“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”…2 Corinthians 6:14 (ESV)
In our modern, technologically advanced Western culture, we don’t talk- or even think- much about “yokes.” To be real, I’m not certain I’ve even seen one. Despite the relative unfamiliarity of the term, though, when it comes to our relationships, we are, with very few exceptions, experienced “yokers.” Be it in marriage, friendship, business, or even ministry, almost all of us either have “yoked” ourselves to someone else, are currently “yoked” to someone else, or one day will “yoke” ourselves to someone else in a deep, intimate relationship.
The Bible has clear words for us here regarding such relationships, warning us in no uncertain terms to avoid “unequal yokes” with others. As followers of Jesus, there is no circumstance under which entering into such a close partnership with someone who doesn’t follow Jesus can be good, healthy, or productive in the pursuit of God and His desire for our lives. Such a partnership will be limiting to our flourishing in Christ at best, and perhaps in some cases outright destructive.
Though this teaching seems simple enough at first glance, in reality it can be much more complex to play out in practice. Relationships involve real people– not just theories or principles- and real people must be treated with consideration and concern, even in the face of uncompromising conviction. Most of us know this, and as a result, we take a biblical text like the one above and co-opt it to run of two relational extremes when it comes to “yoking.” Here are two primary dangers we must ask God to enable us to avoid if we are be healthy and vibrant in our closest, most intimate relationships…
1- Rigid separation from the world
This is the old “come out and be separate” approach to relationships with those who don’t follow Jesus, best summarized in the statement, “Don’t have them.” Those of us prone toward this extreme look on “unbelievers” as though they are sick with a virus that will infect us if we get too close. So we stay away…far away. We don’t invite “them” into our homes. We don’t allow our kids to play, or even go to school, with “them.” We work incredibly to avoid even the appearance of association with “them.” Notice the repeated use of the term “them” here. What message does that send about the heart of our God?
While those who don’t know Jesus are admittedly sin-sick, if we are in Christ, they don’t have a virus that we can “catch” if we relate to them. Paul’s call to avoid “unequal yokes” is decidedly not a call to run and hide fearfully and judgmentally in a Christian “bunker”. To do so would be to cut ourselves off from any opportunity to be faithful to God’s call on our lives to be intentional, on mission, sharing and showing the Gospel to others in relationships. We simply can’t be “light” in our dark world if we’re hiding out. That wasn’t Jesus’ example, and it ought not be ours either.
2- Naïve flirtation with the world
This is the other end of the spectrum, in which we getascloseaswecan to the “line” without crossing it. Those of us who are tempted here don’t fear sin as our separatist counterparts do, but at the same time, we don’t take it- or our own holiness- seriously enough. We abuse God’s gift of grace by treating it as an excuse for license in our relationships. This is most often seen in dating relationships, in which we naively convince ourselves that we can somehow influence our partner to “get right with God” so that we can finally have what we want without feeling guilty about it. In such cases, our “love” for God- or others- is little more than a ploy to satisfy our own desires.
This was the precise situation into which Paul wrote in the above text. The Corinthian Christians were flirting with their wicked, idolatrous culture in numerous ways, and Paul rightly recognized the danger ahead of them. They weren’t charging the darkness of their city with the “light” of Christ; they were simply playing in the shadows in an effort to “fit in.” This is a grave temptation for all of us. Let’s recognize it for what it is, and take holiness far more seriously than we do. In so doing, we will actually much better position ourselves to engage others who don’t follow Jesus in a bold yet winsome way.
I don’t know where you fall on this spectrum. I know that I can find myself at both extremes in different aspects of my life, depending on the specific circumstance at hand. Regardless of your tendencies, here is my strong encouragement to you today- Beg God for His heart for those that don’t follow Jesus, so that you might respond rightly to their need without compromising your own spiritual integrity. Here’s a hint- This is much easier done when we “yoke” ourselves appropriately to some other Jesus loving, Gospel saturated brothers and sisters, and walk together in encouragement and accountability toward God’s best in holiness and in mission.
How will the “square one” reality of Jesus in your life impact the way you navigate your closest, most intimate relationships this week?