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2 Corinthians 6 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Unequal Yoking with Unbelievers

Paul next issues a command: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers (v. 14). Actually the command is even more pointed: "Stop yoking yourselves to unbelievers." Use of the present imperative shows that Paul is not merely warning the Corinthians about a potential danger ("do not start") but instructing them to stop an action already in progress. The command appears to come out of the clear blue. Has Paul not been lobbying strenuously for the Corinthians' affection? Has he not just asked them, as his children, to open wide their hearts to him? Moreover, he resumes his lobbying efforts at 7:2: "Make room for us in your hearts," he repeats. What then are we to make of 6:14--7:1?

One common theory is that 6:14--7:1 is a letter fragment that was misplaced within the Corinthian correspondence and inserted in its present spot by a later editor of Paul's letters (see the introduction). This is an easy solution to a complex problem. It is an easy solution because it shifts the blame onto the shoulders of someone other than Paul without really addressing the question, Why here? Some have been impressed with the non-Pauline character of these verses and think that Paul may be quoting a familiar sermon, a piece of traditional material or even an Essene text that has been reworked to reflect a Christian point of view. But while this helps to explain a number of unfamiliar words and expressions, the question "Why here?" still remains.

Suggestions, fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), are in abundant supply. It could be that Paul is responding to news just received from Titus about a continuing problem with pagan associations. Another possibility is that having asked the Corinthians to "open wide" Paul is now cautioning them about what not to be open to (compare the LXX of Deut 11:16, "Do not open wide your heart [me platynthe he kardia] and turn away to serve and worship other gods"). Judging from 1 Corinthians 10:1-22, they would clearly have been in need of such guidance. It could also be that Paul is engaging in a little structural diplomacy. By starting and ending with statements of affection, he attempts to cushion the force of his command. The likeliest explanation is that Paul is specifying the cause for the Corinthians' constraint toward him: their ongoing partnerships with unbelievers. But there need not be just one explanation. A number of things could have led Paul to tackle the problem at this point and in this fashion.

What exactly is Paul prohibiting with his command? The range among translations shows that there is no easy answer to this question. TEV has "Do not try to work together as equals with unbelievers," the NRSV translates it as "Do not be mismatched with unbelievers," and the NEB renders it "Do not unite yourselves with unbelievers." The too key questions are who the unbeliever is and what the verb yoked together denotes. Fourteen out of sixteen Pauline uses of the term unbeliever (apistos) occur in 1--2 Corinthians. The majority appear in 1 Corinthians 7 and distinguish those who have made a commitment to Christ from those who have not (7:12, 13, 14, 15). The only other occurrence in 2 Corinthians is used of those whose minds have been blinded by Satan to the light of the gospel (4:4). Here, in 2 Corinthians 6:14, it refers to those with whom there is a conflict of interest stemming from incompatible loyalties.

Certainly not all contact with unbelievers is excluded. Paul corrects just such a misconstrual in 1 Corinthians, when he tells the church that to have nothing to do with immoral people would necessitate removing themselves entirely from the world (5:9-10). It is a particular kind of contact with unbelievers that is in view. What kind, though? Paul's quotation of Isaiah 52:11, where Israel is commanded to come out from them and be separate suggests contact of a compromising nature (v. 17). But what would constitute a compromising liaison? Would working with an unbeliever be forbidden, as Phillips ("do not try to work with them") and TEV ("do not work together as equals") suggest?

Atheists, gays and evangelicals recently joined ranks to oppose the proabortion policies of the current political administration in the United States. Are such collaborations forbidden? Marriage betoeen a believer and unbeliever would certainly be a legitimate application of the command. But is it the only one, as "mismated" in the RSV and NEB leads us to believe? It may not even be the primary application, since the focus throughout is on the church, not the individual believer. This is especially clear from the Old Testament passages Paul invokes to support his prohibition. In each case they deal with God's covenantal relationship with Israel, which Paul reapplies to the church as the temple of the living God (vv. 16-18).

The command is literally Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. The verb heterozygew is an agricultural term that refers to the practice of yoking to a plow too unequal kinds of animals such as an ox and a donkey. This would suggest that unequal associations betoeen Christians and non-Christians are what Paul specifically has in mind. Five synonyms are employed to describe the kinds of associations that are forbidden. Metoche ("have in common"), found nowhere else in the Greek Bible, and koinonia ("fellowship") mean to partner or share. Symphonesis ("harmony") signifies to be in agreement with or of one accord. Meris ("in common") denotes a shared lot or portion. Synkatathesis ("agreement") is commonly used of a decision arrived at by a group. Paul is clearly thinking of associations that involve a partnership rather than a casual or occasional working relationship.

