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.

Advertisements

How we lost a great friend

Long before we got married, my wife and I had a very good friend. Actually he was more her friend than mine. I inherited him as a friend when we started dating. He was the one person who knew and understood her better than me. When we had a major hiccup one year into our relationship, it was this friend who she turned to for support and he provided it while still being a good friend to both of us.

There is no doubt he was her best friend and its very likely she confided in him much more than she did to me during those years. I am okay with that. They had known each other for longer than they had known me, I was the intruder into this friendship.

However, this friend had issues. He had a difficult home life and he despised his father, every now and then he’d let his darkness show and we would get a glimpse of the pain he was hiding. Normally though he was a very jovial and fun person to be around. I guess he needed it to be that way.

I never met his father, he never seemed to be at home, but I did meet his mother on a few occasions. She was a pleasant but very quiet person. I do recall this friend had an awful lot of freedom at home, given his teen years. Not just a computer and TV in his bedroom, but a phone as well. His bedroom was right at the top of the house, out of the way of everyone else and large enough to include a sofa area too; visiting friends always went directly up there, no exclusions.

As soon as he left school and got his first job, this friend moved out of home and bought a small flat; smaller than his bedroom almost. Girlfriend and I spent a lot of time visiting him there.

Moving out of home changed our friend. For starters he became a little freer in talking about his home life issues. He would only visit home when he knew his mum was at home alone so he could see her on his terms. He talked a lot about dropping off the radar so he could be free of his family, I remember an attitude of grim determination fuelled by hatred.

We were all committed Christians at the time and in our mid-late teens. We attended many evangelical services and socialized in a Christian youth group and then a Christian 18+ group as we aged. We had bible studied together and prayed together and partied together many times with our wider Christian friendship group.

But our friend was continuing to have his issues and he moved on. He got a job in London and started living there, renting out the flat he had bought. He started attending church there in London too. Seeing him became more and more of a logistical challenge and contacted started to peter out.

By this time girlfriend and I were engaged. She missed her friend though and made extra effort to continue the contact, travelling into London and going out of her way to maintain the contact.

Then the bombshell dropped.

He told her he was gay.

In hindsight we should have realised, but at the time it came as a surprise. At the time I was very much of the opinion of many fundamentalist Christians today, that homosexuality is just plain wrong. I wasn’t at that meeting, it was just girlfriend and him. Girlfriend told friend that I would not be impressed, she was right, but it likely wasn’t the right thing to say. Friend needed some encouragement and support. He’d just told his closest childhood friend his biggest darkest secret and he hadn’t had the response he needed. In her defence, girlfriend was caught off-guard and really didn’t have much time to absorb the information. It came from left field at a time of concern and vulnerability and girlfriend was utterly unprepared to deal with such a revelation.

She did her best to reassure friend that his friendship was still valuable. However, that was the last time she would see him. They would speak once more; it was a difficult conversation with friend being withdrawn despite girlfriend’s reassurances. After that he never returned her calls and they never spoke again. He wasn’t at our wedding.

Nearly 20 years later, she still very much regrets those final moments and genuinely wishes that she could have played that conversation differently and kept a good friend. We don’t have many regrets in life but this one is by far the biggest and by a long margin.

In reality, I think he was going to disappear anyway. His bigger issues had driven him to leave his old life behind and girlfriend was the last thread linking him to his old life and I think he was going to cut it anyway. His long term plan had been to change his name and leave the country, I have no reason to doubt this happened very soon after.

This of course is no comfort to my wife and she still feels the pain of a lost friendship that she believes she had the power to retain but failed to act in the right way. On the few occasions we’ve discussed this over the years, it has made her cry; such is her feeling of loss. Friend being gay was never going to be a barrier to a continued friendship, despite the personal objections of lifestyle choice.

There have been a couple of times over the years when, in our involvement with youth work we’ve been able to use this story to caution young people on how they respond to their friends when faced with similar revelations. Its not an easy story to tell and the sense of loss has never left us, but we do hope we can use it to stop others suffering the same.

 

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.