Section 74: 1 Corinthians 7:1
After nearly six weeks of preaching the gospel, confounding their critics, and repairing the Church’s image in eastern Ohio, the prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were commanded, on January 10, 1832, to return to Hiram and resume their work on the translation of the Bible (see D&C 73:3-4). When Joseph and Sidney began translating again in an upstairs corner room of the Johnson farmhouse, one of the first texts they worked on was Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. When they came to 1 Corinthians 7:14, Joseph paused and inquired of the Lord. The saints in Corinth had asked Paul a question that probably went something like this: “Paul, I’m a new member of the Church. I love the gospel, and I have a testimony, but my husband (or wife) won’t have anything to do with the Church. What am I supposed to do? Should I leave him (or her) and find another mate that will join the Church?”
Paul answers the question in 1 Corinthians 7:14. His answer, paraphrasing, is: No, do not separate. If you are a believer, your participation in the gospel will bring a sanctifying influence into your marriage. This sanctifying influence will also affect all of your children.
Another aspect of this problem at the time of Paul concerned the tension between the husband and the wife over the rearing of children. Often the husband was a Jew who believed in the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:1-14), while the wife was a Christian. For the Jew, any male child eight days of age was required to be circumcised as a sign that he was a son of Abraham and a member of God’s covenant community. There was a feeling among the Jews that children were unholy without circumcision. What could be more serious for a believing Jew than to have his son grow up uncircumcised? On the other hand, the Christian wife believed that the necessity for circumcision was done away in Christ. Section 74 confirms the principle that through Christ, little children are whole and sinless and do not require circumcision at age eight days to remain so.
Section 74 is unique in that there are only three other sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that are exclusively dedicated to scripture interpretation—Sections 77 (the book of Revelation), 86 (the parable of the wheat and tares—Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), and 113 (the book of Isaiah). Section 74 was received before the conference that was to convene on January 25th. Thus it was received between January 11th and January 25th.
D&C 74 The Lord’s explanation of 1 Corinthians 7:14
1 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.
verse 1 This verse is an exact quotation of 1 Corinthians 7:14 in the King James Bible. Again, this verse was written by Paul in the setting of a discussion of part member families (one spouse Christian and the other non-Christian—perhaps a Jew). Paul’s advice, which remains church policy today, was that such marriages should be continued if:
- the nonmember will tolerate his or her spouse’s activity in the Church (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-13), and
- the children of such unions are allowed by the unbelieving spouse to be reared in the Church as Christians and not in the synagogue as Jews.
Today, by extension of these same principles, part member marriages should continue if the nonmember spouse permits the member spouse’s activity in the Church and the nonmember spouse also permits the children to be reared in the Church.
Such a union constitutes holy or acceptable matrimony before God—even though it is an arrangement for time only. There is no unholiness attached to faithful, committed marriages performed outside the temple. They may in truth be a “lesser good,” but they are definitely not an evil. The only thing wrong with such marriages for time is their impermanence and the acceptance of their impermanence, with the consequent loss of blessings, by the partners.
“For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife . . .” “Unbelieving” in this verse means non-Christian. Today the term refers to the nonmember spouse.
The terms “sanctified” and “holy” are exactly synonymous, as the Latin word sanctus, which is the root of the English word sanctify, means “holy.” The Jews of Paul’s day tended to divide the world into things holy or unholy (sanctified or unsanctified). This label indicated whether they were clean or unclean, sacred or profane.
The implication of this phrase is that the believing spouse will have a potentially sanctifying effect on the unbelieving spouse—the believing spouse may cause the other to become believing.
“else were your children unclean, but now are they holy” From the Jewish perspective addressed by Paul, if the above conditions do not exist in a mixed marriage, then the children would be “unclean” which implies “not in the proper relationship to the Lord” or “brought up outside the Church (see verse 4).
2 Now, in the days of the apostles the law of circumcision was had among all the Jews who believed not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
verse 2 “the law of circumcision” See Genesis 17:9-14; JST Genesis 17:1112. Circumcision involved ritually cutting off the foreskin from the male child’s penis when they were eight days old, or whenever they converted if they were not born a Jew. Circumcision on the eighth day was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and was originally instituted to symbolize, among other things, that children were not accountable before the Lord until they were eight years old. The law of circumcision of the flesh was done away in Christ (see Moroni 8:8).
“among all the Jews” Even though Corinth (the saints of which were Paul’s addressees in 1 Corinthians) was a Greek city, there were during Paul’s time a large number of Jews living there. Many of these were in exile from Rome due to an edict of Claudius issued in AD 41, which banned them from Rome for causing civil disturbances (see Acts 18:2).
