Bearing an Alien Yoke


Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers; for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? Or what communion hath light and darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what portion hath a believer with an unbelievers? And what agreement hath a temple of God with idols? For we are a temple of the living God; even as God said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, And touch no unclean thing; And I will receive you, And will be to you a Father, And ye shall be to me sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Having therefore these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (I Corinthians 6:14–7:1, American Standard Version).

THE BASIC idea of a yoke is that of being joined or intimately associated with someone, who is, therefore, called a yoke-fellow, or mate. Actually and literally the yoke is a drawing bar for draft animals, a frame of wood by which oxen are joined together at the neck for some kind of joint operation, for example, the pulling of a plow or a wagon. The yoke also spells bondage, for in ancient times the victor often placed a ceremonial yoke upon the neck of those vanquished in battle.



Turning now to our Scripture passage, we must observe that Paul is not merely compelled to defend himself and his ministry against a narrow Judaistic formalism expressed in the “touch not, taste not, handle not” formula, but also against a party of libertines inclined to adapt its Christianity to the usages of a pagan society. Paul warns, therefore, against accepting one’s standard of life from unbelievers. And, again, in Romans 12 the same writer fervently implores Christians not to be conformed to this world, that is, not to take the worldly scheme of things as a standard or norm for Christian conduct.

In the passage now before us Paul recalls his fellow believers to a real awareness of their identity, namely, that they are temples of the Holy Spirit; consequently they ought to walk worthy of the gospel. Dr. James Denney in treating this passage calls it “…the New Testament Puritanism,” since the note of separation from the world in its sinful nature and practice is very prominent.

We must not, however, interpret Paul as saying that every believer ought to withdraw from the world as a social organism, that the church must segregate herself from society in general. He had, indeed, on a former occasion (see I Cor. 5:1–13) forbidden the Corinthian Christians to have fellowship with a fornicator, who is called a brother (are we still SCriptural in our church discipline at this point?). This prohibited fellowship was not to be extended to the world, however, lest it become necessary to go out of the world. That would defeat the very purpose of the gospel, namely, to be a leaven to leaven the whole lump.

As we study the passage more expertly, we shall find (in agreement with Reformed interpreters such as Calvin, Grosheide, Warfield, and others) that Paul is urging believers not to separate themselves from unbelievers as men, Separation must be from everything evil, even as the Lord prayed before his passion: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” Hence in apposition with and exegetical of: “Come ye out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord,” we find the phrase: “And touch no unclean thing.”

But, to continue, Calvin reminds us in his commentary that the Corinthians, since they “imagined that there was nothing that was unlawful for them in outward things defiled themselves with wicked superstitions without any reserve.” On this account Paul inveighs here against outward idolatry, and exhorts Christians to stand aloof from it, and have no connection with it. He begins, however, with a general statement, with the view of coming down from that to a particular instance, for to be yoked with unbelievers means nothing less than to have fellowship with the unfruitful worth of darkness (Eph. 5:11) and to hold out the hand to them in token of agreement.

Many are of the opinion that he speaks of marriage (see the Roman Catholic translation of 1939 which reads. “Do not bear the yoke with unbelievers,” and ,the translators’ heading: “Avoid Marriage With Unbelievers” –H.R.V.T.), but the context clearly shows that they are mistaken. The word that Paul makes use of means—to be connected together in drawing the same yoke. lot is a metaphor taken from oxen or horses, which require to walk at the same pace, and to act together in the same work when fastened under one yoke. When, there· fore, he prohibits us from having partnership with unbelievers ill drawing the same yoke, he means simply this, that we should have no fellowship with them in their pollutions. For sun shines upon us, we eat of the same bread, we breathe the same air, and we cannot altogether refrain from intercourse with them: but Paul speaks of the yoke of impiety, that is, of participation in works, in which Christians cannot lawfully have fellowship. On this principle marriage will also be prohibited, inasmuch as it is a snare, by which both men and women are entangled into an agreement with impiety; but what I mean is simply this, that Paul’s doctrine is of too general a nature to be restricted to marriage exclusively, for he is discoursing here as to the shunning of idolatry, on which account, also, we arc prohibited from contracting marriages with the wicked (John Calvin, Corinthians, vol. II, pp. 257, 258).

Prof. W. Grosheide of the Free University, Amsterdam, in the Kommentaar Op Het Nieuwe Testament speaks of a “foreign yoke.” The Corinthians had placed themselves under a yoke not made for them but fitted for others, namely, unbelievers, who, in this case, were heathen. They were unbelievers (apistoi), that is, at enmity with Christ and his people. They had certain contacts with Christians, but they reject Christ. “The Corinthians had not as yet fully broken with such heathen men, they insist on a work-fellowship with them. The result was, as always, (would to God that our people might see this clearly today!) that in this fellowship the unbelievers set the pace (den toon aangeven) and brought the Corinthians to sin” (see vol. VIII, page 235, italics, comment, and translation mine, H.R.V.T.).

