Second Corinthians 6:17 says, “Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord; do not touch any unclean thing, and I will welcome you” (CSB). The clause come out from among them is a reference to a passage in Isaiah.
Isaiah 52:11 speaks of the Israelites who are returning from exile in Egypt. (When Jerusalem fell, many of the people were carried away to Babylon, but some of the people fled to Egypt, thinking they would be safe there. Jeremiah warned them not to do this, but many of them went to Egypt anyway, and they took Jeremiah with them against his will. See Jeremiah 42 – 43.) In Isaiah 52, God is promising to call back to the Promised Land the descendants of those who went down to Egypt. The command to “come out from among them” is also an effective call. The people of Israel are commanded to forsake any idolatrous habits they may have picked up while in Egypt and to return to the Promised Land; at the same time, it is a promise that God will be the one to bring them back when the time is right.
Paul quotes this passage from Isaiah in reference to the Corinthian church. He is taking familiar wording and giving it meaning in a fresh context. Just as the Israelites in exile were to put off any idolatry they may have picked up while living in Egypt, so the Corinthian believers are to lay aside the idolatry and sexual immorality that they were steeped in by virtue of living in Corinth. They must be separate from the sin of the world.
Leading up to 2 Corinthians 6:17, Paul tells them, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (verse 14). We often apply this to a believer marrying an unbeliever, but it has a much wider application. In the context of the Corinthian church, it seems to have to do with participating in idolatry.
As a further rationale for the prohibition against being yoked to unbelievers, Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions. The implied answer to all of these is a big NOTHING!:
“What do righteousness and wickedness have in common?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
“What fellowship can light have with darkness?” (verse 14).
“What harmony is there between Christ and Belial [the devil]?” (verse 15).
“What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (verse 15).
“What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?” (verse 16).
This final question gets to the heart of the matter. If there is no fellowship between the temple of God and idols, then the Christian should have nothing to do with idol worship: “For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16). Then to further support the idea that Christians are the temple of God, Paul quotes from Leviticus 26:12, which is also alluded to in Jeremiah 32:38 and Ezekiel 37:27: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” (2 Corinthians 6:16). The temple of God is where God dwells, and He says He will dwell among His people, making them the temple.
Since believers are in fact the temple of God, Paul concludes, “Come out from them and be separate. . . . Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” Christians are supposed to separate themselves from idol worship of any kind.
The concept of “separation” became one of the major teachings of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States in the 20th century. There was a lot of focus on “coming out and being separate” from the world in all sorts of ways, many of which may not have been warranted by Scripture. Many Christians were taught that they should separate from anything that looks at all like what “the world” was doing—attending movie theaters, playing cards, and dancing were commonly forbidden.
The biblical admonition of 2 Corinthians 6:17 is not so all-encompassing. Paul wants believers to be separate from idol worship in all its forms, but he never calls for a complete separation from pagan idol worshipers, whom they should attempt to win to Christ. Paul clarifies the matter of separation in 1 Corinthians 5:9–11: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”
Yes, the Lord wants His people to “come out from among them and be separate.” That means, first, that we should be separate from participation in sin. Second, we are to be separate from professing believers who are living in sin. Beyond that, Christians are called to not get involved in entangling relationships with unbelievers, which would lead to compromise (and thus being “yoked” with an unbeliever). Balancing that is the biblical understanding that we cannot completely remove ourselves from the world of unbelievers, as that would cause us to lose all influence. In the United States, if the 20th century was marked by believers being so separate from the world that there was not enough interaction with it, the 21st century may be marked by Christians being so involved with the world that it is hard to tell the difference between the two. Either way, evangelism is hampered. There must be a balance that cannot be summarized by a set of “dos and don’ts.” Every Christian has to decide if he or she is influencing the world or if the world is influencing him or her and then make choices accordingly.