3 And it came to pass that there arose a great contention among the people concerning the law of circumcision, for the unbelieving husband was desirous that his children should be circumcised and become subject to the law of Moses, which law was fulfilled.
verse 3 “there arose a great contention among the people concerning the law of circumcision” Here “the people” were the Jews, both Christian and non-Christian. Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews were irreconcilably divided over the issue of the law of Moses, especially the law of circumcision. The Christian Jews believed the law was fulfilled, and the non-Christian Jews believed it was still in force. One side or the other must be wrong. No compromise was possible. Naturally, this led to “a great contention” in any relationship between Christian and non-Christian Jews, and it would have been particularly difficult where Christian and non-Christian Jews were already married to each other.
Some Jews who became Christians would have had contracts of betrothal in force between themselves and non-Christian Jews (today we would say such couples were “engaged” to be married). Should these betrothal contracts still be honored now that one partner had become Christians? Paul said yes—if the non-Christian partner would agree that the spouse could continue their associations as Christians and any children from the marriage would be reared as Christians and would not be subjected to the law of Moses, including circumcision. Some Jews were already married when they joined the Church. If their spouse was not also converted, should their marriage be preserved? Again, Paul said yes—on the same terms.
4 And it came to pass that the children, being brought up in subjection to the law of Moses, gave heed to the traditions of their fathers and believed not the gospel of Christ, wherein they became unholy.
verse 4 “they became unholy” If the children of religiously mixed marriages were brought up under the law of Moses, they could not at the same time believe the gospel of Jesus Christ—for the two were often contradictory. Reared under the law of Moses, the children would naturally not want to abandon it for the gospel when they reached the age of accountability. Thus, they would become unholy—sinful and in need of redemption—when they became accountable and did not become members of the Church.
5 Wherefore, for this cause the apostle wrote unto the church, giving unto them a commandment, not of the Lord, but of himself, that a believer should not be united to an unbeliever; except the law of Moses should be done away among them,
verse 5 “for this cause the apostle wrote unto the church” Apparently the apostle Paul wrote unto the church in Corinth suggesting to them that a believer in Christianity should not be married to a non-believer unless the Law of Moses can be done away in their household. This counsel is not contained in 1 Corinthians, though the spirit of this counsel is seen in 2 Corinthians 6:14. If, in fact, this counsel was originally in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian saints, this may suggest that the present New Testament text has become corrupted. It is possible that Paul wrote about these things in his earlier, lost letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 5:9 for evidence of an earlier letter), and this phrase merely refers to those prior instructions. Thus, it is possible that by revelation to Joseph Smith, the knowledge of this specific counsel by Paul was restored.
“not of the Lord, but of himself” There is a difference between doctrine and policy. Doctrine is revealed by the Lord through his prophet and never changes. Policy is created and implemented by the Lord’s servants and may be adapted or changed from time to time as circumstances warrant. Doctrines are fundamental principles. Policies interpret and apply doctrinal principles to broader church contexts as directed by church leaders. Policy may not always come directly from the Lord but rather from his servants. In this particular case, where those servants are properly appointed and sustained (Joseph Smith and the apostle Paul), the saints are obligated also to sustain their policies (see D&C 107:30-32).
“except the law of Moses should be done away among them” Paul’s condition for marriage between Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews was that the home must be a Christian home and that the law of Moses would not be observed there.
6 That their children might remain without circumcision; and that the tradition might be done away, which saith that little children are unholy; for it was had among the Jews;
verse 6 “the tradition . . . that little children are unholy” In Paul’s day, Jews had come to believe that infants were born unholy, or outside the covenant, and were in need of circumcision in order to enter the covenant and become holy or clean. This is a version of the apostate doctrine of original sin. Some Nephites had taught also that infants need baptism, a doctrine Mormon declared a “gross error” and “solemn mockery before God” (Moroni 8:6, 9). This lie that little children are unredeemed unless some ordinance is performed for them is one of Satan’s favorites, for it denies “the mercies of Christ” and would have us trust instead “in dead works” or rituals (Moroni 8:23). Ironically, one reason that circumcision was instituted with Abraham was to show him and his posterity that little children are not accountable before the Lord until their eighth year (see JST Genesis 17:11) and require no ordinance before that time in order to be sanctified by grace through the atonement of Christ.
7 But little children are holy, being sanctified through the atonement of Jesus Christ; and this is what the scriptures mean.
verse 7 “little children are holy” Joseph Smith taught that “the doctrine of baptizing children, or sprinkling them, or they must welter [become entangled in] in hell, is a doctrine not true, not supported in Holy Writ, and is not consistent with the character of God. All children are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, and the moment that children leave this world, they are taken to the bosom of Abraham” (HC, 4:554).
- Michael J. Preece