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Unequally yoked

So this may just be a throwback to some of my conservative evangelical roots, but I’m sure many of us are familiar with the common pastoral injunction that Christians, biblically speaking, ought not to ever even consider marrying one who was not a Christian. After all, this is what Paul referred to in 2 Cor 6:14 when he commanded us not to “be unequally yoked [Gk: heterozugeo] with unbelievers.”

Now, I think a contextual reading of the passage makes abundantly clear that what Paul is arguing against is not related to marriage and sexuality at all, but rather in trying to convince the Corinthians to adhere to his teachings rather than those of potential (unbelieving) competitors. But whatever, leaving the exegetical reality of that behind, lets take a look at what it might mean for marriage if we took the common appropriation of this text seriously.

The most striking part of it is the “unequal” business. If the text is taken (correctly) to be referring to non-Christian teachers in conflict with Paul’s message it makes sense. Their message is one that is mismatched, unfitting, inferior to the good news that Paul is trying to bring the Corinthians. But if this is somehow about marriage, doesn’t that imply a fundamental inequality between partners as being inscribed into marriage itself? It seems to me that there is a hidden enthusiasm among proponents of “don’t marry non-Christians” interpreters of this verse about the potential door this opens to construing marriage as a hierarchical relation of power. But maybe I’m just being paranoid.


  1. Evan wrote:

    Two thoughts on this that spring to my mind…

    First, if a hierarchical relationship is implied by this, it at least seems to be interchangeable. That is, it wouldn’t clearly be about a position of authority over women as opposed to men. This might relieve some concerns of a gender hierarchy, although it doesn’t do away with concerns about hierarchy more generally.

    Second, could hetero- signal something that is less suggestive of hierarchy in English than “unequal”? If it just identifies a “difference”, does that make matters a little less worrisome?

    In any case, it seems like any worries about hierarchical implications for the particular case of marriage would carry over to the relationship between believers and unbelievers more generally. I doubt any of the concerns that might be raised are unique to the crowd that interprets this as a Pauline injunction concerning marriage. I’d even go further and say that using this verse as relevant to marriage doesn’t create a problem of any inequality “inscribed into marriage itself” at all… it’s an inequality inscribed into the believer/unbeliever relationship itself, right? I mean, that’s what makes the marriage problematic for these interpreters rather than anything about a marriage relationship in itself. If anything, we should be worried about a sort of Pauline Christian triumphalism here, which seems to me to rear its head whether or not one applies this passage to the marriage relationship.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Theophilus wrote:

    Or you could read this as suggesting that relationships between Christians are intended to be more equal than interreligious relationships, be they teaching relationships or marital ones. It is the relationship to someone of unlike faith that is portrayed as unequal, and consequently more easily imagined as one filled with hierarchical power dynamics. This dovetails nicely with Christian teaching on mutuality and undermines the notion that the Christian ideal of marriage includes hierarchy between husband and wife.

    And Evan, the metaphor of the yoke does not itself imply hierarchy, either. A tall, slow, strong ox may be a perfectly serviceable animal for ploughing, as may a short and speedy calf. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a pairing of the two would have comically bad results, whereas a pair of oxen or a pair of calves might be just fine. So if you’re looking for Christian triumphalism, I don’t see it in this image.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Evan wrote:

    I didn’t take the idea of yoking to be hierarchical at all… I assumed the assumed basis of hierarchy was the idea of inequality- like Halden said, this is the “most striking part”.

    The yoking concept is, however, what makes the marriage application compelling for people. But as I said as well, I don’t think it’s marriage in itself that is unequal, but rather it’s the believer and unbeliever in relationship (i.e., it’s the calf/ox pair rather than the calf/calf or ox/ox pair, just as you said).

    Also, I don’t personally see Christian triumphalism in this passage. My point was simply that if someone were worried about conservative evangelical exegesis of this verse implying hierarchy for marriage, they should probably worry in equal measure about most any other application of the passage as well.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  4. Andrew wrote:

    Wait, marriage isn’t supposed to be a hierarchical power struggle? That makes no sense to me.

    You buy a cat so you have a creature to show your God-given dominance to and when the cat gets uppity you get married, right?

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  5. Byron Smith wrote:

    You’re being paranoid.

    But Andrew is on the money. Or he’s on something.

    Friday, January 7, 2011 at 6:15 am | Permalink
  6. Mike Bull wrote:

    There’s a long history of “intermarriage” in the Scriptures, and it refers to Covenantal arrangements between the sons of God and the daughters of men.

    Initially, this was between the line of Seth and the line of Cain (as the genealogies show). It shows up again with Moses’ marriage, Joseph’s, Samson’s, Boaz’ and Solomon’s.

    The idea is that intermarriage is fine as long as it entails conversion, bringing into the Covenant. Moses, Joseph, Samson, Boaz and Solomon married Gentiles and brought them into the Covenant. But a number of these men then intermarried with unbelievers, and it led to the destruction of the Covenant people. Hence the breaking of these marriages under Ezra.

    The iron “intermarried” with clay in Daniel 2 refers to the Herods’ Covenants with Rome. The restored Israel was to be a witness to the empires, and priestly advisors (as was Joseph, Daniel, Mordecai). But they jumped the gun again and demanded a king before time.

    Jesus condemns these false treaties in Matthew 24, likening it to the days of Noah. The spiritual blessings of the Covenant people keep strong a pagan culture that should instead be allowed to die a natural death. So the Lord has to scatter His people and regather them – national or cultural death and resurrection.

    I have no doubt that is what Paul is referring to, being such a strong and repeated theme. It is not marriage per se, it is a Covenant made with someone who cannot by any means fulfill the Covenant’s Ethics (hence the execution of the Sanctions). The final legal point is denied: Succession.

    So intermarriage is not condemned. Intermarriage with unbelievers is. It is the leavening process working backwards – or bad leaven. God sends Ezra to clean our kitchens.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink
  7. Joel wrote:

    But what if you fall in love?

    Monday, January 10, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  8. NF wrote:

    I totally agree with your exegesis
    I definitely think you’re being paranoid.
    I do.

    Monday, January 10, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  9. Jim H. wrote:

    Paul’s writing naturally lends itself to bigoted and anti-Semitic renderings by bigoted and anti-Semitic readers, not least because the former Saul of Tarsus himself had such tendencies—his dramatic (-ized) conversion notwithstanding.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  10. Joel Gonzaga wrote:

    I have not considered this verse, but there has been life recent life experience that made me rethink the whole inter-religious dating thing.

    When I was in grad school, a co-worker and another student caught my eye and vice versa. We we’re very flirtatious, and I thought she was some quality and was ready to “go for it” as they say.

    I never did, and she eventually found out (by accident) that I hesitated because she was not a Christian.

    Basically, I made someone who I otherwise thought was perfectly loveable, feel completely unloveable.

    If being “unequally yoked” is the right thing to do, then why did I feel like I sinned and needed to repent?

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

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