The topic of marriage in the church hits home for most every Christian. Most Christians remember loving parents and families that made them happy, but what if a person told you that your parents’ marriage was unlawful and not recognized by God? How would that make you feel? This is why the topic of marriage can be a hot-button issue. Marriage relates to the lives of so many Christians and resides at the core of their lives.
God institutes marriage and has all authority on the matter (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 28:18). However, when God’s laws on marriage conflicts with someone’s happiness, many Christians have made the decision to ignore the law or reinterpret the Bible to fit what they want to do. Admittedly, obedience to the law and repenting of an unauthorized marriage may create unhappiness in the immediate circumstance, but ultimately trusting in God’s law over personal desire will be the greatest good for greatest number of people (Matt. 7:13,14).
One individual asked a question about marriage. The person inquired, “What does the Bible mean when it says, ‘For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband’ in 1 Corinthians 7:14?” Based on the context of the conversation the real question here was what does it mean to be sanctified by one’s spouse? Could you save your spouse through a lawful marriage? When I first read this verse, my first thought was that a spouse should not leave their married partner just because the person is not a Christian. The believer may be able to save their spouse by being a good example and save their children by teaching them the message of God. To understand what God communicated through Paul to the church in Corinth and to all Christians today, one must consider the context.
1 Corinthians 7 contains a detailed discussion of marriage. In the immediate context of verse 14, Paul describes how a Christian is to handle a situation in which their spouse is an unbeliever. Paul states his answer cogently, “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him” (1 Cor. 7:12,13). Through apostolic edict, Paul explains that the relationship is not itself sinful, and is not to be dissolved so long as the married couple resolve to live together in peace. However, should the marriage become toxic and a stumblingblock to both individuals and the unbelieving spouse depart, the Christian has two options if fornication is not involved: (1) remain unmarried, or (2) be reconciled to their departed spouse (1 Cor. 7:11, 15). The individual cannot remarry.
Verse 14 explains another reason why the marriage relationship between a Christian and an unbeliever stands legitimate, “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” (1 Cor. 7:14). The word “sanctified” means to be set apart, dedicated, to purify, to consecrate (Strong). An unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife through a scriptural marriage because God approves of the relationship and in this relationship the unbeliever is privileged to remain with a child of God. Though the unbeliever is not a child of God, his union to God’s follower is not illegitimate or unclean, God has sanctified or consecrated the union. Children born to this union are therefore not illegitimate; they are likewise sanctified by the marriage bond of the parents.
The unbeliever is sanctified in their marriage by the believer, but the unbeliever is not sanctified in God’s grace because they married a Christian. The heathen is not sanctified as a child of God, but the heathen is sanctified as a married partner. While the Christian can and hopefully could persuade the unbeliever through good works and a faithful example, the marriage itself does not give the unbeliever salvation (1 Tim. 4:12,16). For one to be “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus,” one must be washed in the blood of Christ through baptism (1 Cor. 6:11; Rev. 1:5; 1 Peter 3:21). A baptism that derives from hearing the Word (Rom. 10:17), believing the truth (Mark 16:16), repentance (Acts 2:38), and confessing Christ as Lord (Rom. 10:9).
While some Christians have argued that God does not recognize the union of a Christian and non-Christian, if this was the case, then Paul would have been wrong and uninspired in telling the people at Corinth that their marriage to a non-Christian was sanctified, and they should not separate if the unbeliever be pleased to dwell with the Christian (1 Cor. 7:12-14). Clearly, God recognizes such a union and hopes that the union will bring fruit to the church.