What Does Being Unequally Yoked Actually Mean?

Over the weekend my wife and I had a brief discussion about the meaning of being unequally yoked. The conversation came about because she had been reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where in Chapter 2 he explicitly states “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.” (NIV)

The unambiguous message in the text is that it is not a valid excuse to leave your spouse just because they leave the faith. Yet, as I read about on the subject, it is clear that there are many marriages where one spouse leaving the faith while the other does not often creates a situation where divorce is inevitable. I think that is sad and it leaves me with the conclusion that my wife and I are in the minority.

What’s this got to do with Yoking?

Well, later on in Corinthians is another unambiguous instruction “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?  What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?” (NIV)

The first sentence is clear; do not be yoked with unbelievers. Here is that same sentence in other versions:

  • Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. (NLT)
  • Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers (KJV)
  • Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers (ASV)
  • Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (ESV)

I think the word ‘unequally’ dramatically changes the meaning of that sentence. Without it, the instruction is clear, don’t mix with the heathen; with it, is the implication that it is possible for a Christian to be equally yoked with an unbeliever. (I’ll skip over the question of whether unbeliever means atheist or just not a Christian but feel free to comment on that part if you wish to.)

‘Unequally’ has a bearing on the sentences that follow. One meaning implies that all unbelievers are wicked and nasty; the other that it is only the wicked and nasty unbelievers that should be avoided; unbelievers that are not wicked and nasty are okay. For me, it’s the latter that makes more sense because how on earth would it be possible to evangelise if Christians can’t mix with unbelievers? However, the insinuation that all non-believers are wicked and nasty is deeply unhelpful; even if it is not a correct interpretation, there are many Christians who believe it and there are many Churches where that message is preached.

It is highly unfortunate that a single word can make such a difference to this sentence and that it is missing in some modern translations. It is precisely this sort of thing that creates difficulty for the biblical literalist.

I had always been of the impression that the being yoked means marriage, but the context of this instruction does not implicitly state marriage and so I now think it means more than just marriage. More than that, I think it reads more appropriately as referring to a business type relationship. This item at Grace Central (http://www.gracecentered.com/unequally_yoked.htm) seems to agree, though it is not a completely thorough analysis. I do find the explanation of the original Greek very interesting, especially as it does seem to support my current position on the matter.

While there certainly does seem to be guidance towards avoiding marriage with a non-Christian, I think it’s a major stretch to assume that a marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian comes under the banner of being unequally yoked.

So What does it Actually Mean?

Well it doesn’t mean have no association with non-Christians whatsoever, despite the unfortunate language in some versions.

My thoughts are that it advises against close or dependent partnerships (not specifically or necessarily marriage) with those who would take advantage of you or have vastly different motives. This would seem to be good advice for anyone regardless of the religiosity of either partner.

The curse of the Elder Sibling

As part of the fallout of my parents separation, and eventual divorce, I took it upon myself to take extra care of my younger brothers. It would be many years before mum re-married so made sure I was the man of the house there. Life with dad and the new woman was mostly horrid. New woman controlled the household with an iron fist and we sat at the bottom of the pile of priorities, while her own children got preferential treatment.

The emotional effect on me was devastating. I always did my best to make sure my brothers were okay. This, predictably, ended up with me making decisions about how they should behave and took it upon myself to let them know how much of a failure they were, when they didn’t match my unrealistic expectations. Some people tried to tell me that I was making a mistake, but I didn’t see it.

My brothers did their best to continue growing up as kids, they did their little rebellions and messed about. I was constantly stressed up about being good and at times simply forgot about just having fun.

Part of this process meant that I immersed myself even more into my Christianity. It was the only place where I found peace from the pain of family life.

Looking back, I am embarrassed, even shamed, by how I acted. My relationships with my brothers suffered greatly as a result. At the time when they needed me to just be a fun brother I became a bossy older sibling. Talking it over with my youngest brother recently, he was very philosophical about the whole thing and insisted he understood why I did it. He then teased me about being a goody-two-shoes. I am so glad to have such a reliable and dedicated brother. I owe home much.

The saddest part is that our middle brother makes no effort to contact us and despite efforts from both of us, we have had no relationship with him for more than 10 years now. It hurts us both immensely but we have no idea how we can change the situation.

Oh how I long to change my past, and how I fear that some of my actions all those years ago have contributed to the situation that exists now.

As a young pre-teen adjusting to the reality of separated parents, the wisdom I have now would have been of immense value then. Instead, the pain of life drove me deeper and deeper into my bible and the comforting arms of Christian belief.

