We live in a world where alliances are important. Who you know and who your friends are makes a big difference. Alliances between nations seek to balance power in the world and secure safety. Alliances in business are designed to make each business stronger and more profitable. We join together in friendships and in marriage because we believe we are stronger together than either of us can be apart.
However, not all alliances are good. Nations who allied with Germany in World War II were pulled into something that was horrible and shameful. Alliances between nations often come back to haunt us in the future (think of past alliances with Iran and Iraq). And some personal relationships drain us like cancer.
In 2 Corinthians 6 starting in verse 14 Paul commanded the Corinthians to do something that many today consider to be narrow-minded. In the New Living Translation we read “Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers.” Many of us learned the verse as “Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers”. This morning we will look at what Paul was commanding and why.
The image of being unequally yoked or teamed up is an illusion taken from Deuteronomy 22:10 “you shall not plow with an ox and donkey together”. In other words, you shouldn’t hook a donkey and an ox together as a team. There are two reasons: the ox was considered to be a “clean” animal and the donkey was “unclean” according to Old Testament law (which confuses all of us). The more practical reason was that their step and their pull are unequal. They would in essence be fighting each other making for a very ineffective union.
This is the image Paul uses when he says,
14 Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? 15 What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? 16 And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.
The Principle Clarified
It is important not only that we examine what the command is saying but also be clear on what the command is NOT saying. Paul is not telling us that we should not have any non-Christian friends. He is also not saying we should avoid any place where unbelievers reside. How do we know this? In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul said if we are supposed to avoid anyone who was committing sin we would have to leave the world. Second, the command of Jesus is clear: we are to go into the world to preach the gospel. You cannot share the gospel with others if you are avoiding them. We need to have non-Christian friends and associates.
Paul points out that believers and unbelievers function with different value systems. He asks, “How are righteousness and unrighteousness supposed to mesh together? How do light and darkness form a partnership? How can we possibly unite Christ and the Devil? These things are opposed to each other; they are headed in opposite directions. There can be no harmony between opposites.
Again, it is not that we shouldn’t encourage unbelievers to worship with us. By all means we should do so! We want to share the good news with everyone! We want to be a place that welcomes honest questions. The point is that we should not form partnerships with people who are not believers.
The Principle Applied
The question we face is: how do we apply this principle in our lives? What specifically should we be guarding against? Let me give you four applications (there are more). Church Leadership. From the context of the letter, it is likely that Paul is concerned about those who are leading the church. He warns about false teachers. He was wounded by those who slandered him. Paul I believe is warning the church that they must be careful not to put people into leadership who do not share a commitment to the essential truths of the Christian faith.
This can happen easily. We find someone who is successful in business and we think they would do great on a church board. We find someone who is a good teacher and think they should be able to teach well in the church. We see someone who has financial acumen and so we put them in charge of church finances. Paul would caution that if a person does not have a sincere commitment to Christ they are not qualified for the job!
To have unbelievers in leadership of the church is like allowing someone from the opposite political party to be on your party’s steering committee. It would be like allowing an enemy combatant to have a say on your military strategy; or asking the person who has never exercised a day in their life to be your personal trainer!
The second application is in marriage. The Bible is clear that a believer should not marry an unbeliever. The only time a believer and an unbeliever should be married is if they were both unbelievers before marriage and one came to faith after they were married. (This is not a justification for divorce. See 1 Corinthians 7). In other words, one of the most important issues we should address in any potential marriage relationship (in other words, before we even begin to date) is the issue of faith. Unfortunately, we live in a society that puts a much greater premium on attraction than on spiritual compatibility. There is a feeling that matters of faith are personal issues and irrelevant to dating and marriage. Some believe they can “figure it out” once they are married. This is a reckless and spiritually destructive thought process.
People who do not share the same commitment to Christ are going to have problems. As partners you will be heading in two different directions.
- In your approach to worship
- In your use of money
- In the amusements you pursue
- In the way you raise your children
- In your definition of right and wrong
- In what is most important to you
- In where you give priority in your time
If you are “unequally yoked”, you will get little or no encouragement when it comes to growth in your faith. You will face resistance anytime you want to serve or honor the Lord. People who truly want to follow Christ should never date or marry someone who does not share their commitment to Christ. It is a bad union.
Third, the principle applies in business. We should not enter into a partnership of any kind with a person who is an unbeliever. This is for many of the same reasons you should not enter into marriage with an unbeliever . . . your values are different (or at least they should be). This will impact
- How you do business (ethics, honesty, standing behind your work, profit margin)
- How your invest your money
- How you treat employees
- What work you are willing to do . . . where you draw the line.
Those differences may not reveal themselves initially, but they will develop as time goes on.
This doesn’t mean you can’t work for an unbeliever. There is a simple principle: you should not work for someone who is going to lead you or ask you to compromise your faith or your values. If you are thinking about working for someone who is going to ask you to ignore illegal behavior or is going to tell you to do things that are wrong, you need to quit that job. However, as long as you can serve without compromising your faith, it is fine to work for someone who is not a believer. We should serve that employer just as diligently and faithfully as you would a fellow believer.
The fourth application is in legal matters. In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul said if there is a legal problem between two Christians, we should try to resolve the matter with a Christian mediator rather than bring these issues to the courts or to people who do not share the same values that we do. Jesus told us to settle matters with our adversary before we go before a judge.
