Baptizing unbelieving spouses and Genesis 17

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Puritan Board Sophomore
This question relates to one dealt with back in June 2015, but with a slightly different slant (the original post was: "Should unbelieving spouses be baptized." A lot of good discussion. One thing that wasn't necessarily brought up in the discussion was the fact that Abraham was commanded not only to circumcise his sons but also slaves who are born in his house as well as those slaves bought with money (Genesis 17:12-13). One interesting question that I won't deal with here is: how does this fit into our understanding that we apply the covenant sign on the foundation of covenant promises? The covenant promises were made to Abraham and his children (vv7-8), but nowhere does Scripture explicitly say those promises were also extended to his slaves. Yet, the slaves were to be circumcised. Maybe someone can address that. My main question here though, is: what is the application today of the fact that Abraham was to circumcise his unbelieving ADULT slaves? If we believe in infant baptism because of Genesis 17, should we not also consider the application of the circumcision of his slaves? Obviously the world looks a bit different now. But how might this principle apply to (the ongoing discussion) of the unbelieving wives of husbands who believe in Christ? Does it not seem that the application here would entail that unbelieving wives, if yet willing and consenting, ought to indeed likewise receive the covenant sign, being part of the household; and be functionally non-communicant members of the visible church? But how does this fit together with what was pointed out about the difference between an unbelieving parent and the "holy" children of a mixed marriage in 1 Corinthians 7? Sorry, long question, but hope to get some insight.


Puritan Board Junior
How do you know that Abrahams slaves were unbelievers ?
Ishmael was an unbeliever as a result of his unbelief he was excommunicated from the people of God he no longer had a right to circumcise his children because as the apostle Paul tells us in Romans circumcision was always about faith and not race ( there is a myth floating around evangelicalism these days which says that circumcision was all about race and not about faith this is pure hogwash ). All in the household should be baptized just as they were in Abrahams day. Presbyterians do not see baptism as an outward sign of an inward reality but instead we see baptism as an outward visible sign which points to Jesus Christ, we tell people who have been baptized to look to Jesus Christ for their salvation not to look inward. Jeremiah chapter 31 verse 1 speaking of the new covenant tells us that in the new covenant families will have a special blessing brought upon them by God. In first Corinthians chapter 7 verse 14 the apostle Paul is not here teaching some new doctrine but is simply restating what had been said in the old testament in the book of Malachi chapter 2 verse 15 where it is said that there are spiritual Blessings really and truly offered for believers and their households or in this case the spouse.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Greetings, JTB (?)
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A previous reply helpfully clarified some latent assumptions in the OP, foremost being that Abraham's servants were something akin to modern employees at the business. There were relational dynamics in ancient societies that simply do not map to our frame of reference. We have a hard enough time understanding how other societies function today in our time halfway-round the world.

The fact that Abraham was commanded give the sign to his servants is itself all the indication necessary to show they were included in the covenant administration, and through their head (Abraham) were considered among his "descendants" or seed, Gen.17:10. What v12 shows is how the foreign seed was now to be counted as Abraham's. V14 teaches that the one not circumcised (or who refused to be) was, therefore, excluded.

We owe it to Abraham's household--including his servants--to consider them as believers, unless we're given reason to think otherwise. Do you consider the members in your local church to be believers? If so, why? Not because you know the actual state of their heart, but because they are members. Regardless of whether you think the divinely ordained standard of church membership has been narrowed for NT times, the fact of membership in Abraham's day was settled. It was the members of his house; and the males bore the sign of membership for the community.

Abraham was pastor of the church in his day. It was soon practically the only faithful congregation in the world, as leaders like Melchizedek disappeared, and ignorance of God settled upon all societies. But in Abraham's house, there was preaching of pure gospel hope, Gal.3:8. So, we should expect that under such a grace-anointing that faith flourished. Were their unbelievers within the company? Probably, just like in the churches today. But what should be our hope?

What is more reasonable: that Abraham commanded his men under the knife, and did NOT preach the faith of the sign to them; or that he DID preach the faith of the sign to them? Under what conditions would men be more likely willingly to submit to this violence? The answer is self-evident. Moreover, many of these same persons already forsook home, religion, and people in Ur to go with Abraham to a land he knew not where, but which summons he nevertheless preached; which they heard (by grace) and obeyed. Gospel-preaching is the principal means of how disciples are made.


