July 20, 2014 - 2nd Corinthians 6:14-18
In a high school English class, we were assigned the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I was gravely disappointed. The story involves no birds whatsoever. Based on the title, I had always assumed that it was a book about hunting, or maybe about cool predator – a wolverine, something like that – trying to survive a harsh mountain winter by stalking avian prey. Instead it was about a lawyer. Talk about your misinformation.
I mention that by way of getting something out of the way right up front here. When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth urging them not to be “unequally yoked with unbelievers,” he was not talking about marriage. Not in the first place, at any rate. That’s how you usually hear the commandment applied – and it may well have such an application – but what Paul is trying to say here is something much bigger, much more profound, in some ways much more difficult, than simply not to marry a pagan. So what is it? What does it mean, not to be “unequally yoked with unbelievers?”
In order to figure that out, first we have to know who these “unbelievers” are. And in context there are two possibilities:
The first is that Paul is talking about these false teachers, the so-called “super-apostles,” who had wormed their way into the church at Corinth, and the Corinthian Christians who followed them. That might seem pretty harsh, but remember the stakes: the supposedly newer, better gospel preached by these super-apostles was almost precisely the opposite of the message preached in Corinth by Paul and Aquila and Priscilla.
The super-apostles (Paul used the term sarcastically) preached a gospel of works: live a decent, moral, outwardly religious life, and Jesus will usher you into heaven. Simple, right? What’s wrong with that?
Nothing… except that it doesn’t work. Jesus never said that he came to give decent, religious people a boost; he said that he came to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10) The Gospel message that he entrusted to his apostles, and that was preached by Paul, is a Gospel not of works but of grace. And it had to be, because the simple truth is that no one lives up to the standard of God’s holiness. All have sinned and fallen short of his glory; no one really seeks God, because they’re too busy trying to run their own lives to give him the time of day. Furthermore, the just and deserving wage of sin – the only possible penalty for rebellion against our creator and King – is death. And yet… and yet out of love, Jesus Christ bore the sins of his people to the cross, that everyone who trusts in him by faith should be forgiven, restored to relationship with God, and live forever with him.
Those two messages are so starkly, utterly different, that they can’t be reconciled. One teaches us to rely on ourselves; the other to surrender ourselves and rely wholly on God. If Paul’s Gospel is true – and again, it’s the same message preached by Jesus, and by the apostles who had followed him – then the false teachers were leading people not toward God, but away from him. In that sense, they might reasonably be compared to spiritual darkness, or idols, or even – in verse 15 – with Belial, a name for Satan. The situation was so drastic that in chapter 13, Paul called the Corinthians to examine and test themselves, to “see whether you are in the faith,” or whether they’ve swallowed the line sold by the false teachers, who may claim to be Christians, but deep down are unbelievers. (2 Cor. 13:5)
The second possibility is a little simpler: it’s that when Paul commanded the Corinthians not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers, he meant it perfectly literally, and was talking about people who didn’t even claim to believe in the Lord. Corinth, like any city, was absolutely swimming with them. A century later, one visitor to Corinth counted eight major temples to the Greek gods, twenty public shrines, and five sanctuaries dedicated to the so-called “mystery cults.” In his first letter to Corinth, Paul described it as a place of “many gods and many lords.” (1 Cor. 8:5)
You might think that Christians wouldn’t have anything to do with the pagan sanctuaries – and Paul has already insisted any number of times that they shouldn’t have anything to do with them – but things weren’t so simple. Those shrines and temples were intimately tied up in the life of the city. Every public festival, every fair, every market day – they all involved the temples one way or another. The temple treasuries served as the city’s banking system. If you wanted a loan, you had to go to the priest of Apollo. Likewise if you wanted to make a contract – the priests were the public notaries. Every trade – plumber, mason, carpenter, you name it – had a guild, a sort of union, and every guild had a patron god or goddess. It was difficult to do anything in Corinth without participating in some sort of pagan ceremony, whether you actually believed in the pagan gods or not, and there would have been immense pressure on Christians to go along and get along.
So maybe Paul is talking about false believers – people who claim to be Christians, but who are in fact leading people away from Christ – or maybe he’s talking about straight-up pagans. Either way, the command is the same: do not be unequally yoked with them.
Paul is pretty clearly alluding here to a command in the 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy, verse 10: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” You may ask, “who would want to plow with an ox and donkey yoked together?” I mean, is that a good idea? I actually spent a little time looking for a picture of an ox and a donkey yoked together, and this is the best I could find. I know, not an ox. But it looks pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it?
