(‘But Seriously’ is a strand on this blog exploring the implications of biblical texts on ‘Church and State’. Check other entries in the strand for a rounded picture of the issues)
Our topic this time is the passage II Corinthians 6;14 – 7;1.
Be not unequally yoked up with unbelievers; for what common ground is there between righteousness and lawlessness or what association between light and darkness? Or what harmony between Christ and Belial, or what partnership between a believer and an unbeliever? What agreement has God’s temple with idols? For we are a temple of the living God, as God has said, “I will dwell in them and walk around among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people”. For that reason, “Come out from their midst and be separate, says the Lord, and do not touch anything unclean. Then I will receive you and I will be a Father to you, and to Me you shall be sons and daughters. The Lord Omnipotent speaks”.
In possession of these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and complete our dedication by reverence of God
‘Belial’ is a Jewish name for Satan. The two Old Testament passages quoted are Lev. 26; 12 and what seems to be a free ‘portmanteau’ quote including Isaiah 52; 11 and other passages. The Leviticus passage is promises of good to the Israelites ‘If you walk by My laws and obey My orders so as to practice them….’ – which are followed by promises of ill consequences ‘if you will not listen to Me and will not practice all these commandments; if you despise My laws, if your soul abhors My injunctions….’ The Isaiah passage in its immediate context refers to the liberation of Israel from Babylon and of course leads into the fantastic Isaiah 53 with its prophecy of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. Paul almost certainly intended his readers to take account of that context as well as just the words he quotes.
I don’t know about you but as a teenager in a 1960s Christian youth group I heard ‘be not unequally yoked with unbelievers’ quite often – always in the narrow sense “Don’t have a non-Christian girlfriend or marry an unbeliever!” That is clearly part of what Paul meant, but eventually I realised that he intended something much wider, as seen from that further instruction to ‘come out and be separate’.
Most discussion focuses on how separate we should be…. For me we are clearly wrong if we are ‘separate’ in an ugly way as has been seen with some of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’, or otherwise smugly, proudly, and self-righteously separate, gloating over how we are OK while those around us go to hell; and also if, as seems to be the case with some (though not all) Amish and Hutterites, we are so separate from ‘the world’ that we never preach the gospel to our pagan neighbours, and never or almost never see people coming into the church from ‘outside’. How can we claim to represent the love of God if we aren’t letting people know about it as Jesus commanded us to do? At the other end we are also wrong if we are so like the pagans around us that nobody can tell the difference, like the pigs at the end of ‘Animal Farm’ who, having at first led the revolution against the exploiting humans, have turned into exploiting humans themselves.
However, in this post I want to ask how this ‘separateness’ and ‘unequal yoking’ relates to my ‘church-and-state’ concerns. Start with the obvious – once you’ve gone to a lot of trouble, maybe even fought a war or two, to make yourself a ‘Christian country’, how can you then meaningfully ‘come out and be separate’? The text here presumes that Christians are living in a state/nation of non-Christians from whom they need to be distinct, to glorify God by living life His way among all their neighbours who live without God, and to challenge the pagan neighbours by the different life that flows from Christian faith. It’s hard to live that way in a country where everybody is superficially ‘Christian’.
And surely a ‘Christian country’ will in fact mean ‘unequal yoking with unbelievers’ more or less by definition. As pointed out elsewhere in this blog, you can claim to have such a state all you like, pass as many laws about it as you like, but you can’t thereby cause people to be truly born again; the best you can achieve is superficial conformity. In an old-style Christian state of the medieval or Reformation era, and down to even the 19th century, the really born-again Christians would have to share the fellowship of the church with large numbers of people who are hypocrites, or scared of persecution, or who just take their Christian status for granted because they have been born in a ‘Christian’ nation – and that rather makes a nonsense of the Christian fellowship[i]. Furthermore it is not unlikely that the hypocrites and worldly among these nominal Christians will seek to end up as the bishops and inquisitors and the like thus distorting the government of the church and its relations with the state. And the unequally yoked state connection will inevitably involve the church and its genuinely born again members in the state’s wars, and in persecution of dissenters and other New-Testamently-dubious conduct. Unequal yoking results in disobedience to God. Among the possible and all too often actual consequences has been Christians fighting each other in the armies of warring Christian states; being yoked with the state has separated them from and set them against their fellow-Christians ….
In the modern situation with an established church in a nominally Christian but increasingly secular state, the Church doesn’t even get the benefit of much influence, but comes under pressure to ‘be conformed with the world’ – as a short time ago when we saw David Cameron lecturing the Anglican Church about ‘getting with the programme’ on women bishops. Again over gay marriage we saw the Church of England (and its disestablished companion the ‘Church in Wales’) being forbidden by law to have same-sex marriages, the decision apparently being taken without actually consulting the Church. And again, the Church is massively involved in the state education system but it seems clear that political correctness will increasingly prevent the Church’s schools being even distinctively Christian, let alone distinctively Anglican. Other Christian groups going into the Academy business seem to have had similar experiences of finding their distinctive beliefs muted. That religious schools should be truly private and not involved in the state system is something I’ll hopefully deal with another time….
In short, the attempt to have a Christian state both nullifies the proper implications of Christian separation from the unbelieving world, and it results in Christians being harmfully ‘unequally yoked’ with that unbelieving world. It also creates difficulties for those who realise the problem and try to set up churches properly separate from the state; a clear separation from unbelievers is fairly straightforward, but to put clear water between born again Christians and a superficially Christian state and its culture is a good deal harder and is likely to result in an exaggerated and unhelpful separateness which may become unbiblical in other ways.
[i] Of course even where church and state are separate there will be some church members who aren’t truly born again; but where state church membership offers worldly advantage there will be an unnaturally large number of such members.