Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:18 to start.
As you probably know, I have four children. There are some things they know, and some things that they don’t. When I think about things that they should know, sometimes I recall certain spiritual principles that I have been taught, some of which might seem very basic, and some that I have heard perhaps many times, but that I’m not sure how solid a grasp my children have on them. I don’t know for certain how solid a grasp any of the young people here would have on these principles, or for that matter, what level of understanding the adults listening this morning would have, or could use a refresher on. There are a lot of things that we can likely all use a reminder about from time to time, after all.
The principle that I would like to consider this morning is the idea of an unequal yoke. It’s a familiar one to me, one that I recall being cautioned about in my younger years on many occasions. This was something that was brought up at Youth Group as something to be exceedingly wary about. And this may well be something you’ve heard before and understand, or something that you may be thinking “Eh, what’s the big deal?” or something that you don’t know about at all. But before we get into that, some information. About vehicles, to be exact.
A John Deere 9R 590 tractor is a high performance vehicle featuring a 590 horsepower diesel engine, is available in the John Deere trademark green, and to get one new it will cost a little over half a million dollars.
A Lamborghini Aventador is a high performance vehicle featuring a 690 horsepower gasoline engine, is available in seven different colours, and to get one new it will cost a little under half a million dollars.
A Rolls-Royce Phantom is a high performance vehicle featuring a 563 horsepower gasoline engine, is available in 17 different colours, and to get one new it will cost somewhat over half a million dollars.
These are all high end speciality vehicles, each of which has a considerable amount of prestige and would be impressive to most people. They all have a lot of what you might call “Wow factor.” They all cost roughly the same amount of money, and they all have reasonably comparable horsepower numbers. Looking just at those few details, one might argue that these are all basically equivalent. The numbers all work out pretty much the same. So what’s the difference? Of course, the answer is everything.
Obviously the Rolls Royce will not perform nearly as well on the racetrack as the Lamborghini, and the Lambo is not suited to pull a plough or a manure spreader in a potato field, you can’t even put a trailer hitch on that, much less a power take-off. And while the John Deere could potentially carry a head of state in a motorcade, it would look ridiculous, and there’s no where for the bodyguards to sit. These things are obviously very, very different. They are made differently; they are intended for different purposes. Each one may well be special, be valuable, be useful, and may well be a fantastic machine and most impressive at what it does. But they are different. While they may have some significant features in common, they are not the same. And they are not interchangeable.
This brings us back to unequal yokes. The idea of being unequally yoked of course comes from agriculture. We don’t use draft animals so much in our society today, I suppose that the Amish do, and there are some people who have Belgians or Percherons or similar large horses, you might see them at the Dundas Plowing Match or that type of event, or in a parade, so they are likely at least somewhat familiar to us. In a pre-industrial agricultural society, of course you would see draft animals all the time, likely on a near daily basis.
If you are using two of these animals, a yoke is used to link them together. And you would always be certain to put comparable animals in a yoke together, or the pairing is not going to work well at all. They need to be similar to size, in strength, in speed, in temperament, and in endurance. There’s no point trying to stick a Shetland pony next to a donkey and have them work together, or an ox with a Clydesdale. It will be far more work keeping them in a straight line than is ever going to be worthwhile, and one animal will be held back while the other is pushed beyond its limits. It’s a good way to break equipment, injure animals, make a mess, and not get a lot of work done. In short, it is a recipe for trouble and failure.
Paul cautions the Corinthian believers here about unequal yokes. Actually, he does more than that, he specifically forbids it. This is as strong an admonition as be ye not drunk with wine, as Paul advised the Ephesians, or do not eat that which is offered to idols, as we see in 1 Corinthians. Here, he follows up the command with supporting examples, and not just one or two, but five different examples. Look at the next few verses. Righteousness and unrighteousness do not have fellowship, nor do light and darkness have anything in common. Nor does Christ agree with Satan, and believers have no part with unbelievers, or likewise the temple of God with idols. That’s a lot of examples, and each one we should be able to say without question that yes, those two do not fit together. They are not in agreement, they are not compatible. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum. If you see someone trying to reconcile two of these incompatible things, they are likely trying to misrepresent at least one of them, if not both, or to discredit or destroy one of them. An unequal yoke is on the same level as that, it is not to be done.
