In the World but Not of it

By 14/04/2021From Nigel
[14] Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? [15] What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? [16] What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “ I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people”.

2 Corinthians 6:14-16.

As a young Christian in a Baptist Church my pastor would warn me quite frequently about my love of football, Tamla Motown music and clothes, saying that I was in the world but not of it. This for me always raised more questions than answers. How was I to relate to those who only used Christ as a swear word. To what extent was I to engage with or ignore the culture of my day.

Whilst I was a Pastor leading a Church in Sussex, a shop appeared in our high street selling crystals. Some members wanted to protest, others to write to their member of parliament and so on. So what about other things such as gender issues, immorality, abortion, the things that the Bible speaks so clearly about, should we make placards, chain ourselves to gates etc?

These are tough questions for which quick answers are unwise, and usually wrong. It’s very complex is it not?

Yes the culture has changed and the circumstances have changed but the approach advocated by Paul in the first century, I believe, still has relevance and is really helpful to us today

“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (verse 14). Now there’s a verse much quoted to me in my teens and probably as famous as “ For God so loved the world”. It struck fear into my very being, yet I believe it it is much miss quoted. What does Paul have in mind here? What is the background to his words , and how does it apply to us in 2021.

The subject was not a new one for Paul, having addressed it earlier in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and in chapters 8 to 11.

Some Christians in Corinth were visiting temple cults of any number of the pagan religions in the city, perhaps even engaging in the sexual activities (temple prostitutes) associated with their type of “worship”.

This problem was most likely the reason for Paul’s emergency second visit to Corinth and the follow-up “affliction and anguish letter” (2 Corinthians 2:1-4).

The “ unbelievers” that he describes in this passage were unsaved Gentiles who were involved in worship at the Greek Roman mystery, mystic cults of Corinth. His command is for Christian men and women to withdraw from such unholy and immoral practices and associations. But does that principle extend to other issues that we face today? Yes, I believe it does but we must proceed cautiously, and sensibly in our application.

Although Paul is not thinking about marriage in this text, certainly the principle would apply to marriage. A Christian entering into such a covenant with someone not a Christian (1 Corinthians 7:12-15).

Using the language of the marriage ceremony, just as we are commanded not to put asunder what God has joined together, we must be diligent not to join together what God has put asunder!

Sadly though, some (my church when I was a child for instance) have applied this passage in ways that Paul never intended which would, in effect, make it difficult to live, much less work, in a secular society. (Avoidance was preached from the pulpit by some).

There is no indication that Paul here is forbidding or condemning contact and association with non-Christians, something he declares impractical, if not impossible, in I Corinthians 5:9-13. In fact he anticipates the presence of unbelievers in the worship services at Corinth and instructs the believers not to do anything that might drive them away (1 Corinthians 14:22-24).

Neither is he forbidding or condemning business relations with non-Christians. In fact I believe Paul seems in other places to say it’s Ok to do business with a non-Christian, but that it will require discernment and caution.

Paul is neither forbidding or condemning friendships with non-Christians. If anything, I believe he would encourage them and promote them but again by using wisdom and discernment.

There is certainly nothing here that would forbid or condemn association and cooperation with other Christians who may disagree with you on secondary issues (again which on occasions as a young Christian I heard from the pulpit “ be careful of the…….. down the road”).

And contrary to what some have suggested, if two unbelievers marry and then one is saved, he is not instructing the latter to terminate the relationship (1 Corinthians 7).

As far as an application is concerned, the separation Paul has in mind between Christians and non-Christians is spiritual and moral, not spatial. The principle is this: enter into no relationship or bond or partnership or endeavor that will compromise your Christian integrity or weaken your walk with God or cause you to compromise your faith (James 4:4-5).

All this does cause us to ask further questions and “what if’s” Like…

“When I am with non-believers, what do I do if I find myself in situations where I am exposed to temptations that may get the better of me?”

“When I am with non-Christians, I find it easier than at other times to compromise on ethical matters. I find myself judging as ‘grey’ what I would call ‘black’ if I were with Christians.”

“When I am with non-Christians I tend to be less vocal about my faith and less visible in my stand for Christ.”

“When I am with non-Christians, my conversation focus easily on things of the World, and I don’t take opportunities to discuss Christ.”

“When I am with non-Christians, they have no idea I am a Christian!”

There are probably more, but I think they help us to examine the dynamic, strength and robustness of our faith.

Going back to the passage, there then follows five points, rhetorical, questions, each of which the answer is: “None whatsoever!”

For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?”

These are designed to explain why it’s important for believers to be, discerning, cautious, and wise with their relationship with non-believers. Those committed to righteousness have no partnership with people given to lawlessness. Those who live in the light of God’s revelation are not to be yoked with those who walk in spiritual and moral darkness. Obviously Christ and the devil agree on nothing and have no harmony with one another. This is the only place in the NT where the word “Belial” occurs. The Hebrew word occurs in the OT with the meaning “worthlessness” while here it is used to describe a personal opponent of God. We have to remember there is no spiritual common ground for the believer and unbeliever. In fact it can be quite stark as the unbeliever’s life is centred on self and the believer’s on Christ; the treasure of the one is here on earth, of the other in heaven; the values of the one are those of this World, of the other those of the World to come; the believer seeks the glory of God, the unbeliever the glory of self and men.

However, Paul is not denying that we are all created in God’s image or suggesting that there is literally nothing that we share. As Calvin wisely reminds us, “when Paul says that the Christian has no portion with the unbeliever he is not referring to food, clothing, estates, the sun, and the air, . . . but to those things which are peculiar to unbelievers, from which the Lord has separated us.”

Finally, we move on to “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” We read in the OT that the introduction of idols into the temple of God was prohibited, how much more horrendous is idolatry in the life of the believer (v. 16a)! Are we not ourselves the only temple in which God shall ever dwell? (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19, Ephesians 2:20-22, I Peter 2:5). We are carriers of the presence of God, we take God with us into every and any situation. We invade the differing places we find ourselves in with the presence of God. Once the temple was fixed and in a particular place, now it moves into families, work spaces, neighbourhoods and nations.

What is most important to remember then, is that this is not a call to create a Christian ghetto, but Paul does want us to see the responsibility and the blessing we carry.