Copyright 2007: Dr Gregory J. Laughery
One of my recent suggestions in my book Living Spirituality for reading Scripture was that we develop wise and Spirit-fired reading habits. I think we need to be more intentional about and actively aware of the significant dangers of misreading the text. Efforts to counter this, combined with better readings, will help transform our communities and churches, while inspiring a more faithful and fitting embodiment of Scripture, which can then be lived out into the world. The magnitude of this in turn could have a profound impact on highlighting and affirming God’s missional purposes in reconciling the world to himself in Christ. Let’s give the reading of a controversial text a go. Here’s the text I’d like you to consider. Read it carefully and if you have time read what comes before in this letter.
2 Corinthians 6:1-7:1
1 As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain. 2For he says,
"In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you." I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation.
3 We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. 12We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. 13As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.
Do Not Be Yoked With Unbelievers
14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."
17 "Therefore come out from them
and be separate, says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you."
18 "I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."
1 Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
In our first section, Paul now moves on from those in Christ being a new creation, and the claim that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ (5:11-21), to a more direct address to his readers in verses 1-2.
Notice that the apostle, in the previous section, has written that he is an ambassador of Christ and it is as such that he implores the Corinthians to be reconciled to God. The gateway into community with God is Christ, and this is the first step, for us, in participating in God’s gracious purpose to reconcile the world to himself. As it is so wonderfully put in 5:21; it is God who made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that we become the righteousness of God. Imagine and reflect on that for a moment – being the righteousness of God in Christ is truly a marvel and a direct result of reconciliation. Righteousness, in this context, might be said to conflate the actions of love and justice – that hyper delicate dialogue which situates the lives we live as Christians on a tightrope, where we have the marked tendency to fall off on one side or the other, God forgive us. Yet Christ is able to maintain the balance perfectly, and to do so with us on his shoulders.
Paul is going to build on being ambassadors of Christ, the very thing that some in Corinth may have been suspicious of (read chapters 1-5), making an appeal in chapter 6. First of all it is pointed out in 6:1 that he is working together with God. Next, following on from 5:20, he appeals to his readers directly with “you.”
The appeal is not to have received God's grace in vain. How might this be happening? Possibly, it was taking place in at least two ways: first, being lured away from the gospel by an imitation, perhaps something too focused on some form of external performance and not enough on inward change that brings forth a “real” and “transformative” modification of one's actions. Second, God's grace is likely, in this context, to be related to Paul working with God on behalf of the Corinthians. They are at risk of rejecting God's grace as it manifests itself in Paul's preaching of the gospel. To reject Paul's apostolic word is to entertain the danger of rejecting the gospel itself.
In verse 2 Paul cites Isa. 49:8 and applies it to his present context. He announces that "now" is salvation time and as such there is a need to pay attention to God's reconciling activities that have been unleashed in Christ, and to not have received his grace in vain. God's is a missional God who is reconciling the world to himself in Christ and no longer counting peoples' sins against them. This salvific trajectory has been set in motion, and Paul as an ambassador of Christ, longs for his readers to recognize God's saving purposes and to bring their actions into line with that which is happening “now” in salvation time.
In the next verses, 3-10, Paul writes of a number of troubles, nine of them, a number of graces, eight of them, and a number of antitheses, ten of them. This is another attempt in the letter to show that the new covenant ministry has not manipulated or defrauded anyone. No one has legitimate cause to stumble or turn away towards another gospel. On the contrary, Paul has done all he could to not be a target of criticism as this may have reflected on the apostolic ministry that was so central to the truth of what God was doing in Christ.
But what shall we do with verses 4b and following where the apostle launches into a double commendation. It is worth again remembering the literary context into which he writes. Is he now contradicting himself in regard to what he has already written in 3:1 and 5:12?
No doubt, as we have already seen, new covenant ambassadors and especially Paul’s apostleship, as far as the Corinthians were concerned, was highly dubious and considerably suspect. There were those who saw his difficulties as inappropriate for one who claimed to be an apostle of the risen and glorified One. Paul remember is facing character criticism on the one hand and action criticism on the other. But we must recall that related to these forms of criticism, at least as Paul has it, is the danger of critiquing the gospel itself.