Obviously this is something to take seriously. That’s how I was taught it when I was a youth, as something to take seriously, and I don’t see that anything has changed in the last couple of decades. Where does this apply? Most often we see this principle applied to personal relationships, in particular to romantic relationships. We’re talking about marriage, and we’re talking about boyfriend and girlfriend relationships.
I’m not here this morning to talk in detail about those sorts of relationships, not that it isn’t a good topic for another day, but that would be biting off more than I could chew. I will say that the common thing that we see in the world, where people are a couple without being married, or even engaged, for an extended period of time, is not something that I believe we see advised in the biblical pattern of relationships, quite the opposite in fact. People dating when they are not interested in marriage is pointless and in fact is potentially dangerous in that it may well lead to temptation. And people dating when they are far too young to be considering marriage is foolhardy, and comes with the same pitfalls, perhaps even greater ones, as those who are young may be more inclined to make impulsive and risky choices. Not that those who are older always make good choices, far from it, I know a lot of people who are certainly old enough to know better who have made many terrible life choices. For younger people, though, the risks are generally greater, and the level of maturity is generally lower. In short, if you aren’t interested in or able to consider marriage, then there is no good reason to be in a romantic relationship. That’s all I will say about that for the moment.
Why is it specifically a problem to have an unequal yoke in marriage, in romantic relationships? Because the believer and the unbeliever are different. Like the tractor and the Rolls-Royce, they are not the same. They do different things. They are going in different directions, they have different destinations. They want different things. Or at least, they should want different things.
If one is following Christ, then doing His work, listening to His teachings, caring for His people, participating in His church, those should all be at or near the top of the believer’s priority list. Yes, family is important, and your work is important, being a responsible parent, spouse, provider, good citizen, those are all needful for the believer, but the things of God are no less needful. Someone who does not follow Christ, why would they have any of His priorities on their agenda? Why would they care about His ministry, His teachings, His truth? Why would they be concerned with obeying God’s law? Why would they do anything that would encourage a believer to draw closer to God?
The answer of course is that they wouldn’t. At least not sincerely or on an ongoing basis. Someone might say the right things, might put up a façade of being interested in the same spiritual things in order to impress another person, in order to convince them of their intent, but it will almost certainly not last. Why would it? The believer and the unbeliever are not the same. They are travelling in different directions. One has been forgiven, has been transformed and is no longer of this world, and is on the straight and narrow road to eternity, and the other is none of those things.
I said a moment ago that the believer has been transformed, and is on the straight and narrow road, and that is what the believer should be. But as much as I firmly believe that salvation is a done-and-paid-for thing, I believe that once you have trusted in Christ there is no chance for you to lose your salvation, the Christian life is not exactly a guaranteed thing. To set out on the path does not promise a safe and pleasant journey, much less a productive one. In fact, I would argue that the Christian life is not safe from obstacles or challenges, and in fact that is a key part which leads to growth and maturity. It’s not easy, and not every believer who sets out on that narrow path will find the way clear. Many stumble and get tripped up and mired along the way, arriving at the end with little or nothing to show for the journey. The best of us will make mistakes, that it inevitable. The Christian life, the Christian walk, although the destination is clear, the road itself is not a fully settled and established thing. It is not a walk in the park by any means.
If the believer aligns their path, aligns their whole life, because that is what marriage is, it is a lifetime commitment to walk alongside someone, to go the way they are going, to be with them through thick and thin, through sickness and health, through good times and bad, if the believer is partnered with someone who is not a believer, well, which direction are they more likely to take?
Recently I saw on Facebook something that seems appropriate to mention here. This is referencing well-known songs from decades gone by, and the original comment was along the lines of “The fact that there’s a highway to hell and a stairway to heaven says a lot about the anticipated traffic patterns.”
