What Does It Mean to Be Unequally Yoked with Unbelievers?

unequally yoked

How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep.”

When Frodo Baggins says these words at the end of the movie The Return of the King, they carry the full weight of someone who is grieving deeply. These words echo some of my relationships. I often wonder: “With all the damage that has been done, how can we ever return to how things used to be?” And, “Was there ever really anything to our friendship at all?”

This is how Paul must have felt when he wrote 2 Corinthians. In this deeply personal letter, Paul offers profound insights into relationships. He writes out of both love and pain. He writes about severing relationships and mending them. He writes in a way that is decidedly centered on God, as seen in the person of Christ. Paul is humble and meek; he is bold and adamant.

Cutting ties with darkness

When Paul says, “Do not be unequally yoked,” he means first, that we should not associate with believers who don’t actually live for Jesus, and second, that engaging in any sort of intimate relationship or partnership with someone who does not let Jesus be the center of their lives will ultimately lead to our demise (2 Cor 6:14). We must cut ties with whatever or whomever leads us to darkness.

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Paul intends for believers to engage with people who don’t share their beliefs; he just doesn’t want to see their relationships lead them into darkness. The Corinthian believers are supposed to be changing the world, not to be changed by it. Paul wants to see the Corinthian believers separate from their old way of living and fully embrace the ways of Jesus.

But this is complicated: There are false leaders, and old friends turned enemies, and broken relationships. There are questions about Paul’s motives and ministry. He is essentially standing on trial before a body of believers that he planted himself, and he knows that they are the ones unable to stand the test of authenticity (2 Cor 10:7–8; 12:19–21; 13:5–8). And nothing with the Corinthians is clear; it’s opaque and in the shadows. Paul has to wade through the gray areas of life to find answers. And isn’t that exactly how life is for all of us?

A heretic never says, “I’m a heretic.” A deceiver never alerts you to his true intentions, and a friend can turn on you at any moment. A family member, or even a spouse, can betray your trust. Authenticity and reliability are hard to find, and so are real friends. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt is far from the norm. And correctly asserting truth, without standing in judgment of someone else, is decidedly difficult.

Paul’s response teaches us much about how to work through troubled relationships. He shows us that we cannot truly know another person without first knowing ourselves. And we cannot overcome our demons without first separating ourselves from the work of Satan. In order to be set free, we have to cut ties with the darkness—and Paul tells us how. To combat the darkness, Paul ultimately shows us a better way: We are not meant to pick up the threads of our old sinful lives at all; instead, we’re called to rebuild our lives on the redemption we find in Jesus.

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It is only in God that we can find completion—wholeness. Anything less than our God will just leave us broken. People can’t fill the God-sized hole in our hearts. Paul states that if we cleanse ourselves from defilement, then holiness will be brought to completion (2 Cor 7:1). We need our hearts to be cleansed by the living God—“the Son of God who bled and died and rose again for me.”

Christians have to make many difficult decisions, and many of them are based in our relationships. What relationships should we maintain? Which relationships are okay to let go of? And when should we cut ties with someone? Whenever we are being led astray from God, we must make changes, no matter how difficult those changes are.

Adapted from Cutting Ties with Darkness: 2 Corinthians by John D. Barry. This title is now available in all formats—get your copy today!

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 3.57.34 PMJohn D. Barry is the publisher of Lexham Press, the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine, and the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and  Lexham Bible Dictionary. He is also the author of The Resurrected Servant in Isaiah and the co-author of Connect the Testaments: A Daily Devotional and Mary: Devoted to God’s Plan.


  1. John Becker says

    I have found, the more that I dive into the scriptures, and be a doer and not just a hearer, the relationships that I would otherwise find hard to deal with, seem to work themselves out.

    It really is simple, and we have a tendency to over-complicate life. If we desire for our hearts to be cleansed, there is a simple principal to follow.

    Psalm 119:9 Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word.

    Jesus said in John 15:3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

    Paul declared in Ephesians 5:26 That he (Jesus) might sanctify and cleanse it (the church) with the washing of water by the word

    When I study the scriptures, and live out my faith, people will either be drawn closer, or wander away. That makes it really simple for me, and I am not as worried about deciding who’s in and who’s out…

  2. Jeff GUill says

    “When Paul says, ‘Do not be unequally yoked,’ he means first, that we should not associate with believers who don’t actually live for Jesus”

    Scratching my head at this one.
    A true believer will live for Jesus, if not then they aren’t a “believer” and are just a “professor”.

