The context – biblical marriage instructions, 1 Corinthians 7
The subtext pretext – infant baptism
1 Corinthians 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
Some words used
- unbelieving - Gk apistos ἄπιστος (faithless, without trust) that is, not a believer in Jesus Christ
- husband - Gk. 1st aner ἀνὴρ (male, husband) 2nd adelpho ἀδελφῷ (brother)
- wife - Gk. gune 1st γυναικί 2nd γυνὴ (woman, wife)
- children - Gk. teknon τέκνα (offspring, children)
- unclean - Gk. akatharta ἀκάθαρτά from akathartos (impure, unclean, not cleansed), and opposite of kathartos (clean). It is used of unclean spirits (e.g. Acts 8:7), unclean people (e.g Eph. 5:5), and that which is legally or cermonially unclean (e.g. Acts 10:14, 28).
- sanctified - Gk. hegiastai ἡγίασται from hagiazo and related to hagios (saint, holy); separated, consecrated, regarded as holy, cleansed. It can mean internal (e.g. Heb. 10:10-14), external (e.g. 1 Pet. 3:15; 1 Cor. 7:34) or separated, set apart for a specific use (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:4-5).
- holy - Gk. hagia ἅγιά from hagios (saint, holy) and related to hagiazo (sanctify); dedicated, separated, hallowed. The difference of “holy” and “sanctified” in verse 14 is the difference of noun and verb.
- your - Gk. humon ὑμῶν (your, genitive plural)
- else - epei ἐπεὶ (else, since, because)
Some paedobaptists confidently cite this Scripture as incontrovertible evidence of infant baptism. According to Jonathan Culley this scripture establishes “that God deals covenantally with the children of professing believers.” In fact, baptism is nowhere in view in the text. One who advocates infant baptism can argue the text supports the view, but in the end this text will prove fatal to their view.
The statement of Paul in verse 14 is set in the larger context of instruction on marriage found in 1 Corinthians chapter 7. Narrowed down, in verses 12 through 24 he is addressing questions on the marriages of believers and unbelievers. Should Christian believers stay married to unbelievers? A need for separation because of unbelief on the part of one spouse suggests the marriage is improper and that it would be wrong for the believer and unbeliever to live together as husband and wife. Paul stresses that coming to faith in Christ does not dissolve natural bonds or blood relationship. They should remain married.
The unbelieving here is a man or a woman who is an unbeliever -- not a follower of Christ -- who is married to a believer -- a follower of Christ. Whatever sanctified or holy may mean, the unbeliever who is in a marriage relation to a believer is sanctified by that relation. It is not the marriage that is sanctified, but the person. Marriage is an institution of God (Gen. 2:18-25) and is honourable in all (Heb. 13:4). Further, whatever the marriage relation provides in relation to an unbelieving spouse it also does in relation to a child. The words and meaning are the same. If the first were not true (else), the second would not be. Else (epei) is also translated “otherwise,” “since,” “for then,” etc. Finally, this should settle once for all any ideas the believer might have of departing or dissolving the marriage (Cf. verses 12-13). It should not be done. The unbeliever would be removed from whatever sanctification received, and the same would be true for a child also.
What the statement does not mean
- Sanctified and holy cannot mean children or unbelieving spouses are saved (internally sanctified) by their relationship to the parent/spouse. This would be the works of man for salvation rather than the grace of God.
- Sanctified and holy cannot mean external sanctification. The spouse or child is not more moral or ethical just because the marriage relationship exists -- though the believing spouse/parent can be a good influence on either of them.
- Sanctified and holy cannot mean sinlessness or final sanctification. That contradicts the rest of the Bible and does not fit the context.
- Sanctified and holy cannot mean that the marriage and offspring are legitimate in a legal sense, else all marriages contracted by unbelievers are null and void, and all their children illegitimate.
- Unclean or impure versus sanctified and holy cannot just refer to original sin (inherited sin nature), or else original sin would be negated by the marital relationship.
An unbeliever, by virtue of his or her being married to a believer, is set apart or holy. A child of a believer, by virtue of being the child of a believer, is set apart or holy. Both the unbelieving spouse/parent and unknowing child are sanctified by their relationships to the believer. The unbelieving spouse and unknowing child enjoy temporal life blessings by sharing in the blessings available to the believer, because of their being in a relationship with that believer. The unbelieving spouse and the unknowing child have the same sanctified relation to the believer. This relation is in the marriage covenant, not in the church covenant. In the Old Testament, Abraham’s physical seed were Israel. Under the New Testament, those who are in Christ by faith are Abraham’s spiritual seed. Notice Paul does not say that the child is not holy (hagios) but unclean (akathartos) until he or she is baptized. No, the child is holy in the familial relationship.