Now, in context in Deuteronomy, that’s just one of a whole list of commandments against mixing things – for example, against wearing mixed wool and linen shirts. At the time, the Israelites were about to enter the promised land – which was currently inhabited – and the commandments were a reminder to Israel that they were supposed to be a separate people, a holy people, a people chosen by and dedicated to God, and not to dilute themselves with the local pagan population until they were indistinguishable from everyone else.
The image of a team yoked to a plow gets that across. What actually happens if you yoke a donkey to an ox, and try to plow a field? Well, for starters, they don’t move at the same speed. One is always going to be faster than the other. In addition, they’re probably going to be trying to move in different directions. Both cattle and donkeys are herd animals. They want to move together, but with their own kind. Not with each other. You try this, and your furrow is going to be a squiggly, zig-zaggy line, and the poor farmer is going to be doing everything in his power just to keep things moving in one direction.
And that’s really the point. Paul isn’t commanding the Corinthians to have nothing to do with unbelievers, whether they’re false Christians or outright pagans. How could he? Jesus commanded his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples from every nation, a commandment to which Paul had dedicated his life. How do you preach the Gospel to unbelievers if you avoid them completely? And anyway, it’s not practically possible, is it? Paul himself wrote that to separate yourself completely from false Christians, let alone from the greedy, the sexually immoral, the swindlers, and idolaters, you would have to “go out of the world.” (1 Cor. 5:10)
What Paul is commanding here is simple: Don’t bind yourself to unbelievers – that’s what being yoked together is, giving somebody else power over where you’re headed, and how fast – in other words, don’t cede control over your life to those who don’t share the same faith and the same goals. Don’t willingly tie yourself to somebody who’s going to drag you away from the path of obedience to Christ.
That has all kinds of applications. It may, and in a way certainly does, apply to marriage. Mind you, being married to a non-Christian is not a sin. Let me repeat that: being married to a non-Christian is not a sin. Paul’s instruction in his first letter to the Corinthians is that if a non-believing spouse is willing, stay married. Unbelief on the part of another is not reason to break your own marriage vows. In fact, the witness of a believing husband or wife is an incredibly powerful thing.
That said, should a Christian willingly choose to bind himself or herself to a non-Christian? No. I know that’s one of the least popular things I’ll ever say, but I have the backing of the Lord on this one. No, you shouldn’t. It’s not a sin. It may turn out fine. But it’ll be a struggle to maintain a Christian home, a home where the Gospel is lived out and passed down.
There are other applications, though. It applies to your job. Now, strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as a Christian plumber, or a Christian painter, or a Christian salesman. There are only Christians who do such things. But it is reasonable to ask whether in the attempt to get along, and to get ahead, you’ve been forced to make the kind of compromises that those Corinthians who belonged to the trade guilds did. Have you willingly taken a job that requires you to do what you know to be immoral? Have you gone along to get along, because that’s the way the game is played? Have you done what you knew you shouldn’t, because you felt obligated? Are you yoked, in that way, unequally?
It goes beyond that. We willingly bind ourselves to others in all sorts of ways that compromise our faith and our witness. How about entertainment? What are you tying yourself to, that’s likely to drag you away from Christ, not toward him? I should say that I do not mean that you should only listen to Christian music, or read Christian books, or watch Christian movies. Frankly, some of the stuff that goes by the name Christian is pretty awful, and some of the stuff that doesn’t is terrific. The question is this: which direction does it pull you? Toward Christ, or at least toward truth and kindness and forgiveness and self-sacrifice, all of which, in the end, lead to Christ, or toward cheap hedonism and self-gratification, which whether it bears the name of Christ or not, leads us away from him?
I could go on to talk about sports, about pornography, about social clubs – a hundred different things, but you’re smart people. You can ask your own questions and draw your own conclusions. I only ask you two questions.
First, what have you tied yourself to, that you shouldn’t have? What is it in your life – who is it – that’s drawing you away from Christ, and not toward him? What ties should you cut?
And second, what ties should you strengthen? Because the solution to being unequally yoked isn’t to take the whole yoke on all by yourself. It’s to yoke yourself equally – not to people who are exactly like you, but to those who are headed in the same direction. You might start by binding yourself more closely to the church, to the body of Christ. By figuring out what in your life is pointing you toward him, and hitching yourself more closely to that. I don’t know. He’ll show you. But pay attention. Amen.