by Al Maxey

Issue #151 ------- October 6, 2004
Few people think more than two or three times
a year; I have made an international reputation
for myself by thinking once or twice a week.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Unequally Yoked Together
Does 2 Cor. 6:14 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. The apostle Paul wrote 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:

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.

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 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. Just by way of comment on the mixed marriage situation during Ezra's time, to which the reader from Georgia alluded, I would refer the readers to Reflections #85 --- The Mixed Marriages of Israel and the Painful Reforms of Ezra. I think that article will help explain God's purpose for the action taken, and whether or not that remedy relates to our present deliberation on 2 Corinthians 6:14.

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).

My own studied conviction on this whole 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).

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Canada:

In America, in 2004, one of your top magazines had three soldiers on the cover, and it proclaimed them to be "Man of the Year." In Canada, on the cover of the same magazine, we had two gay men kissing as our "Men of the Year." I was, and am, embarrassed by that magazine cover. Our nation is sick, and God will bring judgment on us. I don't believe I have a deeper respect for another brother than I have for you. God has blessed you with the ability to write with clarity. Each Reflections is like a Christmas dinner. After feasting on your teaching, I then need some quiet time to digest it all. God bless you, Al.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

After reading the comments from the "retired" preacher from Texas, I was reminded of two of my favorite passages: "Come, let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18) and "The Bereans examined the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). It is unfortunate, but we have severe censorship in the church. It would be to our benefit if we could study and discuss all of these issues. But, instead, censorship is practiced in the selection of preachers, teachers, bulletin articles, even what goes on the church sign, and they would never list the TV programs of those who don't "measure up."

From a Reader in California:

Bravo to the "Reader in Texas" quoted in your last Reflections. We decided that we would "never again be at the mercy of the brethren" for love, approval, support, fellowship, interpretation of the Scriptures, or anything else that had to be bought by our silence on so many unscriptural and often ungodly teachings as were so prevalent from our pulpits. Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Thank you for bringing up a weekly conundrum of mine. My concern lies with the word "communion." The non-Christian definitions of this word say it is "an act or instance of sharing" and "intimate fellowship or rapport." Where is the communion in our current Communion? Weekly meditation upon our Lord's sacrifice is beneficial and strengthening, but my understanding is that Communion should benefit us by our sharing of each other. Communion should be a time for us to engage each other and share our faith and love for our Lord. If I asked my wife and 3 sons to sit at our table at night and not talk, but instead look solemn and contrite while we eat, I would be destroying the purpose of sitting down together in the first place. The act of sharing a meal together is special across cultures and centuries. Isn't this why Jesus used a meal as the tangible representation of His sacrifice? This is not just a Church of Christ denominational problem, nor whether one is conservative or mainstream. There are many people who ask, "Why do we do it this way?" Maybe the first step is for us to actually be "allowed" to talk to each other about these issues.

From a Reader in Maryland:

Al, I agree with you. I have thought long and hard about this statement by Jesus, and also about His prayer in the garden to have the cup taken from Him. So many people want to say that Jesus prayed this because He was afraid of the physical harm that would come to Him -- but I am convinced that Jesus was speaking of the separation He knew He would suffer. To cast Jesus' sacrifice as only, or even mostly, physical, is to miss completely the real agony He suffered at being separated from the Father as He became our sin offering.

From My Critic in Alabama:

Al, your message -- The Passion Psalm -- is Calvinistic teaching to the core. Surely you can see that! To say that our sins were transferred to Jesus on the cross is Calvinistic imputation. It is made even worse by saying that His "becoming sin" was so severe that the Father could not look on Him. That is a necessary part of the Calvinist's Substitution Theory that is absolutely essential to their Limited Atonement and Impossibility of Apostasy. The passages presented do not teach what you claim. You are falling into the Neo-Calvinistic teaching that is so prevalent in the denominational world today. Please rethink what you have said.

From a Reader in Texas:

I have just finished Reflections #150 and would like to make a few random remarks on it, and also on the Readers' Section. Unless a person has read a medical report on a crucifixion I don't think one will ever really understand the real reason for our Savior's cry. This was torture to the "nth" degree. I feel that at that instant Jesus was being totally human. Words can't describe the horrific agony He was suffering. As I write this, tears come to my eyes just thinking about Him agonizing on that cross for all of us. His words show He was still thinking of His Father in the last moments of life and at His death.

The reader quoted the young elder as saying, "That is not the way we do things." This, I am afraid, is the true intent of that statement -- "Do it my way or get out." No reasons are given ... just do it. This, I feel, is why we have so much division in Christianity as a whole today. I know lots of Churches of Christ that have been torn apart because of this threat. It is wrong to damage the Body with this kind of childish behavior. As for the rejection of a human being from the church simply because of race -- what a pity! We are all vessels of the Lord to serve Him, and to save souls ... not white souls ... not black souls ... not yellow souls, but ALL souls. Al, bless you, and, as the old saying goes, "May the good Lord take a liking to ye." May He always protect you and yours! Keep up the great work you do.

From a Reader in Nevada:

Al, Your article on Perversion and Racism makes me jump for joy. Praise God. And again, praise Him. For so many years I have heard nothing preached on these two subjects, especially on Gay-Lesbianism. If it is addressed from the pulpits at all it is treated with pablum even by our most outstanding preachers, elders and other teachers. Your article is more than timely. It is God-breathed. And yes, I do believe that God still inspires people to speak His word just as in the days the books of the Bible were being written. God has used you in this article to speak His mind and heart to His people and to the world. Thank God for His message in your article. With your permission I will make copies of this and carry it in my pocket to hand out to people. Please continue the godly work.

From a Reader in Nebraska:

I appreciate your causing us to grapple with interpretative difficulties. Few things are better than honest discussion.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Jesus Loves Me. That was the song in church yesterday morning that tore my heart out of my chest and sent it soaring heavenward. Why? Because I was holding my 3 year old son, and when the song started his eyes grew big and he started singing at the top of his lungs! Those around us beamed and looked at him; even the song leader and the preacher up front could hear him. I couldn't sing -- all I could do was hold him tight and cry ... and thank God that my son was alive and well and in His presence. I hope I can be a worthy father and patiently nurture him in the glory of the Lord. When the song ended, we sat down and my son looked up at me, smiling, and said, "Daddy, I knew that song!" I couldn't reply as I choked up again. I just hugged him and kissed him and marveled at how such a simple "children's song" could speak the message of God's love so clearly. "Jesus love me, this is know. For the Bible tells me so!"

From a Reader in Costa Rica:

Brother Maxey, you are a blessing to us! The Lord was certainly good to me the day He led me to your web site. That day I read your Reflections article on "false teachers." I was so blessed by what you wrote that I spent most of the next day reading and meditating on six more of your Reflections articles, and also the dialogue you had with the Baptist Pastors David Martin and Ray Meier. Your writings are a breath of fresh air. I believe you are making a very important and loving impact on others! God be praised! I thank Jesus that He is using you to make a difference in the lives of so many, including myself. Thank you again, brother Maxey, for your many great articles.

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Brother, I live in rural Kentucky and you cannot find any more ultra-conservative people than those who live here. I have a friend who is part of the ultra-conservative Churches of Christ that you often mention in your writings. I want to show him your web site right now! Your description of the Church of Christ is one that I love! However, there are PLENTY of congregations that are giving the Church of Christ a bad name. The way you describe the Church of Christ is the way it is meant to be! Thank God for you!

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