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What is Unequally Yoked?

By Nathan Mates

One of the 'Christianese' phrases uttered often in the church, in the context of marriage, is the idea of not being unequally yoked. That phrase comes from the King James (aka 'Authorized') version of the Bible, which states this: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" [2 Corinthians 6:14/KJV]. For a more modern translation, the NIV states that verse as "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" [NIV]

In short, this verse is advice to believers that they should only marry other believers. The rest of the advice on this by Paul is as follows: "What harmony is there between Christ and Belial ? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."" [2 Corinthians 6:15-17/NIV]

Paul's comment here is that believers and nonbelievers do have nothing in common, so trying to start a marriage with such a disparity will only lead to problems. God is to be at the center of a Christian marriage, and if half of the humans involved don't acknowledge that, tensions will arise.

Note that this does not apply to marriages that started off with two unbelievers, but one spouse becomes a believer later. Paul said this earlier in his letters: "To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him." [1 Corinthians 7:12-13]

Like so many parts of the New Testament that may seem to stand on their own, looking at the history of this issue in the Old Testament is instructive to see the basis for this. From the beginning, when God called Abraham out of his homeland to give him the land of Canaan, intermarriage with the locals was out of the question. In getting a wife for his son Isaac, he said "I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living," [Genesis 24:3] And later, Isaac passed on the same advice to his son: "So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him and commanded him: "Do not marry a Canaanite woman." [Genesis 28:1]

Centuries later, as the Israelites were about to enter the promised land, Moses spoke God's commands to the people: "Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you." [Deuteronomy 7:3-4]

Moses's commands were not just of a purely theoretical knowledge of what might happen when the Israelites intermarried, they came after incidents that had already demonstrated that. Earlier, "While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord's anger burned against them." [Numbers 25:1-3]

Even the wisest man of the Old Testament, king Solomon of Israel stumbled in this area. He took 700 wives and 300 concubines, and "As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done." [1 Kings 11:4-6]

From the Old Testament, we see more of the reasons behind God's commands not to marry nonbelievers-- they tend to lead believers astray. In some ways, this is also a warning to not associate too closely with nonbelievers in arenas of life outside of marriage; one can get corrupted there as well. However, marriage is different from those other areas: it is designed to be permanent, as well as intimate. If we're witnessing to nonbelievers, we can do so for an hour or few, then come back to the safety of the church and other believers, but such an experience is not possible within marriage.

As with all things, consider carefully who you hang around with, and what you do. As long as we can be influenced by others, we should be careful to influence the world far more than the world influences us.

See more Christian writings by Nathan Mates at http://www.matesfamily.org/xtian/index.html