Imagine two oxen yoked together, pulling a plow. One ox is quite a bit smaller. The yoke sits awkwardly across the two animals, and the plow keeps pulling to the side. Worse yet, imagine that one of oxen has a mind of its own, wanting to trot off in its own direction.
Good luck, Mr. and Mrs. Farmer.
In 2 Cor 6:14, Paul commands, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers” (NRSV): the word “mismatched” is literally to be “differently yoked.” He then launches into a series of rhetorical questions designed to highlight the importance of holiness. Similarly, in 7:1 he says, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, making holiness perfect…” And in the middle, he paraphrases the prophet Isaiah: “Come out from them…be separate from them…touch nothing unclean” (6:17).
Or perhaps we might borrow a line from that cinematic classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Run away! Run away!” Whoever these “unbelievers” are, they sound like bad news.
But who are they? Interpreters disagree. Some refer back to Paul’s discussion of marriage between believers and unbelievers in 1 Cor 7:12-16, and believe that’s the issue here. Some suggest that the issue isn’t necessarily marriage, but business or other partnerships. And some argue that Paul is speaking again of the Corinthians’ reluctance to give up some of their former pagan practices.
But other interpreters insist that none of those readings fit well with the context. Paul has been defending the legitimacy of his apostleship against the accusations of his opponents. He’s just asked the Corinthians to open their hearts to him in 6:13; he’ll ask the same thing again in 7:2. Why, then, would he suddenly veer sideways and talk about marriage, business, or idolatry?
Of course, that prompts some to wonder if Paul really wrote these words, or if they belong somewhere else. But Paul is probably using the rather harsh description “unbelievers” to describe his opponents, because the very gospel is at stake in Corinth. The faithful in Corinth haven’t quite realized it, but the more they let themselves be seduced by the version of the prosperity gospel being preached by Paul’s detractors, the further they get from God.
That’s not to say that the passage is irrelevant to those other readings of the text. But the problem isn’t just between the church and the big bad world: it’s in here, running right through the house. It’s not that inside the church everything is purity and light, while outside, everything is defilement and darkness. The cultural contamination we decry out there is already in here, influencing how we think and live.
But as Ernest Best has suggested, ironically, it is for precisely that reason that we need to be careful how we apply Paul’s command. Distinctions between believers and unbelievers were more obvious in a flagrantly pagan first-century city with relatively few Christians. Today, our shared mass culture makes the boundaries fuzzier. Moreover, we have a knack for drawing such distinctions in self-serving ways. Who are the faithful? Well, we are, of course! And they…well, they’re just poor lost souls to be pitied.
The pursuit of holiness comes to nothing if it isn’t deeply grounded in humility. That said, when it comes to not being “unequally yoked,” we may have some hard decisions to make. In that process, we must remember, as Bible scholars are apt to remind us, that Paul’s moral imperatives are based on the indicatives–“should” depends on “is.” In other words, when we are told what we must do, it is founded on factual statements about who we are in Christ; our moral life as Christians proceeds from how we understand what God has done and what God will do.
More on that in upcoming posts.