We should interpret the Bible by what we read. However, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 is an example of a passage that others have interpreted for us before we ever read open the Bible.
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” (2 Cor 6:14) Many Christians read this a passage as a proof text against religiously mixed marriages.
Religiously mixed marriages might face difficulties, but that does not justify forcing the verse to become the required proof text. Instead, the verse must be examined in its context—including the larger context of the Corinthian correspondence. The immediate context and the Corinthian context will be the two steps of this study.
In the immediate context of the passage, Paul warns the Corinthians about the danger of being yoked with unbelievers.
He doesn’t identify the unbelievers. However, we can gain context clues, by looking at his word choice. Paul’s use of “yoke” may be an allusion to “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together” (Deut 22:10). Plowing required a yoke and having two different animals made the task difficult. Being yoked also suggests more than a casual relationship.
While we need to look at what is said in the passage, we must also observe what is missing. There is no mention of marriages, husbands, or wives. That may not be important if Paul normally spoke indirectly about marriage. However, Paul’s frequently spoke explicitly about marriage and the limits he placed upon them (Much of 1 Corinthians 7 deals with marriage. See also Rom 7:2-3, Eph 5:22-33).
In fact, Paul addresses the issue of mixed marriages directly in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. This would have been the perfect time to ban mixed marriages and yet he is silent. Instead Paul encourages people to remain in mixed marriages as the Christian partner may be able to bring them to Jesus. Based on this, it seems strange that the Corinthians would interpret this as a ban.
So, what was Paul was saying?
In the immediate context, Paul uses the image of the temple. This is significant because Paul identifies the temple with Christians and thus his audience as well. As we widen our context, it is important to look at how else Paul uses the temple.
In the previous letter, Paul spoke of the temple as being the Church.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Cor 3:16–17)
In this particular case, Paul is speaking of the Christian community as the temple rather than individuals. When people create division within the Church, it is seen as an attempt to destroy God’s temple.
Later on in 1 Corinthians, Paul has a slightly different take on the temple. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Cor 6:19) This time, Paul speaks of the temple as the individual Christian.
Which of these corresponds to Paul’s use in 2 Corinthians? Since Paul states, “we are the temple,” he is speaking of a community. This tells us that Paul cannot be speaking of the marriage decisions of individual Christians but rather something larger.
It is still necessary to determine what Paul actually meant by this passage. One possibility is that Paul was banning contact between the Church and non-Christians. Not only would that make evangelism impossible, in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 Paul clarifies that he commanded them to separate themselves not from the immoral of the world but from those within the Church.
Again, looking at the context of the Corinthian correspondence, there is a clue of the type of situation that Paul was seeking to avoid. In the first letter, Paul criticizes them for a harmful situation.
“When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?” (1 Cor 6:1–6 ESV)
In this instance, instead of seeking judgment within the Church, the Corinthians were looking for justice outside of the Church. They were being yoked to non-Christians, not in a healthy evangelism-friendly relationship, but by putting themselves under the authority of the secular courts. This is a prime example of an unequal yoke.
Be not yoked with unbelievers. It obviously means no mixed marriages. Except that is not what it means. There is a principle here that could inform marriage decisions but Paul is speaking to something much larger. Instead of speaking to individual Christians, Paul is speaking to the Church. The Church must be careful in the relationships it enters into, especially relationships where it is yoked to other forms of authority.
Understanding this verse, as with any verse, requires careful examination of the context including the surrounding verses and the entire letter or group of letters.
Bible Study Tips:
Nothing beats reading a passage in its context. There are two steps: read the immediate context and read the larger context. Read the entire letter from Paul and in this case, read both of them.
Write down every topic that may be related to the passage and look them up in a good Bible dictionary. See Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid (eds.) Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993)