Friday, September 12, 2008

If I’m a Friend to a Non-Christian, Am I Being “Unequally Yoked”?

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible.

Because Paul warns against being έτεροζυγουντες (heterozugountes) or “unequally yoked” with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14 KJV; see the entire passage in context here in the NASB), some Christian readers think that he is forbidding friendship with non-Christians. As a result of this interpretation, they present themselves to the world as club of judgmental elitist members who wouldn’t want to soil themselves with the stigma of friendship with an unbeliever. After all, if we follow this interpretation of Paul, we’re bound to remain in our safe little cultural Christian bubbles, not bothering to follow Jesus’ command to his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you….” (An important clarification: to “make disciples” does not mean that Jesus wants His followers to force others to believe in Him. In fact, Matthew 8:19-22 provides a good example of Jesus' emphasis on the cost of following Him.)

This topic recently came to my attention because of the recent decision made VenomFangX (a Christian youtube user who became both famous and infamous for his videos) to end his online ministry (for the announcement to the end of his ministry, see this video). To be fair, VenomFangX did have a heart for spreading the good news of Jesus, but he didn't always take the most tactful, gentle, or thoughtful method of presentation.

(In fact, his goodbye message sounds unfortunately bitter in tone, condemning specific atheistic users by name as being responsible for causing others to make death threats against him. One can hardly blame him for wanting to leave to protect himself and his family, but it does no good to blame people who may have no connection at all to the death threats.)

One of the videos responding to VenomFangX’s announcement included a skeptic who shares her frustration with VenomFangX’s claims that he tried to be nice and friendly. Talking directly to VenomFangX in her video response, this particular user stated emphatically, “You...said that you were trying to be kind and loving toward everyone, but isn't that a little contradictory? Because---especially hardcore Christians [such] as yourself---you can't be kind and loving to everyone.... You just can't; it doesn't work that way because in the Bible you're not supposed to be kind and loving to homosexuals (first of all), pagans, godless people, anyone who is ‘unequally yoked.’”

(See the original youtube video for the full context. Note that she also said that “Christianity itself is a ridiculous concept” without really explaining why she thinks that other than claiming that “everything in it is hypocritical and contradictory---it's completely biased.” In response, I would be interested to hear some examples of hypocritical, contradictory passages [though there are indeed people described in the Bible who are hypocritical]. As for the common claim that a source somehow loses credibility because it's “biased,” I would like to point out that every source is biased, even this youtube user. Would she say that she is an unreliable source because she is biased? Of course not. Bias [the act of favoring a point of view] does not determine reliability.)

Regardless of the legitimacy of some of her claims, this youtube user raises an important challenge to the common simplistic thinking in Christian circles today about the love of God. She starts with the premise that for an especially “hardcore” Christian to be “kind and loving” to a non-believer is wrong according to the Bible, since it says not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers, to use the King James Version's translation of heterozugountes in 2 Corinthians 6:14. Is she right? When Paul warns against being heterozugountes, is he commanding believers in Jesus to hold themselves aloof from non-Christians? Before we take a look at the context of 2 Corinthians 6:14, let's examine her references to homosexuals and pagans first: Does the Bible say to be unloving to them?

First, there are indeed passages in the Bible that condemn homosexual acts unambiguously (e.g., Leviticus 18:22), one passage even calling for the death penalty for those who commit homosexual acts within the Israelite community (20:13). With passages such as those in our Bibles, it’s easy to see why some people think that the Bible preaches hate against homosexuals. Some apologists with good intentions claim that the death penalty for sins such as homosexual behavior no longer applies because Jesus abolished the Law. But did he? An increasing number of skeptics—thanks in large part to the proliferation of the Internet—are aware of Jesus’ famous statement in Matthew 5:17-18, where he says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter [the Greek iota here stands in for the small Hebrew letter yod] or stroke [the small serif at the end of a Hebrew letter like tav] shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” In other words, Jesus didn’t even come to abolish Leviticus 20:13 (the death penalty verse). And stoning still went on during Jesus’ ministry on earth. But not many people today (even in some strict Orthodox Jewish circles) put people to death for homosexual acts. Why not? Not only is it illegal in many countries around the world today, but people forget that the ordinances for civil governing behind the rules set forth in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were meant to administrate over a specific community—these civil specifics were not meant for all people of all time—but the moral principles surrounding them were. While it's true that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), that verse does not say that the wages of homosexuality is death. Christians tend to harp on homosexuality as if it is the most heinous sin in the Bible. In fact, homosexuality is rarely discussed in the Scriptures. It’s just not a major subject for the biblical writers. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality (of course, we must admit that He would have agreed with the passages in the Hebrew Bible that say it is sinful), but He was not afraid to associate with “sinners” (see Matthew 9:10-13).

