The Expository Files


The Unequal Yoke Forbidden

2 Corinthians 6:14-18

"Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of the living God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, 'I will make dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty'." 2 Cor. 6:14-18, ESV

In Bible study, one of our earliest purposes should be to discover the original meaning of a passage. To start with present day applications is often premature and sometimes ignores context. First, find out what the passage meant when written to the original recipients. Once the student is clear about that, present applications can be considered.

The original meaning of the above passage is not hidden from us. It lies on the surface. Attempts to mix righteousness and lawlessness are forbidden. We cannot just assign any meaning we want to the unequal yoke. We must let the text tell us what that means. It means, attempts to mix righteousness and lawlessness.

This is not about just having two things or two people together in general. The statement is not a generic, catch-all prohibition the reader can throw anything into. The forbidden behavior here is an attempt to put things together that would involve right mixed with wrong, or compromise.

Paul makes an application of this to idolatry. Two inquires show Paul making that application of the principle. "What accord has Christ with Belial?" and "What agreement has the temple of God with idols?"

Thus, there is both principle and application in the passage. The principle is, attempts to mix righteousness and lawlessness are forbidden. The application is made to idolatry. Let me add, this is essentially the same as 1 Cor. 10:21, "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons."

Imagine a Christian in Corinth having a idolatrous (unbelieving) friend or relative. This proscribes not the friendship or acquaintance itself, nor believer with unbeliever joining together in things innocent. This forbids the Christian from participation with the unbeliever in idolatry. The unbeliever might issue an invitation, "Will you go with me today to the temple and help me offer the animal to the gods? Will you worship with me? Can we eat the meat together unto my gods?" The answer would need to be "no," to be consistent with Paul's instruction. The key to understanding this is "fellowship" or "participation" with the unbeliever in wrong. Not all association with unbelievers is forbidden; only that association that would be sinful, an attempt to participate with the unbeliever in their unbelief, in their sin.

The practice of Jesus may help us understand this. He was with sinners, even sat at the table with them (Matt. 9:9-13). He was with unbelievers, but didn't sin with them. He associated with them, but was never unequally yoked with them. It is not all association with unbelievers that is forbidden in 2 Cor. 6. It is association (fellowship, partnership) that attempts to combine righteousness and lawlessness; that seeks to put things together that do not belong - "the temple of God with idols."

There is another example, showing that not all association or relationship with unbelievers is automatically sinful. Paul cites a case in 1 Cor. 7. "...if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him," (1 Cor. 7:12,13). Observe, Paul doesn't say to these "mixed marriages," Come Out! Her says, stay in. We know Paul would not tell people to stay in a wrong relationship, so we must conclude - the relationship itself is not wrong.

The unequal yoke in 2 Cor. 6 is not just believer associated with unbeliever. It is believer associated with unbeliever in sin.

When we find ourselves in association with someone in sin, it should be our urgent purpose to get out of that forbidden fellowship, that partnership with an unbeliever in wrong conduct. Just as Paul said, "flee sexual immorality," in 1 Cor. 6:18, he teaches here to get out of any relationship where you are a participant with another in sin.

The unequal yoke is not just anything we want it to be. It is only what Paul says it is. Fellowship with an unbeliever in sin. (See also Eph. 5:11).

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 14.1; January 2007