It’s one of those comments that is both amusing and insightful at the same time. What’s the difference between a stairway and a highway? Travelling on the first takes a lot more effort than the second. A highway is specifically designed to make the journey easy and rapid. Lots of people, lots of vehicles use a highway, and they are all travelling in the same direction, although some are perhaps moving a lot faster than others. But a highway is easy, and it is fast. A set of stairs requires continual effort to take each subsequent step. If you stop or become discouraged, momentum will not carry you forward, not even a little.
The Christian life requires effort. It does not invite coasting. If you partner with someone who is not on the same path, who does not have the same goals, who does not believe in the same things, who does not profess the same faith in the same Saviour, then will that person be of any help to you whatsoever in furthering your walk with Christ? Or will that person drag you down, steer you astray, and generally be a hindrance to your spiritual life? I think we all know the answer to that.
Even if this other person really does care for you, does in fact love you and wants to help you on your way, well, we might as well go back to my analogy from the start. A Lamborghini will never be any use to plow a field no matter how much effort the driver puts in. It is not a tractor. It might look amazing, it might actually have more horsepower, but it’s not equipped or able. Even if you truly wanted to plow the back forty with your Aventador, it’s never going to work.
And of course, most people are largely selfish and self-interested, and there is little incentive for the non-believer to help and encourage the believer, and even less understanding about why this is important. How is a partner who doesn’t know how and doesn’t particularly want to help going to be any help? It’s like when a toddler wants to help clean something, or, say, help you paint. It’s going to be a lot more mess and a lot more work to probably get a lot less done.
That’s what the Christian life is like when you are yoked together with someone who is not a believer. And frankly, being a follower of Christ is challenging when you are on your own, and it’s also hard work even if you have good help. Being paired up with someone who is not on the same page, or for that matter, who isn’t even reading from the same book, that’s absolutely setting yourself up for failure.
Speaking personally, I don’t know a great number of believers who have married someone who does not profess the name of Christ. Certainly I know some, and many people here likely do as well. How has that gone? Can you think of any examples where it has gone entirely well? I’m at a loss to think of any. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s an exceedingly high bar to reach. It’s not impossible that I can take this pen and throw it up to land on one of the blades of the ceiling fan, but I’d bet that I could take 100 tries and miss every single one, and no one would be surprised. Everyone would be shocked if I pulled it off.
If a believer marries an unbeliever, and makes it work, everyone would likewise be shocked if they pulled it off.
I’ll point out that it’s possible to be unequally yoked even with other believers, either genuine or professing. Someone who is sincerely following Christ can be held back and distracted by a more casual Christian who is half-hearted in their faith. It’s certainly a better situation than being with an unbeliever, but it’s far from ideal.
It’s not just about marriage though. What I’ve seen far more often than a believer marrying an unbeliever is rather to see one dating the other. I’ve seen countless young people, from when I was a teenager, and later when I was in university and in the years after that, kids that I knew from youth group, or from Bible study groups at university, and I was involved with a few of those at different times, or people I knew from church, who ended up involved with someone who was not serious about their faith. Or maybe had no faith at all to speak of. The number of times I saw someone drawn away and pulled from the fellowship of believers into the companionship of the world is too many to count. Maybe it happened slowly over a few years, maybe it happened all at once, but it happened again and again. Young people who had publically proclaimed their faith, their earnest desire to follow Christ, yet were so easily lead astray by someone with a pleasant smile or a smooth word.
It’s not that unbelievers intentionally scheme and plot to undermine those who believe. But it’s what happens. I don’t blame them. They are doing what they do, what they have always done. It’s what they are. If you are in Christ, you are a new creature, as we read to start. If you are not in Christ, then it follows that you are not a new creature, you are as you were, which is lost and dead in sin. That may sound harsh, but it is true. We don’t like to think about that sometimes, but that is what unbelievers are. That is what we all were before we knew the Lord. And this morning, if you cannot say truly that you have put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to save you from your sins, then you are not a new creature, you are likewise lost and dead in sin. There is hope, there is hope for any and all who would believe, who would repent, who would turn from sin to the Saviour. Consider where you stand before God this day. There has never been a better time to believe than right now.
