“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”
- II Corinthians 6:14a (NIV)
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. 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 was a city famous for sexual immorality and a diverse mixing of cultures.
When Paul writes this letter, he spends the first five chapters speaking about the relationship between himself and the church. He says that while he loves them they are “withholding their affection from him” (v.6:12,13). In 5:20, He asks them to be reconciled to himself and his associates as God’s ambassadors. In 7:2, 3, he begs them, “make room for us in your hearts… you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you.”
So why is Paul worried that the church in Corinth is forsaking him? The situation in the church at the time of writing was one of arguments 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.
In the verse we are looking at, Paul is speaking about these false teachers. 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.”
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.
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 re-establish connections with those who were bringing error and division between them. 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.
However, does this mean that the verse only applies to people who teach a false gospel? In our day it can be applied to any type of association. In fact, the verb heterozugontes is used in another form in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 to refer to marriage.
In this regard we can safely say that the Bible is warning us against any kind of close associations and relationships that will endanger our faith. We must associate with Christ-like people who will “reconcile us to God” to use the words of Paul, rather than with people who weigh us down with an unbalanced yoke. Be it in marriage, in business, in friendships, or in the teaching and learning of doctrine as transpired in Paul’s day, we should avoid unequal yokes with people who will lead us away from God rather than draw us closer to him.