Following the recent Covid-19 pandemic this subject has taken on a different meaning and significance. Whilst the concept is not new, social distancing has entered the vocabulary and consciousness of the population. The need to exercise care to avoid the possibility of contamination has become paramount for individuals and companies of the Lord’s people. The foe, an unseen virus, could have devastating effects upon anyone infected. Vigilance is not an option but a necessity.
In that context the subject of separation does not seem extreme but obvious. If someone comes into the assembly who is infected with the coronavirus, without sensible precautions, any number of people could catch the virus and, in the worst case, die.
Bringing that background into the spiritual realm, perhaps we have not been as conscious of an unseen enemy that pursues the believer. We face a world of sin, as seriously infectious and deeply dangerous as any virus that humanity has known. Its effects are as insidious and destructive, bringing many a promising Christian to desperate straits and ineffective service – shipwreck. That world of sin and enmity towards God is all around us. It permeates everything that we come into contact with – the school, the college, the university, the workplace, and the places of social interaction generally. We are exposed to it in the media, on our phones, on our radios and other electronic devices. It seems that we cannot escape it. What makes it doubly dangerous is its appeal – it is presented to us as ‘harmless’, ‘entertaining’, even ‘healthy’.
As we turn to the word of God and the section of verses in 2 Corinthians chapter 6 verses 11 to 18, we read Paul’s stark command, ‘Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers’. Scripture is not silent! Scripture is not deceptive but presents the truth. Sadly, what used to be a frequent passage of scripture in ministry is seldom heard taught. It was written to the Corinthians, and to us, as a warning about worldly associations and their dangers. Today, the world has not lost its deceptive appeal, and the line between truth and error has become increasingly blurred by those who have ‘a form of godliness’ but deny the power thereof, 2 Tim. 3. 5.
However, before coming to the verses mentioned above, it would be helpful to explore the context of the chapter. Paul’s command does not emanate from a cold, impersonal, condemnatory heart. He writes in verse 1, ‘We then, as workers together with him, beseech you’. It is an appeal from Paul and his fellow workers, individuals who had worked amongst the Corinthians and knew them, and the city in which they sought to worship and witness. But more than that, they were ‘workers together with him’, whom the previous chapter will indicate as the Lord. The command has divine authority! Yet the words of verse 1 seem to conflict with the idea of a command – ‘we … beseech you’. It is because this command comes from the heart. Note the words, ‘O ye Corinthians … our heart is enlarged’, v. 11. He looks upon these believers and loves them, ‘I speak as unto my children’, v. 13.
Too often this section of the chapter has been used as a stick with which to beat the people of God – we are living too close to the world and adopting its ideas. But, as we have seen, in the verses that introduce Paul’s instruction of verse 14 there is a wholly different motive. His appeal is from a heart of love and one of the qualities of that love is the open mouth, ‘our mouth is open unto you’, v. 11. An open mouth is a symbol of free speech. Wuest translates as ‘we speak freely to you, we keep nothing back’.1 Of the enlarged heart, Wuest suggests that Paul’s heart was ‘widened in its sympathy towards you’.2 What parent could withhold the warning shout to their child in the midst of danger? What shepherd would allow a believer to ‘find out the hard way’ when the outcome may be spiritual loss? Whilst the warning may not always be heeded, it does not excuse the failure to issue it.
