Unequally Yoked: Is it okay for a Christian to Marry a Unbeliever?
by Rich Deem

Introduction

Unequally Yoked?

The term "unequally yoked" comes from the King James version of 2 Corinthians 6:14.1 A "yoke" was a farm implement that bound two animals together so that they could work together as a team. Modern translations remove the "yoke" and translate the intent of the verse, warning believers, "Do not be bound together with unbelievers." Does this apply to marriage?

Rich Deem

I have received a few emails from Christians (and even one from a non-Christian) asking if it is okay for a Christian to date or marry an unbeliever. Usually, by the time the question is asked, the relationship has gone far enough that a negative answer is going to be difficult to accept, even if it is the right answer. The short answer is "no." However, it is good to examine the scripture behind the answer to understand it more completely, including why such a marriage is a bad idea.

Unequally yoked

The usual answer given the believer is from 2 Corinthians:

Do not be bound together [unequally yoked] with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)

The original Greek word translated "bound together" or "unequally yoked" is heterozugeō,2 which is a compound word originating from heteros,3 meaning "other," "altered," or "opposed," and zugos,4 meaning "yoke." So, the literal meaning really is "unequally yoked," originally referring to two opposite farm animals being joined together to do work.5 As a metaphorical term, it refers to individuals being part of a team to accomplish some goal.

As with any Bible verse, one should never accept it on face value without first checking the context. The context is found in the verses following 2 Corinthians 6:14.6 In these verses, the Apostle Paul compares believers with unbelievers in terms of light with darkness (verse 14), Christ with Belial (a references to Satan, verse 15), a believer with an unbeliever (verse 15), and a temple of God with a temple of idols (verse 16).6 Paul goes on to say that a believer is "the temple of the living God" (see also 1 Corinthians 6:197). Verse 16 also makes a reference to the Old Testament prophecies that God will put His laws into the hearts of believers and "I will be their God, and they will be My people."8 Paul quotes from the Old Testament scriptures that tell God's people to be separated from the other peoples in order to remain pure.6

Be separated

The concept of being separated from unbelievers originally comes from the Old Testament.9 The reason given for the separation was so that God's people would not be ensnared with the impurity of the surrounding peoples.10 The concept of separation is continued in the New Testament, which tells us that friendship with the world makes us an enemy of God.11 Instead, we are not to be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds through the power of God.12

Avoid idolatry

Living Together: Myths, Risks & AnswersWhat's wrong with being bound to an unbeliever? Even though you may think you have a lot in common, the most important things you don't hold in common. The Bible, especially the New Testament, warns Christians to avoid idolatry.13 An idol is something that is held in higher esteem than God. Since an unbeliever doesn't believe in God, to him everything is an idol, including his relationship with you. Included in the list of idols are sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed.13 One of the big problems in the marriage of a Christian and a non-Christian is the sexual relationship. The Bible describes the union as "the two will become one flesh.14 1 Corinthians gives the example of a believer having sexual relations with a prostitute.15 The resulting union joins Christ to a prostitute. Likewise, the joining of a Christian and a non-Christian joins Christ to an unbeliever. The New Testament goes as far as to warn us not even to eat with idolaters (1 Corinthians 5:11). Paul tells us "...Bad company corrupts good morals" (1 Corinthians 15:33).16

Marry a non Christian?

The Bible is actually much more direct about marrying unbelievers than has been indicated to this point. The Old Testament specifically forbids God's people from marrying "foreign wives":

"Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives." (Ezra 10:11)

The Old Testament contains other verses that prohibit marrying unbelievers, including examples of those who broke the command and were led astray by their wives (e.g., Solomon in his later years).17 In the New Testament, Paul specifically says that a woman may marry whomever she wishes, but "only in the Lord," clearly referring to those who are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.18 So, the New Testament makes it clear that believers are only to marry fellow believers.

Dating a non-Christian?

Although dating of Christians and non-Christians is not specifically handled in the Bible, it is clear that such an action is asking for trouble. An unbeliever who practices Christian-like morality is going to be attractive to a Christian. However, the chances that such a person will become a Christian, allowing the Christian to marry him/her is statistically remote. "Missionary dating" often results in years of conflict and usually ends in broken hearts.

Married to a non-Christian?

There is a special case where a person marries an unbeliever while himself/herself are, likewise, an unbeliever, and only later to become a believer. Such scenarios often occurred in the early church as unbelievers were converting in large numbers. Paul gives specific instruction to believers who are married to unbelievers—stay together!19 If the unbeliever consents to living with the believer, the believer is to behave in such a way that the unbelieving spouse would want to become a Christian. If the unbeliever leaves the Christian, the Christian is no longer bound to that spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15),19 but is free to divorce. Some Christians question whether such a spouse is free to remarry. However, the concept of being bound to a marriage is expressed in Romans 7:2-3,20 where Paul says that the spouse is bound to the husband while he is alive, but freed from that bond when the husband dies.20 If the same concept applies to the case where a non-Christian abandons a Christian, one could conclude that being freed from the marriage allows one to remarry.

Conclusion Top of page

The Bible is clear that a Christian is never to marry a non-Christian. Expecting an unbeliever to become a Christian following marriage is unrealistic and will likely lead to years of frustration and conflict. Dating a non-Christian is also problematic, for similar reasons. Those who marry an unbeliever prior to converting to Christianity are encouraged to stay with the unbeliever unless they leave.



