Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:
“I will live in them
and walk among them.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
Therefore, come out from among unbelievers,
and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord.
Don’t touch their filthy things,
and I will welcome you.
And I will be your Father,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”
Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. Please open your hearts to us. We have not done wrong to anyone, nor led anyone astray, nor taken advantage of anyone. I’m not saying this to condemn you. I said before that you are in our hearts, and we live or die together with you. (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:3)
This particular passage in 2 Corinthians is arguably one of the most abused texts from Paul’s writings. It has been used to proof text various forms of behaviors to counter “cultural Christianity,” while missing the main context and the author’s original intent. It has artificially imposed limits on Christian liberty and established litmus tests that lead to legalism and labelling.
A brief rewind is in order. The Corinthian church was plagued with many challenges that Paul systematically addressed in both letters. First, there was a component within the church that cultivated a culture of smug superiority. They thought they had already arrived! Second, there was a component within the church that believed the religious experience was strictly self serving. They took the part of Christianity they liked, grace which covered a multitude of sins, and part of the pagan worship that encouraged licentious behavior and allowed their appetites to run wild without any moral or ethical limitations or consequences. In so doing, they were able to conveniently do and live as they wished, believing that God’s “grace and forgiveness” enabled them to do so with completely clean consciences.
There are two dominant themes in the text, the first of which is God’s presence among his people. The second is that intimacy with God demands some boundaries to our affections to prevent our liberties from damaging Christian community. Note the list of rhetorical questions that Paul offered to help us discern appropriate boundaries.
- What is the ethical impact of my behavior? “How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness?” Note that Paul does NOT personalize this question, playing righteous people against wicked people. His focus is on the spiritual guiding principles that govern my behavior.
- Will my behavior increase vulnerability and transparency? “How can light live with darkness?” In the Bible, light is often used as a metaphor for what is revealed, versus darkness which hides and covers. Jesus is light and his followers are children of light, whereas Satan is portrayed as the “prince of darkness.” Am I willing for my behavior to be front page news?
- Am I living in harmony with my spiritual values? “What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil?” The Greek word for devil finds its origin in the Hebrew word belial, which is a variant literally meaning “worthless,” suggesting that we should be vigilant about distinguishing that which is permissible and profitable from that which is not beneficial.
- Are my relationships affirmed by mutuality? “How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s Temple and idols?” Relational deal breakers are usually determined by disagreements in principle, not agreement. We know from experience that when we lean into common ground, the uncommon ground will become self evident.
Paul’s challenge, therefore, is for believers to live in a way that is free from anything that harms our bodies and spirits. His address to the context of pagan idolatry, affirmed by Old Testament quotations that warn against the same, makes several applications clear.
First, as one within whom the Holy Spirit dwells, I am responsible for me. I am competent to hear and respond to God for myself, and I’m also accountable to God for what I do with what I hear and say. I’m responsible for me, and I’m a full time job.
Second, I am able to choose the community of faith that I wish to identify with so long as it is consistent with my spiritual guiding principles that govern my behavior. Some may wish to choose several faith communities or para church ministries to align with.
Next, I should resist to temptation to affix the countering limiting labels and litmus tests to those who disagree with me. It’s easy to judge those who disagree with me as radical and narrow. However, I find too often that I’m guilty of the same prejudices. God did not delegate the judgment of any human being to me. I wouldn’t be any good at it if he did.
Finally, I must remember the primary hermeneutic of the Bible is not truth, its love. You can have truth without love, but you cannot have love without truth. Perhaps the ultimate litmus test is love and that which fosters love. If I commit to love as Jesus loved, the truth in time will take care of itself. All that truth without love accomplishes is anger and division. While I will affirm that there is some black and white in my spiritual experience, the older I get, the more I find the predominate color is gray.