What does it mean to be “unequally yoked”?

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#18 in a series)
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What does it mean to be ‘unequally yoked’ in today’s society?

The phrase is found in the King James Version of 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” Similarly, the NRSV translates “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers,” while the CEB reads, “Don’t be tied up as equal partners with people who don’t believe.”

Many Christians take Paul’s words to mean something like, “Believers shouldn’t marry unbelievers.” And yes, that’s one possible implication of what he says. But look at the verse in context. He’s not talking about marriage or dating, but something more far-reaching: about the quest for holiness and how the whole direction and orientation of our lives is influenced by the company we keep.

The metaphor of being “unequally yoked” gives a nice picture of the difficulty. If you yoke together animals of different sizes, they’ll have a harder time pulling in the same direction and plowing in a straight line. The implication is that if you truly understand your call to holiness, you’ll yoke yourself to people who are going the same way.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth, a relatively young and troubled congregation trying to find their way in the midst of a highly pagan society. The church is mostly made up of Gentile converts who still have deep ties in the community and are struggling to distance themselves from their former pagan habits of thought and practice. Paul is not telling them to cut off relationships with non-Christians, but he is telling them to get serious about holiness.

By implication, that can mean that a believer shouldn’t marry an unbeliever. But that’s not all there is to it. We shouldn’t think, for example, that Christians who marry other Christians can simply check off the box and feel satisfied that they’ve done due diligence. Imagine, for example, a Christian couple whose primarily goal in life seems to be making money. Would Paul say, “Well, you’re both Christians, so that’s all that matters”?

Hardly.

Paul’s goal for the Corinthians, and for us, is holiness. For the Corinthians, that meant a thorough reevaluation of their social network: which relationships would help them be more like Christ, and which wouldn’t? Indeed, which relationships might actually be pulling them in the wrong direction?

Corinth was famously pagan, and Christians were a very small and beleaguered minority. The contrast between Christian belief and practice and pagan custom could be quite striking, and Paul struggled to get the Corinthians to let go of their old ways.

The contemporary American context is a little different. Christians are used to being part of the mainstream (and complain and kick at any sign of marginalization), and often don’t see the ways in which we have adapted our beliefs and priorities to the surrounding culture.

And that may actually make the issues more complicated. Paul, for example, tells the Corinthians to stop frequenting pagan temples — a pretty clear dividing line. But our cultural accommodation today is often more subtle and difficult to discern. In such an environment, it can be oddly comforting to turn Paul’s words into black-and-white commandments that reassure us that we’re doing the right thing: Don’t marry a non-Christian. Got it. Check.

But if we really want to be true to the spirit of what Paul says, we need to reframe the initial question. Instead of asking, “What does it mean to be ‘unequally yoked’ in today’s society?”, we should ask, “What does it mean to be holy in today’s society?”

Whatever it is, do that.

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