Let me offer a small correction to a response above. Baptism is intended (as sacraments are generally) to be, yes, an outward sign of inward reality. But in the case of infants being baptized, the sign is essentially proleptic, forward-looking, hopeful. Presbyterians disagree with the Baptists that the sign is something that necessarily follows the established residence of the Holy Spirit. Baptists (some of them) have recommitted persons to the waters of baptism one or more times, in repeated effort to get the sign applied after regeneration is assured. We agree in this thing: the outward and inward facts are finally meant to be in concert.

The reason Presbyterians do not have any (re)baptism procedure, is because we have no such conviction respecting the timing. A false adult-profession did not invalidate his adult baptism. And the reason is related to the other statement the response above rightly includes: because more than baptism witnesses to an inward-state which may be incorrect or more anticipatory than realized, baptism is a public witness of the salvation God promises in Jesus Christ. It calls the baptized to a focus away from himself (faith toward Jesus Christ), and not to an introspective test of quality. There is a place for self-examination at the Lord's Table.

With baptism, the daily issue for everyone no matter when he was baptized is: believing in the gospel promised by the sign. The basic question is binary: yes or no? Not, "Do I have faith enough to warrant the sign?" The mustard seed is pretty tiny.


Puritan Board Sophomore
Bruce, I agree with everything you said (I often do; I really appreciate your posts). Sorry, let me clarify a little bit better.
On a side note: I think Exodus 12 helps clarify the difference between slaves and servants; there was a difference between someone you just hired, like an employee, who didn't properly "belong" to your family; and a slave whom after buying with money essentially came to "belong" to you and become part of your household.

To the important stuff: Again, let me clarify. I agree we consider the slaves believers and part of the visible church. I believe that their placement in the visible church is the background to what Peter says in Acts 2:28-29, the "all who are far off" were represented in the Genesis 17 passage by the slaves. I'm not disagreeing AT ALL that once they become part of Abraham's household, they are to be considered believers and part of the visible church. And this is indeed how I view those in the visible church today. My original question was meant to be this: what is the application today of the fact that Abraham was to circumcise his ADULT slaves BEFORE THEY BELIEVED. Here's what I mean. Abraham himself believed, THEN he was circumcised. For Abraham, it was credo-circumcision. Romans 4:11, he received the sign of justification by faith only after he is indeed justified by faith. But for his sons, the process was the reverse, infant-circumcision. This is (one reason) why we believe in infant baptism: the same sign that was given to Abraham ONLY AFTER he believed--that same sign he is then commanded to apply to his 8-day old sons before belief in the Lord was ever possible. Right? Vos says something to the effect that for Abraham the inward reality (actual thing signified) came first and it was expected then that he would receive the outward sign. For infants, it is reverse; the outward sign comes first and it is expected then that the inward reality (faith in Christ) will follow.

What I mean to ask is this: the slaves of Abraham seem to follow the second pattern, not the first. The slaves are circumcised not after the pattern of Abraham himself--but after the pattern of his sons. Does that make sense? In other words, just as Abraham's infant sons were circumcised BEFORE they believed, Abraham's ADULT slaves likewise seem to be circumcised BEFORE they believe. They are bought with money as adults and brought back home. It doesn't seem they are bought with money on the condition of faith. To put it very crassly, Abraham goes to the slave market, finds a few slaves (these are foreigners, pagans), buys them, and brings them home. We cannot have expected them to have believed before he buys them as slaves. He brings them home as pagans. Then he circumcises them. Thus, they become part of the visible church. But they haven't yet had the opportunity to put their faith in the God of Abraham because they have yet to hear about Him. Once brought back home and circumcised, THEN they begin to participate in his "house church" and, having become part of the OT covenant community, begin to learn about the God of Abraham, and there is every expectation that they will also indeed, in time, put their faith in the God of Abraham. But what I am saying is that they are circumcised BEFORE they believe. The slaves seem to follow the pattern--not of Abraham (faith first then circumcision) but rather of his infant sons (circumcision first then belief). Does that make sense?