The argument in simple: What is legal and what is right in God’s eyes is not always the same thing. If you have to go before a secular judge you don’t know what is going to happen because we do not share the same values.
We could continue to apply the principle. Any alliance or relationship with a person who does not share our commitment to Christ and has the potential to influence us to compromise our faith, is an alliance we are to avoid. We need to be careful of the influence of non-Christian teachers, counselors, authors, business alliances and even significant friendships. It is not that we should become isolated from the world. The principle is that we must be careful of who or what we allow to mold and influence us.
The Reason Behind the Principle (17-18)
Paul doesn’t just leave us with the command and the practical reasons. He also gives us a theological reason,
As God said:
“I will live in them
and walk among them.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
17 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.
18 And I will be your Father,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”
God’s Temple on earth is not our church building. WE are the temple of God. WE are His dwelling place. Just as we want to we show regard for our church building because we love The Lord; so we should want to honor God in the way we live our lives.
Maybe you have warned your children that the way they live will impact not only their lives but will also impact what people think and say about you as their parents. In a sense our children represent us to others.
The principle is simple: since God is Holy, we too should strive to live a holy life. Jesus said, “Be perfect as your father in Heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) All those Old Testament regulations about cleanliness, about how the tabernacle was to be built, and how sacrifices were to be offered, were designed to underscore the holiness, majesty, and purity of God.
One of the things Americans enjoy about England is watching the pageantry related to the Royal family. All the pomp and circumstance lends an air of majesty and dignity to the titles they hold. The “Royals” are expected to live with decorum. There is a standard that is expected. In much the same way, we should live in a way that reflects the majesty and dignity of God.
There are two dimensions of holiness. There is a corporate holiness (the church should be holy in the way it does things) and there is the individual holiness we should strive for.
Something bad is happening in the church and in the lives of individual Christians (including mine). We are beginning to accommodate the values of the world. As you read in the Book of Judges the recurring theme is this: “And everyone did what was right in their own eyes”. We are seeing much of that today. We have allowed the desire to “fit in” to undermine our devotion to the Lord. We have adopted the passions of our society rather than the passions of the Kingdom of God. Think about it,
- We spend more time watching TV or surfing the Net than we do in worship, prayer, and Bible reading.
- We run ourselves ragged trying to be “good parents” and “well-rounded people” to the degree that we are constantly excusing ourselves from our involvement in the things of God.
- There is a growing Biblical illiteracy in the church.
- Media Stars (Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, or various talk show hosts) and co-workers have more influence in our lives than the Word of God.
- We are self-indulgent in our spending and the use of time rather than giving ourselves to outreach and service to the Lord.
- Worship services are often driven more by the desire to please the consumer rather than reverence for the Lord.
- We are more fervent in our politics and sports than we are in our discipleship.
- The Christian community has become more of “a market to reach” than it is the body of Christ. We are better at marketing products than we are at impacting the world with God’s Kingdom.
God calls us to stand apart from the world. It is not that we are to be aloof or judgmental; He calls us to live in contrast to the self-absorption of the society around us.
Paul concludes with these words,
Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.
Paul refers to “promises” that should motivate this pursuit of holiness. I think the promise he is thinking of is from chapter 5 where we are told that God has promised us a house in Heaven that is not made with human hands. We are people who are heirs to a glorious Kingdom. We are living now to live again. There is coming a day when we will stand before the Lord of Life and because of that we want to be found faithful.
All of this is possible because of Christ. In 5:21 we read,
For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
Paul say we are motivated by the fact that we “fear God”. On the one hand that fear involves trembling. We understand God’s awesome character and His purity. We understand that a Day of Judgment is coming and apart from God’s grace we are condemned. That prospect should make us tremble.
However, this fear also involves respect. God has given us an undeserved blessing. He has graciously forgiven us and made us new.
Think about how you would feel if someone saved your life by giving you a kidney. Would that change your relationship with that person? Would you want to show gratitude to that person in whatever way possible? Of course you would, they would now hold a very special place in your heart.
Suppose you were in deep trouble and you were threatened with the loss of your home because you couldn’t pay your mortgage or your taxes. Someone steps forward and pays what you owe with no strings attached. Would that lead you to honor that person before others and with your life? I think it would.
Suppose someone risked their own life to save yours on the battlefield. Wouldn’t you spend the rest of your life feeling a debt of gratitude for that act. You would honor that one who gave so selflessly to save you.
Well, it is the same here. If we understand even a little of what Christ has really done for us, we should desire to honor Him in everything and in every area of our life. One of the ways to do that is to make sure we are not dragged down by those who would pull us away from the Lord. That is the point Paul is making.
It is good to ask: What would my life look like if I was truly living a holy life? I wish I could give you a definitive answer but that answer will likely be different for each one of us. It likely will involve,
- How we use our money
- How we relate to our family
- Our willingness to forgive
- The time we spend with God every day
- What or who gets priority in our calendar
- Who we date or marry
- What we watch and listen to
- How we worship
- Our willingness to wait on the Lord.
- And even who we choose as our friends
As you and I seek the Lord, He will show us what we need to address in our lives. It is likely that we will initially resist what He asks us to do. We may feel God is being intrusive, unfair, or He doesn’t understand. However, the truth is: He loves us and wants to protect us from alliances that can destroy us. If we’re smart, we pay attention.