Unequally Yoked: Does 2 Corinthians 6:14 Condemn Christians Who Date and/or Marry Non-Christians?

If you have been a Christian for any length of time, there’s a fair chance that you have seen someone fall away from the faith. One of the more typical scenarios that contributes to this happening is when a Christian chooses to date and/or marry a non-Christian. Love has a powerful way of moving us from one place to another. Agur compared the “way of a man with a virgin” to an eagle soaring on air currents, a snake slithering on a rock, and a ship gliding through the water (Proverbs 30:19). Like these things carried along by unseen forces and movement, many Christians who have pursued relationships with those outside of Christ have seen themselves “drift away” from the faith (Hebrews 2:1).

In their zeal to dissuade fellow Christians from pursuing these dangerous relationships, many Christians have attempted to build up a biblical case against the idea of Christians marrying non-Christians. Some have even argued that it is sinful to marry a non-Christian and that the passage violated when one does so is 2 Corinthians 6:14, which reads in part, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Is the yoking Paul has in mind in this passage marriage?

Let’s start off with the image Paul is painting for anyone who might not be familiar with this text and/or this practice. A yoke is something that binds two animals together so that a farmer can harness their combined strength, usually for the sake of plowing. An unequal yoking would be a harnessing of two unlike animals; the outcome of this would either be no progress in plowing or a failure to plow in straight lines. Christianity is compared by Jesus to a straight and narrow path (Matthew 7:13-14); even a strong Christian could find himself or herself unable to maintain a walk on that path if connected to an unbeliever in the way Paul envisions.

With that picture in mind, let’s consider the text. First, it’s important to note that marriage is not mentioned anywhere in either the text leading up to 2 Corinthians 6:14 or the text after it. While marriage could certainly be described as a yoking of two individuals together, it would be very unusual for Paul to illustrate something he doesn’t mention in context.

Second, note the solution he gives to this unequal yoking in verse 17: “come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17). In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul said the exact opposite regarding Christians who found themselves married to non-Christians:

“But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).

Don’t be troubled by the “not the Lord” part of the above reading. Paul is merely contrasting this teaching with earlier teaching that mirrored what Jesus discussed while He was here on earth (2 Corinthians 7:10-11; cf. Matthew 19:1-9; Mark 10:1-12). Unlike in the preceding verses, Paul is here discussing something Jesus hadn’t previously discussed. He reminds the Corinthians later that he has “the Spirit of God” and later still that he is writing the commandments of the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:40; 14:37). So again, if Paul’s “unequally yoked” were really about marriage, it would contradict 1 Corinthians 7:12-14.  

So, if Christian/non-Christian marriage is not what is described by unequal yoking, what is? Well, note the words that the picture of two animals yoked together is illustrating in context: “fellowship… communion… accord… part… agreement” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). Nearly all of these words in the original language are words that are used elsewhere to describe the relationship that Christians have with God and with each other (fellowship – e.g. “partakers” in Hebrews 6:4; communion – “fellowship” in Acts 2:42; accord – e.g. as a verb, “agree” in Matthew 18:19; part – e.g. “partakers” in Colossians 1:12). Simply put, the lesson appears to be that Christians cannot take a relationship that exists only in the church and extend it to those outside of the church. Even marriage, the strongest bond between two human beings, is not to be considered a bondage that could keep one from serving Christ the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:15).

As Christians, we cannot and should not separate ourselves totally from those in the world (1 Corinthians 5:9-13); in fact, we should have meaningful relationships with non-Christians so that we can be seen and make a difference in their lives (Matthew 5:13-16; Philippians 2:15-16). Still, we should distance ourselves from anyone who stands to corrupt our morals whenever possible (1 Corinthians 15:33). Also, we should never allow ourselves to be so connected to anyone – classmates, coworkers, employers, business partners, friends, or even spouses – that we are pulled off the path we are attempting to plow for Jesus (Luke 9:62). This is what Jesus had in mind when He said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

The world of the Bible was a world in which marriages were frequently arranged by family members and where marriage could be thought of as being “given in marriage” instead of choosing to marry (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 17:27; 20:34-35). As I try to envision that world, I can see why there would be no outright condemnation either in 2 Corinthians 6 or elsewhere of the idea of marrying a non-Christian and instead an affirmation of the sanctity of such a marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. However, for a world in which people typically choose whom they date and marry, allow me to close by returning to the thought with which I began. Experience teaches us that 1) we marry only from the pool of those whom we date and 2) those who date and marry non-Christians frequently lose their faith. So, let me encourage you in the strongest terms possible if you aren’t already married: date and marry a faithful Christian.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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