    • John Barry says

      I’m speaking specifically about the types of “believers” Paul was addressing — those who repeatedly and without remorse (or repentance) openly sin against God and others. Whether or not those type of people could be called “believers” is a point of contention and debate. In 2 Corinthians, it doesn’t seem that Paul is too concerned in distinctions — and judging who knew Jesus and who doesn’t — but instead is more concerned with the problem of people who say they follow Jesus in words but oppose his ways in actions.

  3. John Wall says

    This topic caught my attention from my home page because for many years I have heard people use 2 Corinthians 6:14 out of context. Time and time again I have heard people use this verse to say a Christian should not be married to an unbeliever. This view is in conflict with 1 Corinthians 7:12-17. In these scriptures Paul stresses that if a believer is married to an unbeliever and the unbeliever is pleased to dwell with the believer; they are not to separate or divorce because the believer might be the instrument God uses to convert the unbeliever.

    My view of this area of scripture in its’ context is concerning ministry and daily living in the world. In 1st Corinthians 5:17-18 Paul states that upon our conversion and reconciliation back to Christ that we’ve been given the “ministry of reconciliation.” In 5:20 Paul calls us “ambassadors for Christ.” In 6:1 Paul says we are “workers together with him…” (Christ) Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ working together with Christ in this ministry of reconciliation. We are not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers in this ministry. Corinth was full of pagan religions at the time of Paul’s writing and it was not healthy or helpful for Christians working for the ministry of reconciliation to be mixing with pagans and their religion. This truth reaches back to us today with high profile leaders promoting the idea of Christ-lam and such activities.

    Also this prohibition reaches to Christians joining and being part of secret societies today such as the organization of Free Masonry. Back several years ago I had a friend who was deep in Free Masonry. They are not allowed to ask people to join. People who are interested in becoming a Mason are supposed to approach them. My friend wanted me to ask him to become a Mason; so he gave me a pamphlet that was written by Free Masons as a way to respond to people’s objections to becoming Free Masons. This very issue of not being “unequally yoked” was in this pamphlet. The Mason was instructed that if a Christian held that he should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers he was to be told that 2 Corinthians 6:14 was speaking of marriage and a Christian should not be married to a non Christian.

    We should be careful of our interpretation of this verse and all scripture. We are instructed to “rightly divide” the Word of truth.

    • John Wall: I came to make a similar reply, but don’t have to, as you have said it so well.
      I have read through of Mr. Barry’s works (1 Peter and 1 John) and, although I do not always agree with or even understand what he is teaching, I have been the beneficiary.

    • I only bring this as a point of clarification. I often have wondered this same thing about whether this is meant for people getting married or for friends, ministry or what. I here this in the word, “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.To the unmarried and the widows I say that cit is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
      To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
      To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
      In this passage, Paul appears to be talking about specific situations. The situation that you are talking about does not appear to address unmarried persons but already married couples who because of their time in history of the early church may have been married before either of them was saved. Paul seems to be telling them that if they are already married and the non-believing spouse does not mind being in a covenant relationship to a person who lives for Jesus Christ then they should not separate, Paul says this I believe because he is hearing of divorces or debate on the subject because they are called to separate from sinful unrepentant people.This puts the burden to carry on the shoulder of the non-believer. The believer must live for the Lord and the non-believer must accept that relationship. Divorce was frowned upon in all but the most extreme cases of infidelity without reconciliation. This appears to address people who are already married not considering marriage. I do see it in the light that you have spoken, but I think when you back out of the smaller context you see potentially more. One could never mix following Christ and other religions. This is the Jesus plus or minus anything is not necessary and frankly against Christ. Jesus does not need anything additional and you cannot take away from His grace and gain salvation. When Paul talks about these mixing of religions in other epistles he does not talk in the same terms so that appears to minimize the interpretation of him talking about ministerial unequally yoked persons. Marriage is not for us. It is intended to further spread the gospel just as any commitment of life should do. In this it does not allow anything to be put above God. I do say that this is not intended to bring argument but meant to show what I see as the contextual reading. There are of course other opinions and I am not an scholar. I encourage you to listen to Him speak to your heart. Grace and peace to you.

      • John Wall says

        Hello Kurt,
        Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I agree that many couples were caught in awkward marital relationships when the Gospel came to the Gentiles. I also agree that born again believers should seek out other born again believers in finding a marriage companion. In todays “Christian” world there are denominational factors that also come into play in this issue. Believers from certain denominational churches will have much difficulty living with a believer from a different, and probably conflicting, denominational church. So, it’s not enough just to say “I’m a believer in Jesus Christ” and so are you, so we are compatible.

