In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 Paul deals with how the Corinthian Christians are supposed to be relating to unbelieving spouses. He essentially tells them, “Look, if your unbelieving spouse is willing to stay with you as a faithful Christian, don’t initiate a divorce. If he/she wants to leave you, let him/her go. The believer is not under obligation to the marriage any longer.” Paul is pretty clear here. But his reasoning about why the believer can stay married to the unbeliever may be a little obtuse to some of us: the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse. Then he throws in, “for otherwise your children would be unclean, but now are they holy.” Generally, what is being said here is that the marriage is not corrupted by one spouse being an unbeliever. You see, in the old creation time, corruption, uncleanness, and death spread. If you touched someone with a disease or your touched a corpse, you contracted uncleanness that had to be cleansed after a time with a baptism/washing. That is no longer the case. Christ comes and touches all kinds of unclean people. Instead of him being unclean, he gives them cleanness, holiness, or life. So, now those who are in him do the same. This is why remaining with an unbeliever in marriage is okay. Life flows from us, sanctifying the marriage and making its fruit (i.e., children) clean or holy.
One of the debates over this passage is whether or not Paul is using holiness/sanctification (same root word) in the same way for the unbelieving spouse as he does the children in 7:14. Some will say that this is just a state of holy influence, giving the unbelieving spouse and child closer access to the gospel. That is true at one level. But that can’t be what Paul means. Paul is assuming a different status for the child than he does the unbelieving spouse/parent. In other words, their holiness is not same kind of holiness.
First, Paul is using the status of the child as the proof of what he is saying about the sanctity of the marriage. This is not simply a consequence of what he says. Paul is basing his argument about the sanctification of the unbelieving spouse and, therefore, the marriage on the fact that the child is considered holy. The reasoning goes something like this, “The only way you could have little saints, holy ones, is if the marriage is sanctified. Because you and I both know that your children are holy, members of the church, then your marriages must be sanctified. This means that your unbelieving spouse must be made clean by his union with you; just like when Jesus cleaned up people he touched. Since you are in him, this spouse who is in union with you is made clean and can’t corrupt you.” Paul probably dealt with situations like this when he was there in Corinth (see Acts 18). One spouse converts and the other doesn’t. The way Paul says what he says here seems to indicate that what he is saying about children as holy had been taught, practiced, and obviously accepted by Paul and others while he was there.
Second, Paul is putting the child in the same position as the believing spouse. The unbelieving spouse is unable to corrupt the fruit of the union. The child, therefore, is just like the believing spouse, being put in the same incorruptible category as the believing parent puts the child in the same position as the believing parent: a member of the church. This child is the recipient of God’s promises, an heir, a saint whom Paul addresses at the beginning of the letter (1Corinthians 1:1ff.; cf. also Ephesians 1:1 and 6.1; Colossians 1.1f. and 3:20). This child is considered an incorruptible believer. He is not simply under the influence of holiness. He has a holy status that is different from his unbelieving parent.
Third, and coinciding with what is said above, Paul doesn’t include the children as those who potentially might be saved from this union in 7.16. He says there, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” What is conspicuously absent is a third question, “How do you know, believing parent, that you will not save your children?” He is addressing all those unbelievers involved in the previous verses. Is he not concerned about the salvation of unbelieving children who are a part of this relationship as well? Yes, he is certainly concerned. But they are not in the category of unbeliever. They are in the category of believer because God promised to be a God to us and to our children, even if the child has only one believing parent. This child is enfolded into the believing community and treated as a believer … because he is a believer. This is the way Jesus addresses covenant children in places like Matthew 18. This is the way the Psalms speak about our covenant children: they believe from the womb (cf. Psalms 22.9-10; 71.6). Paul is taking his cues from he what he sang from his own infancy and what he learned from reading the Gospels.
The sanctification of the unbelieving spouse and the sanctification of the child are used in two different ways in this passage. The children of one believing parent are considered heirs of God’s promises and therefore are to be counted by the church as members, receiving the washing–baptism–that puts them in the community of the sanctified.
Bill Smith is pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.