Having understood that, again, the rest of my question is: How might this principle apply to the (yet) unbelieving wives of husbands who believe in Christ? IE, if ADULT slaves were part of the household, and if they were, like Abraham's infant sons, circumcised BEFORE personal faith, on the same grounds that his infant sons were circumcised; how might this apply to yet unbelieving spouses, who, though yet unbelieving, are willing to receive the covenant sign (be baptized)? Does it not seem that the application here would entail that unbelieving wives, if yet willing and consenting, ought to indeed likewise receive the covenant sign, being part of the household; and be functionally non-communicant members of the visible church (in much the same way as Abraham's adult slaves), while all the while it is hoped and expected they will in due time put their faith in the God of the covenant (just as it was with Abraham's adult slaves)? (Please don't here me comparing wives to slaves in ways I am definitely NOT meaning to).

Does this make a little better sense?


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
This will be over-long, but related things come up in your post, so I want to address them. The short answer might be: that I think I understand the "mapping" you are attempting between the two conditions; and there could be some analogy there. But, I think there's an awful lot of disanalogy there, too. It might be better to avoid a facile connection. We do not "acquire" wives as properties; and I'm no fan of modern "patriarchalists" either.

It's probably safe to guess some servants accompanied Abraham from Ur. Gen.12:16 says Pharaoh gifted Abraham with persons. Gen.14:14 says there were 318 fighters born in his house, cf.15:3. I mention these because otherwise we do not know how Abraham acquired the services of any of his servants, herdsmen, etc. We may surmise what "bought with money" means; but it surely has a range of meaning, not to mention the cause.

And before we assume these persons were all "adults" for purposes of calculation, we also cannot assume we know their ages. Some may have come into his house as children of the poor often did in ancient times (including later on in Israel)--in hopes of marrying up, or simply giving more opportunity to a child in a rich house than could be had otherwise.

I merely point these things out as real factors that prove: there is no certain way for us to describe the circumstances under which Abraham acquired the greater or lesser number of his household members. We do not know what sort of moral expectations were on his conscience. He may never have purchased in a literal slave-market, not once! We never have such a description.

Personnel services could have been acquired along the lines of modern professional sports-trades, minus the full ability of a man to "walk away" with his labor. But in those times, we should also recall that there was probably no green-grass of freedom, no opportunity waiting to be latched-on in any city over yonder. Belonging was a matter of tribal identity. Liberty could be precarious. This is what I mean when I say we today can hardly understand those foreign, ancient social orders.

Some interpreters seem to assume that men like Abraham (anywhere and everywhere) possessed unqualified power of life and death, and the right to mutilate, brand, or otherwise mark their human chattels. We know that Israelite society a few centuries later had very different perspective on treatment of slaves, partly because of the depths to which their treatment sank in Egypt. But, it does not follow that the worst Egypt meted out to them was the rule the world over. There are ancient law-codes that survive from Sumer (where Abram came from) that show in some cases slaves still had certain rights within the larger society.

I think it is a bit misleading for us to simply assert that Abraham brought home his recent "purchase" at the local Hittite slave-auction, and the first order of business was: out with a knife, and the words, "Whip it out, boys!" Would you be thinking castration coming if that happened? I would. And I think it's a bit unbelievable for us to think either 1) there was no potential for resistance from men in those circumstances, poor pathetics simply acquiesced their horrible lot in life, or that they were first immobilized for the "operation;" or 2) that there was neither purpose nor interest in persuading new servants voluntarily to participate. Neither of those options is plausible to me, when a lord's patience makes all the sense in the world.

In Abraham's house itself, I'm sure there were those circumcised with Abraham as a mark of faith already possessed. Just as there were others (principally Ishmael) who may have been compliant, but men of merely outward faith. Young people acquired we would expect to submit to a medical procedure. And older ones... I would expect a number of them had to be persuaded.

What was the likely result of such resistance? If it persisted, I suspect such a person would not last long in this house. He'd be "let go," "traded," given his manumission and some nice parting gifts. Wouldn't the same thing happen, if a circumcised person made himself unwanted? "See ya" (cf. Gen.21:14, and note the not-unusual, inevitable perils that followed). The difference being, he carried his indelible mark away with him. But others would see the kindness of full-inclusion in this blessed house. And I think many would cease resisting.

