest; for Jesus it was about holistic refreshing and renewal (Mark 3:4 – 6). The instances are numerous and clear. The Old Testament text was larger than the Pharisees could see it to be, and Jesus did not shrink from pointing it out to them. He informed them, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.” (John 5:39, NIV).

God dealt with Israel by incremental stages of revelation. Fresh from a strongly idolatrous culture they had much to learn about the deep things of God. The sanctuary, the Commandments, and the ceremonial and sacrificial systems were God’s teaching aids. These all met the people where they were in their experience of God, and in their own language and cultural terms. Jesus merely unlocked the old texts into the terms of his day. Israel was now mature enough to know “the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23) and not just the texts themselves. They were now old enough to see the actuals of salvation behind the types and symbols of their ceremonies. Jesus simply opened up what they didn’t see there before, but it was always there.

And Yes, a Caveat

Can Systematic theology be abused to introduce any and every view an interpreter wishes? Sure it can. But that is no basis on which to avoid it. Indeed, exegesis is no less prone to this weakness. What we must seek in any and all interpretive approaches is the guidance of the Holy Spirit, manifest in prudence and responsibility in our treatment of the text and context.

And so then, what shall we find if we go beyond? What lies beyond the exegetical horizon of II Corinthians 6:14a? Remember, God’s intention for scripture is not limited to the original human author’s purpose but is expressed through it.”[6] What was the Holy Spirit saying to us today through that inspired text which Paul himself might have been completely oblivious of while writing?

Stay tuned for Part III: The Final Verdict


[1] James Strong, Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 4801. Accessed from Accordance Bible Software version 10.13.

[2] Jon Paulien, The Deep Things of God, (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD 21740, 2004), 75

[3] See Berchie, 74

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, (Baker Academic, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, Ebook edition 2013), 10

[5] See Paulien, 75

[6] Jon Paulien, The Deep Things of God, (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD 21740, 2004), 75

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.