Someone recently posed this thoughtful question to me:
In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul said 'not to be equally yoked with unbelievers'. I'm confused because I thought as Christians we're supposed to be a light in the dark world??Initially, I thought this would be a pretty simple question to answer. I've always cited this passage to argue that believers should not marry or date non-believers. I began to type my response to the question and then I started looking at the passage a bit more closely. As it turns out, the text is a bit more complicated than a simple injunction against marrying outsiders.
The text reads, "Stop being other-yoked with unbelievers! For what is shared between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there light to darkness?" (my own, overly literal, translation of NA27).
As I already mentioned, this passage is usually understood as a prohibition against believers marrying unbelievers. This is partially because it seems to be alluding to OT passages that argue against cross-breeding cattle (Lev 19:19) or using two different animals to plow a field (Deut 22.10). Often, the Old Testament (OT) prohibits inter-marriage between Israel and the nations of Canaan (Deut 7.3; Josh 23.12; Ezra 9.2; Neh 13.25). Furthermore, Paul seems to be concerned with addressing issues he already wrote about in 1 Corinthians (2 Cor 2.3-4, 9; 7.8, 12). A prohibition against marrying an unbeliever is a possible application of this text and a concept Paul affirms in his earlier letter (1 Cor 7.39). Still, in the context of 2 Corinthians 6 there is no mention of marriage.
In fact 2 Corinthians 6.14-7.1 is an odd section that has raised lots of questions. Many scholars have wondered if Paul even wrote it, and suggest that perhaps it was inserted later (Fitzmeyer, Dahl, Betz). The vocabulary of the passage is somewhat unique, with six words found nowhere else in Paul's letters. This would be the only time Paul cites Lev 20:12; Isa 52:11; or 2 Sam 7:14 in any of his letters. Also, the passage shows affinities with the Dead Sea Scroll material, which has led to the suggestion that someone else inserted it into Paul's letter. The different theology is precisely the highly exclusive tone of Paul's command. This gets right to the heart of my student's question, "How can Paul say the Corinthians should not be yoked with believers?"
It seems unlikely to me that this passage is an interpolation. The difficulties with suggesting that Paul did not write the passage are overwhelming. First, there is no evidence that 2 Corinthians ever existed without this passage. Second, the suggestion that Paul did not write the 6.14-7.1 raises more problems than it solves. If Paul did not write the text then who did and why? How would we know? Why would they insert the passage here of all places? Third, the vocabulary is not all that unique. 1 Cor 4.7-13, an undisputed Pauline passage, also has six words Paul never uses elsewhere in his letters. Fourth, the similarities between this passage and the Dead Sea Scrolls can be explained in a number of ways, not least in that they both recognized the Jewish Scriptures as the origin of their theology. So assuming Paul wrote this passage, what did he mean by it?
Paul cannot have meant that Christians should completely separate from non-Christians. He is very clear in 1 Corinthians that disassociation with all immoral people outside the church would obligate believers to leave the world entirely (1 Cor 5.9-10). Instead, Paul urges the Corinthians to expel Christian "brothers" who engage in evil or immorality (1 Cor 5:11). Practically speaking, Paul expected the Corinthians to shop in the same meat market (1 Cor 10.25) and even dine with pagans (1 Cor 10.26). Also, judging from Paul's own example of travelling from city to city and starting churches among Gentiles it does not make sense to suggest that Paul is advocating a Christian enclave cut off from the rest of the world.
There are three important features to understanding the text. First, it is important to comprehend what Paul means by "unequally yoked." Second, the meaning of "unbelievers" must be considered. Third, we have to read the larger context of Paul's statement. In light of these three features, Paul's point becomes clear.
The word translated "unequally yoked," or "other-yoked" as I have it, is not found anywhere else in the New Testament or extant Greek literature prior to Paul. So, as far as we know, Paul may have coined this phrase. Literally the word means "to pull the yoke in a different direction" (Spicq 2.80). It is the opposite of being a "fellow worker" or "yoked together" (Phil 4.3). Plutarch uses a similar word to describe political allies (Cimon 16:8). The OT allusions indicate a union of two different kinds of animals that creates an inappropriate mismatch. The "yoke" indicates an intimate partnership (cf. Mt 11.29-30), but the "other" points to some fundamental difference between the yoked.
There have been a number of suggestions as to what exactly Paul means by "unbelievers." Since he already commanded the Corinthians to disassociate with immoral Christians (cf. 1 Cor 5.9-10), perhaps Paul means to describe lapsed Christians as "unbelievers" here. It has been suggested that Paul is referring to Gentile believers who do not keep the Torah. In light of the overall argument of 2 Corinthians, Paul might be referring to his opponents or "false apostles" as "unbelievers." All of these interpretations are interesting, but the word "unbelievers" is consistently used in the Corinthian letters to refer to non-Christians (1 Cor 6.6; 7.12, 13, 14, 15; 10.27; 14.22, 23, 24; 2 Cor 4.4). In light of 1 Corinthians, Paul might be reminding the Corinthians to avoid taking disputes between believers to pagan judges (1 Cor 6.1-11), or engaging in idolatry with temple prostitutes (1 Cor 6.12-20). What is abundantly clear, however, is that Paul is commanding the Corinthians to stop their intimate partnerships with those who do not recognize the Lordship of Jesus (cf. esp. 2 Cor 4.4).
Looking at the context of Paul's statement gives even more clarity about what exactly "other-yoking" looks like. Paul begins a series of five antithetical contrasts in verse 14 (2 Cor 6:14-16): righteousness vs. lawlessness, light vs. darkness, Christ vs. Belial (a name for Satan), believer vs. unbeliever, temple vs. idols. After the contrasts, Paul combines a string of OT quotes to emphasize the purity required of God's chosen people. In light of the repeated emphasis on idols in the Corinthian letters (1 Cor 5.10; 6.9; 8.1-13; 10.1-11.1, 19; 12.2) and the appearance of the word in the context of the passage (2 Cor 6.16), it is very likely that Paul commanding the Corinthians to stop partnering in various forms of idolatry. Paul expects Christians to engage the world while also emphasizing their separation from it.
Separation from various forms of idolatry but still engaged in culture. What might this look like in the contemporary world?