When it comes to talking about a yoke (let alone being equally yoked), most of us (though not all) being of modern origin don’t comprehend the full meaning of being equally yoked. We may know what a yoke is, we may have seen it in pictures, in some random barn, or ornamentally used in a historical reproduction of an event, etc., but we haven’t had to toil in order to yoke two animals that must pull a very significant and heavy burden. We haven’t had to make use of a yoke for the survival of our families and homes.
A yoke is a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and is also attached to the plow or cart (or burden) that they are to pull. It is also fastened to and controlled by the reigns held by a master who guides them as they pull.
To be able to merely walk side-by-side, the two animals yoked need to be of similar size, strength, and build. But that isn’t enough. When there is a burden to pull, these animals must also be able to coordinate their movements and share the burden so that it can be pulled successfully. That coordination is guided by the master who holds the reigns.
Note the characteristics needed to be equally yoked:
- Similar size
- Similar strength
- Similar build
- Willing and able to coordinate with their yoked partner
- Willing to follow the commands of the master
Now, if we take this literal explanation and begin to apply it to relationships in our lives, primarily marriage relationships, we begin to see something interesting.
First, let’s take the physical and translate it into something spiritual. In a marriage relationship, for it to work, to allow us to pull our burdens, we must be equally yoked as spouses. Spiritually we need to have:
- a similar spiritual size (testimony or witness of truth)
- a similar spiritual strength (faith in Christ)
- a similar spiritual build (foundation of faith built through righteous living)
- a willingness to work with and coordinate the burdens of life with our spouse
- a willingness to follow the guidance and commands of the master
Though differing personality strengths and weaknesses between spouses can be beneficial that we may learn and support one another; spiritual things must be far more compatible for a relationship yoke to work. Remember, a couple is not merely walking side-by-side. They must be able to coordinate successfully to pull a burden—many burdens. And, they must both be willing to obey the same commands from the master. Otherwise, progression is brought to a standstill.
Be Ye Not Unequally Yoked
Sometimes, when we read the scriptures, we can get confused about what it means to be equally yoked. We may feel that our marriage is unequally yoked in many ways. We may wonder if it will ever grow to become something as wonderful as we dream, or see in a few cute old couples.
Many marriages have a sufficient imbalance between spouses of spiritual size, strength, and build. Some marriages even have a sufficient imbalance between themselves of which commands they will respond to from the Master. But there is a big difference between a struggling marriage that has two people who are trying and who have varying levels of faith in Christ than a marriage where one person has completely checked out spiritually…they simply have no faith in Christ.
When one marriage partner denies their testimony (either verbally or by deliberate action), discounts or denies their faith in Christ (either verbally or by deliberate action), dismantles their foundation of faith (by deliberate actions), and refuses to work with their spouse or respond to the commands of the Master (Jesus Christ), then there is a serious issue. Such a marriage is not equally yoked.
Faith in Christ is revealed simply by a willingness to repent, to rebuild a spiritual foundation (if it has weakened or been dismantled), and to coordinate with their spouse and to respond to the commands of the Master.
All marriages are replete with error on the part of both. And, who can count how many hurts one has caused the other, perceived or real? But, the moment one party decides they don’t have to change, or that they won’t change, an incredible chasm is created in the marriage. One partner has completely stopped pulling, participating, and refuses to be guided forward. They no longer believe in Christ’s ability to forgive them, aid them (or their spouse), help them (or their spouse), improve them (or their spouse), reform them (or their spouse), and save the marriage. The marriage is now unequally yoked.
When one spouse completely checks out and quits trying to coordinate and quits trying to pull, the burdens are sufficient that the other spouse will also be brought up short. There is no progression, no forward movement for either party. The spouse who has lost their faith in Christ is not only damning his/her own progression, they are dead weight to the other.
In 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 we read:
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?
What concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?
And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.
There’s a comes a point in some relationships where the believer (the spouse with faith in Christ) can no longer progress because he/she is unequally yoked with an unbeliever (a past believer who no longer believes in or has faith in Christ, as witnessed by their unwillingness to repent, or a person who has been introduced to Christ and refuses to accept Him). Forward progression will be hampered until the believer unyokes themselves from the unbeliever and gives themselves over to God.
We see this pattern with God and the Israelites. It was a covenant relationship, often figuratively compared to the imagery of a bridegroom and his bride (a figurative marriage relationship). Israel frequently would exhibit faith and then would turn away from their faith. God, unable to “move forward” with them as dead weight would always issue spiritual ultimatums (click on this link to learn more about spiritual ultimatums and how God uses them). God’s frequent ultimatum was immediate consequences for sin, and then a call to repentance, which, if it went unheeded resulted in Him un-yoking Israel from Himself and going to find a “faithful people.”
