In my last article, I began to lay the ground work for a series on biblical separation. It is my estimation that a lot of confusion on this subject stems from a lack of attention to what God actually has said. It is our nature simply to follow what our “heroes” tell us is true or right. These may include a college president, favorite author, a pastor, or even a certain group or camp with which you are familiar. There is nothing wrong with having people we highly esteem and respect. It could be argued from the book of Proverbs that a person who ignores rather than values counsel is foolish (Proverbs 12:15). In other words, we are wise to be good listeners. However, we must be aware that no matter how wise our heroes are, they are fallible. We must discipline ourselves to weigh what they say against the infallible Word of God.
Previously, I pointed out the misuse of 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. When the passage says, “Come out from among them, and be separate” we raised the following question: who is the “them” from whom the passage is instructing believers to separate? If you go back to the beginning of the paragraph, which starts in v.14, we discover that this passage is commanding us not to be unequally yoked with UNBELIEVERS. In the very next verse it says,” Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?” The passage is clearly talking about the relationship of a believer to an unbeliever. I went on to point out that the passage is misused when we apply this text to believers separating from other believers. You may respond by saying, “Well the Bible does teach a type of separation from disobedient believers.” Agreed – but not from this text. If the text doesn’t communicate what you are saying, go find the text that does. If you cannot find a text that is saying what you are saying, then stop saying it. Our sober calling is to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-2), not our thoughts and opinions! The scriptures are completely sufficient to fully develop people and equip them unto every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Now, I understand that none of us are perfect expositors, but we all should strive, by God’s grace, to be precise in our explanation and application of the scriptures (2 Timothy 2:15).
Now that we have looked at what this passage doesn’t say, let’s allow the Holy Spirit to teach us what it does say. What does obedience to this text look like? In what way should a believer separate from an unbeliever? It is an important question, because even with a right understanding of this text, we could come to a wrong application. Is this passage calling for us to develop some sort of a Christian subculture that separates us from unbelieving people altogether?
The short answer to that question is no.
Christians are not called to completely separate from unbelievers. We could argue that point scripturally from several different angles. Obviously, fully separating from unbelievers would be antithetical to the great commission given to us by our Lord to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15). It wouldn’t be Christlike, seeing that He made it a practice to eat with sinners (Matthew 9:10-11, Luke 5:29-31). Another very insightful passage is actually another text that deals with the subject of separation – 1 Corinthians 5:9-11. Paul reminds the church at Corinth that they are not “to keep company with a sexually immoral person.” Then he gives a very important clarification: “Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.” We will give careful attention to these verses in the next article, but what I want you to notice is that Paul clarifies that he is not talking about eating and fellowshipping with the world – they are the mission field. He goes even further to say full separation would be an impossibility. You would, as he put it, “need to go out of the world”. This phrase means you would have to leave this world entirely if you were to disassociate with sinful people altogether. In His high priestly prayer, Jesus says, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.” So the point is clearly seen: though it is the will of God that we separate from the sinful values and practices of unbelieving people, we are not to separate from building relationships with them.
A call to vigilance
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be careful about how we go about building these relationships. It is a good thing for even parents to keep a close watch on the friendships that their children are developing, because we tend to become like the crowd with whom we surround ourselves. Children are generally not spiritually mature and grounded enough to fully engage the world. If you surround your children with friends that are unbelievers they would most likely become like them. Children are very impressionable, so I do believe in being vigilant and careful. As a matter of fact I believe all believers, no matter the stage of life they are in, should be vigilant to keep their hearts with all diligence (Proverbs 4:23) and to keep themselves unspotted by the world (James 1:27). But I would suggest that parents, who are hopefully more spiritually mature, should be modeling what it looks like to have friends who are non-christians and be training their children how to engage these people redemptively. To completely shelter your children is to ignore your responsibility to disciple them and to teach them to engage a world that needs to see and hear Jesus.
Let’s take a closer look
With all that said, how do we reconcile this understanding with 2 Corinthians 6 where God seems to be calling us to come out from among them entirely? Now this is where it is important to take a more diligent look at the passage. Notice how it begins again in verse 14: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Paul most likely had Deuteronomy 22:10 in mind which says, “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” This analogy of being unequally yoked, used by Paul, is not talking about a general relationship with unbelievers, but rather a unhealthy partnership with them – a partnership that is incongruous with our identity as believers and our calling to fulfill the mission of God. The metaphor of the yoke which he uses here shows that he is thinking of close relationships in which, unless both parties are true believers, scriptural harmony cannot be expected to flourish and the believer’s consistency will be strenuously challenged, if not compromised. After the command is given in verse 14 not to be unequally yoked, we are given five questions, each beginning with the interrogative pronoun τίς (“what”), and the answer to each question is taken to be obvious.