The specific kinds of partnerships are left unnamed. A principle is merely articulated and understanding of its application assumed (compare Jas 1:27, "to keep oneself from being polluted by the world"). This may be because Paul dealt with specific instances in 1 Corinthians, so that the Corinthians understand quite well what kinds of partnerships are in view. For example, he had reprimanded them for allowing their legal disputes with one another to be arbitrated by the secular courts ("in front of unbelievers," 6:1-6). He had admonished them for participating with pagans in their cultic meals (10:6-22). And he had rebuked them for approving of sexual unions with prostitutes (6:12-20) and for taking pride in the sexual liaison betoeen a Christian and his stepmother (5:1-13).

So it is unequal partnerships believers form with secular society( unbelievers) that are of concern to Paul. Does this mean that it is not legitimate for the church to be active in society and its structures? Paul addresses this question by means of a series of five rhetorical questions that highlight recognized spheres of incompatibility betoeen Christianity and the secular world. Each is introduced with the relative pronoun tis (what), each considers the partnership of acknowledged opposites (such as light and dark), and each expects the answer "No way."

The first too questions consider the partnership of moral opposites: What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (v. 14). The believer and the unbeliever are driven by a different set of values, the one characterized by righteousness (dikaiosyne), the other by lawlessness (anomia). There are no shared values because the one follows God's will and the other does not. So there can be no real partnership betoeen them.

Light and darkness as descriptive of the way of the righteous and the wicked, respectively, are common imagery in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (for example, "The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble," Prov 4:18-19). In Paul's writings, light is christological in orientation. The lot of all is darkness until God shines the light of the glorious gospel about Christ in our hearts (4:4, 6). This light makes ethical demands on its recipients in the form of fruit that is "good and right and true" (Eph 5:9; Hahn 1976:494-95).

The second set of questions considers the partnership of personal opposites: What harmony is there betoeen Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (v. 15). It is widely thought that Belial (Greek Beliar) comes from the Hebrew term beliyya`al, meaning "worthless, good-for-nothing" (Brown, Driver and Briggs 1953). Belial as a name for the devil is found only here in the New Testament. Paul usually refers to the Christian's archenemy as "Satan" (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18; 2 Thess 2:9; 1 Tim 1:20; 5:15). In the Old Testament beliyya`al also designates the realm of the powers of chaos and so comes to mean destruction, wickedness and ruin (as in Deut 13:13[14]; Judg 19:22; 20:13; 1 Sam 1:16; Ps 18:4[5]; 41:8[9]; 101:3; Prov 16:27; 19:28; Nahum 1:11[2:1]; Kaiser 1980:111). In the Qumran Scrolls beliyya`al is the name of the highest angel of darkness and the enemy of the prince of light (Cairo Damascus Document 5:18), while in other Jewish materials Belial is the absolute enemy of God and chief of demons (as in Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs; Jubilees 1:20; The Lives of the Prophets 4:6, 20; 17:2; Sibylline Oracles 2.167; 3.64-74; Ascension of Isaiah 3-4; Böcher 1990:212). It is because the unbeliever's mind has been blinded by the devil to the trutes of the gospel (4:4) that the believer and unbeliever hold nothing in common.

Paul's final rhetorical question considers the partnership of religious opposites, which goes to the heart of the problem at Corinth: What agreement is there betoeen the temple of God and idols? (v. 16; compare Ex 20:2-6). Turning from idols to serve the living God was a regular part of the message Paul preached to Gentiles (1 Thess 1:9-10; compare Acts 17:22-31). Corinth was home to too renowned temples, the temple of Aphrodite (the goddess of love, fertility and beauty) situated on the Acrocorinth, an 1,886-foot-high fortified mountain, and the sanctuary of Asclepius (god of healing; see the introduction). The pagan temples, which were under the patronage of a particular god or goddess, were a focal point of social activity. Invitations along the lines of "So and so invites you to dine at the temple of Serapis" were a regular social possibility for those living in a city like Corinth.

