A Study in Context (2 Cor 6:14)
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
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
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
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
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
1 Cor 13).