If Paul is making a cause and effect argument -- because of this, then this -- one parent must be a believer in order to sanctify the unbelieving parent, which in turn sanctifies the unknowing child. Else were children unclean that is, if the marriage did not sanctify the unbeliever, the children would be unclean rather than holy. So through a series of causes, first the believing parent, and then the sanctified unbeliever, the child is holy. In this type of cause and effect arrangement, the sanctification of the unbeliever comes first and is therefore more directly tied to the believer than is the sanctification of the child (which is removed by one more step). Such is not the belief or practice of any paedobaptists, even though they refer to this Scripture as proof of their belief and practice. For them it is agreeable to baptize infants whether or not the parents were separated. Paul would not use such a flawed argument to discourage separation.
It is clear that this is not a cause and effect argument -- but if not, then what? In this letter, Paul is writing “unto the church of God which is at Corinth.” In his address to the whole church, he directly addresses them in the second person plural like “ye” and “your” (e.g. 1:4; 3:2-3; 5:6; 5:12) -- and sometimes including himself by using the first person plural “we” and “us” (e.g. 3:9; 6:14; 8:4). When he writes to the church about a specific grouping within the church, he uses the third person. For example, in 6:16-17 he writes of “he which is joined to an harlot” and “he that is joined unto the Lord.” When he comes to the groups of chapter 7, he writes of the unmarried and widows as “them” and “they”(8-9); and the married wife as “her” and “she” (10-11). The same manner can be observed in 7:12-13, where Paul speaks of the believing and unbelieving spouses in the third person singular -- “he” and “him”, “she” and “her”. Yet when he addresses the children -- else were your children unclean -- he does not speak of “their” children (that is, the children of the husband and wife addressed) but rather of “your” children -- the children generally of the people of the church of Corinth.
Understanding this statement cues us to the fact that Paul is not making a cause and effect argument, but rather is comparing the like status of different individuals in the family. The holiness of the children is not an effect of the sanctification of the unbelieving spouse; it is a situation like it. Children are unclean with the exception of the same kind of holiness as the unbelieving adult parent has. If the unbelieving spouse were not sanctified by the marriage, it would be true also that an unknowing and unbelieving child, born by nature a sinner, is not sanctified by the relationship to a believing parent (not because of it, but for the same kind of reason). If unbelieving spouses should be cast off from with their believing spouses, then children also ought to be severed from familial connection to believing parents as well. Such is unthinkable! The whole of family and society would thereby be disrupted. As such, this is a strong argument for the maintaining the marriages of believers and unbelievers. It says nothing of infant baptism.
 Though he admits that there “is no explicit statement anywhere in the Scriptures that infants were to be baptized or that they were commanded to be baptized.” Neither does he explain why the unbelieving spouse’s sanctification does not entitle him or her to covenant baptism. (A Biblical and Historical Case for Infant Baptism, Jonathan Culley, Palm Bay, FL: Covenant Presbyterian Church, 2008, pp. 11,16)
 If the sanctification of the child qualifies the child for baptism, the like sanctification would also qualify the adult for baptism.
 Under this interpretation the children are holy only as long as the believing parent remains in the marriage to the unbelieving parent. Ra McLaughlin, a Reformed believer and an advocate of infant baptism, recognizes this problem, writing “But the odd thing about both these arguments is that they make the children’s holiness dependent upon the marital status of their parents rather than on the children’s participation in the covenant community.” (Holy Children of Unbelievers)
 “Your children” refers to the children of all Corinthian believers, not just children of a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever.
 According to John Leadley Dagg in A Decisive Argument Against Infant Baptism: Furnished by One of Its Own Proof-texts, Paul’s insight here provides proof that infant baptism was not practiced by the church at Corinth. For example, he writes, “The church at Corinth was a Pedobaptist church, or it was not. If it was a Pedobaptist church, the argument of Paul was invalid; because it was based on the false assumption, that the children sealed with the seal of God’s covenant, dedicated to Him in the holy rite of baptism, and admitted within the pale of the church, were in like circumstances with unbelieving and unbaptized adults, who were out of the covenant, and out of the church. But Paul did not use an invalid argument: therefore this church was not Pedobaptist; and the same must be true of all the churches planted by the Apostles, since they were, doubtless, all similarly organized.” (A Decisive Argument Against Infant Baptism  in Tracts on Important Subjects, Charleston SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1854, p. 50) Similarly Anders Wiberg writes, “...if infant baptism had been introduced by the Apostle into the Corinthian church, he could not, under any circumstances, have questioned whether the children might not have been “unclean,” because baptism would have made them "holy.” (Christian Baptism: Set Forth in the Words of the Bible, (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, n.d., p. 166)