Monday, November 08, 2010

Unequally Yoked

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:

“I will live in them
and walk among them.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
Therefore, come out from among unbelievers,
and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord.
Don’t touch their filthy things,
and I will welcome you.
And I will be your Father,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”

(2 Corinthians 6.14-18, NLT)

Lots and lots and lots of Christians like to use the above passage to prove that Christians should not marry people who aren't. This interpretation isn't totally unreasonable, but I have said before and will say again that even if this passage applies to marriage, it isn't about marriage. And neither is this post.

Once upon a long time ago, during the Roman Empire before Constantine, the emperors were persecuting the Christians and even though there were a lot of really noteworthy and amazing Christian martyrs, there were also a bunch of regular people and they ended up recanting their Christian faith until things got a little easier. Then later, when they wanted to go back to church, some of the churches wouldn't let them because they saw them (understandably, I think) as being duplicitous, or weak. They said they wanted a "pure" church. Thing is, they weren't really offering a whole lot of grace.

Then Augustine came along and, citing Jesus' parable about the wheat and the weeds, said that no one should be kept from church fellowship if they had repented and wanted to be reinstated. And from there (going through a number of permutations, naturally), the concept/practice of a "parish church" type of set-up was born. The idea is that anyone can be a part of the faith community, whether they're an actual believer or not, as long as they play by some basic rules. So when a baby was born in a community, he or she would be baptised right away because the family was a part of that parish . . . everyone "belonged" to a church. You didn't have a conversion experience because you were "in."

Once the Protestant reformation hit the scene, ages later, this concept began to be switched up a little bit. The Lutherans and the Calvinists, who believed (in different ways) that church and state should work side by side, maintained the sort of parish/wheat-and-weeds setup. They hung onto infant baptism and But the Anabaptists, who believed that the church would always be a persecuted entity until Christ's return and so must therefore be totally separate from the state, wanted to see a "pure" church, where the only members were people who had a genuine faith in Christ and been baptised as adult believers. Their idea was total separateness.

So here I am, this mix of a Germanic Anabaptist and Swedish Lutheran heritage, who grew up in a Baptist church with Reformed leanings, working at an interdenominational church which baptises any little baby whose parents walk them through the door. And I'm taking another big ol' church history class (could you tell?), so I'm thinking about this "what is the church" thing a lot lately.

I will always be a Baptist on the issue of . . . baptism. But I kind of go back and forth as to whether Augustine was right or whether the Anabaptists were, as far as the whole "separateness" thing goes. The passage above seems to indicate fairly unequivocally that a Christian separation from the world is required. Keeping apart from "the world" makes it a lot easier not to "touch their filthy things." I myself have seen and heard of churches and other organisations who have "teamed up with unbelievers" toward a good common cause, and then the Christ-centered aspect of the cause for the believers gets watered down and washed out, and sometimes the entire enterprise tanks. Compromise is maybe inevitable, and, if these verses are anything to go by, it is unacceptable.

On the other hand, I have a really hard time seeing that Jesus did this. I do believe that all Scripture is inspired by God, and so therefore the above verses are something God wanted said, and so therefore Jesus must somehow have abided by them, but however He did it, it didn't look anything like the way I've ever seen those verses interpreted. He is, after all, the guy who got accused all the time of associating with "tax collectors and sinners." If He was exclusionary of anyone, it was the religious folk, the ones who would probably cite verses like the above, if they had been written yet. And I keep thinking about when I was in Gospel Choir in college, and how our drummer who toured with us wasn't a Christian, but how after touring with us for a while and seeing God answer some prayers, he became one. And I think . . . I'm still confused. What is this 2 Corinthians passage really telling us to do. Because how do we make sure the church keeps its necessary distinctives? But how else are people who don't know Jesus going to meet Him unless they're in our lives?


Marjonie said...

Thank you for sharing you may suspect I have similar thoughts. I am too oft grieved at the way "Christians" so embrace the idea of holiness that they set themselves far apart from all others to ensure that their lights are hidden under bushels and don't shine on unworthy types. There are moments I feel like I can sense Christ's agony at the hate disguised as religious virtue.

