Life With the Unbeliever

There are two passages in the New Testament that, on the surface, appear to be contradictory. Well truthfully I find more than two, but for this issue we'll deal with just two. We must know that any verses or passages we think are in conflict with each other is only due to our misunderstanding. The Bible promises that the Word of God is perfect (Psalm 19:7), flawless, (Ps. 12:6), and trustworthy, (Ps. 33:4). So we must acknowledge our misconceptions of scripture are just that – misconceptions –  wrong-understanding.

The two passages which we will address are; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17, "Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord. Don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you." (2 Cor. 6:14-17 NLT)

And, "When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:9-13 NLT)

It would seem as if Paul is clarifying a passage from his second letter with a passage from the first. Verse 9 presupposes there had been previous correspondence, of which we have no record, addressing this matter.

The NIV and NKJV renders the opening verse in our first passage as, "Do not be 'yoked' together with unbelievers". An understanding of the concept of being yoked really puts a brighter light on the teaching. When two draft animals are yoked together they have no options to separate leanings. They are in lock-step with each other – where one goes, so must the other, regardless of the incentive. Their incentive may be the greener grass at the side of the road or the sting of the master's whip. Our incentive to follow may be promise of greener grass, or a misguided commitment to be the whip that draws our unbeliever back onto the right track.

One verse seems to say that we must be very vigilant lest we become involved with unbelievers in wrong ways, and the other seems to say that you shouldn't take that approach to extremes. So the question may be asked, "What sorts of being yoked together with unbelievers is wrong? What sorts are encouraged or necessary or right?" Who am I to avoid – to separate myself from?

1 Corinthians 7:39 makes marriage clear, but what about a business partnership or a bowling team? What about a neighborhood HOA?  Do I ostracize myself from my co-workers, my next door neighbor? How then am I to be obedient to the Great Commission? (Matt. 28:19)

Paul is not promoting a separation from the world here. The people described in our first passage may include the posers who claim a relationship with Christ yet live a life contrary to Biblical teaching. But the crux of the message is the danger of an ongoing relationship with a person steeped in a sinful life and uninterested in repentance, redemption, or reconciliation. We should avoid relationships with unbelievers in which your relations may endorse the unbelief or consequent sins, and avoid the kinds of relationships with them that involve the interweaving of deep personal values (like marriage).

As for those who profess to be believers yet live in blatant sin or teach serious false doctrine Paul seems to promote a more vigorous ostracism. Beyond the warning to not associate with them he says we are not even to eat with them. "You must remove the evil person from among you" (vs 13). That seems a little harsh, even unmerciful given today's bent toward universal tolerance. But God is not universally tolerant nor does His Holy Word teach us to be. We are to be loving yet discerning, forgiving but wise in our relational choices, tolerant yet not blind to worldly (secular) alibis.

He says, "…separate yourselves from them…Don't touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you". I take this to mean that if a person has been disciplined in the appropriate way and yet chooses to continue living a sinful life, then we are not to continue socializing with him as if nothing were wrong.

The whole premise of both passages as I can determine is that Satan is alive and well and ruling this world we live in. If we permit an ongoing relationship with one of his minions we are at risk of being drawn along just as if we were yoked to the unrepentant sinner. Our commitment and obligation to the Great Commission not withstanding He says "Be Holy as I am Holy". Keep yourself 'set apart' as God is set apart.

Be Blessed.


  1. Anna Meehan says:

    A good word Michael. The more we immerse ourselves in God’s Word, the more it’s harder to stay in an intimate relationship with those who live blatantly opposed to it. We are to love the sinner but hate the sin. We need to be merciful for at one time – we were walking in darkness but by God’s grace – He opened our spiritual eyes (John 6:44)

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