Whereas there had existed a tendency formerly to shun the world and to withdraw completely, now the tables were turned and “with the Corinthians as a whole there arose a tendency to join the apistoi (unbelievers) wherever possible, because they considered concerted action desirable. We see, therefore, that the mood which existed at Corinth and is signalized in the first epistle, had not yet changed. Indeed, we do not read about fornication or participation in meals dedicated to idols or the honoring of heathen wisdom, etc., but the principal break with the world had not yet been made” (Grosheide, idem, page 235 ).

It is interesting to note how such a thoroughgoing modernist as Goodspeed nevertheless retains this basic meaning of the text although he has given up the literalness of mentioning the “yoke.” He translates, “Do not get into dose and incongruous relations with unbelievers.”

On the other hand, Dr. B. B. Warfield is of the opinion that the English Authorized Version does not convey the exact shade of meaning when it reads: ‘“Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Instead he ventures this new and startling insight: “Become not bearers of an alien yoke along with unbelievers,” which he then paraphrases: “Take not on yourselves a yoke that does not fit you, in order to be with unbelievers” (see Dutch translation of 1939, Vormt geen ongelyk span met ongeloovigen). Paul’s prohibition, therefore, clearly is not against being with unbelievers as such, but he condemns the adopting of their viewpoints, their mode of life, and their standards (see Rom. 12:1 ff.).

We see, then, that the Apostle’s urgency here is against not association with the world, but compromise with the world. Compromise! In that one word is expressed a very large part of a Christian’s danger in the world. We see it on all sides of us and in every sphere of life. We must be all things to all men we say, perverting the Apostle’s prescription for a working ministry; for there was one thing he would on no account and in no way have us be, even that we may, as we foolishly fancy, win the more, and that is, evil. From evil in all its forms and in all its manifestations he would have us absolutely to separate ourselves; the unclean thing is the thing he would in no circumstances have us handle. Associate with the world, yes! There is no man in it so vile that he has not claims upon us for our association and for our aid. But adopt the standards of the world? No! Not in the least particular. Here our motto must be and that unfailingly: No compromise!

The very thing which the Apostle here presses upon our apprehension is the absolute conflict (seems here that Warfield is committed to some kind of absolute antithesis! H.R.X.T.) between the standards of the world and the standards of Christians and the precise thing which he requires of us is that in our association with the world we shall not take on our necks the alien yoke of an unbeliever’s point of view, of an unbeliever’s judgment of things. of an unbeliever’s estimate of the right and wrong, the proper and improper. In all our association with unbelievers, we, as Christian men, are to furnish the standard; (for example, we might set up Christian Schools on the basis of the Word of God and invite all those who subscribe to our standards to send their children there; or, and this is an actual situation. we might invite others to join us in a Christian Labor organization as long as we set the standard according to the demands of the special revelation of our covenant God H.R.V.T. ) and we are to stand by our Christian standard, in the smallest particular, unswervingIy. Any departure from that standard, however small or however desirable it may seem, is treason to our Christianity. “Ye must not, in any case, take the alien yoke of an unbeliever’s scheme of life upon our necks (see B. B. Warfield, Faith and Life, Longman’s Green and Company, 1916, pp. 248–250).

The reason given by Paul for condemning the wearing of an alien yoke with one who is basically alien to our mode of life is simply that there can be no real fellowship between a believer and an unbeliever anymore than there is fellowship between light and darkness, or between Christ and Belial. Our being together with unbelievers as members of a common humanity, eating and drinking and working—as Calvin intimates—is not the same as entering upon such a work-communion, so that we are yoke-fellows, mates with them. If there is to be a working agreement, a concerted action of any kind, Paul here teaches that it must be on the basis of a yoke that fits the Christian. And the unbeliever’s yoke does not fit the professing Christian!

Finally, Paul concludes with a positive exhortation: “Having these precious promises let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of the flesh and of the mind, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”

James Denny’s closing sentences in his commentary on these verses may well be used to conclude our meditation upon them. He wrote: “The Puritanism of the New Testament is no harsh, repellent thing, which eradicates the affections, and makes life bleak and barren; it is the condition under which the heart is opened to the love of God, and filled with all comfort and joy in obedience. With him on our side with the promise of his indwelling Spirit to sanctify us, of his fatherly kindness to enrich and protect us—shall we not obey the exhortation to come out and be separate, to cleanse ourselves from all that defiles, to perfect holiness in his fear?” (The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 247.)