        2 Corinthians 6:14 is the verse that brought me into this conversation. “Be ye not unequally yoked” is the phrase that I’m concerned with. It is my position that the Apostle Paul is not speaking of “marriage” with this phrase; and I realize that I’m probably in a super-minority group with this view. As I said in my initial post, I see Paul being in conflict with himself if marriage is the correct interpretation of the phrase “be ye not unequally yoked.” As I said in my initial post, 1 Corinthians 7:12-17 Paul’s view was that if an unbeliever was married to a believer and they were pleased to live with each other, they were not to divorce for the sake of separating from the lost world. In view of the verses after 2 Corinthians 6:14 Paul would be saying that righteousness could have fellowship with unrighteousness in some circumstances; that light can have communion with darkness in some circumstances; and that Christ could have concord with Belial in some circumstances; etc.

        Of course, this would be ridiculous; but in essence that is what one is saying if “be ye not unequally yoked” is speaking of marriage. Paul is speaking about the born again believer becoming and ambassador for Christ; he speaks of the ministry of reconciliation; we are fellow laborers together with Christ for the cause of the gospel. To bring marriage in because he used the phrase “be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers” I think is not rightly dividing the word of truth. (Once again I concede I’m in a minority.)

        We suffer from this misunderstanding today in many ways. Many “Christian” leaders and church members are yoked with unbelievers today. I have known many Pastors and deacons and lay people in churches who were and are Masons. They have taken oaths (Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12) and are yoked with many types of unbelievers throughout the world. They refer to each other as “Brother.” I find it interesting that I was handed a pamphlet written by Masons that addressed the objection by an outsider who might possibly become a member except he objected to “being unequally yoked.” Their answer was, tell him that is referring to marriage.

        At the time the Corinthian letters were written Corinth was a city with many Pagan religions. Most likely, newly converted Christians probably practiced a Pagan religion before their conversion. These religions had various forms of fellowship for their members; just as Christian Churches have fellowship meals and gatherings today; Pagans did similar things then. Would it be right in the Lord’s sight for a Christian to attend and participate in a Pagan ritual? These are things that the Corinthian Church was surrounded by; and probably a good number of their membership had come out of this confusion. Therefore, newly converted Christians had friends and relatives still involved with Pagan religions. In order to maintain family and friend relationships they possibly were involved with Pagans in various ways.

        Even today Christians involve their selves with Pagan practices every year. It is my conviction that “be ye not unequally yoked” has more to do with spiritual things than physical marriage.

        God bless,

    • John Barry says

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts everyone. I am happy for this conversation to continue — and very interested in everyone’s thoughts. But do know that the blog post above is merely an excerpt from Cutting Ties with Darkness ( https://www.logos.com/product/47688/cutting-ties-with-darkness-2-corinthians ) — I explore this issue in much more detail in that work. In light of that, I won’t detail my full opinion on this here.

  4. What’s the advise for those struggling believers who try and fail to live consistently for Christ. Those who search the scriptures and for the truth therein because He calls. Those of us who battle addictions and are self destructive yet are as justified as those who don’t struggle with those issues? Since we, the “darkness” types, I suppose, are difficult and uncomfortable to be around, do we find fellowship only in social constructs such as celebrate recovery only until we fail again? When are we welcome to be ourselves, failures and all, to join the victorious at the adult table? My burden/struggle and pain already bares witness to my psyche that I don’t belong around the winners and the wonderful servants. I don’t need to be reminded anymore that I don’t belong at Church. But maybe I do, thanks, great article.

    • John Barry says

      Thanks for sharing so openly. I am very sorry for how it seems this blog post made you feel. I make a very clear distinction in the book that this blog post is excerpted from between people who are struggling and trying to follow Jesus and those who claim to know Jesus but openly oppose his ways (what some people call using ‘grace’ as an excuse). It was the issue of ‘cheap grace’ that I was addressing in this terse introduction.

      There is a place for everyone at Jesus’ table. And in fact a large portion of the book this post is excerpted from is devoted to helping people cut ties with the darkness that stands between them and Jesus — addiction, past pain, emotional scars, etc. So know that Jesus loves you and wants to see you in his church.

      All of us are in equal need of his grace. We all win because Christ has accomplished the greatest victory of all — giving us salvation through his death and resurrection.