Perhaps the most important aspect of these questions is the different words that are being used to describe the unequally-yoked relationship.
“For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?”
With just a basic study, it becomes apparent that these five words (fellowship, communion, accord, part, and agreement) lift this from a general relationship and friendship with unbelieving people, to a partnership that is unhealthy and sinful. The word fellowship here is a word that actually means partnership. It is a partnership that is blurring the lines between righteousness and lawlessness. The word communion is the greek word kiononia, which, according to my understanding, is a word reserved in the New Testament for Christian fellowship. Paul is asking what kiononia does light and darkness have? Again, we can see this type of relationship is incongruous with our identity as Christ-followers. The Word accord is the greek word symphonesis, which is where we get our word symphony. The sense of this term is to have a harmonious agreement in opinions, actions, or character. So, Paul asks, what harmony has Christ with Belial (the Devil)? The word part is a word that means portion which denotes a partnership. The word agreement is to be understood as a joint agreement or a consensus. If we put that all together, this passage is forbidding us from forming partnerships with unbelievers – relationships that compromise and suppress who we are and distract us from the mission of God. The matter of identity (who we are) is what he is going to jump to next.
After his rhetorical questions, Paul states in v.16 “For you are the temple of the living God.” The word you is plural here, and is in reference to the church. When Paul says this, he is reminding them, as well as all believers, of their new identity – You ARE the temple. You can expand this by saying, “You are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; you have been made righteous through the atoning work of Christ; you are children of light; you are Christ’s possession, set apart for his divine usage. Therefore, do not enter into a partnership with unbelievers that would compromise or diminish who you are as a Christian.” We are supposed to “proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
He supports this directive with Old Testament quotations
As God has said:“I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.” This is a promise given several times in the Old Testament (Exodus 29:45-46, Leviticus 26:12-13, Jeremiah 31:33, Jeremiah 32:38, Ezekiel 37:26-27, Zechariah 8:8), directly to the nation of Israel. It may seem strange to say, “I will (future tense) be their God, and they shall (future tense) be my people.” You may ask, isn’t God already their God? Are they not already his people? Why the future tense? This promise is talking about experiencing the full blessings of God as their God and them as his people. The reason this promise is yet future for believing Israel is either because it was given while Israel was in transit to the Promised Land (Exodus 29:45-46), while they were actively engaged in idolatry (Jeremiah 31:33), or while they were in captivity (Ezekiel 37:26-27), which would have hindered them from a full experience of all God had in store. In short, Israel would experience this fullness of God’s presence in a greater way when they had completed the tabernacle/temple, when they had possessed the land promised to them, and when they had kept themselves pure from idolatry. It is important to note that according to the Jeremiah passage, this is fulfilled in an even greater way in the church through the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:33), and according to the Ezekiel passage, this promise will be completely experienced for all of ethnic Israel in the coming kingdom of Christ when he is ruling on the earth (Ezekiel 37:26-27).
So why does Paul quote these Old Testament references in 2 Corinthians 6? He is obviously applying it to the church, but in what way? The church, though on a spiritual sojourn, is not in transit to a different geographical location. They aren’t called upon by God to build a temple – Paul just said, “You are the temple of the living God.” So if this promise is still yet future, and they don’t have a temple to build or a land to possess, then what is keeping Christians from enjoying the fullness of God as their God and them as his people?
Idolatry is what was keeping the Corinthian church from experiencing the fullness of all that God had in store for them. This issue of idolatry is addressed just prior in verse 16, “And what agreement has the temple of God [the church] with idols?” According to this passage, it was their unequally yoked relationships with unbelievers that led them into this idolatry, and that was now causing them to miss out on the blessings of God’s presence.
Paul concludes this chapter with a clear command to take action. “Therefore, “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean…” This is a quotation of Isaiah 52:11, where the primary appeal is for the Jewish exiles to leave Babylon and return to Judea and Jerusalem. They were not to touch what was unclean – language warning about defiling themselves. Earlier in the chapter, the word “unclean” is in reference to people who were not believers (Isaiah 52:1), but it could also have reference to anything related to idolatry. Some believe it is referring to the instruments of the temple that had been ceremonially defiled. When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar took the articles of the Lord’s house and placed them in the house of his gods (2 Kgs 25:14–15, Ezra 1:7), and Belshazzar drank from them at his parties (Dan 5:2–4). Therefore they were not fit to be used ceremonially until they were purified. This call to leave Babylon was incredible, because it was a call from bondage to freedom – a complete freedom to be the people of God and fulfill God’s purposes. Isaiah described this call to depart and to return to their homeland the highway of holiness.
