Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)
This verse is probably the most commonly quoted by those who wish to tell you that you cannot follow Christ if your spouse is not also a Christian. I have had well-meaning friends tell me that “it’s written right there in the Bible that it can never work!” I found it troubling. Were they right? Was this definitive proof that either my relationship or my faith were doomed to failure?
As always, different commentaries have different views about this passage – some do see it as a warning against marriage to an unbeliever. But even these commentaries do not suggest that it forbids mixed marriage. For one thing, St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:
And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. (1 Corinthians 7: 12-14)
This is the passage quoted in the Catechism on the topic of mixed marriage (see here), so we can be confident that the Church believes that the Bible does not flatly condemn marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics, or even Christians and non-Christians.
Furthermore, though, many commentators argue that “unequally yoked” has been wilfully misappropriated by certain groups to condemn the marriage of a Christian to a non-Christian, when in fact its meaning was much broader. This essay, for example, explains that Corinth was infamous for its wild lifestyle which promoted many practices that are unacceptable to Christians, such as widespread use of prostitutes. St. Paul knew the difficulties faced by Christians in Corinth in living out their faith, and so his exhortation was more generally to have clear spiritual boundaries when associating with unbelievers.
It is important to note that 2 Corinthians 6: 14 harks back to the following verse from Deuteronomy:
You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together. (Deuteronomy 22: 10)
This verse indicated to God’s people that things must be ordered correctly, that they must order their lives in a godly way. By referring to this passage, St. Paul tells the Corinthians that Christians must be identifiable by a particular way of life, and in particular that they should not continue to engage in the pagan practices which were rampant in Corinth. Essentially, he was telling them that if they claim to be Christians, then they must act accordingly and correctly represent the faith with their lives and actions.
So what does this mean for us? As the author of the essay referenced above points out, the answers are not clear cut. We must avoid the tendency towards legalism, but also the tendency to relativism which can give us an ‘anything goes’ mentality. Ultimately, it is up to us to work out how we can live out our Christian duties in our specific life and calling – it will not look exactly the same for everyone (see Philippians 2: 12). Thus, whilst we can be comforted to know that 2 Corinthians 6: 14 does not condemn our marriages, we equally must not assume that it justifies whatever choice we make. Our calling is to Christ, and only through prayerful consideration can we know if marriage to a non-believer will allow us to fruitfully fulfil that calling.