Paul wrote, “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). This is strong language applied to a common situation — where a Christian marries a non-Christian. What does it mean to be unequally yoked? And why is this so serious?
What Does it Mean to Be Yoked?
A yoke or zugos is “a heavy burden, comparable to the heavy yokes resting on the bullocks’ necks; a balance, pair of scales.” The Greek used in 2 Corinthians 6:14 is heterozugeó means “unequally yoked.”
Christ’s word zugos is found in Matthew 11:28-30 where he invites his listeners to “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
When one is “yoked” to a partner, this means that two people should equally share the burdens of life and the purpose of their calling in Christ to glorify God. Their work will be light even though there will still be toil because they will be striving to go in the same direction, joyfully burdened for Christ. Their burden will be light because their equal yoke will bring peace and rest.
When Two Are Unequally Yoked
A yoke conveys the idea of two bulls joined to the task of pulling a plow, but they are not well matched. They are unable to pull the plow in a straight line. This is what it looks like when one partner follows Christ, and the other does not.
“It’s always important to ask ourselves — in every area of life — how a believer can have any kind of partnership with an unbeliever. This is particularly true in marriage. An unbeliever doesn’t follow the Lord [...] so everything else in their life is an idol. Including their spouse.”
When one decides to follow Christ, to the exclusion of anything and anyone else means that one’s spouse is not the center of his or her world. When one decides to follow Christ, he or she yields to Him first, and His Holy Spirit provides direction.
Generally, unbelievers prefer to follow their own directions. This can cause frustration, friction, anger, and resentment. “How can you follow a Master who demands absolute allegiance if you choose to become ‘one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24) with a person who ignores His truth?” (Ibid.).
What Are the Possible Consequences of Being Unequally Yoked?
To be unequally yoked means two will be living life in opposite directions, so the plow cannot go in a straight line. There can be no peace, no rest. The work is hard as a result, and the yoke is heavy. Paul’s contrasts of light with dark and lawfulness with lawlessness evoke the painful division potentially inherent to a marriage like this one.
Another consequence can be that the Christian spouse abandons his or her faith under pressure from the other party. God addressed the issue of intermarriage when he gave his people the Ten Commandments and other rules they were to follow in order to live righteously and peacefully with one another and with God.
If one’s children intermarried with non-Jews God warned, “They would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).
“Set aside for a moment the question of whether it would be a sin to marry a non-Christian. Common sense alone says it would be unwise [...] because the success of the marriage and the spiritual health of the believing partner would be at serious risk” (Ibid.).
Marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian will probably lead to a fracture of some kind. The marriage might break up because the two parties live according to different worldviews. A ripple effect is set in motion affecting children, friends, and extended family. Alternatively, the influence of a non-believer could fracture the relationship between God and the believing spouse.
The Possible Positives of an Unequally Yoked Couple
Paul also addressed the possibility that a believing spouse might influence the wife or husband to consider the gospel. Where one spouse was converted when they were already together, he said the two who are unequally yoked should stay together for “the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:14).
There is a chance that a praying wife who lives with integrity in front of her husband (or the other way around) as a Christian could win him over for the Lord. More accurately, God would win over the spouse and invite the husband or wife to have a part in his saving work.
He does not need anyone’s help, but it is thrilling to watch a person come to a saving knowledge of Jesus after years of patiently, lovingly, and graciously witnessing to a skeptical loved one. The positive ripple effect of such a situation is that such a conversion might impact friends and children for the gospel.
A Caveat about Yokes
Ensuring that two parties are equally yoked goes beyond establishing that each one is a church-goer. A Christian is one who follows Christ. Couples benefit from taking time to learn whether their boyfriend/girlfriend really follows Jesus or not.
Culture today features many individuals who would call themselves “Christian” who, in fact, believe all roads lead to God; that everyone is good; that God is a universal energy, not a person; that Jesus is not God’s Son; or that the Bible needs to be updated for the 21st century.
So, while a man might say he has attended church his whole life, his potential bride needs to see evidence that he lives with Christ before him. No person is perfect, but a person’s life should testify to his beliefs, not merely his words about himself. This is why one should never rush into marriage or simply follow his or her feelings to the altar.
Grace for the Unequally Yoked
If you are contemplating marriage with someone who does not know and love Jesus, then think very hard about what the future will hold. Allow God to reason with you. Speak to your pastor or church counselor.
You are both worth more than a hasty decision based upon feelings alone. If, however, you find yourself married to someone who does not believe in the resurrected Jesus Christ, remember that God is in control of this situation.
His love for you does not change; he is the one who redeems, whether he redeems and resurrects your spouse’s heart, or you find your own love and need for God growing stronger because of the difficulty you face. Trust him to bring about renewal, and trust that the form renewal takes will glorify him and be good for you, even if your spouse never gives his heart to Jesus.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.