Working with Nonbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14–18)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

In 2 Corinthians 6:14–18 Paul takes up the question of close rela­tionships with non-Christians. Up to this point, Paul has vividly por­trayed the importance of good relationships with the people with whom we work. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:9–10 that we should work with non-Christians, and he discusses how to do so in 1 Corinthians 10:25–33 (see 1 Corinthians 10).

But perhaps there are limits to the intimacy of Christians’ working relationships with non-Christians. Paul tells the Corinthians, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers,” as the NRSV puts it, or to translate the Greek term (heterozygountes) more literally, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” His words are reminiscent of Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits mating different kinds of animals together, and Deuter­onomy 22:10, which prohibits yoking an ox and donkey together while plowing. These two Old Testament precedents refer to mating and to work, respectively. We are concerned here with work.

What, then, are the limits in working with nonbelievers? Perhaps the key is the term “yoked.” When two animals are yoked together, they must move in lockstep. If one turns left, the other also turns left, whether or not it consents. This is different from, say, animals grazing in a herd, which cooperate but still have the freedom to move separately and even to depart from the herd if they choose. If two animals—or, metaphorically, two people—are yoked, each is bound by whatever the other chooses to do. Two people are yoked if one person’s choices compel the other person to follow the same choices, even without their consent. A yoking is when either person is bound by the unilateral decisions and actions of the other.

Paul does not want us to be unequally yoked. So what would it mean to be equally yoked? Jesus has already given us the answer to that ques­tion. “Take my yoke upon you,” he calls to those who follow him (Matt. 11:29a). Paul tells us not to be unequally yoked with nonbelievers be­cause we are already yoked to Jesus. One part of his yoke is around us, and the other is on Jesus’ shoulders. Jesus, like the lead ox in a team, determines the bearing, the pace, and the path of the team, and we sub­mit to his leadership. Through his yoke, we feel his pull, his guidance, his direction. By his yoke, he trains us to work effectively in his team. His yoke is what leads us, sensitizes us, and binds us to Jesus. Being yoked to Jesus makes us partners with him in restoring God’s creation in every sphere of life, as we explored in 2 Corinthians 5:16–21. No other yoke that would pull us away from the yoke of Jesus could ever be equal to that! “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” Jesus tells us (Matt. 11:29b), yet the work we are doing with him is no less than the transfor­mation of the entire cosmos.

When Paul tells us not to be unequally yoked in working relation­ships, he is warning us not to get entangled in work situations that pre­vent us from doing the work Jesus wants us to do or that prevent us from working in Jesus’ ways. This has a strong ethical element. “What partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness?” Paul asks (2 Cor. 6:14). If the dictates of a work situation lead us to harm custom­ers, deceive constituents, mislead employees, abuse co-workers, pollute the environment, or such, then we would be yoked into a violation of our duties as stewards of God’s kingdom. Yet ethics is not the only element. Besides preventing us from doing anything unethical, being yoked with Jesus also leads us to work to reconcile or restore the world to God’s vi­sion for it. At the very least, this suggests that we pay careful attention to the motivations, values, integrity, working methods, and similar factors when deciding where and with whom we work.

To be unequally yoked with unbelievers, then, is to be in a situation or relationship that binds you to the decisions and actions of people who have values and purposes incompatible with Jesus’ values and purposes.

A few examples may help. A business partnership—joint, unlimited ownership of a business—would generally seem to be a form of yoking. If one partner signs a contract, spends money, buys or sells property—or even violates the law—the other partner is bound by that action or deci­sion. To form a business partnership in this sense would very likely be a form of unequal yoking. Even if the believer trusts that the nonbelieving partner(s) would not do anything unethical, is it possible that the non-believing partner(s) would want to run the business for the purposes of transforming the world to be more as God intends it to be? Even if the partnership does not force the believer to do evil, would it hinder him or her from doing all the good Christ desires? Joining an army, making a pledge of office, raising money for a nonprofit organization, or buying property jointly might have similar consequences.

In contrast, a single commercial transaction—buying or selling an item between two parties—would generally not seem to be a form of yoking. The parties agree in advance on a single item of business and then perform what they agreed to. (The Christian, of course, should only agree to do the transaction if it is in accordance with God’s values and purposes.) Neither party is bound by anything the other party might do after the transaction. Teaching a class, writing or being interviewed for a newspaper article, volunteering in a civic event, and babysitting a child are other examples similarly limited in scope and duration.

Buying stock is probably somewhere in between. As part owners in the corporation, stock owners are morally—though probably not legally— bound by the decisions of the directors, executives, and other employ­ees, but only for as long as they own the stock. Likewise, getting a job, joining a faculty, raising money for a nonprofit organization or political campaign, and signing a contract all commit us to living with the conse­quences of others’ choices, but not forever.

As these examples show, there is no hard-and-fast rule for what it means to be unequally yoked. In practice, it may be difficult to say whether a particular working relationship is a form of yoking. Getting a job in a secular organization is probably not a form of yoking. But going so far into debt that you can’t afford to quit your job probably turns any employee relationship into a de facto yoking. You have lost the freedom to resign if the organization engages in ungodly activities. One rising lawyer was offered a partnership in a prestigious law firm, but declined when he observed how many of those who became partners got divorced soon after.[8] It seemed to him that accepting a partnership would yoke him to values and practices incompatible with the commitment he made to put his wife first among the people in his life.

Finally, we must be careful to not turn Paul’s words into an us-versus-them mentality against nonbelievers. Paul knew as well as any­one that believers fall far short of the values and purposes of God. We should be careful not to be unequally yoked, even with Christians whose conduct would pull us away from the yoke of Christ. Even more, we need to receive Christ’s grace every day so that being yoked with us doesn’t cause someone else to be pulled away from working according to Christ’s ways and purposes. Nor can we judge or condemn nonbelievers as inherently unethical, since Paul himself refused to do so. “For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12–13). We are called not to judge but to discern whether our working relation­ships are leading us to work for the purposes and according to the ways of Christ.

Perhaps the best guidance is to ask ourselves the question Paul asks, “What does a believer share with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6:15). If the answer is that we share similar values and goals with respect to the work we may undertake together, then it may serve God’s will to work closely with nonbelievers. You can assess the opportunities and risks by explor­ing in advance all the commitments entailed in any work relationship. Consider how your individual capabilities and limitations might reduce or exacerbate the risk of being pulled away from working as God intends. This means that the decision whether to participate may be different for each person. Considering our differing strengths and weaknesses, a free association for one person could be a binding yoke for another. A recent graduate, for example, might find it relatively easy to quit a job, compared to a CEO with a large investment and reputation at stake. In other words, the larger our role in a working relationship, the more im­portant it is to make sure we’re not yoking ourselves into a situation we won’t be able to handle in a godly way. In any case, all Christians would do well to consider carefully the entanglements that can arise in every workplace relationship, job, partnership, and transaction.

An incident reported confidentially to a member of the Theology of Work Project Steering Committee. Recorded August 24, 2011 at the Theology of Work Project 2011 summer conference in Los Angeles.