The word of the day is “yoked.” Despite our intentions, others influence us. Relationships involve “give and take.” Thus, if we engage with others who have different beliefs, values, attitudes, and habits than we have, we must be on guard that their outlook will affect us, even unwittingly. On the other hand, it may be that by our association with them, we might find that we can influence them.
Today in our reading of 2 Corinthians 6:11-16, St. Paul admonishes his congregation, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (vs. 11). Paul’s directive may be unpopular in our “pluralistic society.” Yet, he had a point for us to consider as we seek to live faithfully amid the diversity of peoples in today’s world. However, we will find that we need the discernment of the Holy Spirit to decide on our relationships with outsiders to the circle of faith. We will need the Spirit’s guidance to know what associations will be of spiritual benefit to others.
The Background in the “Holiness Code” in the Old Testament
The background of this directive is the “Holiness Code” in the Old Testament. Most likely, St. Paul had the command “Do not plow with a young bull and a donkey together” (Deuteronomy 22:16) in mind. That would be yoking two living things together “unequally.” Practically speaking, harnessing the two beasts of burden together would be an attempt to make them a team. Yet, we can imagine that the team would not work well. The ox would overpower the donkey, and the donkey would resist the control of the ox. Likewise, in the marriage of a baptized believer and a nonbeliever, the marital team would always be hampered by their unequal beliefs and values.
The Line Between Living in the Light and Living in Darkness
Yet this metaphor has a deeper spiritual meaning. The “Holiness Code” honored and guarded the differences in the order of creation. Yet, these differences represented more profound distinctions on the spiritual level. God called the Chosen People of the Old Testament to set themselves apart from their pagan neighbors in the smallest detail of their lives. Likewise, we, the people of the New Testament, were “baptized into Christ.” We now share in His death and resurrection, His righteousness, and His eternal life. Thus, it is that we are “better than others,” for our new status is only by God’s grace. But there is a definite line between light and darkness, righteousness and lawlessness, the Holy Trinity and idols, and believing and unbelieving. We have been called out of the dark to live in the light. We are living temples of God, for the life-giving Holy Spirit dwells within us (vs. 16).
The Challenge of Living in a Society of Unbelievers
With these thoughts in mind, Paul uses the image of the ox and the donkey to warn believers not to become involved again in the dealings of our former lives. The challenge of the Corinthians was how to live as Christians in a pagan society. Paul admitted the believers in Corinth still had to have contact with the nonbelievers of their city. But contact with them was different than accepting idolatry and immorality in their fellowship (vs. 9-11). We also cannot escape interaction with nonbelievers. Of course, we should avoid joining them in blatant sin. But how close should our association with them be? We need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to decide. Paul’s teaching is that we should limit the influences of those with contrasting beliefs, values, and conduct while seeking relationships with our fellow believers in the community of faith.
The Pharisees criticized the Lord Jesus for associating with the wrong kind of people, that is, with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11). He did so because He came to seek and to save the lost (Matthew 9:12-13). Paul’s caution is well taken. But how will others come to know Christ except through us? And how will that happen if we do not relate to them? Therefore, Paul’s directive that we limit our association with those who do not share our “core values” may not apply in all cases. We should be open to the Holy Spirit’s direction. Perhaps He will guide us to relationships with unbelievers that we can influence by sharing our faith and way of life.