Unequally Yoked Together. Does 2 Corinthians Apply to Marriage
Some things in the world about us just don’t mix. Oil and water, for example. Their unique and individual molecular structures and properties are such that they simply do not meld naturally into one.
Yes, men can manipulate the various components of matter so as to impose a forced fusion, but such is unnatural and unstable. In time, nature will inevitably correct itself. The cute little kitten and the dog pictured here look precious together, but they were never intended to be mates. Indeed, nature will not allow feline-canine cross-breeding. They just don’t “mix.” Men were never intended to mate with other men, nor women with women. It is “against nature” (Romans 1:26). Man’s “suitable companion,” by divine design, is woman. Some people seek to “fool Mother Nature,” but their efforts are as contrary to God’s will as a dog mating with a cat.
Some things were just never intended to be. Although cats and dogs may well have close association, and may even evidence affection for one another on occasion, yet there is a depth of intimacy and oneness that is beyond their ability to experience. A cat and dog may associate, but they can never assimilate. This is also true for other vital relationships in life. We will move now to the verse where the apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Corinth, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14, KJV).
The above passage has generated much discussion, as one might imagine. One question that frequently arises is: Does the teaching of Paul have application to marriage? Specifically: may a believer marry an unbeliever? May a Christian marry one who is not (i.e., a Jew, a Buddhist, an atheist, etc.)? Does God recognize such unions as legitimate marriages? Does He forbid them altogether? If such persons marry, are these unions sinful in the sight of God? Must they terminate these unions to again be in fellowship with the Father? These are serious questions, the answers to which will obviously impact the lives of countless men, women and children (Christian and non-Christian). It thus behooves us to engage in some careful and prayerful reflection.
A rather conservative minister of the gospel from the great state of Georgia, whose paternal ancestors were leading figures in our own Restoration Movement faith-heritage, sent me the following email a few weeks back:
Brother Al, Greetings from Georgia. I have a favor to ask of you. Although I do not always agree with your conclusions about various matters (although sometimes I do), I do respect the fact that you are a careful student of the Scriptures. At the present I am in discussions with some brethren on the matter of a Christian marrying a non-Christian. While I do not think it wise, and caution against it, I have not come to the point of believing it to be a sin in every case. Their argument is based on the 2 Corinthians 6 verse (among other passages), where Paul warns Christians not to be “bound” (NASB) or “unequally yoked” (ASV) with unbelievers. My own view on this is that the language in the text suggests that it is possible to be “equally yoked.” I know that many translations leave out the “unequal” part, but the Greek word heterozugeo suggests to me an unequal binding together.
The context there is not even talking about marriage per se, but I can certainly see where it could be included if I am contemplating a marriage (or a job) where I would be the weaker one, and would thus need to compromise my faith in order to be in that relationship. My brethren, of course, refer to Moses and the commandment not to marry foreigners, and how in Ezra’s time the foreign wives were put away, as well as Paul’s claim that he had the right to lead about a “believing” wife. But, if I cannot be yoked at all with an unbeliever, then I fail to see how I could even work for one. Moses, by the way, did give an “exception” to the marriage matter when he told how to treat a foreign captive whom one desired to take as a wife. Anyhow, I would appreciate your research and thoughts on this!
Examining the Text
The Greek word which the KJV renders “unequally yoked” is heterozugeo, which is a very rare word in biblical literature. It is found only here in all of the New Covenant writings, and is found only once in all of the Old Covenant writings (Lev. 19:19). It means to be “yoked unequally” with another. In the Law of Moses, many feel it had a clear reference to breeding or mating of animals that were unsuitable. “You shall not let your livestock breed with another kind” (Lev. 19:19, NKJV). The NIV renders this verse: “Do not mate different kinds of animals.” “It is the prohibition of mating animals under a different yoke, i.e., of a different species, like the ass and the ox” (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, p. 901). Some scholars, therefore, feel that Paul may well have had mating in mind between believers and unbelievers (i.e., marriage).
The apostle Paul informs the saints in Corinth that they must not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. Needless to say, this has raised some questions among believers. Does this signify no association with unbelievers at all? Or, is there some qualifier to the idea of an “unequal” union, with the implication being that some associations may be acceptable if they are not deemed “unequal”? If this is the case, what constitutes an “unequal” union? And what types of unions or associations are in view? Marital? Professional? Educational? Political? Social? These are serious matters with which many sincere believers have struggled for centuries, and scholarship is very much divided as to the answers, with diversity of dogma abounding.