Thank you for thinking out loud.

Annelise said...

Really provacative, Jenn!

James said...

Hi Jenn

I think one issue is translation. The NLT is possibly not the best for serious study – I think “team up” loses something vital in what Paul says.

Another is the challenge we face in reading occasional documents as eternal scripture. I have some folk in church who like to speak about the timelessness of scripture – I hope I am not merely being pedantic when I correct them and say that all scripture is not timeless but for all time: That is it speaks to real and specific times and places and that it is that very particularity which grounds its universality as a word which can speak again at all other real times and places. Actually I don’t use those exact words normally as I’d just get funny looks from most folk – but you know what I mean. The Bible God has given us isn’t a book of abstract sayings – do not be unequally yoked, don’t trim the edges of your beard, do not steal – but an ongoing story of God, his world, and his people in which these sayings find their meaning. They have meaning for us because this is our story too, but the meaning they have will depend on the particular place they have in God’s story and the particular place in which we find ourselves.

Having said that, I suspect that this particular passage can be understood to speak to us in a fairly direct way because the situation he was addressing is not a million miles from our own. As I understand it here in 2 Corinthians Paul is addressing a group of new believers most of whom have recently converted from paganism and he is concerned that they now live lives which befit the children of God; being aware of Israel’s long history of compromise with paganism he naturally warns the believers against getting into any kind of relationship which will lead to such compromise. The relationships which he regards as potentially leading to such compromise are characterised as being yoked together. This is important and a lot stronger than the idea of merely teaming up – two animals yoked together are stuck with each other. It is not just that they happen for a time to be walking the same way, or doing the same work, but that they are bound to do so. I think marriage probably is in view as such a yoked relationship, both because he has already addressed the issue in the Corinthian correspondence and because of the problems inter-marriage had caused in Israel’s story. However, he is not specific and so probably has other close and potentially legally committed partnerships in mind too – in business for example.

What I do not think he has in view is any and every kind of Christian relationship with non-believers – he would I am sure have expected Christians to have non-Christian friends. Friendship involves commitment for sure, but it is not the sort of ultimate, locked in kind of relationship that pulls inexorably towards compromise – if the believer recognises that the relationship is becoming toxic to their faith they can simply walk away. As for other issues – I don’t think Paul envisaged or wrote about a non-Christian drummer with a gospel choir, but I would feel that this is not really a yoked relationship (if it were a non-Christian choir director that might be another matter). Likewise I don’t think Paul envisaged or wrote about Christians and non-believers making common cause in campaigning to address important issues – like the civil rights movement for example. For me though this would be an example of believers and non-believers choosing to walk together for a while (and in the direction of the kingdom I might add) rather than of being yoked together.

chris e said...

I don't think that you can draw a straight line - or even much of a line - between the Donatist controversy and the parish church setup (the parish church existed defacto before that anyway, in some ways).

And infant baptism dates back before then - though it is pretty odd to reflect that there were probably centuries in europe without a single adult baptism.

Anonymous said...

I tried to post to your blog but it didn't work. Feel free to move this under my name if you're still trying to acquire comments:

Back when I worked with the youth group we discussed this as part of a larger discussion of biblical gray area...s. Add I Cor. 5:9-13 to your discussion and contrast it with the verse (reference escapes me) that says "bad company corrupts good morals." But I do think some principles emerge.

(1) It goes without saying that any association that will entice or lead into sin is forbidden, along with anything that will be a stumbling block to a weaker brother.
(2) Association with false Christians is bad, worse than with avowed non-Christians. Along those lines, our pastor won't air programs or go on TBN, but will air on secular stations and go on Larry King.
(3) When you "join together for a common cause" I think you start to run into the "unequally yoked" admonition. I'm not sure what you mean when you say Jesus did that.


Jennwith2ns said...