Into this context he now writes that it is possible to see the apostolic ministry being proclaimed by servants of God, which notice is not found in 3:1 or 5:12, in two equally commendable ways. A true apostle is commended for great endurance in the midst of adversity and for displaying the power of God in spite of dire circumstances. Paul was oppressed and opposed, but also faced more voluntary hardship because of the nature of his ministry moving him place to place so frequently and the choice not to burden others for his support.
Yet dealing with such adversity in great endurance is only part of the apostolic picture. Paul goes on in verse 6b to write that by the Spirit and the power of God he displays an unhypocritical love and he proclaims the word of truth in kindness and patience with understanding and integrity. In this context, the model of apostolic ministry is the crucified and risen One.
This goes on to further and is expressed in a number of “as if” and “yet” contrasts beginning in verse 8c. All of these could be said to mark apostolic ministry. The contrasts show what so often tends to be a human perspective (likely here to be that of the Corinthians), versus a Godly one in regard to the apostolic mission.
In the next three verses 11, 12 and 13, the suffering, yet victorious apostle again addresses the issue of his community with Corinthians directly. What he has proclaimed to them continues to speak. It is a saturated word that is not silenced. An open mouth also relates to an open heart. Paul's “open wide” heart is likely to refer to his community with the Corinthians, including his visits and his letters, as well as his present desire to fight to hold onto the relationship and make a future visit.
Paul makes his affection for them clear and that at this time of writing it was not reciprocal. In spite of some of the accusations against him, he wants the Corinthians to know his feelings.
The apostle completes his thought with the appeal for fair exchange, one open wide heart for another. He is still willing, still longing for a deep community with the Corinthians. As he is their father in the gospel he addresses them as his children to again reinforce the relationship they already have through his preaching and their reception of the gospel. Paul's appeal to them is to recognize the gravity of their situation and the value of what they have together in Christ through the reconciling power of God. He is concerned for both their common affection and their common righteousness.
The last section is found in 6:14 to 7:1. The long defense of the credibility of the apostolic mission, and especially of Paul as an ambassador of Christ, which begun back at 2:14 with all its power and penetrating theology, now comes to a crescendo. Two questions can be posed: first, why does Paul end it in this manner? Second, what is the literary, historico-cultural and theological context? The ending seems to be focused on an actual situation in Corinth that needs to be addressed. I doubt that this section is addressing some general problem which amounts to something like the Corinthians hanging out with unbelievers.
From a literary point of view Paul constructs these verses upon that which he has previously written, especially verses 11-13, and they should be understood on this basis. He has just reminded his readers about the importance of being reconciled to God, emphasizing that “now” was salvation time, yet in addition he has underscored his ongoing affection for them asking them to have open wide hearts towards him, as he does towards them.
Historico-culturally we are well aware, from numerous sources including 1 Corinthians, that there was a proliferation of pagan temples in Corinth . They were literally all over the place. This seems to have been a constant threat to the believing community in the city.
Theologically, what Paul is getting at here is nothing short of radical. It is impossible, from his point of view, to consider God and idols as having anything theologically in common. There is a vast and unbridgeable asymmetry here. Idolatry, if we think more and better about it, stretches from the present a long way back in time. This particular expression of it in Corinth is theologically, as all the rest, a misconception of the truth of God.
The conclusion begins with the famous and much discussed verse 14a. Many believers today establish their view of relations with unbelievers or marrying an unbeliever on this verse. But before making too much out of this and ending up with a wrong-headed way of handling and interpreting the Biblical text, let’s look at it carefully. Paul uses a metaphor from Lev. 19:19 concerning the cross breeding of animals and Dt. 22:10 which prohibits the yoking together of an ox and a mule for plowing. The point of this is to show there is a difference between believers and unbelievers. If this is the case, a believer is to be rightly concerned about what this might mean. It is important to recall that Paul does not forbid social contact with unbelievers (1 Cor. 5:9-10; 10:27) or staying married to one (1 Cor. 7:12-14).