Since the Bible never singles out homosexuals for special persecution (there is not one verse which says that one is to hate gays, contrary to Fred Phelps and his odious Westboro Baptist Church), we cannot say that the Bible prohibits friendship with homosexuals. One might retort, “Wait! What about that hateful death penalty verse (Leviticus 20:13)?” Just three verses earlier, in that same book, there is also a death penalty for committing adultery (Leviticus 20:10). In 2 Samuel 11, we find out that King David was an adulterer at one point (and a murderer), but when God sends the prophet Nathan to confront him, he confesses his sin and God spares his life: “Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die’” (2 Samuel 12:13; to read this powerful story in 2 Samuel 11-12 in its entirety, see here). God takes sin seriously---but He is not a God of hate. (There is also a famous story in John 7:53-8:11 relevant to this issue---see here for the story. Our most reliable ancient manuscripts do not include this story, so many scholars think that it may be historical but just not originally part of the Gospel of John. Others dismiss it completely.) But I can't think of a single institution which commands capital punishment because of adultery either.

The point is not to compare homosexuality to adultery (the two are entirely different). The point is this: In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery[, which results in death]'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committted adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28). Because I've done this before (without having committed the physical act), according to Jesus, I'm an adulterer. I'm just as sinful as the average homosexual. Remember how gossip is listed right alongside homosexual sin in Romans 1 (one of the "clobber" passages)? So because I've even gossiped before, I'm just as sinful as the average homosexual, and I come under the same wrath of God. But thanks to Jesus taking on my sin on the cross on my behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21), I am "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24), being saved by faith through grace (3:28; Ephesians 2:8-9).

(As a side note, I understand the common frustration when homosexuality is compared to pedophilia. I think that there is no comparison between the two. To compare homosexuality to pedophilia is wrong and frankly insults the average gay person.)

When this youtube user speaks of “pagans/godless people,” I think I can safely assume that she means unbelievers in general. When Paul encountered a group of Athenian “pagans” in Acts 17, he does not immediately distance himself from them because they don't believe as he does. Luke, the author of Acts, doesn't say that Paul did anything of the sort. Certainly, Paul was interested in sharing the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection with them, but how he goes about it is very interesting:

So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:22-31).

Notice that Paul even quotes one of their own poets to make his point. He didn't seem to be afraid of them or scared by them or holding himself aloof.

So what about the idea of being “unequally yoked”? Does that concept include friendship with unbelievers? First, let’s look at the context of this letter. Paul is writing to the Corinthian assembly of believers, having already written some earlier letters to them, one of which is the harsh letter of 1 Corinthians, which condemns them for their indulgent lifestyles of sin, even noting a believer among them who was so hypocritical that Paul says that his way of life is not found even among the pagans (1 Corinthians 5:1). In 2 Corinthians, however (our current letter of discussion), Paul is praising the Corinthians for their affirmation of his ministry and repentance for their sin. In 2 Corinthians 6, however, he issues a warning to keep them from backsliding into the immorality they had among them previously: "Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols" (2 Corinthians 6:16).

That "bound together" phrase ("unequally yoked" in the KJV) does not mean "being kind to" or "making friends with." When Paul warns against being "bound together," he is warning against entering a contractual-type relationship with an unbeliever (in other words, a relationship in which you must conform yourself to the unbeliever). This applies not just to marriage but to other formal agreements which tie two people together. An atheist and a Christian cannot be "bound together," therefore, since their values and goals are widely divergent from one another. Their worldview goals are different. For the Corinthians, they couldn't be bound together with those who worshiped Zeus---but just because they couldn't be bound together with them does not mean that they cannot be friends with them (friends, of course, in the sense that they treat them kindly without compromising themselves). How would Christianity have grown so quickly in the ancient world otherwise?

So if you're a Christian, don't be "yoked" or "bound" together (to follow the literal meaning of the Greek έτεροζυγουντες) with the world (this is similar to "hanging out with the wrong crowd"). That doesn't mean, however, that you can't be friends with people who don't believe like you do. If we are to follow Jesus' example, we should not hold ourselves aloof.

Speaking of His disciples, Jesus prayed to the Father, "I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one" (John 17:15), acknowledging that they "are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (17:14). So the disciples of Jesus are to be in the world, not of the world. Just as Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-12), aren't we to do the same?