Holy Children of Unbelievers

Question

Does 1 Corinthians 7:14 imply that baptized infants of unbelieving parents are not "holy" because neither parent is a believer? If so, what if an adult who was baptized as an infant comes to faith and desires baptism - not because he rejects infant baptism, but because his parents were unbelievers? Is it necessary for at least one parent to be a believer in order for infant baptism to be "legitimate"? And how does the individual's conscience figure in this matter? If the person still desires baptism after proper counsel, is it not a pastoral ministry for the minister to agree to baptize him or her?

Answer

Various branches of the church have struggled over this issue for centuries. Here's my take on it:

Everyone who is part of the visible community of the people of God (i.e. the church in our day, Israel in the Old Testament) is in covenant with God by virtue of membership in that community. As far as I can tell, in the Old Testament one was "part" of the visible community by virtue of living within it. Specifically, all who were born into the nation were part of it, all who became slaves in households within Israel were part of it (Gen. 17:10-13), and all sojourners who voluntarily ate the Passover were also part of it (Exod. 12:48). All males of all these categories were required to be circumcised, without reference to their faith, to their parents' faith, to their masters' faith, etc. Generations of unbelieving Israelites could have risen and fallen without the requirement to circumcise them lapsing, without the validity of their circumcisions being called into question, and without them ceasing to be God's people (i.e. "holy").

1 Corinthians 7:14 is an important verse for demonstrating that the children of believers are holy (hagios), and therefore that they are part of the church (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2: "sanctified" from hagiazo, and "saints" from hagios). But it is also a complicated verse. Its context has to do with marriage, not with children - the only place children are mentioned is the one time in verse 14b. Paul does not expand on this thought, and its fuller meaning seems a bit elusive. It is explicit that the children of "mixed marriages" are holy. What is not explicit is why they are holy.

One possible interpretation is that the children of believers are holy only so long as the believing parent is married to the unbelieving parent. This would mean that the children become unholy when the parents divorce. To apply this to the issue of baptism, one would then have to say that a believing mother whose husband divorced her could not have her children baptized, but that the believing mother who remained married to her unbelieving husband could have her children baptized. A similar argument could be put forth that precluded baptism for children of believers who divorced unbelievers.

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. This is counter-intuitive given the Old Testament background that never couches circumcision in terms of marital status.

On the other hand, Paul could be using the accepted fact that the children of believers are holy as the basis for his argument that the believing spouse sanctifies the unbelieving spouse. That is, he may simply mention the holiness of children in order to demonstrate the principle that one believer in the household causes the entire household to be holy. Looking at verse 14a, this makes quite a bit of sense: the fact that children are holy supports his argument that unbelieving spouses are also holy. We might paraphrase it this way: "If an unbelieving spouse can't be made holy by the believing spouse, then children can't be made holy by the believing spouse either. But as it is, the children are made holy by the believing spouse, meaning that the unbelieving spouse is also made holy in this way." Taken this way, the verse says nothing about the holiness or unholiness of children in broken homes, and nothing about children in homes in which both parents are unbelievers. Personally, I think this is the better interpretation.

The questions that the ancient Corinthian church faced, however, are not the only ones we face today. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a first-generation church. Presumably, there were no families in that church in which neither parent was a believer. For this reason, Paul did not address that potential situation, leaving us to infer what he would have said from what he did say.

We can presume, though, that there were broken homes in Corinth, and that some believing parents had children in common with unbelieving exes. What of these kids? Well, if my assessment of verse 14 is correct, then the children would still be holy, being made so by virtue of their relationship to the believing parent.

Now comes the tricky part: today we have unbelieving couples in church who desire to baptize their children. Neither parent is a believer, so who makes the kids holy? Here I lean heavily on the Old Testament example for insight and comparison. In the Old Testament, unbelieving parents were still holy so long as they were part of the visible community of the people of God, just as the unbelieving spouse is holy in 1 Corinthians 7 so long as he/she remains in the visible community of the church (by virtue of the believer in the household). But in the Old Testament, not all who became holy in this manner remained holy perpetually - they could be cut off from the covenant community and thereby become unholy (Gen. 17:14). Their children would also be unholy so long as they were not restored to the community. I would apply this to baptism in this way: unbelieving parents are holy if they are still part of the visible community of the church, so that their children are both holy and the proper recipients of baptism. Unbelieving parents who are not part of the visible community of the church are no longer holy, and their children are not holy and are not to be baptized.

In short, I would hinge the baptism of children on their parents' membership in a visible church, not on their parents' faith. I reconcile this with Paul's mention of faith in 1 Corinthians 7 by noticing that: 1) Paul raised the question of faith not to address the issue of holiness, but to specify which marital problems he was addressing; and 2) Paul assumed that a believer in the family placed the family within the visible community of the church. This approach has the benefit of eliminating any speculation about the parents' faith from the baptism equation. You'll notice that my stance is broader than most Reformed churches allow, since they traditionally require a believing parent.

The question of rebaptism arises when the child believes his earlier baptism to have been invalid. In my scheme, validity is easier to demonstrate. Were the parents members of a visible church? If so, the baptism was valid.

But it doesn't answer every question; invalidity may still be difficult to demonstrate. For example, what if two unbelievers who are not members of the church have their child baptized by a legitimate church? Is that child now a covenant member? The question is similar to one that arises in the case of women's ordination, which I do not affirm except in very exceptional circumstances: If a legitimate visible church wrongly ordains a woman, is her ordination legitimate? For perspective, let me ask: If a church wrongly ordains an unqualified man, is that man still legitimately ordained? I'd answer yes to the last question, which makes me also answer yes to the second question. These yeses push me in the direction of saying yes to the question of non-affiliated unbelievers having their child baptized, but the question really is more complicated. Still, I am tempted to say that until the church puts out the baptized child, that child is holy and his/her baptism is legitimate. The church is not to offer baptism to those who are not in the covenant community, but if it does so anyway, then it seems to me that the church thereby adopts them into the community in an irregular but technically legitimate fashion.

On the specific subject of rebaptism, I would not rebaptize if I believed the prior baptism had been valid. I appreciate the concern for the conscience of the believer who feels rebaptism to be necessary, but I believe that part of the minister's job is to protect the purity of the church by making sure that the sacraments are rightly administered. Rebaptism would not be a right administration of the sacrament, regardless of how the applicant felt about it. In this case, my personal conviction would be to correct the believer's conscience rather than to alter the sacrament. By analogy, I would not approve of a believer offering an atoning blood sacrifice even though his/her conscience might compel him/her toward that action (though I certainly think there is less offense in rebaptism than in bloody sacrifice!).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.