What does the concept really mean?
By Karen Holford
Cara sat at her friend’s kitchen table. “Laura,” she said, hesitantly, “Mike’s asked me out. But I feel confused. He’s a wonderful person and a great Christian, and we’ve known each other for months. We’ve got so much in common, and I’d like to get to know him at a deeper level.” She looked up at Laura. “It’s just for lunch … ”
Laura put her hand on Cara’s. “Mike sounds lovely, Cara. But be careful. You know he goes to church on Sunday. You don’t want to find yourself unequally yoked, do you?”
Most Adventists, like Cara’s friend, wisely understand Paul’s advice not to be “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14) to mean that Adventists should avoid marrying non-Adventists. But being “equally yoked” with another Adventist is also not a guaranteed recipe for marital success. God’s intention for marriage was for two different people to become one flesh (Gen. 2:24)—united spiritually, but also in body, heart, and mind.
Paul uses the expression “unequally yoked” as a metaphor for human relationships. He refers to the wooden yoke that’s shaped to fit comfortably across the necks of two animals. Together they can pull a heavy load or drag a cumbersome plow. Successful yoking needs both animals to be matched in strength, speed, stamina, and height. If they walked at different speeds, they could find themselves going around in circles. If one animal were stronger, the other animal might become worn out, distressed, or injured by the effort of trying to keep up.
God was so concerned about the distress to animals when unequally yoked that He issued a law against it: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together” (Deut. 22:10). So it is natural that God is even more concerned that humans avoid the distress of being yoked to someone very different to themselves.
Through Paul’s counsel on not being unequally yoked, we know he was concerned about Christians choosing to commit themselves to significant relationships with unbelievers. Just as yoking two animals of different strengths would cause the weaker one to experience pain and fear, he knew that the misuse of strength in any relationship could damage people too. He urged those with responsibility and leadership to be loving, humble, and understanding.
Paul saw that when only one spouse became a Christian they often experienced pain, tension, conflict, loneliness, distress, rejection, and divided loyalties. Many Christian spouses face very difficult choices between their commitment to God and their responsibility to their non-Christian spouse. He wanted to protect believers from making major life choices that might compromise their desire to follow God. Paul recommended that widows wanting to remarry should choose husbands who are “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). Married life is challenging enough without consciously adding to its complexity.
The Bible contains interesting stories of unequally yoked couples. There are Esther and King Ahasuerus, who were unequally yoked in the dimensions of faith, culture, ethnicity, class, education, age, and finances. Yet God used this relationship to save His chosen people.
Ruth, a Moabite, married one of the sons of Naomi. After he died, Naomi’s faith and love inspired Ruth to love and trust God. Even though she was young, poor, and from an idolatrous background, she married Boaz, a wealthy Jewish farmer. Through this union Ruth became an ancestor of Jesus.
These stories give hope to those who find themselves spiritually unequally yoked. Clearly God had a very special purpose for Esther that required her to be in such an unusual relationship. And Ruth’s story illustrates how positive, loving Christians can be used to draw an unbelieving family member to God. In both stories there is a strong emphasis on faith, prayer, love, and total trust in God.
Adventists face special challenges regarding this issue. When Paul counseled against being unequally yoked with unbelievers, all Christians were Christians—with no denominations. But Adventists who believe in the seventh-day Sabbath usually interpret the verse to mean we should marry only other Adventists. This is wise, as it can be confusing and ultimately detrimental for children to be raised in a home in which each parent worships on a different day and has different ideas about healthy food, alcohol use, what happens when you die, etc.
Abraham’s only child, Lydia, had married an Adventist young man. But a war broke out in their country. Afraid that he would be shot or imprisoned for being an Adventist, he ran away and abandoned her. Now the family was in a difficult predicament. Their small church community had no other young men. But Abraham’s culture required that he find his daughter a new husband who would give her children, a home, and protection. Understandably, he worried that Lydia’s only option was to marry a non-Adventist Christian.
When Becky married Thomas, she felt she found her spiritual soul mate. He was just starting his ministerial internship in a large and active church, and Becky was passionate about sharing in his ministry. They seemed to be a perfect match in every way. But five years into ministry, Thomas’ mother, sister, and niece were killed in a car accident. Struggling with grief and doubt, Thomas lost his faith in God and left the ministry. Although she had married a committed Adventist, Becky found herself spiritually alone.
Exploring Other Unequal Yokes
Once we begin to explore the issue of being unequally yoked, other inequalities in our relationships become apparent. As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve seen various differences—not just religious—pull couples apart. Social class, culture, education, expectations about roles, financial background, age, health, and the pressure of extended family expectations can all create unequal and uncomfortable yokes. Some people have the extra burden of responsibilities to previous relationships as well.
New couples often believe that their love is strong enough to conquer every challenge. But when the rosy glow fades and the reality of married life becomes more apparent, they often discover that bridging gaps can be much harder than they imagined.
The Love Challenge
However much we pray, seek the wisdom of others, and undergo premarital counseling, there are times within most marriages that we find ourselves unequally yoked because one person is spiritually or emotionally in a different place than the other. This is a natural fact of family life in a fallen, broken world. So how do we manage this? Peter encourages Christian wives to stay with their unbelieving husbands and to find every possible way to channel God’s love to their families. He advises them to try to persuade their husbands, not by their conversation, but by their kind, caring, and generous actions (1 Peter 3:1-3). It is possible to continue our own spiritual development and maintain our integrity, but also walk tenderly with those who are “weaker” than us—just as Jesus did (Isa. 42:3).
In addressing healthy relationships, Paul encourages us to honor one another above ourselves (Rom. 12:10), and in the “love chapter” his first description of love is patience (1 Cor. 13:4). In other words, don’t use your strength to drag a weaker person across your field, but slow your pace to walk alongside them, taking some of the burden off their shoulders, until they grow strong enough to share an equal load. As we do so, we will understand more of the loving sacrifice that Jesus made for us (Phil. 2:1-8).
Karen Holford is a freelance writer, author, and family therapist living in Auchtermuchty, Scotland, where her husband is the president of the Scottish Mission and pastor of the Crieff Seventh-day Adventist Church, on the very edge of the Highlands.