Recently I was approached by a friend who wanted my take on Paul’s comment that Christians should not be “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). This particular friend is in an interfaith marriage and had been challenged by someone who took Paul’s comment as a prohibition against such marriages.
Μὴ γίνεσθε ἑτεροζυγοῦντες ἀπίστοις· τίς γὰρ μετοχὴ δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ἀνομίᾳ, ἢ τίς κοινωνία φωτὶ πρὸς σκότος;
I’ve spent some time looking at the way this verse has been used and reading the relevant section of 2 Corinthians carefully. Here are a few observations on what I have found:
1. The passage in question (2 Corinthians 6) does not address marriage at all. It is about the work of the gospel, the work of early Christians in spreading the “good news” (to use Paul’s favorite term for it elsewhere). If this one verse refers to marriage, it seems quite out-of-place here.
2. The phrase “unequally yoked” translates the Greek word ἑτεροζυγοῦντες—a compound of the two words ἕτερος and ζυγέω. A problem with interpreting this as a reference to interfaith marriage is that the verb ζυγέω is not used elsewhere to refer to marriage. It refers to wearing a device that allows two animals (or slaves) to work together, not to form a family together. If Paul used the term figuratively to refer to marriage, he used it in a very odd way.
A much more reasonable interpretation of the verb would be something like, “Don’t partner with unbelievers [in the work of spreading the gospel].” In fact, in the very next clause Paul asks, “What partnership (μετοχὴ) [is there] between righteousness and lawlessness?” (τίς γὰρ μετοχὴ δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ἀνομίᾳ).
Note that I’m not arguing a theological point here. I can’t speak for Paul about his view of interfaith marriage. I just notice that this particular verse does not appear to be about marriage at all, but about partnership in the work of the gospel.
There’s a separate issue that can be raised in reference to this same statement in 2 Corinthians 6:14, and that has to do with the word ἀπίστοις. Most published English translations render ἀπίστοις as unbelievers. While this adjective does seem to have that sense in a number of other contexts, it is important to realize that it is a combination of the privative α- and the adjective πιστός (faithful) and can also describe a lack of faithfulness rather than a lack of belief.
Of course translating ἀπίστοις as unfaithful would significantly change the meaning of the passage. Rather than arguing that the Corinthians not work with unbelievers in the spread of the gospel, Paul would be arguing that they should not work with those who are unfaithful. This could very well include his opponents within the Corinthian church! Why would he have to counsel them not to work with unbelievers in the spread of the gospel anyway? Why would unbelievers want to be involved in that work?
If we read ἀπίστοις as unfaithful, we would see Paul as counseling the Corinthians not to work with unfaithful Christians. Doing so could damage their witness. He prefers that they work with those who are faithful (πιστός) like him.