What then does it mean to be yoked together with unbelievers and that believers are not to do this? The following verses, I think, put the matter in perspective.
In verses 14b-16a, there are five rhetorical questions which express an asymmetry. He begins with “for” in verse 14b and after the questions concludes with another “for” in 16b. The asymmetry is evident in each of the things that Paul writes. But what is he getting at? It seems he is targeting the problematic of participation in pagan temple activity and wanting to accentuate that believers and unbelievers are not to be related to each other at this level. The total incompatibility on this register is expressed in the climactic question of verse 16a, “what union is there between the temple of God and idols?”
In verse 16b Paul makes it clear. He again begins with “for” affirming that believers are the temple of the living, note, living God. The God of believers is not a lifeless figure who resides in a lifeless building, but a God who is animate, dwelling with his people and in their presence. Corinth , as the Rome , Zurich , New York , London , Seoul , or Sydney of today held out many opportunities for a believer to be defeated. The Corinthians are on the border line of being swallowed by and into their culture of idolatry.
Paul assures believers with verse 16c which makes an allusion to Lev. 26:11-12. God has promised to live with his people, to be among them, to be their God and they will be his people. This promise, Paul agrees, is now fulfilled and should have a present impact on believers association with unbelievers concerning the cultural temples of idolatry.
This assurance is followed by a direct imperative and two more promises, which come from the Old Testament. Isa. 52:11 had addressed Israel during their time of exile to the Babylonians. Recall that the battle of not only succumbing to a foreign power, but also to its gods, understood as idols, rages throughout Isaiah. The command to come out and be separate touching nothing unclean now is applied to believers who are in danger of compromising their belief by participating in idolatry, specifically in this context, in the form of pagan temple activity.
The first promise comes from Ezk. 20:34 to show that God will indeed receive his people as they separate themselves from the devastating influences of foreign gods and foreign people. The second promise is adapted from 2 Sam. 7:14 and Isa. 43:6 and affirms that God is a father to them, a father in the best sense of that reality. Believers are his sons and daughters in that through Christ they are in new covenant community with Him.
Finally, in 7:1 we have a sensitive appeal in the form of an exhortation on the whole matter. Because of the present reality of having God’s promises, believers are to, as we have it here in temple ritual language, be pure, exiled from what defiles, both in body and spirit.
The result is a moving towards being a temple that is holy, which will not take place should believers be so carried away by their cultural quasi religious and spiritual contexts that they lose the reality of what and who they are to be in the first place. Being God's temple incites believers to a proper sense of action and being in community with God in the light of who he is, and to whom they belong.
Where does all this leave us? How are we to understand this passage for ourselves today? I hope we already have some idea of how to respond to these questions. Our actions are important. How we live as followers of the crucified and risen one is important. We are God’s temple and in some sense a visible representation of his presence in our lives and in the world. What a privilege and what a responsibility.
What verses 14 and following have given us, if my exegesis is better than worse, is that believers should not associate with unbelievers in pagan temple activity connected to idolatry. Today we face and live in cultures saturated with idolatry in a wide diversity of forms: alcohol, drugs, money, possessions, sex, spiritualities, and so forth. All believers should be on common ground in aiming to not participate with unbelievers, or perhaps considering our own context, with believers who indulge in such forms of idol worship. In other words, there are some black and white’s.
But there is also another level, which verses 14 and following don’t give us, but that Paul has written of elsewhere. As I have said, he does not exclude social and even post-marital contact with unbelievers. Take for example the whole apostolic mission. Paul and other apostles spent massive amounts of time, as the crucified and risen One had, with unbelievers. Mission was important—certainly human beings are to be valued as human beings and not merely as missional targets—yet mission is a significant part of being a follower of Christ. Further, believers are to engage, redeem what is bad, and embrace what is good in culture and in unbelievers’ lives. On this level there is greater flexibility, and participation contexts will differ depending on who we are. Christians have been too narrow here and it is time to move in another direction. We are to be culturally savvy, deeply aware of who God is and
who we are in Christ, and graciously sensitive, as we battle against an idolatry saturated culture and live in an age, perhaps all the more lamentable, of Christianity lite.