What about being "unequally yoked" in multi-faith engagement?

Below is a post largely comprised of a past reflection of mine on another blog. I've made some updates and modifications.

In my last post I provided some thoughts in a general overview of what might make up a biblical approach to multi-faith engagement. But of course, there are always other perspectives and verses that are shared by those with concerns. An extremely common verse cited by critics of those who encourage relationships and conversations with those in other religions beyond proclamation and apologetics is 2 Corinthians 6:14-16:

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? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.

Evangelicals commonly interpret this verse to mean that dating and marriage with non-Christians is forbidden. But this verse is also often cited by those who oppose multi-faith engagement and religious diplomacy as practiced by folks like my colleagues and I. The allegation is that bringing Christians and "religious others" together is somehow inappropriate and contrary to biblical teaching. Those who hold this view are concerned with separation and purity for the Christian and their faith. These are important issues that need to be addressed for further reflection and a different perspective, and one that probes scripture in more depth, both in its original context, and in contemporary application.

Terry Muck, formerly of of Asbury Theological Seminary and the Louisville Institute, is the author of a number of helpful books, including Those Other Religions In Your Neighborhood: Loving your neighbor when you don't know how (Zondervan, 1992). One chapter in this book is titled "Doesn't the Bible Teach Us to Avoid Personal Contact with Non-Christians?," and Muck wrestles with 2 Corinthians 6:14-17. Muck summarizes the variety of ways in which Christians have interpreted this passage:

"Like many key Scripture passages, 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 has been interpreted in a number of ways. One way is to understand the context of the first-century Corinthian church where Christianity was a new, struggling religion needing all the purity it could muster to survive. Since we do not have that situation today, such interpreters insist, the text does not really apply to us. A second way is to distill a foundational principle from the text that works in all cultures and at all times - Don't associate with unbelievers - and apply it as one would apply a law against speeding: Don't ever do this. A third way is to come to the text with a modern need - for example, a reason to emphasize the importance of religion as a factor in successful marriages - and find in it a passage that disallows mixed marriages.

"What does this text mean for us? Nothing? Is it an argument for separation? A warning against mixed marriage?"

As Muck seeks to answer these questions he looks at the context of 2 Corinthians 6, and in his discussion he notes that Paul was writing to a struggling church filled with people experiencing pain and suffering, and in response Paul notes that God will bring consolation. In Muck's view the suffering/consulation dichotomy is essential to understanding this text in context, and everything which follows in the text flows from this perspective. As Paul moves to personal application for the individual it appears that some people were struggling with desires to return to their former ways of life before embracing Christ. In response Paul tells believers that the point of 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 is that Christians look at life from their new perspective in life as "new creatures" in Christ.

Muck then moves to discussion of how this worked out in specific ways in the first century context and he summarizes it in part as follows:

"This is not a call for separation in the legal or physical sense (as a strict rule). There may be times for such separation, but it is not a hard and fast commandment; it is a call for recognition of the metaphysical separation that our commitment to Christ entails."

Muck then moves from interpreting the text in its original context to discussion of its application for Christians in the pluralistic United States. He suggests guidelines that flow from our pluralistic situation in light of Paul's teaching. These guidelines for multi-faith engagement include:

1. Does this contact jeopardize my commitment to the new creation?
2. Does this contact jeopardize my brother's or sister's commitment to the new creation?
3. Will Jesus Christ be glorified by this contact?
4. Will the church be glorified by this contact?
5. Will the non-Christian I am involved with be helped by this contact?

Muck devotes brief space to discussion of each of these, and interestingly, in addressing point five he states:

"Some kinds of contact will not reflect positively on others. Overly aggressive or manipulative evangelistic campaigns hurt rather than help those who belong to non-Christian religious traditions. The 'do no harm' principle of physicians regarding medical treatment is a useful one to consider in concert with the other four principles."

As Muck concludes this chapter and summarizes his analysis of this issue he mentions once again Paul's teaching that Christians should look at life in new ways, and this new perspective informs the way in which we interact with others:

"We should evaluate our own contacts in the same way. As long as we are looking at the world through transformed Christian eyes, contacts with those of other religions have great potential. We live in a culture and world where making such contacts [with "religious others"] has never been more important.

"The key to successful contact is belonging to a community of believers where the new way of looking at life, the transformed worldview, is assumed and supported. From such a base, the question of whether or not to have fellowship with non-Christian religions becomes much easier to answer in the affirmative."

While this interpretation of 2 Corinthians 6 runs counter to the popular understanding and application, I think it has a lot of merit. Muck's discussion is in harmony with the biblical discussion I shared previously. I encourage interested readers to track down a copy of this book in order to read this chapter (as well as the entire volume), rather than relying solely upon my summary of his thinking. I believe these ideas are worthy of further thought, and that perhaps many of our biblical and theological assumptions about interaction with "religious others" are in need of careful and critical reflection.

John Morehead