What does it mean to be in the world but not of it? How is a Christian supposed to relate to those who despise and ridicule the name of Christ? To what extent are we to engage with the surrounding culture? Should a Christian shop at a store owned by a cult? Is the boycott an essential and effective expression of the church’s protest against immorality in our society?
These are tough questions for which quick and overly-confident answers are unwise, and usually wrong. Although the culture has changed and the circumstances often differ greatly, the approach advocated by Paul in the first century still has relevance and binding moral authority for us today.
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14a). One hears people quote this passage almost as often as John 3:16, but with considerably less clarity and understanding. What does Paul have in mind? What is the background to his exhortation, and how does it apply to us in the twenty-first century?
The situation in view was not a new one for Paul, having addressed it earlier in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and 8:1-11:1. Some professing Christians in Corinth were visiting the temple cults of any number of the pagan religions in the city, perhaps even engaging in the sexual activities (temple prostitutes, etc.) associated with their “worship”.
This problem was most likely the reason for Paul's emergency second visit to Corinth and the follow-up “Severe Letter” (see 2 Cor. 2:1-4; 10:1-6; 12:20-13:2). Therefore, the “unbelievers” that he describes in this passage were unconverted Gentiles who were involved in worship at the Greco-Roman mystery cults of Corinth (cf. the use of the word in 2 Cor. 4:4). His command, then, would be for Christian men and women to withdraw from such unholy and immoral alliances. But does the principle behind the imperative extend to other issues that we face today? Yes, but we must proceed cautiously in our application.
Although Paul is not thinking about marriage in this text, certainly the principle would prohibit a Christian entering into such a covenant with a non-Christian (1 Cor. 7:12-15,39). Just as we are commanded not to put asunder what God has joined together, we must be diligent not to join together what God has put asunder!
Sadly, though, some have applied this passage in ways that Paul never sanctioned and that would, in effect, make it difficult even to live, much less work, in a secular society.
For example, there’s no indication that Paul is forbidding or condemning all contact and association with non-Christians (something he declares impractical, if not impossible, in 1 Cor. 5:9-13). Indeed, he anticipates the presence of unbelievers in the worship services at Corinth and instructs them not to do anything that might drive them away (1 Cor. 14:22-24).
Neither is he forbidding or condemning business relations with non-Christians. Whereas I believe it is biblically permissible (necessary?) to do business with a non-Christian, entering into a legal partnership with one calls for discernment and caution.
Paul is in no way forbidding or condemning friendship with non-Christians. If anything, I believe he would encourage them. But even then, how close is too close when it comes to fellowship with the unregenerate?
There is certainly nothing here that would forbid or condemn association and cooperation with other Christians who may disagree with you on secondary issues (contra the attitude in much of early Fundamentalism in western religious culture). And contrary to what some have suggested, if two unbelievers marry and one subsequently comes to faith, he is not instructing the latter to terminate the relationship (see 1 Cor. 7:12-15).
As far as contemporary application is concerned, the separation Paul has in mind between Christians and non-Christians is spiritual and moral, not spatial. The principle is this: enter into no relationship or bond or partnership or endeavor that will compromise your Christian integrity or weaken your will for holiness or cast a shadow on your reputation (see James 4:4-5).
Some of the questions we must ask ourselves, in the effort to apply this principle, would include:
"When I am with these non-believers, do I find myself in situations where I am unduly and dangerously exposed to temptation that may get the better of me?"
"When I am with non-Christians, do I find it easier than at other times to compromise on ethical matters? Do I find myself judging as 'grey' what I would call 'black' if I were with Christians?"
"Does my association with non-Christians tend to make me less vocal about my faith or less visible in my stand for Christ?"
"When I am with non-Christians, does conversation focus primarily on things of the world, or is there also opportunity for discussion of spiritual matters?"
"Does my association with non-Christians serve as an offense to others or a cause of reproach to the gospel?"
There then follow in 6:14b-16a five pointed, rhetorical, questions, each of which calls for the answer: “None whatsoever!”
“For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor. 6:14b-16a).
These are designed to explain why it’s important for believers to be cautious about too close association with non-believers. Those committed to righteousness have no partnership with people given to lawlessness. Those who live in the light of God’s revelation are not to be yoked with those who walk in spiritual and moral darkness. Quite obviously, Christ and the devil agree on nothing and have no harmony with one another. This is the only place in the NT where the word “Belial” occurs. Its Hebrew counterpart occurs in the OT with the meaning “worthlessness” (e.g., Deut. 13:13; 15:9; 2 Sam. 22:5; Ps. 18:4), while in the inter-testamental literature it was used to describe a personal opponent of God.
Likewise, a believer and non-believer share no spiritual common ground. As Philip Hughes has said,
“The unbeliever's life is centered on self, the believer's on Christ; the treasure of the one is here on earth, of the other in heaven; the values of the one are those of this world, of the other those of the world to come; the believer seeks the glory of God, the unbeliever the glory of men" (251).
However, Paul is not denying our common humanity or suggesting that there is literally nothing that we share. As Calvin wisely reminds us, “when Paul says that the Christian has no portion with the unbeliever he is not referring to food, clothing, estates, the sun, and the air, . . . but to those things which are peculiar to unbelievers, from which the Lord has separated us.”
Finally, if the OT prohibited the introduction of idols into the temple of God, how much more horrendous is idolatry in the life of the believer (v. 16a)! Are we not ourselves the only temple in which God shall ever dwell (see 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16b; Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Peter 2:5)? Yes!
The significance of the believer as the temple of God will be taken up in the next meditation. Here I only wish to emphasize yet again the importance of discernment when it comes to forging relationships and partnerships with the unsaved. There is rarely an easy answer that fits all sizes and circumstances.
What is most important to remember, then, is that this is “not a call to create a Christian ghetto, but a summons to purify the Christian community. Paul does not have in view the life of the church in the world, but the life of the world in the church” (Hafemann, 292). The former is both good and inevitable. The latter must be avoided at all costs.