For most of my Christian life I have assumed that the command in 2 Corinthians 6:14, telling Christians not to be unequally yoked, referred only to dating and marriage. It was not until very recently that my eyes have been opened to the reality that this command goes beyond romantic relationships to include all relationships of an intimate nature. Here is the 2 Corinthians 6 passage in full context:
O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections. Now in return for the same (I speak as to children), you also be open. Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore; “Come out from among the and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:11-18, NKJV)
Taken at face value, this certainly sounds like a prohibition on any and all interactions with those who are unsaved, but obviously that cannot be the case. How could we fulfill the Great Commission if we eschew all relations with nonbelievers? This is where historical context is key, so I did some in-depth research on the subject.
The church in Corinth was started by Paul himself, therefore it is natural that he had a particular affection and concern for the Corinthians. At the time of the writing of the letters in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Corinth was a thriving trade city, rife with idolatry and sexual immorality. Unfortunately, much of these pagan ways were sneaking their way into the church and influencing how the Christians in Corinth worshipped God, as well as how they conducted their lives. In 2 Corinthians, Paul praises the church in Corinth for heeding his warnings in his earlier letters and repenting of their follies. He had heard some concerning reports, however, and wrote the letters contained in 2 Corinthians (most historians believe 2 Corinthians is a collection of more than one letter) for the purpose of addressing these worrisome things he had heard. One of the concerns he had was the intimate mingling of Christians with non-Christians. The Greek word used for the phrase “unequally yoked together” is heterozugeo, and appears just this once in the Bible. It’s actually a compound agricultural word that translates to: “to yoke up differently; to associate discordantly; unequally yoke together.” It paints a clear picture of yoking together two different animals, such as an ox with a donkey, for the purpose of plowing a field or pulling a wagon. This practice fundamentally does not work, and results in work that is poorly done or unable to be completed at all. Paul’s concern in this passage is that the Corinthian Christians were having all sorts of “yoked” relationships with pagans, from marriages to close business partnerships to intimate friendships. The problem with such relationships is the potential for the relationship to compromise the integrity and ministry of the believer. As we have all heard, it’s easier to drag someone down than it is to pull someone up. Also, when Christians have close relations with people whose values do not match the Bible, the natural response is often to turn a blind eye to the sin or to water down Biblical truth in order to keep from offending the nonbeliever. This is in direct disobedience to the command that we are to have no fellowship with darkness, but rather to seek it out and expose it (Ephesians 5:11). The commentary in my 1599 Geneva Bible offers the following insight:
“Now he [Paul] rebuked them boldly, for that they became fellows with infidels in outward idolatry, as though it were a thing indifferent.”
The real question here is what constitutes unequal yoking. It’s not spelled out in black and white terms, and whenever there’s grey area you will find divided opinions. I think we all can safely agree that our relationships are something we should routinely examine. This is not to say that we should have nothing to do with nonbelievers, but that we should tread carefully and utilize discernment. The first and foremost purpose of our friendships with nonbelievers should be to bring them to salvation. When the degree of closeness of our relationship with a nonbeliever begins to compromise our Christian walk or our outward ministry to the world, it’s time to step back and pray about it. I’ll close with the commentary of 2 Corinthians 6:14 found in my Archaeological Study Bible, as I believe it accurately sums up how the Holy Spirit has convicted me regarding friendships with nonbelievers:
“Paul pleaded with the Corinthians not to be ‘yoked together’ with unbelievers. He was referring to any kind of association that might significantly form an individual’s identity. Determining whether someone is ‘yoked together’ with another is a judgement call. The answer depends on the degree, significance, purpose and level of self-identification involved in one person’s relationship with another.” (Emphasis mine.)