BE NOT UNEQUALLY YOKED WITH UNBELIEVERS
T. PIERCE BROWN
In a recent lecture program, we heard two speakers on opposite sides of a question about divorce make antithetical comments about the meaning of 2 Corinthians 6:14. The first took the position that it had no reference whatever to the marriage relationship. The second said (and I quote his exact words), “It was speaking utmost and primarily to and certainly without exception to the thing of the marriage union. If it does not apply to the marriage union, I don’t really know what being yoked with unbelievers could mean.” Furthermore, he said, “1 Cor.7:12-17 countermands an express directive found in 2 Cor.6:14. The statement in 2 Cor. 6:14 is this: `Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers.’ There is no doubt that this direct command forbids a Christian being yoked with an unbeliever. There is no conflict between the two verses once it is understood that in 2 Cor. 6 Paul is forbidding a Christian to go and join himself to an unbeliever in marriage, while in 1 Cor. 7 he is directing his remarks to a converted heathen or Jews whose marriage was already in existence prior to his becoming a Christian.”
Our brother therefore takes a position that a prior statement countermands a subsequent directive! Aside from the somewhat imprecise use of the term “countermand” (which refers to one order or command revoking one previously given, and not the one previously given revoking the latter one), there are some other difficulties with that position. Once we accept the position that one scripture countermands another, then we must in each case (if we use the word as he uses it) decide whether the first countermands the last, or the last countermands the first, or whether something else countermands both of them!
The practical destructive implications of this position should be apparent to any Bible student. It seems that our brother does not really mean that the command was actually “countermanded,” for he explains it by saying that there are two different kinds of persons. One is an order for a Christian not to GET MARRIED to an unbeliever; the other is an order for a Christian to STAY MARRIED to an unbeliever if already married to him when he becomes a Christian.
Although it seemed unusual to me for a gospel preacher to take a position that it is sinful for a person to GET INTO a relationship, but not sinful to STAY in that same relationship (although many things that seemed unusual in years past, seem rather usual today!), it is not our purpose to deal in depth with that aspect of the question at this time.
Having considered this passage for over 40 years, we suggest that possibly both speakers made a mistake in their exegesis of it because they apparently overlooked the force of the expression “unequally yoked.” The first speaker said the passage had no reference to marriage at all; the second said it means not to get married to an unbeliever. We believe both to be wrong, unless the first meant, “It was not talking directly or solely about marriage.”
This word heterozugountes, translated “unequally yoked” is used only this one time in the New Testament, and literally means “yoked with a different yoke.” But it my judgment that if the Apostle had merely meant “be not yoked with,” he would have simply used the word “zugos — yoke”. In the English translation the words “unequally yoked” suggest that there may be an equal yoke, or merely a yoke. We believe an interpretation that does not demand some conflicting or “countermanding” directives, and is a valid principle for ALL KINDS of relations and situations makes more sense.
There are at least three or more kinds of situations where one may be yoked with an unbeliever. We are convinced that in no situation are Christians allowed to BECOME unequally yoked, or STAY that way. It seems an unenviable, unwarranted, and untenable position to teach that it is sinful to ENTER a relationship, but not sinful to STAY in the same relationship. What does repenting of a sin mean, anyway? If the relationship should change, the directive might change, but it would not be “countermanding” and order or changing a doctrine. It would simply be that the original commandment, referring to the original relationship was never meant to be binding for a different relationship.
Three types of relationships in which one might be yoked, either unequally or otherwise are: First, an employer-employee relationship. The two would be yoked in some fashion. If Paul is forbidding a Christian working for or over a non-Christian, many problems are raised for which there is no Bible answer, and no practical answer outside the Bible. But if Paul is only forbidding an UNEQUAL yoke, we may solve those problems. The yoke becomes “unequal” only if it inherently demands that the Christian perform an unlawful (sinful) act. That is, if the employer demanded, as a condition of employment, that the employee sin, the yoke is unequal. It should not be entered into, nor remained in, although difficulty or hardship might result.
Second, one might be yoked in a business partnership with another. To be yoked with an unbeliever is not unscriptural, per se. It is only unscriptural if it is “unequal” — if it inherently demands that one of the partners commits sin. This is more serious than the first mentioned because such a partnership might be harder to properly dissolve, and/or financially disastrous. Quitting a job that had become an “unequal yoke” would be far simpler and easier than dissolving a partnership.
Third, one might be yoked to a marriage partner who is an unbeliever. The yoke itself is not sinful, as 1 Cor.7:13indicates, not because it “countermands” something that said it is sinful, but because the marriage state itself is not an “unequal” yoke. If the marriage state itself was “unequal” — if it involved INHERENTLY having fellowship with, or participating in unrighteousness, or a temple of God making an agreement with a temple of idols, then the state of being married to an unbeliever, in itself would be sinful, and one must come out of it, no matter when he entered it. But such is not the case.
The principle is far broader than marriage, including ANY relationship. For example, some years ago we were asked to preach to a Baptist congregation a sermon on blasphemy. We accepted, with some prior agreements that we thought would prevent us from being UNEQUALLY YOKED with that preacher and/or congregation. Paul did that sort of thing. It is our judgment that a preacher of the gospel can be “yoked” on the polemic platform with a preacher of some denomination without the yoke being “unequal,” but could not with equal propriety be “yoked” with him in a “unity” meeting in which the participating congregations were in a joint campaign with each respondent being taught to “accept Jesus as your personal Savior and join the church of your choice.” That would be an unequal yoke.
At one time it was my opinion that the scripture under consideration forbid a Christian to marry a non-Christian. I would not, therefore, perform such a ceremony. I now will perform it under certain conditions — usually several periods of intensive study and consultation. But since I believe such marriages generally to be inexpedient, unwise, dangerous, and always very serious, I could still refuse to do such under any specific circumstances without being contradictory in my teaching and actions. God’s word does not force me to perform a marriage ceremony in any situation where I think I would be aiding and abetting some wrong.
But it our studied conviction that the admonition to be not unequally yoked with an unbeliever is not merely referring to BECOMING yoked, but becoming yoked in such a way that the relationship is inherently UNEQUAL, or involves the compromise of Christian principles. This is what makes the yoke unequal. Thus 2 Cor. 7:12-13 does not “countermand” anything. It simply states the principle that it is not inherently sinful or wrong for a believer to be in a marriage state with an unbeliever. If anyone can defend logically or scripturally the general position that GETTING INTO any situation is wrong, but STAYING IN IT is right, we would appreciate learning more about it.
We are aware that sometimes the consequences are irreversible (that is, if you kill a man he is dead, no matter how much you repent), but we are not aware of any situation in the Bible where it is clearly evident that ESTABLISHING a relationship is wrong, but MAINTAINING it is right.