In the light of recent events it might seem pointless to ask, ‘why should we listen and heed?’ Yet many have ignored the instructions of ‘lockdown’. Many have flouted the restrictions issued by governments across the world. But it is not the potential danger that Paul bases his appeal upon. The reason the Corinthian believers should heed the warning is given by the apostle in verse 13. If Paul had shown his love for them, here and elsewhere, they should reciprocate that love in obedience, ‘in return for the same’ NKJV, or as ‘an answering recompense’ JND. Love is very practical, and it is demonstrated in the simplest ways. Speaking as their spiritual father, Paul says that they should not find it difficult to ‘make a large place in your heart for me’, Wuest.3
The five rhetorical questions posed in this section show the incompatibility of believer and unbeliever. The first question shows the effect upon our walk, v. 14. The apostle is not talking about people, as pleasant as they may be. He is writing about principles. It is vitally important to look behind the personalities. What fellowship can there be between righteousness and lawlessness? They do not pull together. Moral excellence is conformity to the will of God whereas wickedness is not. It is the opposite. As Amos asked Israel, the relevance of his question applies here; how ‘can two walk together, except they be agreed?’ Amos 3. 3. These two, righteousness and unrighteousness, point and pull in opposite directions.
What do light and darkness have in common? The second question concerns our moral welfare, v. 14. Here is the reason to exercise spiritual social distancing! There is nothing shared and no common ground between light and darkness. The Apostle John reminds us that ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’, 1 John 1. 5. Any attempt to bring light and darkness together will mean the utter destruction of the character of one or the other. Our attitude to darkness is given by Paul elsewhere, ‘have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them’, Eph. 5. 11.
The third question affects our warfare, ‘what concord [‘accord’ NKJV] hath Christ with Belial?’ v. 15. The picture is of two opposing forces with two opposing commanders, Christ and Belial. With a command to arms, we cannot show allegiance to both. The Lord taught His disciples, ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other’, Matt. 6. 24.
‘What part [“portion” RV] hath he that believeth with an infidel?’ v. 15. The fourth question challenges our witness. The believer has no portion with the unbeliever. The believer’s part is heavenly. Why would we want to become occupied with earthly things? Not only can earthly things consume our time, they can damage our testimony. Rather, the apostle says elsewhere, ‘set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth’, Col. 3. 2.
The final question is one that affects our worship, ‘what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?’, v. 16. As Newberry points out, the assembly is ‘the inner temple of God’,4 indicating the presence of God. This is serious! We are living stones which are ‘built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices’, 1 Pet. 2. 5. Thus, to bring idols into the presence of God is to insult the name and character of the God that we have supposedly come to worship. It shows disobedience to His command, Deut. 5. 7, a lack of understanding of the examples of biblical history, cp. 2 Kgs. 21. 4, 5, and a shallow appreciation of the ‘living God’, v. 16.
Any spiritual argument designed to change the believer’s behaviour should be supported by the word of God and it is significant that Paul summarizes his argument not with his own words but with those of the word of God itself, ‘God hath said’, v. 16. These are not Paul’s own ideas or an expression of his own prejudices; this is ‘saith the Lord’, vv. 17, 18. Drawing from a number of scriptures, Paul shows that we cannot enjoy the fellowship and fatherhood of God whilst maintaining friendship with the world.
The force of the command is ‘Wherefore come out from the midst of them’, v. 17 JND. The Corinthians may not have realized how far in they had drifted. A careful reading of the Gospel accounts of Peter’s denial of the Lord show how he ‘followed afar off’, Luke 22. 54, then ‘sat down among them’, v. 55. Departure from our ‘first love’ is not usually one giant step but a series of many little, almost imperceptible steps! The dangers are real for every believer. The serpent has not lost his subtlety.
But the apostle shows that we should not just separate ourselves physically or externally. In adding ‘and touch not the unclean thing’, v. 17, he is speaking of those things that we can cling to. He is emphasizing that old practices have to be cleared out completely. The children of Israel left Egypt physically but, sadly, did not leave it mentally or emotionally, cp. Exod. 16. 3; Num. 11. 4-6.
In giving up the world and its amusements, we are to receive blessings of a far greater character. Perhaps we have been guilty of presenting the truth of separation as a wholly negative principle whereas the converse is true. God will dwell in us, will walk with us along the way as our source of knowledge, will manifest His care over us as our protector and benefactor, and will show His favour to us as the objects of His love. Can the temporal things of the world really be compared with such wonderful blessings?