Now, you may be saying to yourself this morning that this does not concern you in the least, you have been married to a godly man or woman for somewhere between one and fifty years at this point. Or perhaps you were, but due to the sad fact that all life in this fallen world ends, you are married no longer. Perhaps you have no interest in marriage whatsoever. But this idea of unequal yokes may still concern you, and no, not because it may concern your children or grandchildren.
The passage in 2 Corinthians says nothing about marriage specifically. It talks about being unequally yoked. And certainly marriage is a long-term partnership that many people enter into, it is the most prevalent and enduring partnership that most people will experience in their lives. But not necessarily the only one.
To be yoked is to be linked together, to work in common toward a common goal. This is what marriage is supposed to be, even if the world sadly makes a mockery of the purpose, point, and permanence of marriage. But being in a business partnership with someone is also a type of yoke. I know a lot of people who work exceedingly hard at their businesses, they put in many hours and much effort, and they often do this in conjunction with someone else who is of like mind. Not every business is a partnership, of course, but certainly some are.
If you are putting your effort into building and maintaining this type of partnership, then certainly that could be considered a yoke. If so, what manner of person or people have you partnered with? What are their priorities, their goals? Will they encourage you in your walk with Christ, or will they direct you to the things of this world? Certainly any partner has some influence, some agency in moulding and shaping those they are partnered with. What sort of influence are you under?
It’s not the same as marriage, certainly not, but it’s still a partnership, one that may have a profound impact on those involved. It’s not something to enter into lightly, nor to devalue its effect. Being in a business relationship with an unbeliever may be just as damaging as being married to one.
What of other groupings, other organizations? What of political affiliation, for example? If a believer joins a political party, becomes part of the party executive or runs for public office, is that not a different type of yoke again? Certainly there is a commitment there to serve both the party and the public, the constituents, and their priorities are not likely going to be all that representative of anything holy or spiritual. Those priorities will often be in direct opposition to what the Bible teaches. Look at the public policies of our governments on every level and ask yourself how many of those do you agree with, how many of those could be supported by the world of God? The answer is not many. Why would a believer think that being a part of that, of being in that manner of yoke, would do anything to further the gospel, or to improve their Christian walk?
What about the local church? I firmly believe that this particular local church is well grounded in scriptural truth and sound teaching and doctrine, but sadly, that is not the case everywhere. If you are part of a denomination or a group in a particular place that does not preach salvation through Christ crucified alone, or one that turns a blind eye to all manner of sin, or actively endorses it for that matter, then that is the exact same disagreement that we saw in 2 Corinthians, the fellowship of righteousness with unrighteousness, or Christ with Belial. Being in a local church is not the same sort of yoke as marriage or business, but it’s still a form of partnership, of joining, of belonging. That might actually be the worst unequal yoke of all, because a false church may lend the appearance of godliness, might let you think that everything is okay, that you are on the narrow way, but really you are on the road to perdition.
As we come to the close, I would add this further caution. I have heard many people talk of changing the world, or a particular part of the world, from within. Join a political party, join a local church, enter into a relationship, whether business or personal, with the stated intent of changing the other person or the organization by being in partnership. It’s a tempting idea, because it offered the promise of having your cake and eating it as well – you get to be a part of what you desire, and you get to make the world, the group, or another person, a better place, person, or thing. It sounds good. But it does not work.
Paul did not say to enter into unequal yokes in order to steer them in the right direction. Look at verse 17, he said, referencing Isaiah 52, to in fact come out and be separate, and touch not the unclean thing. That is not allowing any room to be in partnership with the world and to hope for good outcomes. Because the odds of good outcomes are vanishingly small, and the chance of catastrophe for the believer is almost certain.
Consider today what relationships you are in, or that you have been a part of in your life, and looking at the younger folks in particular, what you might enter into in the future. It’s important to make good choices, to be yoked only with those who will be a beneficial influence, not a destructive one. And don’t assume that you can steer, that your positivity will overcome.
Try as you might, you can’t turn a tractor into a Rolls Royce, or a Rolls into a tractor into a Lamborghini. It’s not in our power to change anyone, as much as we might want to. We can do barely a thing to change ourselves. That’s in God’s hands, not in ours.