Who would think we would find important truths about marriage from the ancient agricultural implements found along the highways and byways of South India?
Recently I worked most of seventeen years on the outskirts of the large city of Bangalore. I saw pairs of oxen plowing and pulling carts—handsome pairs, matched in height, horns, and color. It is the yoke on the animals’ necks that I am interested in. A quality yoke is a beautiful thing—a short beam of heavy timber, chiseled and honed, balanced, polished. Fitted for the animal.
I imagine Jesus working with Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, making yokes for his neighbors’ cattle. They would make it exactly the right size for each beast. Jesus thought a yoke such a blessed thing that once he, in picture language, offered a yoke to his best friends, meaning that when they pulled with him he would make sure it was a precious benefit for them and him.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30).
A yoke enabled trouble-free achievement that was otherwise impossible.
The apostle Paul, too, saw achievement, comradeship, and trust in the yoke. He called one of his companions in Christian work “my true yoke-fellow” (Phil. 4:3 KJV). That prepares us for what he says later about a yoke.
But for now, let us imagine we stop on a country road in South India to ask an elderly man about his oxen and the yoke. He may be a landowner, well-regarded in the village. We need translation, though his son may speak English and his granddaughter may work at an IT company in the city.
You: Namaskar, Hari.
Hari: Namaskar, friend.
You: We want to know about your oxen and the yoke. Why do you yoke them together?
Hari: Oh, that’s important. When they work together, they can do more than either could do separately. A yoke is an enabler. Then they move as a unit, relying on each other, and even difficult work gets done.
You: That’s interesting. Is it hard to manage two animals? Why don’t you put one in front to lead?
Hari (smiling): No, no. That would never do. The ideal strength is in pulling together. The yoke is a gift to the animals to help them do their work well.
You: A gift? More than a burden? That’s surprising. It probably depends on the team, though. Does it matter how you choose your team?
Hari: Yes, of course! Occasionally poor people plow with a donkey and an ox, but it doesn’t really work. You need a healthy pair of oxen of similar height and weight. If one is taller or stronger, it does the work without the benefit of the other, or drags the other. They could turn round in circles, though I wouldn’t let them, unless they are to thresh the millet on the threshing floor.
It’s so important to match them that some owners re-arrange the harness so they pull more evenly, or give the weaker one more food so that it catches up in size.
You: Do you need them matched more than physically? Like agreeing about working together?
Hari: Yes, that is relevant too. They get cantankerous and their harness can tangle if they are at odds or if one dominates over the other. When my oxen agree and work equally, they do the work easily.
You: I notice most of the pairs of oxen here are handsomely matched. Is that a matter of pride to you?
Hari: Certainly. I love to see a pair doing the job jointly, muscles rippling under the skin, helping each other. Look at this. Isn’t it beautiful!
Remember I mentioned Paul praised a friend by calling him his true yoke-fellow. Perhaps they were like a well-matched pair of yoked oxen, pulling equally together, in agreement, neither dominating, and therefore making short work of the job. When people work together like that, it is a treat to watch.
Recently, I noticed a couple in the doctor’s waiting room with a sick child. She smiled to him, he grinned back with a comment. The both talked with the triage nurse. They took turns holding the child. One called on a cell phone and reported to the other. They were in the task jointly as parents and caretakers. Equally tasked. Equally yoked. The idea of the father as the spokesperson and decision-maker never entered their heads. I glanced at them and enjoyed them.
By now you know where I am heading—the verse that says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?” (2 Cor. 6:14). Paul probably meant this to apply to both work partnerships and to marriage. Let us look at marriage and Christian work. By its negative description, the instruction tells us a positive is abundantly preferable. Agreed, if you are a Christian, it will cause problems and sadness to be in a marriage with a person with whom you do not have complete depth of unity.
But the contrasting blessing of the positive is part of what makes the negative so sad. It is a beautiful thing when a couple is equally yoked, “true yoke-fellows” in the older vocabulary. Paul used the word in the context of a team of men and women working together in their combined task. “Yes, and I ask you, my true yoke-fellow (“companion” in NIV), help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (Phil. 4:3). These people had struggled together for the cause of Christ. How significant to have utter depth of fellow feeling and deep trust that all will work with equal weight in actions and decisions!
Our imagined discussion with Hari has already shown us the balance and strength of the equal yoke. The yoke itself may stand for marriage vows. Marriage is a gift that empowers a man and a woman to cling to each other at the depth of their being with complete two-way respect and two-way love. It empowers the whole range of two-way and alternating commitments, responsibilities, appreciation, and action.
I like these words from pastor Rick McKinniss, in his 2009 book Equally Yoked,
Women need to be freed from the false restraints that limit their giftings and callings in the home, in the church and in the society. They need to be freed from the nagging, gnawing sense of inferiority that is the inevitable residue of the traditionalist perspective. . . They equally bear God’s image with their male counterparts [but] they are simultaneously taught that female subordination is the inherent order of creation and that their gender disqualifies them from leadership and full participation in the Kingdom.
Men, not so obviously but just as surely, need to be freed from the burden of trying to exercise leadership and dominion without the essential partnership of their other half. When men disqualify or limit the full contributions of their creation partners, it becomes impossible to fulfil the mandate that the Creator/Redeemer decreed could only be accomplished in partnership together—equally yoked. (pp. 318–19)
And what does the yoke do? Two achieve more together than they can do separately. As a dual unit, even difficult work gets done. The ideal strength is in pulling abreast together. Things can get tangled over differences or domination, but pulling abreast makes life easy, even beautiful to watch.
Indeed! Truth shines out from this ancient instrument, treasured for illustration by both Jesus and Paul. Equally yoked.