Marjonie--yeah, I'm pretty sure we're on the same page about that. Very good point about distancing ourselves so far from others that our light might just as well be under a bushel. I think what was more going on in my head as I was writing this, however, were the questions: if this passage is here and Jesus essentially lived with unbelievers through most of His ministry (though many grew in belief), what does this passage mean? and: which is better/more biblical--the parish church approach or the "pure church" approach?


James--your post was incredibly helpful. Incidentally, I don't use the NLT for study. (I don't even HAVE the NLT--I just copy and paste from Biblegateway. ;-) I usually use it for this blog, though, because I find it's accessible. "Teaming up" may not be as strong an association as "yoking," but "yoking" is not so evocative in a non-farming culture. On the other hand, I do take your point. Your observations and examples are, I think, right on and help me settle some of the questions in my own mind.

Chris--Yeah, I suppose it's a bit of a stretch, but I don't think it's TOTALLY unrelated or unsimilar. And yes, I do know that infant baptism predated the Donatist controversy. I'm just using infant baptism as a touchstone of describing what I mean, for those who are less familiar with the "parish" concept. If there are any of those reading this blog, which, I suppose, may not be a foregone conclusion.

Jennwith2ns said...

George--you get your own comment because Blogger told me my comment was too long! ;) Thanks for the thoughts. I agree with principle #1. I think principle #2 is not what is stated in this verse, and at most can only be inferred in the "bad company" verse.

"False Christians are bad" is a dangerous line to take; I agree that false TEACHING is bad, but I think we put ourselves in the position of potentially "judging someone else's servants" if we assign "false" and "true" to a person's Christianity. With discernment, it's certainly possible to have some sort of read on whether someone does or does not have a genuine relationship with Jesus, but I still don't think it's our job to decide and label that, really.

I think what ends up happening if one takes that line is that one assumes that people are "false Christians" if their experience of Christ (and maybe a few doctrinal precepts) differ from one's own. On that basis, you would probably say that none of the people in my current church are true Christians, and that therefore my working with and worshiping with them is also "bad." (Or maybe you would question the genuineness of my own relationship with Jesus.) I tend to think, however, that what is going on in my church is discipleship of true Christians who maybe don't all know as much about their faith as some others, but who do, in their way, have a relationship with God.

I'm intrigued by your pastor's approach to TV appearances. I am curious as to how he justifies that biblically. I can see not wanting to be on TBN, I guess, but not because I don't want to associate with "false Christians." I'm missing the Biblical link here, I guess. I do think there are people who say they are Christians who are not (and I would hazard a guess that ALL our churches have them and that we may be completely unable to pick them out), and that the parable of the wheat and the weeds has more to do with this kind of situation than with Christians and avowedly non-Christians.

As for the "common cause" thing--I guess that was one of the things I was wondering about, although I think James' treatment of it here (not the biblical James, although you are, of course, quite biblical, James ;) is probably more the way I see that kind of an alliance. At any rate, I don't think I was saying Jesus did that. I think I was just saying He hung out with and related closely to people who one might expect the church to say not to associate with on the basis of this passage. I was wondering about whether this constituted "yoking" or not, I guess.

Anonymous said...


Your mom is so good at staying out of trouble. I know she has strong opinions. She must be dying to say more than she does...

The "Biblical link" for what I was trying to say is I Cor. 5:9-13 (NASB), "I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolators, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolator, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler - not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves." My intention in point #2 was nothing more or nothing less than described in these verses.

BTW, are you judging me by presuming what I'd "probably say"? ;-)


Jennwith2ns said...

George--d'oh! Not sure why those passages didn't jump to mind. I accept that. I still think I have some reservations about the way point 2 was stated originally, but yes, that passage is fairly unequivocal. I think the description of "false Christian" from this verse was different than what I was thinking you meant, based on some teaching I've heard from you pastor previously.

As for your final question: I dunno--maybe? I don't believe I was assigning a value to my prediction. I was just guessing. Are guessing and judging the same thing? Is it judging someone to anticipate their reaction based on previous interactions? ;)

Mary Anne said...

Jenn: you are very wise. You should be a pastor.