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According to a 2015 article in the MIT Technology Review, a single candle flame can be seen with the naked eye in the darkness from a distance of 1.7 miles. Even the smallest light stands out because it is so different from the darkness all around it. It must be different if it is to be seen. If it is just like its surrounding environment, it will make no impact on an observer. In the same way, as the light of the world (Matt. 5:14), Christians must be distinctive in the world—we are called to be holy, set apart, separated from the world to God.
But what should that separation look like? What form does it take? Should we retreat into Amish-like communities, shunning anything that is “worldly”? The Christian church has a long tradition of this kind of separation, with its hermits and monastics dating back to the earliest days of the church.
For example, in about AD 429, a Syrian Christian named Simeon found a fifty-foot-high column that was standing among some ancient ruins, built a small platform on the top, and lived there for the remaining thirty-seven years of his life, spending his days in prayer, reading, and meditation. He became known as Simeon Stylites (literally, “the pillar man”) and inspired a succession of followers who took to columns to separate themselves from the world below.
Simeon has his spiritual descendants today among Christians who believe they should have as little contact with the non-Christian world as possible, shunning all secular television, music, film, and literature. Some believers even avoid friendship with unbelievers altogether. After all, referring to unbelievers, doesn’t Paul say in 2 Corinthians 6:17, “Go out from their midst, and be separate from them”?
Is this what it looks like to be light in the world? No. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that a wholesale withdrawal from everything in the world that is not Christian is not what separation from the world means:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. (1 Cor. 5:9–10)
It seems that some in Corinth may have taken these words to mean that they never had to withdraw from any kind of interaction with non-Christians. This became a particular problem when they were invited to the local pagan temple for dinner. In the ancient world, temple complexes had small dining rooms where hosts could invite friends for a meal (Corinth had at least thirteen temples like this). The meat on the menu would be from the sacrifices offered to the god or goddess of the temple, and prayers would be offered to that deity in the course of the meal. It was one thing to go to an unbeliever’s home and eat meat bought in the marketplace that may have been sacrificed to an idol—Paul doesn’t forbid that (1 Cor. 10:27)—but eating in an idol’s temple is participating with unbelievers in an act of pagan worship, something Paul describes as being “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14).
Imagine two animals being yoked together to pull a plow—one is a massive, powerful ox and the other is a domestic cat. That’s the picture Paul is using, and his point is that there is no way such utterly different creatures could ever work closely together in any kind of harmony. It would be the height of folly to try to make them. An ox and a cat may be able to live together on the same farm, each benefiting in different ways from the contribution the other makes to the running of the farm. But they cannot be yokefellows—they need to be separated.
Christians need to understand that there are situations in which they must separate from non-Christians to avoid being “unequally yoked.” Paul hammers this point home with five pairs of completely contradictory and incompatible realities: righteousness and lawlessness, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, believers and unbelievers, and the temple of God and the temple of idols. Believers and unbelievers belong to two such utterly different realms that they simply cannot be yoked together. Not only do they pull in different directions, but they also pull in completely opposite directions.
This principle has many relevant and challenging applications today. It applies to any kind of multifaith worship services: How could a Christian and a Muslim pull the yoke of worship together? They would be pulling in opposite directions. It applies to membership in a church that has abandoned the gospel and fallen into heresy. It certainly applies to marriage, for there is no closer relationship between two human beings than the one-flesh union of a husband and wife who are yoked together for life. It surely applies by extension to the dating or courting relationship before marriage, in which a man and woman are yoked together in a serious relationship as they explore the possibility of marriage. It is often hard for Christians to have non-Christians as close friends, given the fundamental and radical differences there are between us. Business partnerships with non-Christians can be difficult because values and priorities are so different.
This separation may involve painful loss and sacrifice, especially when friends are involved. We may be derided as self-righteous, narrow-minded bigots. But we will shine like lights in the darkness, bringing glory to God and bearing witness to the world around us. More, there is a wonderful encouragement to endure this in 2 Corinthians 6:17–18, for God Himself promises to those who let their light shine in this way, who are mocked and insulted for the sake of holiness, who are misunderstood and left friendless: “I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” Surely this more than compensates for any loss or pain.