It should also be pointed out at this juncture that not all scholars are agreed that the use of this word in the Law of Moses is sexual in nature. “Is it possible that the figure in Leviticus 19:19 is not sexual at all? More naturally it would forbid causing different animals to bear a load in such a way that it would be an unequal load under which they would fall. If this interpretation is adopted, the law would fit beautifully its parallel in Deuteronomy. Indeed, the LXX on Leviticus 19:19 can be read thus: ‘You shall not hold down your animals with an unequal yoke.’ The word ‘hold down’ is rare and is translated here sexually by some, but its derivatives usually refer to ‘restraint’ in general. The Greek word heterozugos (‘unequal yoke’) is used in the LXX only here and is probably alluded to by Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:14. We would suggest for Leviticus 19:19, therefore, something like, ‘Do not make your animals fall down with an unequal yoke’” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 606-607).
The other passage from the Old Testament writings that Paul most likely had in mind as he penned these admonitions to the saints in the city of Corinth was Deut. 22:10 (which was alluded to above) — “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together” (NASB). Actually, the word for “yoke” is employed in this verse. The NIV, for example, reads, “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” Such would be an “unequal yoking” of two animals. They would not be of equal strength, disposition and ability, thus the plowing of the field would be made far more difficult than was necessary. It’s possible one would fall under the unequal burden. To offer an even more dramatic illustration, if a large horse and a small goat are yoked together, it is highly unlikely that the farmer will be able to plow a straight furrow in his field. His team is clearly “unequally yoked,” thus one member will easily and inevitably overpower the other, with negative results!
“The reference is to Deut. 22:10, a verse which forbade harnessing an ox and an ass, a clean and an unclean beast, together to a plow. Paul uses this passage in a figurative way: the believer has been cleansed, the unbeliever has refused to be cleansed. What business have they under the same yoke? … What a picture: a believer with his neck under the unbeliever’s yoke! What business has he in such an unnatural, self-contradictory association?” (R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of First & Second Corinthians, p. 1078). “This is a prohibition against forming close attachments with non-Christians. Paul’s agricultural metaphor is based on the command of Deut. 22:10 that prohibited the yoking of an ox and an ass for ploughing, and also on Lev. 19:19 where the crossbreeding of animals of different species is prohibited. … The principle might be expressed thus: ‘Do not form any relationship, whether temporary or permanent, with unbelievers that would lead to a compromise of Christian standards or jeopardize consistency of Christian witness’” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 359).
David Lipscomb, in his commentary on Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, wrote, “To be unequally yoked would be to be so connected with the unbeliever that the believer would be controlled by the unbeliever. Persons that do not harmonize in purpose, walk, and life should not be so bound together that the believer would be controlled by the unbeliever” (p. 93). Clearly, Paul is focusing on the idea of an unequal yoking. He certainly does not discourage all association with those who are outside of a relationship with Christ Jesus. This is not a passage suggesting exclusion and isolation from the world around us; cloistering ourselves in convents or monasteries is not in view here, although some have so taught. Paul clarifies this matter of Christians associating with non-Christians in 1 Cor. 5:9-10, indicating that if we were to pull away from ALL such associations with unbelievers, “you would have to leave this world.” Dr. Philip Hughes correctly notes, “It would be a serious mistake to conclude that Paul is here condemning all contact and intercourse with non-Christians; isolationism of this sort would logically necessitate departure from the world. In other words, it is a position of absurdity. The pharisaical attitude of exclusiveness was discarded by him once for all at his conversion” (Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 245).
Obviously, we can’t remove ourselves from association with the world about us. One day the Lord will do that for us, but that day is yet future. Until then, we are to be in the world (physically), but not of the world (spiritually). On the night of His betrayal and arrest, Jesus prayed to the Father, “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Paul’s advice is along these same lines. We cannot avoid association with the worldly-minded people of this planet. Indeed, some association will be necessary if we are to be a leavening force for change. We must mingle with them so as to share the positive message of God’s grace. What Paul, and Jesus Christ, discourage is: allowing ourselves to become involved in associations where we will be under the negative influence, power, and control of those who are opposed to God’s will, and who seek to transform us from the domain of light unto the domain of darkness. As Christians, we must never allow another this degree of control over us; we must avoid, or remove ourselves from, such “unequal yoking.” Our very salvation could hang in the balance!