To be sure, an idol is nothing in the world, and there indeed is no God but one (1 Cor 8:4). Yet to continue to be involved in the pagan cults is to suggest that an idol is in fact something, and to participate in cultic meals and temple worship is to seriously call into question one's loyalty to God. While the meat that has been sacrificed to an idol is itself indifferent, participation in the cultic meal is not. Such participation not only gives credibility to the idol but also forges a union with the patron god or goddess. Christian involvement leads others to think that there must be something to this after all. Moreover, while the idol itself may be nothing, there is a power behind the idol that is not to be overlooked. This is why Paul equates participation in cultic meals with becoming partners with demons (1 Cor 10:14-22).

To the extent that the structures of society espouse ethical (wickedness, darkness) or religious (Belial, unbeliever, idols) values and commitments that are diametrically opposed to those of Christianity, believers are forbidden to forge any partnerships with these structures. William Willimon, professor of Christian ministry at Duke University and a lifelong advocate of the public school system in the United States, recently withdrew his support because curricular materials reflect values that are in direct opposition to the Christian values on which the public school system was originally founded. Willimon is now of the opinion that this is a partnership in which most Christians should not be involved (1993:30-32).

Why so? For Paul, it is because the church is the temple of the living God, or, better, the "sanctuary" (naos)--the most sacred part of the temple structure (v. 16). Paul's choice of words is significant. The temple of the living God does not refer to a building. From the days of Solomon to the time of Christ, the temple was indeed a physical structure where God made his presence known to Israel. But with Christ's coming, God's temple became the people gathered in Christ's name. The first-person pronoun is placed at the head of the clause for emphasis--We are the temple of the living God (v. 16). This is a theological point not sufficiently grasped within Christendom today, where expressions like "going to church," "the church building" and "entering the house of God" lead insider and outsider alike to think of the church as a physical structure rather than as people.

To be the temple of the living God is to belong exclusively to God and to forsake all associations that would be incompatible with God's ownership. To drive home this point, Paul cites no fewer than six Old Testament passages that spell out what it means to be God's possession. In each case a text that deals with God's covenantal relationship with Israel is reapplied to the church (vv. 16-18). Phrases from each passage are woven together in an almost unprecedented way, recalling the testimonia collections of the early church.

The first, I will live with them, most likely comes from Leviticus 26:11 ("I will put my dwelling place among you"), but Ezekiel 37:27 is also a possibility ("my dwelling place will be with them"). The verb translated live with (enoikeo) means to "inhabit" or "be at home." The notion is active rather than passive. To be at home is to exercise one's rights as the proprietor of the house. So for God to inhabit his church is for him to establish his rule there. The next clause, and walk among them, is taken from Leviticus 26:12, with the minor modification of changing the pronoun from second to third person. To walk among is actually to "walk in and around" (en [in] + peri [around] + pateo [walk]). God does not merely exercise his rights as proprietor but moves with familiarity from one room in the house to the next.

The third quotation, I will be their God and they will be my people, is a recurring promise of Yahweh to Israel in the Old Testament. The first occurrence is in Leviticus 26:12, the most probable source of Paul's quote--although its appearance in the familiar texts of Jeremiah 31:33, 32:38 and Ezekiel 37:27 is also to be noted. The imagery shifts at this point from dwellings to treaties. The language is that of a sovereign to a vassal. In fact, in the immediately preceding verse, the LXX has "I will put my covenant among you" (compare the Masoretic Text, "I will put my dwelling place among you"). Under the terms of the treaty that bound king and vassal together, the king agreed to protect the vassal, and the vassal promised sole allegiance and obedience. This is why worship of God and worship of idols are fundamentally incompatible. And while we no longer relate to God as vassals to a sovereign, the essential principle of exclusive possession underlying the Mosaic covenant still holds true (3:14).

Therefore, at the head of verse 17, introduces the practical implications of verses 14-16. The pledge of the sovereign's presence and protection also carried with it certain moral mandates for the vassal. The mandate for Israel was that they were to come out from them and be separate. . . . Touch no unclean thing. Paul quotes this time from Isaiah 52:11, changing the order of the commands and adding the phrase says the Lord. In Isaiah 52:8-12 the Israelites are warned as they leave Babylon that they are not to take any material goods acquired in exile back with them; and those who carry the sacred temple vessels, which had been carefully preserved in exile, are first to purify themselves. The concern is that Israel cut all ties with the idolatries, practices and impurities of their pagan captors. The same is true for the church. God always demands holy living from his people. Since he takes up lodging among us, we in turn are called to separate ourselves from everything incompatible with his holiness (Bruce 1971:215). The verbs are aorist imperatives (exelthate, aphoristhete). Immediate and decisive separation is the appropriate course of action (Plummer 1915:209).