I guess, at the end of the day I'm not interested in "mapping" 1-to-1 the ancient circumstances on ours. That was then. While I think it was efficient, I have a certain discomfort about the baptisms of whole tribes of Germanics, when the chieftain became "Christian," and obtained protections within the nominally Christian Roman empire (after Constantine). But there you have a comparable case, I suppose, with the most casual (?!) circumcisions you can imagine in the days of old.

I do not see biblical circumcision outside of a spiritual framework. It is not a simple, family/tribal/national identifier. The idea that it was imposed purely by a kind of rote, authoritarian, legal impulse seems abominable to me--though I suppose it may well have happened here and there. Surely, there was normally some form of explanation offered, especially to those who could understand.

Can we, should we connect new-members with the discipleship of the young? My answer is: of course. These persons, as with the infants, practically begin their discipleship in their covenant sign. How much do adult converts really know, when they "commit" here in our voluntary-society? We give our covenant-youth becoming communicants and our new-adult-members the same course-work. But delaying baptism for a while seems unwarranted, given the example of the Philippian jailer.

We are directed to "make disciples," by baptizing and teaching (note the order). Evangelism is for awakening. But we never outgrow the gospel, nor the disciple-making process.


Puritan Board Sophomore

Thanks for the thoughts and sorry for the delay. A lot of good stuff. We probably won't figure everything out with this thread, so no need to belabor if there's not much more to say, but just a few thoughts in response:

I never meant to characterize Abraham as circumcising any slaves who were unwilling. Nor did I mean to intend to make it seem that I see circumcision any way than outside a spiritual framework. That's exactly how I see it; the only way I see it. That's how I see infant circumcision. It's just that, again, for Abraham, it was faith first then the sign; for his infant sons it's the sign first, then expect faith to follow. My intent was not to make Abraham seem like a tyrant who bought slaves and then out with the knife. I'm just trying to do justice to what we read in Genesis 17, and considering what we believe about just how important that text is as it relates to our infants--merely asking in turn how might the rest apply? Seems to me an odd thing to hold so tightly to infant baptism, almost exclusively because of Genesis 17, and yet to have zero convictions or thoughts about the third group mentioned in the chapter, to whom the covenant also applies. If we so diligently seek to apply the truths of Genesis 17:7-8 to the church today as it relates to our families, why do we not see Genesis 17:10-13 as containing equally important applications about how the covenant relates to our household? I just find it interesting that the third group in the chapter, the (non-infant) slaves, fit into the paradigm of how the sign was to be applied to infants (sign before faith) rather than adult converts like Abraham himself (faith before sign). It is true what you said, there is some speculation; who could have been what age; but as you mentioned, 318 is a lot of people, and these were "fighters", which would lead us to believe they were a bit older. They were not infants.

Again, I never meant to characterize Abraham as circumcising his slaves against their will. I would consent to agree that he would only circumcise them if they were willing. But being willing to be circumcised by Abraham isn't the same thing as professing to adhere to the faith of Abraham. These verses definitely at the first least imply very heavily that Abraham, however he did it, bought pagan slaves and proceeded to apply the covenant sign to them. There's no word in these verses about giving time for them to hear and believe about the God of Abraham, and to only circumcise those who then in turn believe. He was to circumcise all of them--just as he was to do to all his infant sons. Right?

Again, don't want to belabor. But coming around to the application: Abraham, as family covenant head, leaves paganism and comes a follower of the Messiah. He receives the sign. He is then commanded to apply that same sign to his infant sons, because they are part of his household as direct offspring. He is ALSO commanded to apply that same sign to non-infant children/adolescents/young people/adults that he buys with money, again, because they were now part of his household (IE, for the same reason he circumcised his infant sons). So, it seems to me that for everyone in Abraham's household--not just for his infant sons--the sign came first. Yes, presumably, they were willing to receive the sign


Puritan Board Sophomore
***Correction: the 318 fighters were born in his house--he did not buy them--my mistake.


Puritan Board Sophomore
Sorry, got cut off. Here is the rest:

Yes, presumably, they were willing to receive the sign, but again, being willing to receive the sign is not the same thing as embracing from the heart the reality the sign represents. Does that make sense?

