AN UNEQUAL YOKE
T. PIERCE BROWN
For the first several years of my preaching life, I refused to perform a marriage ceremony with one person who was a member of the body of Christ and another who was not. 2 Corinthians6:14says, “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers: for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion hath light with darkness?” A more intensive study of God’s word and an unfruitful effort to solve some intellectual or theological problems created by that position made me modify my position somewhat. Part of my problem was that it seemed unreasonable 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. Yet I could find no scripture authorizing persons who were in that kind of relationship to divorce. I did find one that instructed them to abide in it (1 Cor.7:13). 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 many make a mistake in their exegesis of it because they apparently overlooked the force of the expression “unequally yoked.” Some say the passage had no reference to marriage at all; other say it means not to get married to an unbeliever. We believe both to be wrong, unless the first concept means, “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.” It is 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 were “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.
When it was my opinion that the scripture under consideration forbid a Christian to marry a non-Christian. I would not 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. Note carefully: Getting into a marriage with an unbeliever is not sinful of itself, but getting into an agreement that would necessarily cause you to transgress God’s law is.
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.