What does it mean to 'come out from among them' (2 Corinthians 6:17)?
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). In this portion of his letter, Paul is instructing the Corinthians not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. He uses a series of rhetorical questions and quotes from Old Testament prophets to help make his point. This call to "come out from among them" appears to be a quote from Isaiah 52:11. Though in different contexts, similar wording is used in Jeremiah 51:45 and Revelation 18:4.
Corinth was a wealthy city known for its immorality. The church in Corinth was made up of believers of mixed backgrounds—Jewish and Gentile. There had been various divisions in the church related to preferred teachers and daily life practices. Paul had previously written the Corinthians about matters of sexual morality, church discipline, and idol worship. In the letter we call 2 Corinthians Paul addresses claims made by false teachers who tried to undermine Paul's credibility. He also talks about the truth of the gospel and gives the Corinthians various instructions and warnings.
Paul's reference to the call to "come out from among them" follows a section in which he has discussed the truth of the gospel. Paul writes, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:17–21). He appeals to the Corinthians "not to receive the grace of God in vain" (2 Corinthians 6:1), but to respond favorably to the gospel. Paul writes of his genuine love for the church and the way he and his ministry partners have opened their hearts freely to the Corinthians, enduring hardships for the sake of the gospel and intentionally not allowing obstacles to cloud the message of the gospel.
Paul then transitions into an appeal to the Corinthians to not join with evil. He writes, "Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?" (2 Corinthians 6:14–16). The rhetorical answers, of course, are "none." The things of God are diametrically opposed to the things of the evil world system.
Paul furthers his argument by writing, "For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, 'I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then 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" (2 Corinthians 6:16–18). Paul is referring back to Old Testament Scriptures to demonstrate how God has called His people to be separate from sin.
Isaiah 52 is about the Israelites returning from exile. In part, God tells them, "Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord. For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight, for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard" (Isaiah 52:9–12). God is rescuing the Israelites and warning them not to bring the idolatrous practices of the land of their exile with them.
Believers are to be "in the world but not of the world." We are to "come out from among them" in the sense that we should be separate from the sins of the world and the false values of the world. We should not mix the evil worldly system with our new nature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Rather, we live as new men and women who are being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1–2), putting to death our sinful ways and living instead in the ways of Christ. We see this contrast in passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, Galatians 5:16–25, Colossians 3:5–17, and Ephesians 5:3–21.
Some have taught that "come out from among them" means believers should be completely separated from the world system. Some teachers have decried things such as going to movie theaters, playing cards, and dancing. Paul's point is not to completely remove oneself from the world, something he had earlier clarified in 1 Corinthians 5–13. In Jesus' High Priestly Prayer, He prayed, in part, "I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (John 17:15–18). Clearly God's call is not for us to avoid all participation with the world. We are His ambassadors in the world, meant to spread the truth of the gospel (Matthew 5:13–16; 28:18–20; 1 Peter 3:15–16). We cannot do that if we avoid all contact with the world. However, God does call us to avoid participation with sin and unrighteousness. We are to be separate from that which is against God.
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