The Unbelieving Spouse is Sanctified by the Believing Spouse
Being equally yoked is again, not the same as we encounter here in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16:
…If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath and husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.
For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband… But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace
For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? Or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?
This advice from Paul (which is merely his opinion and not direct counsel from God) has to do with people joining the church and their spouse remaining Jewish (or of a different religion). Paul was worried about circumcision, a mark of the old covenant persisting in families when Christ had done away with it. He didn’t want people to cast off their “unbelieving” spouses, however, especially if the marriage was otherwise good.
There are many marriages where the spouses have differing levels of faith in Christ, but again, it still moves forward toward God, whether faster or slower. Being unequally yoked is when the marriage is at a standstill. One party still firmly has faith in Christ. The other does not. One is willing to keep their covenants with God and the other is not. At a standstill no progression can take place for either party.
When Divorce is a Good Thing
Sometimes, for the spouse that’s faithful to their covenants and who has faith in Christ, it can seem to them that unyoking themselves from the marriage would be wrong. However, if the marriage with the spouse is hampering their spiritual progression and the spouse is unwilling to repent, then in order to continue to progress, the only way forward is to issue spiritual ultimatums and with personal revelation from God determine if He (God) would have them unyoke themselves from the unbelieving spouse.
So, how do we know when to un-yoke ourselves from a faithless spouse? How do we know our if our spouse is faithless? How do we know if they won’t change sometime in the future and we should simply hang in there?
Having been through this myself, let me suggest the following:
- Pray for help and clear, personal revelation throughout this process
- Issue spiritual ultimatums in the appropriate way
- If spiritual ultimatums are not met, immediately enact the promised consequences
- Set a specific and rigid grace period after the consequences are enacted and stick to it
- Make plans to un-yoke yourself in preparation (make it real and don’t delay!)
- Make your decision firmly (to stay yoked or to un-yoke) and take it to God for confirmation
- Follow-through with the personal revelation you receive
I have seen marriage relationships get clear to #6 before the faithless spouse began to come around, but the marriage ended up beautifully thereafter. I have seen marriage relationships bounce back immediately after step #2. I have seen marriage relationships make several trips to #4 but always survive. I have seen marriage relationships make it to #5, improve for several months, and then eventually end in divorce. I have seen some go through the whole process and end for the best for both sides (which did not necessarily mean both sides ended with faith in Christ or without faith in Christ, but for certain the believer was able to progress at last).
The reality is, our spouse may change when issued a spiritual ultimatum. But, they may not. They may change in the future, but that change may not come about “with us” and we shouldn’t hold out simply in vain hope. They may not even be fazed when we issue a spiritual ultimatum. Sometimes, no matter how we began as a couple (married in the temple or otherwise), we are better off and God would have us un-yoke ourselves so that He might bless us and we can progress as He desires. Otherwise, we will remain at a standstill until we shrug off the dead spiritual weight. As well, the unbelieving spouse will also be prevented from progressing if we refuse to let go. Sometimes, we need to let people hit rock bottom before they can progress back up…even if it’s not by our side.
Being Equally Yoked Under Christ’s Yoke
Christ Himself has said (Matthew 11:29):
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
When both spouses have faith in Christ, Christ is the driver of the marriage. It is His yoke that we have allowed Him to put upon us. Perhaps we may see this verse as Christ in the yoke with us, but I see it more as Him as the driver and we submit to His yoke that He may guide our lives and our marriages. We not only give Him the reigns and allow Him to guide us, He leads us in the best ways to carry our burdens and find ultimate rest. When one marriage partner (that began under His yoke) comes to a complete standstill, or tries to walk backward or escape His guidance, or refuses to change despite the cracks of the whip, God may inspire us to allow Him to un-yoke that person from our lives. By so doing, it allows God to continue to be the master of our spiritual and eternal progression. It means He can pick up the slack and move us forward again toward our eternal blessings.
I don’t think anyone should ever enter a marriage relationship with the idea that they can easily toss it away in divorce. I think marriage should be fought for, worked at, and committed to with integrity. Even tough marriages should be held on to, covenants kept, because God will bless such faith. However, as no person is a guarantee, if the time should come that our spouse abandons their faith in Christ and refuses to repent despite spiritual ultimatums, then in such cases divorce may be a good thing to pursue for those that seek eternal relationships.
For the rest of us, we need to keep pulling, keep making efforts to live by our faith in Christ together. We must both choose to submit to His yoke, His commands, and His guidance as we carry our burdens. If we’re a bit awkward or slow, no worries. We need only maintain our faith and we will progress. We will move forward. Our relationship will improve. God will guide us. We will eventually find the rest we seek.