I was Only Nine Years Old When I Made the Decision to be Baptised

I still remember very clearly what prompted me to be baptised. I was attending a baptism service for the church that my mother attended. It was less than a year after the raid on the farm we were living on.

The Baptism service was being held in the open air on the bank of the river that runs through the farm and several people were getting baptised. I was standing next to my mother, enjoying the spectacle and the songs. The sound of Zambian voices singing songs of worship unaccompanied is quite something. It was a very spiritual moment.

Overcome by what I was witnessing and experiencing, I turned to my mother and said that I’d like to be baptised. She practically burst into tears of joy there and then. After a brief discussion with a few other adults, I was given the option of joining those being baptised there and then. My nerves got the better of me and I turned that down.

So arrangements were made, and some time later I was baptised, in the same river, in a more private service, where close family friends were invited. I can’t remember exactly how long later it was, whether it was weeks, or a whole school term. I am sure it felt longer that it really was. My mother gave me a copy of Pilgrims Progress, which she had written inside a small note of encouragement, and I still have as a one of my childhood treasures, it reminds me of times more happy.

Of course my father was there with his new woman and since he had travelled some distance to be there, he wanted some time with me. That’s the earliest memory I have of there being a battle for my attention. It made me feel horrid, being with my father would often do this. That’s why I always much preferred being with mum, her attention was always out of love and devotion for her offspring while dad’s seemed like it was to score points over mum. I hated that, hated it with a passion, and it would eventually become a hate towards dad and that woman.

Those First Weeks and Months after Baptism.

My first week back at boarding school I was given a small piece of paper by the headmaster with some key bible verses on it. This I placed in my first bible, an RSV. Its a bible I had owned for some time. I can’t remember exactly when I was given it, but I had already marked several verses on it by that time. I’ve owned several bibles since, but this bible is by far the most battered and scribbled in, and that small piece of paper with the key verses on is still there in the front cover.

I read the verses on that piece of paper many times in the following year. I knew my time at this school in Zambia was coming to an end. I knew my parents marriage was also going to end, I struggled massively with the denial of it. Even now the memories of that torment bring me to tears. I could not understand how or why my once wonderful childhood could be crumbling like this. Life used to be so wonderful and carefree. Since dad had introduced this new woman it had all gone to pot. That’s how I continued to see it anyway. It would be several years before I’d learn more of the truth, but until then all I had was what I saw and what I saw caused me immense upset on a regular basis. Being away at boarding school, with my little piece of paper tucked inside my bible, was my refuge from the turmoil, the hurt and the broken heart.

So I was sustained by the bible and I put a lot of effort into studying it. It was my distraction because talking about my family was, and still is at times, too painful. As my respect and admiration for my father diminished, so my devotion to a heavenly God increased.

Parental Marriage Breakdown

After the horrible events of my mothers kidnapping. The next time I saw my parents was the next school holiday, which just happened to be the Christmas holiday. They were separated and my father introduced me to the woman who would later become my step-mother. It was a lot to take in for a 9 year old.

To my young mind, a near disaster like that should mean a family looks after each other. Yet here what I saw was the apparent abandonment by my father. The truth was much more complicated than that, but my young mind could not comprehend why my parents were separating, why there was a new woman being forced into the situation and how this related to the kidnapping of my mother. It would change forever how I related to my parents, my mother became someone even more special to me and my father lost much of the respect I had for him, from that point on our relationship would be difficult and strained. In my mind he was the villain.

The truth is, neither of my parents were perfect and both had their roles to play in the breakup. It was how they acted post breakup that influenced how I viewed them. My mother would never tolerate me saying anything derogatory about my father, no matter how true. She always behaved with dignity and I never felt unloved by her. The opposite is true of my father, I had to endure much spite against my mother and often felt that I came second place to the siblings of the new woman in his life.

How did this shape my Christianity?

Given that I had no reason to question the validity of the Christian God or the truth of Christianity, it didn’t directly shape it. I never consciously thought that the separation of my parents or the events that led up to it could in any way challenge the existence of God. After all, it is humans that mess up, not God.

My father and his new woman would also continue to go to church, long before they eventually married, even before my parents divorce came through. I couldn’t understand why I had to endure this pain of my parents separation, but it certainly wasn’t God’s fault.

Boarding school would be a regular refuge from this pain and the care provided to me by my teachers would be a constant source of encouragement and strength. At least with them I knew there was a consistency of love and presence. This was very important to me and it was this that continued to nourish my growing Christian devotion.