Isaiah 35:8,10 “A highway shall be there, and a road, And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean shall not pass over it, But it shall be for others. Whoever walks the road, although a fool, Shall not go astray… And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, And come to Zion (Jerusalem) with singing, With everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Sadly, only 50,000 Jews left Babylon to take this highway of holiness. Most of the Jews became so familiar with Babylonian life that they chose to remain in their comfort zone, rather than to experience the fullness of God and the adventure that God had in store for them.
The way Paul is applying these Old Testament quotations should be apparent to us. Come out from among them and be separated is not a command to leave a geographical area, but to withdraw from compromising associations (2 Corinthians 6:14) . “Do not touch what is unclean” is a directive not to defile oneself with these associations, and the practices that will inevitably follow. Sadly, some believers would rather settle for the cheap fleeting joy that these compromising relationships can give, rather than enjoying the fullness of God and adventure that he has planned for us. To borrow Isaiah’s terms, take the “highway of holiness” and find the everlasting, satisfying joy of God (Isaiah 35:10).
Sometimes the chapter divisions in our Bible are unfortunate. It is easy to think that the end of chapter is the end of the thought. It would be easy to make that mistake here and miss out on the concise summary Paul provides in 2 Corinthians 7:1. The verse say, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” With the context in mind, what would cleansing ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit look like? It would be to repent and forsake these corrupting partnerships. This act of separation is vital to our perfecting holiness in the fear of God. The greek word for holiness here is the same word for sanctification. You could accurately translate this as “perfecting sanctification” which means to carefully bring our sanctification to its perfected end (also see Philippians 2:12-13). It is clear scripturally that the moment you became a believer in Jesus you were sanctified (made holy), therefore you are set apart for his divine purpose. To develop these compromising associations is to live directly opposed to the sanctifying purpose of God. In other words, a believer who is unequally yoked with an unbeliever is not walking in step with the gospel (Galatians 1:4).
So what are some relevant applications of this text?
- Professional Relationships
This passage is not forbidding a believer from having an employer or a colleague that is an unbeliever. But when that employer or business partner is trying to advance unethically and is knowingly taking advantage of people, can that believer stay and maintain a clear Christian testimony? The answer should be obvious – no. What fellowship does righteousness have with lawlessness? This partnership would be an unequally yoked relationship.
- Marital Relationships
Some commentaries would strongly suggested that the marital relationship cannot fit in this context because 1 Corinthian 7:12-13 says, “If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him.” In other words, Paul’s instruction is not separation in this context but rather, as much as possible, unity. We also find, in 1 Peter 3:1-2 ,instructions for wives of unbelieving husbands not to separate, but rather to submit and to live godly so that their husbands may come to faith in Christ. Here is the point: if a believer is unequally yoked with an unbeliever through a marriage covenant, it is not the will of God to come out from among them and be separated. Though the relationship will no doubt be difficult, the goal of the believer is not separation from their spouse, but the salvation of their spouse.
With that said, I do think that this passage can be used in a premarital sense to instruct those who are single not to marry an unbeliever. Marriage is the closest relationship on earth, and one would be foolish to enter into this unequally yoked relationship and expect to fully fulfill the mission of God for his life. This can be illustrated by 1 Kings 11:1-6, where the Lord instructs Solomon not to enter into a married covenant with unbelievers. After the Lord gave this directive he gave a clear reason, “for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” But what follows is sad. The passage says, “Solomon clave unto these [strange women] in love…and his wives turned away his heart.” You could say that these close relationships with unbelievers led Solomon into idolatry.
- Ecumenical Relationships
Ecumenical is not an inherently bad term. It is a term that relates to promoting a worldwide Christian unity or cooperation (which by the way, we will have perfectly in heaven). We will cover this concept more carefully in coming articles because it is a concept that divides many of the Lord’s people. But I need to make the point that there is a type of ecumenicalism that is heretical. At the heart of the today’s ecumenical movement is a call to Christian unity with those who are not truly evangelical – those who do not believe the true gospel. Can a Christian and a catholic partner together to win the world to Jesus? Though there are some wonderful people who are catholics, who do what they do in the name of Jesus, they do not preach the same gospel. The true gospel teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Catholics teach salvation through grace and works combined. What communion has light with darkness? Accord to 2 John 1:9-10 this type of partnership or fellowship would be disobedient to the Lord’s command. These kinds of partnerships distort the gospel. Biblical separation not only protects the believer’s testimony as a Christ-follower, it protects the purity of the gospel itself.
I hope this has been helpful! In my next few articles, I will answer these types of questions: Should a believer ever separate from another believer? Does God value purity or unity more? Do I have the right to separate from a brother where there is no scriptural ground to separate? Please stay tuned as we continue to carefully unpack what the Bible says.