Is Marriage to Unbelievers Prohibited?
In fairness, we must acknowledge that Paul, in the passage before us, does not specifically or directly refer to the marriage relationship. Nowhere will one find the command, “Thou shalt not marry an unbeliever.” Indeed, we find reference in the NT writings to such unions. Paul, in 1 Cor. 7:12-16, speaks to those who are married to unbelievers, encouraging them to stay together, working to bring their partners to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter also encourages wives of unbelievers to work to win their husbands to the Lord (1 Peter 3:1-2). Obviously, religiously mixed marriages are not the ideal situation. In fact, there are serious problems involved with such unions, and many are destined to fail. Nevertheless, they do exist, and Christians who find themselves in such circumstances should do their best to bring a positive influence to these relationships.
Very few people will argue with the premise, however, that the ideal is for believers to marry other believers. This may very well be the intent of the apostle Paul in his instruction to widows — “if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). This is about as close to an injunction against marriage to unbelievers that one will find, but even this passage is open to various possible interpretations, thus one should not be dogmatic regarding his personal perception.
Since Paul, in 2 Cor. 6:14, does not specifically relate his charge to marital relationships, I personally would hesitate to declare dogmatically that it is sinful for Christians to marry non-Christians. I have seen unbelievers brought to the Lord by believing spouses. Paul even alludes to such in 1 Cor. 7. I would personally never encourage such a union, and would strongly counsel against it, but I would never condemn it as sinful. It is my conviction, based on my study and my observation in years of counseling couples in religiously mixed marriages, that believers should NOT marry unbelievers. I feel very strongly that such unions will present some difficult challenges to both spouses; it is simply asking for trouble! One of the passages I quote in every wedding ceremony I perform is from the first epistle of the apostle Peter. He charged husbands and wives to be “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). When husbands and wives journey together toward their heavenly home, that is the IDEAL in marriage. That ideal is not realized when husbands and wives are traveling separate paths spiritually. They are “unequally yoked” … they are pulling in different directions. The tragedy is that many believers are pulled down the path to destruction by the unbelievers. That is the very real danger of being “unequally yoked” with unbelievers. This is especially true in the marital relationship.
“Paul does not state in specific terms just what he means by being unequally yoked with unbelievers, but already in the earlier epistle there are indications of some of the things he must have had in mind, namely, marriages between Christians and non-Christians” (Dr. Philip Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 245). “True Christian partnership is that which exists between genuine yokefellows (Philp. 4:3), and that can apply only to those who already are one in Christ Jesus” (ibid). “There is no question that it would be better for both husband and wife to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, although there is no evidence in the context to show that Paul had this subject in mind” (Dr. T.R. Applebury, Studies in 2 Corinthians, p. 126). “Saints should choose Christian alliances and associations. How can a believer in Christ have a close intimacy with one who is still under the dominion of the prince of this world?” (Dr. B.W. Johnson, The People’s New Testament with Notes, vol. 2, p. 144).
“Some apply this exhortation to pious persons marrying with those who are not decidedly religious and converted to God. That the exhortation may be thus applied I grant; but it is certainly not the meaning of the apostle in this place. Nevertheless, common sense and true piety show the absurdity of two such persons pretending to walk together in a way in which they are not agreed. A very wise and very holy man has given his judgment on this point: ‘A man who is truly pious, marrying with an unconverted woman, will either draw back to perdition, or have a cross during life.’ The same may be said of a pious woman marrying an unconverted man” (Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 6, p. 343).
My own studied conviction on this “unequally yoked” matter is perhaps best expressed by brother David Lipscomb in his commentary on the passage in question:
“While I would not say that this passage is an absolute prohibition of the marriage of a believer to an unbeliever, it certainly discourages it. The whole drift and tenor of the Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testaments, is that in the close and intimate relations of life the children of God should seek the companionship of servants of God, that they might help and encourage each other in the service of God. When both are working together, man in his weakness often becomes discouraged; it is greatly worse when the nearest and dearest one pulls from Christ and duty. Then, too, when people marry, they ought to consider the probability of rearing children. It is the duty of Christian parents to rear their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. How can one do this when the other sets the example of unbelief and disobedience to God? This passage certainly forbids persons tying themselves to unbelievers in any business or any relation by which the believer is influenced or controlled by the unbeliever. How can a relationship be found that does this more effectually than the marriage relation?” (p. 93-94).