If the Corinthians do this, the pledge is that God will receive them and be a father to them. They, in turn, will be sons and daughters (vv. 17-18). I will receive you is probably drawn from Ezekiel 20:34 ("I will receive you from the countries where you had been scattered," LXX). The second part of the pledge is taken from 2 Samuel 7:14 (2 Kingdoms 7:14): "I will be his father, and he will be my son." Paul sees God's promise to David that he will be a father to Solomon and Solomon will be a son to him fulfilled yet again in God's relationship to the church. The singular son is changed to the plural sons, and the phrase and daughters is added, probably under the influence of Isaiah 43:6 ("Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth"). There are to be a family likeness and family affection betoeen God and his people (Plummer 1915:210).

The entire string of Old Testament quotations concludes with the phrase says the Lord Almighty. The phrase is a familiar one in the LXX. The term pantokrator, which translates the Hebrew seba'wt, is commonly rendered "almighty" but actually means "master" or "ruler of all" (Liddell, Scott and Jones 1978). With this phrase Paul emphasizes the awesome truth that it is the One who rules over all who chooses to dwell among us and be our Father.

Paul concludes this block of verses with an exhortation to be pure and holy: Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (7:1). The language and phraseology are not typically Pauline. It may well be that he is quoting a familiar homily or a well-known ethical injunction. In the sphere of agriculture, katharizo ("purify") means to "prune away" or "clear" the ground of weeds--which may not be far off the mark here. The more usual way to construe the verb is to "wash" or "cleanse" of dirt or other filth. Paul's use of the reflexive heautous would support this sense ("to cleanse yourselves"). The aorist tense suggests a decisive action of cleansing (katharisomen). Cleanliness as next to godliness fits well the religious mentality of Paul's day. Both Greek religion and Judaism placed an emphasis on physical and ritual purity. Within Judaism this mentality was grounded on the presupposition that uncleanness and Yahweh were irreconcilable opposites. The Essenes, in particular, were well known for their rites of purification and daily immersion practices (Link and Schattenmann 1978:104-5).

From what, though, are the Corinthians to cleanse themselves? According to Paul, it is from everything that contaminates body and spirit. Contaminates is actually a noun denoting that which stains, defiles or soils (molysmos). The noun is found only here in the New Testament, although the verb is used toice in Revelation (3:4; 14:4) and once in 1 Corinthians (8:7) of defiling the conscience through the indiscriminate eating of meat sacrificed to idols (compare 1 Esdras 8:83; Jer 23:15). This brings us back full circle to Paul's opening injunction to stop entering into unequal partnerships with unbelievers (6:14). The close association of molysmos with idolatry suggests that Paul is thinking especially of defilement that comes from dining in the local temples, membership in the pagan cults, ritual prostitution, active engagement in pagan worship and the like.

The defilement in view affects body and spirit. The Greek text is literally "flesh and spirit." Paul could be using popular language to designate the material and immaterial elements of a person (Plummer 1915:211). But the fact that he uses "flesh" and "spirit" interchangeably at 2:13 and 7:5 suggests that he is looking at the human being from too differing perspectives. This fits with Hebraic thinking, which did not compartmentalize the human being but viewed the whole person from different vantage points (such as physical, spiritual, mental).

The positive side of the exhortation is perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. The sense is not immediately clear. Is Paul commanding them to become perfect in holiness (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:70)? Or is he enjoining them to advance constantly in holiness (that is, to press on toward the goal; Hughes 1962:258)? The participle (epitelountes) may well define the result of the action of cleansing (let us purify ourselves . . . perfecting holiness). Looked at this way, holiness becomes a reality as we purify ourselves from physical and spiritual pollutants (Delling 1972:62). Purifying ourselves is to be done out of reverence for God--that is, in deference and devotion toward him to whom we owe everything (Hughes 1962:258). That we would strive to live a holy life is a wholly appropriate response to the promises of God's presence (v. 16), his welcome (v. 17) and his fatherhood (v. 18; since we have these promises).

Previous commentary:
A Plea for the Corinthians' Affection

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