So coming full circle, just wondering how that applies to us today as we think about our entire "household." If an unbelieving wife is WILLING to receive the sign of baptism, ought we to baptize her according to the same pattern? Expecting true faith to follow, as we do when we baptize our infants? The question equally applies to older children when the father or both parents become Christians. If they are WILLING to receive the sign, ought we to give it, for the simple reason that they belong to that household? Expecting faith to follow the sign? Or do we need an actual credible personal profession of faith from the spouse and/or older children of a believing father who comes to Christ? And if the latter, on what biblical basis as it relates to the covenant? Sorry, got longer than I intended. Sincerely in Christ, JB


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
The text says God said to get it done. It doesn't specify "how," but in the case of infants, the day.

Abraham is in charge in his house, even Sarah calls him "lord," 1Pet.3:6; and I believe he led his whole house in worship and had done so for years, even decades. So, when God gives his command, he means for Abraham to submit himself and all his males--regardless of origin or status--to this rite. That range is what is being represented by those descriptions, from son down to purchased labor. None are to be excluded from the blessed claim of God on Abraham, for in him as a mediator they too should be blessed. This is the reason for mentioning the different "classes" of persons in Abraham's house. They aren't mentioned there for the purpose so we can map present individuals, members of modern western households, to the different "classes" within Abraham's.

As soon as he is commanded, he implements the sign, applying it to himself and to all his house/congregation. Yes, there's a forward-looking element to the command, especially clear in the case of the infant. But, the how-and-when for the future members added otherwise than by birth is not specified. "Just see that it is done," for the consequence is to remain outside the covenant; or more accurately: to have had the beginning of a covenant-relation by virtue of another, only to end up cut-off from the covenant entirely.

Abraham lets Lot go, with all the members of his lesser house; they never had the covenant-sign. Abraham lets Hagar and Ishmael go, she a servant and concubine, he a circumcised son. With the remarkable exception of Lot (and some grace shown to Hagar) none of those separated from Abraham continue to be spiritually blessed. My point being, they were cut loose. You can't stay forever in Abraham's house and not take his faith, and choose not the sign of God's covenant; the two things are intimately related, and they point to heaven and hell.

Surely, that is the basic idea. I guess, I don't agree that the willingness to take the sign is a justifiably "bare" willingness. I think it is more than that, and the one consenting is also agreeing--even implicitly--to be instructed in the faith which the sign represents. He's not entitled later on to say, "I just agreed to that out of fear, or duty, or confusion, or whatever; but I don't believe anything you've tried to persuade me about the sign's meaning, or obligations. I didn't sign up for any of that."

He who takes the sign also says, implicitly or explicitly, "whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God," Rt.1:16. And to fail going in that direction--with or without the sign applied--is to be cut off from the covenant. There has to be some reason to think that some kind of initial commitment beyond the bare sign belongs to the person who receives it. A change of mind later on, apostasy, evidence that faith never grows but only resistance and obstinacy--time reveals this.

Our infants now, as Abraham's then, implicitly say so (there is no other way). But why would it seem reasonable to apply the sign to a person of clear mental ability, who frankly says he denies his lord's faith, but will take this sign to "humor him?" Or only for some secular advantage? That's not the intent of the sign.

No, but they who take the sign must take it in view of where it leads them. And the older they are, the further down the road they see immediately the road's direction. And we should take the map out, and show them, and ask them if they will be willing to start down that road with us; or will they balk, and rage (even silently) while they go?

The line is "fuzzy" between being a member of a house, and being responsible for yourself. What if you are dependent on your parents (from birth) being born blind, Jn.9:1? But when they are summoned, they say, "He is of age... he speaks for himself," v21. Even from the days of Moses, the sons of the commandment fulfilled their own covenant obligations (notably, by feast attendance) having attained the age of majority. We judge from Jesus' example that it was about age 13yrs.

If a person "of an age" is willing to be baptized, shouldn't we try to understand the extent of that submission? Openness to honestly learning the faith is minimally sufficient, so far as I can see. Such is the nature of discipleship. And the first lesson would be: "Here is the meaning of this sign we place upon you." This meaning is all about the gospel of salvation. That was the case with the first covenant-sign, as much as with the second. And they need to agree that this is what they believe as best they can. If you mean "faith following the sign" to mean not less than this, we could shake hands.
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