References Top of page

  1. Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14, KJV)
  2. Thayer's Greek Definitions:
    heterozugeō ἑτεροζυγέω (Strong's G2086)
    1. to come under an unequal or different yoke, to be unequally yoked
      1. to have fellowship with one who is not an equal: 2Co_6:14, where the apostle is forbidding Christians to have intercourse with idolaters
    Part of Speech: verb
    A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: from a compound of G2087 and G2218
    Citing in TDNT: 2:901, 301


    Strong's G2086
    ἑτεροζυγέω
    heterozugeō
    het-er-od-zoog-eh'-o
    From a compound of G2087 and G2218; to yoke up differently, that is, (figuratively) to associate discordantly: - unequally yoke together with.
  3. Thayer's Greek Definitions:
    heteros ἕτερος (Strong's G2087)
    1. the other, another, other
      1. to number
        1. to number as opposed to some former person or thing
        2. the other of two
      2. to quality
        1. another: i.e. one not of the same nature, form, class, kind, different
    Part of Speech: adjective
    A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: of uncertain affinity
    Citing in TDNT: 2:702, 265


    Strong's G2087
    ἕτερος
    heteros
    het'-er-os
    Of uncertain affinity; (an-, the) other or different: - altered, else, next (day), one, (an-) other, some, strange.
  4. Thayer's Greek Definitions:
    zugos ζυγός (Strong's G2218)
    1. a yoke
      1. a yoke that is put on draught cattle
      2. metaphorically, used of any burden or bondage
        1. as that of slavery
        2. of troublesome laws imposed on one, especially of the Mosaic law, hence the name is so transferred to the commands of Christ as to contrast them with the commands of the Pharisees which were a veritable ‘yoke’; yet even Christ’s commands must be submitted to, though easier to be kept
    2. a balance, pair of scales
    Part of Speech: noun masculine
    A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: from the root of zeugnumi (to join, especially by a "yoke")
    Citing in TDNT: 2:896, 301

    Strong's G2218
    ζυγός
    zugos
    dzoo-gos'
    From the root of ζεύγνυμι zeugnumi (to join, especially by a "yoke"); a coupling, that is, (figuratively) servitude (a law or obligation); also (literally) the beam of the balance (as connecting the scales): - pair of balances, yoke.
  5. "You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. (Deuteronomy 22:10)
  6. Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. "Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE," says the Lord. "AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN; And I will welcome you. "And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me," Says the Lord Almighty. (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)
  7. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19)
  8. 'I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the LORD; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart. (Jeremiah 24:7)
    "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
    "They shall be My people, and I will be their God; (Jeremiah 32:38)
    that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God. (Ezekiel 11:20)
    in order that the house of Israel may no longer stray from Me and no longer defile themselves with all their transgressions. Thus they will be My people, and I shall be their God,"' declares the Lord GOD." (Ezekiel 14:11)
    "They will no longer defile themselves with their idols, or with their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions; but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. And they will be My people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 37:23)
    "My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. (Ezekiel 37:27)
    and I will bring them back and they will live in the midst of Jerusalem; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God in truth and righteousness.' (Zechariah 8:8)
    "FOR THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS INTO THEIR MINDS, AND I WILL WRITE THEM ON THEIR HEARTS. AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. (Hebrews 8:10)
  9. 'Hence I have said to you, "You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey." I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. (Leviticus 20:24)
    "When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the sons of Israel. (Deuteronomy 32:8)
    "For You have separated them from all the peoples of the earth as Your inheritance, as You spoke through Moses Your servant, when You brought our fathers forth from Egypt, O Lord GOD." (1 Kings 8:53)
  10. The sons of Israel who returned from exile and all those who had separated themselves from the impurity of the nations of the land to join them, to seek the LORD God of Israel, ate the Passover. (Ezra 6:21)
  11. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
  12. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
  13. "At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. (Acts 7:41)
    but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. (Acts 15:20)
    that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell." (Acts 15:29)
    Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. (Acts 17:16)
    "But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication." (Acts 21:25)
    You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? (Romans 2:22)
    I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. (1 Corinthians 5:10)
    But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:11)
    Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
    Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. (1 Corinthians 8:1)
    Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. (1 Corinthians 8:4)
    However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. (1 Corinthians 8:7)
    For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? (1 Corinthians 8:10)
    Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, "THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY." (1 Corinthians 10:7)
    Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. (1 Corinthians 10:14)
    What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? (1 Corinthians 10:19)
    But if anyone says to you, "This is meat sacrificed to idols," do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience' sake; (1 Corinthians 10:28)
    You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. (1 Corinthians 12:2)
    Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. (2 Corinthians 6:16)
    Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, (Galatians 5:19-20)
    For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:5)
    Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)
    For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, (1 Thessalonians 1:9)
    For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. (1 Peter 4:3)
    Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)
    'But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. (Revelation 2:14)
    'But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:20)
    The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; (Revelation 9:20)
    "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." (Revelation 21:8)
    Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. (Revelation 22:15)
  14. For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
    and said, 'FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH'? (Matthew 19:5)
    "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." (Matthew 19:6)
    AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. (Mark 10:8)
    Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, "THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH." (1 Corinthians 6:16)
    FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. (Ephesians 5:31)
  15. Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, "THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH." But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:14-19)
  16. Do not be deceived: "Bad company corrupts good morals." (1 Corinthians 15:33)
  17. So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, and said to him, "You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. (Genesis 28:1)
    "Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. (Deuteronomy 7:3)
    For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. (1 Kings 11:4)
    shall we again break Your commandments and intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations? Would You not be angry with us to the point of destruction, until there is no remnant nor any who escape? (Ezra 9:14)
  18. A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39)
  19. But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches.
    (1 Corinthians 7:10-17)
  20. For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man. (Romans 7:2-3)

Reflections
We are what we think.

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Last Modified March 7, 2013

 

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