by Steven Siciliano | 4 January 2019 |
Some of the Bible’s most enigmatic sayings can also be the most enlightening in that their seeming incongruity, if carefully attended to, can serve a doctrinally corrective function. In cases where they appear to be out of harmony with our theological systems it’s not because the verses themselves are askew but because our systems are.
High on the list of perennially perplexing texts is 1 Corinthians 7:14. A close reading of the verse in its own setting illustrates not only how the contextual meaning of a term can diverge from colloquial usage but from its role in systematic theology as well. It says, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. (NASB)”
This verse makes the odd claim that one individual can be sanctified by another, a potentially perplexing statement because it doesn’t harmonize with prevalent ideas about sanctification and salvation. Thankfully, the solution to this conundrum lies in the second half of the verse, but before getting to that it will be useful to clear the field of three flawed explanations.
One incorrect way of reading this statement is to conclude that an unbelieving spouse is either saved now or will be saved sometime in the future, by virtue of being married to a believer. Indeed, only two verses later Paul holds out the hope that an unbeliever may one day be won to Christ by the example of a believing husband or wife. But that’s not what Paul is saying in verse 14. For one thing, the word he uses there is not “saved” but sanctified; and he’s not referring to a future, hypothetical condition. It says the unbelieving spouse is sanctified now, and unequivocally. Simple logic and observation also belie the idea that all unbelieving spouses are guaranteed to convert over time, so this verse cannot be making the claim that unbelievers are or will be personally saved through the faith of their believing spouses.
Even more unlikely is a second option that accurately notes the term “sanctified” but then assumes that the word must refer to the systematic concept of moral transformation. Again, while it is possible that the good influence of one spouse may rub off on the other, the same critique applies to this proposal as the first, perhaps even more strongly. There is no guarantee that all unbelieving spouses will one day experience moral adequacy in the sight of God. And the verse is not talking about the future anyway. It says unbelieving spouses are already sanctified, a fact that necessarily points to a different meaning of the term.
Finally, some readers may think that the issue Paul wrote about had to do with whether or not children would be considered illegitimate if the parents should separate. But that notion doesn’t do justice to the flow of the passage either. Aside from the fact that the word illegitimate refers to children born out of wedlock (rather than children whose parents separated later) Paul is not talking about what the children’s status may be after a divorce. He’s talking about what their status was at the time, while under the auspices of a mixed marriage. If his concern was how the children would be viewed after a separation then he would have organized the verses differently. The clause about the children’s potentially unclean status would have followed verses 12 & 13, which introduce the idea of divorce in the first place. As the passage reads, however, Paul seems to be saying that, if not for the sanctifying power of the believing spouse, the children would be unclean as long as the parents were together.
WHAT IT MEANS
In other words, this passage seems to address the concern that if one partner in a marriage is a believer while the other is not, then the children living within such a household might be considered “unclean,” which is a ritual or conceptual condition rather than a state of being. Paul alleviates that concern not by advising the parents to separate but by asserting that the unbelieving spouse is in fact sanctified by the believing spouse, and therefore the children are considered clean and holy as well.
This principle is central not only to the passage in view but to biblical religion as a whole, so it is worth repeating. In this passage, Paul is addressing a concern about how children in a mixed marriage might be viewed by God, the church, and the larger community. It deals with a matter of ritual purity (like in the old testament) or perhaps a less sectarian perception common in the Roman world. Paul does not answer the concern by advising the believing spouse to move out and live alone with the children (which the church members in Corinth may have been considering). He presents an altogether different dynamic when he declares that the holy status of the believing spouse already encompasses or “sanctifies” the unbelieving spouse, so that the children can be considered clean and holy too.
WHY IT MATTERS
Carefully following Paul’s logic here and avoiding notions imported from elsewhere leads to a core principle of biblical religion that can be called “sanctification by association.” It shows that right relationship with the holy automatically makes one holy – ritually holy in regard to unbelieving spouses or children in a divided home, and actually holy in the case of a believer’s own salvation-standing before God.
That is the essential nature of biblical religion when viewed properly, from a relational-covenantal rather than moral-legal perspective. According to the terms of the new covenant, individuals who align with Jesus as Messiah enter into peaceable standing with God and achieve justified and sanctified status from the start: justified in the sense of fulfilling their part of the contract, and sanctified in the sense of being included in God’s household.
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights, Hartsdale, and New York Filipino churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.