A yokefellow is a close companion, co-worker, or mate. The word is used only once in the New Testament, in Philippians 4:3. The King James Version renders the verse this way: “And I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life.” Newer translations use words such as companion (NIV) or partner (NLT) instead of yokefellow. Since Paul does not identify his yokefellow by name, we can only speculate as to whom he entreats. Some suspect it was Epaphroditus or possibly Luke. Since Paul never uses this term elsewhere in his letters to describe any of his other fellow laborers, we can assume it was addressed to someone with whom he had an especially strong bond. Whoever Paul’s yokefellow was, he understood the message.
The origin of the word yokefellow helps us understand the meaning that goes beyond our English words companion or friend. A yokefellow is literally “one of two fellows in a yoke.” Paul uses the “yoke” metaphor in 2 Corinthians 6:14 when he warns Christians not to become “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (BSB). A yoke was a heavy wooden frame that was fastened across the shoulders of horses or oxen, harnessing them to a wagon, plow, or cart. The animals pushed against the yoke as they moved forward, pulling the load behind them. Owners sought to yoke two animals of similar size and ability so they would pull evenly. Mismatched yokefellows resulted in overwork for the larger animal, which carried the greater portion of the load. Yokefellows struggling against each other also resulted in less work being done. A yokefellow must share equally in the common work.
This idea of co-laboring and one-mindedness seems to be what Paul meant when he addressed his brother or sister in Philippi as a “yokefellow.” This was a person who worked to accomplish the apostle’s goals in the Philippian church. Paul and the yokefellow were harnessed together in service to the Lord, yearning, praying, and suffering for the souls of men and women. This person was obviously a “close companion,” as most Bible versions have it, but a yokefellow would have been a step beyond that. Companions can support us, pray for us, and encourage us, but a yokefellow is in the trenches with us. A yokefellow is ready to labor alongside us. A yokefellow feels our pain, suffers when we suffer, and rejoices when we rejoice (Romans 12:15). This sharing of life goals is one reason Paul also warns us not to become yokefellows with unbelievers. We will not be pulling in the same direction. We have different masters and listen to different voices.
It is vitally important that Christians, especially those involved in ministry, have a yokefellow or two who help carry the load. Loneliness and burnout are constant threats to those God has called into His service. But, as Elijah learned at his point of burnout, he was not alone (1 Kings 19:14–18). God had already selected a yokefellow for him named Elisha. When Jesus sent out the disciples to minister, He did not send them out alone. He sent them two by two, yokefellows who could keep each other encouraged and on track (Mark 6:7). When we take the time to cultivate deep spiritual friendships with those who understand our calling, we find that yokefellows help us fulfill all God has given us to do.