Many verses of Scripture are used as “proof texts,” quoted as the confirmation of some doctrine or opinion without much attention to what the verse might mean in its own context or what the background of the idea might be from a cultural or historical perspective. For example, many Christians quote 2 Corinthians 6:14 as the biblical command that Christians should not date or marry non-Christians. But is that really the intent of that verse? Is this verse, ripped from its context within a letter to a church that is most likely suffering a crisis far more severe than questions of who to date or marry, really intending to impose yet another law governing social behavior?
Here is the entire passage from which this verse is taken (2 Cor 6:14-18):
14 Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? 15 What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what 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 live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, 18 and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
The background of this verse comes from an Old Testament instruction in Deuteronomy:
22:10 You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.
This occurs between two similar commands about mixing things.
22:9 You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed . . . 22:11 You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.
These religious laws are connected to the creation account in Genesis 1 in which God established an order in the world that is part of creation itself. The idea of separating and setting boundaries, even among plants and animals (“each after its kind”), expresses the idea that there is a certain way God’s world should work, that there are certain boundaries and limits within which creation can exist (see God and Boundaries). Theologically, this was understood to mean that some things should not be mixed in order to preserve the proper working of God’s world (even reflected in later Jewish restrictions concerning hybrid animals like mules).
The Israelites then applied this ethically, for example, in laws governing sexual relations that banned bestiality and homosexuality. Religiously, it was extended to things like using two different kinds of animals yoked together for plowing. It was not just a legalism, but an attempt to live out in all aspects of life what they understood to be God’s purposes for his world that he had created.
Paul, trained Pharisee that he was, no doubt well understood all this and applied this principle in addressing the church at Corinth (2 Cor 6:14). In many evangelical churches, this verse from Corinthians has been used very narrowly as a warning against marrying non-Christians. But in the situation at Corinth, it had much broader implications. Corinth was well known for its wild lifestyle. It was a major seaport (nearby at Lechaion) and a crossroads of the northern Mediterranean. The Middle Eastern practice of sacred prostitution in pagan temples was readily accepted in such a climate, as well as in some of the Greek temples that stood there in the first century.
One of the major problems Paul faced in Corinth was the difficulty new converts there had in living out Christianity ethically in everyday actions. This concept of boundaries and order in terms of everyday living was a good way to illustrate the ethical demands of relationship with God without resorting to legalism.
A second major problem that Paul is addressing in both Corinthian letters is the problem of spiritual pride that had led some in the community to pervert Paul’s teaching about spiritual freedom. Paul maintained that we have freedom in Christ, that relationship with God is not a matter of obeying law but of the motivation of love from the heart. Yet some Corinthians had taken that to the point of maintaining that nothing they did mattered since they were free from the law (cf. 1 Cor 6:12). This was easier to do in the environment of Corinthian Greek culture that, following Plato, assumed that the physical world was irrelevant and unimportant since the only true reality was spirit, the “inner” person (see Body and Soul: Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture). So, they concluded, what their body did had nothing to do with their relationship with God since that was a “spiritual” matter. Paul had already addressed this issue quite strongly throughout the first letter, especially the implications of their libertine views in sexual matters that included sacred prostitution (1 Cor 6:9-20).
The passage in 2 Corinthians 6 seems to be against the background of this problem. Both the tendency toward spiritual pride resulting from how they conceptualized human beings and the lack of clearly conceived Christian ethics worked together to allow a lifestyle that Paul felt did not represent in practice what it meant to bear the name Christian. The reference to temples and idols suggests that Paul is still addressing the Corinthians’ tendency to try to blend the worship of God with the activities that went on the pagan temples. In other words, the people wanted to be Christian while still partaking of all the activities that marked the worship of the Greek gods. The attitude seemed to be that they could be spiritually Christian “inside” while the physical body could still enjoy the wild pagan lifestyle of Corinth.
To this, Paul simply answers that they cannot be mixed, that God’s people must be marked by a different kind of lifestyle than others, and that lifestyle cannot be mixed with a pagan lifestyle. Using the OT principle of preserving boundaries between things that should not be mixed, Paul simply says that being Christian means that the Corinthians can no longer practice the activities of pagan worship or pagan ethics, since those are things that should not be mixed with the worship of God. In other words, what they did ethically mattered a great deal if they were claiming to be Christians.
Practically, this could apply to a lot of areas of life, but not as a rigid law. It is a matter of ethics that must come from the freedom in Christ that Paul makes clear. But that freedom does not mean, Paul contends, that we are not compelled by love of both God and neighbor. So, it might, indeed, have some practical ethical application in the case of a Christian dating or marrying a non-Christian. Again, it is not a matter of law. But it is a matter of allowing God to be God, and recognizing that when we are his people, his sons and daughters (2 Cor 6:18), that means we are in a relationship of love that constrains our freedom for the sake of that love (1 Cor 13).
The result is a lifestyle that is “cleansed” from such contamination with pagan practices as visiting temple prostitutes (2 Cor 7:1), because someone who truly loves God as a son or daughter would not contaminate themselves with such practices. In others words, Paul is simply answering that it does, indeed, make a difference what the body does since that cannot be separated from who we are as sons and daughters of God.
Of course, the next question will be, “But what does that mean today?” We want a single answer to this question, a list of rules to follow. And we too often either fall in love with the list of rules we make (legalism), or we revert back to the Corinthian view and think that there really are no rules (postmodern relativism). Yet what Paul calls us to in Corinthians is a lifestyle that is governed by love (cf. 1 Cor 13). That is really what separates us from the “unclean” things around us. And Paul notes in another writing that it is often up to us to decide how we should practice that love as Christians (cf. Phil 2:12-23: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”).
That simply places a great deal of emphasis on Christian ethics, not as law, but as the outworking of the “royal law of love” as John Wesley was so fond of quoting (James 2:8; see James and the Law). And that principle is precisely what Paul is using in the letters to the church at Corinth (for example, 1 Cor 13).
Written by: Dennis Bratcher
Originally posted on: Christian Resource Institute