Friday, November 9, 2007

Was Polygamy A Sin In The New Testament?
Now let's consider the main objections against polygamy taken from the New Testament.

Objection #1:
Jesus himself said that polygamy is a sin.

Actually, Jesus never specifically said that polygamy per se is a sin, though many claim he did. Certainly if Jesus had said such a thing unambiguously, Christian giants like Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther would have noticed it. Those claiming Jesus denounced polygamy rely on either Matthew 19:9 or the parallel passages of Mark 10:11 or Luke 16:18 as support:

And I [Jesus] say to you, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery" (NKJV).

This verse says nothing about polygamy. It's talking about divorce. Jesus is denouncing the practice of men divorcing their wives for lame reasons so they could trade her in for a newer model. If Jesus were referring to polygamy, that would mean that every man who is divorced and remarried is a polygamist. Absurd! It's mind-boggling the lengths to which polygamy's opponents will go to support their biased position. Taken in context, Jesus was responding to a question posed in Matthew 10:3:

The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" (NKJV).

Jesus was not saying, "Whoever marries a second wife commits adultery," as some claim. He said, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." The issue was divorce and remarriage, not polygamy. Jesus was not overturning the Law of Moses, which allowed for polygamy.

Objection #2:
Men in the New Testament are commanded to be the husband of only one wife.

According to 1 Timothy 3:1-2:

If a man desires the position of a bishop [or an elder], he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, ... (NKJV).

First, notice that this qualification pertains only to bishops and elders. This qualification may or may not pertain to all Christians, though many claim that it does restrict all Christians to only one wife.

This particular qualification is a difficult and highly disputed qualification, which has been interpreted many different ways. Some claim it means that a bishop or elder must be married. That interpretation is highly unlikely, since it is clear that Paul wasn’t married, at least at this point in his life. Plus, as far as we know, Jesus was also a bachelor. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that this text stipulates that an elder must be married.

Others say this verse prohibits a bishop or elder from remarrying if his wife dies. This interpretation is also highly unlikely. According to Romans 7, Paul makes it plain that there is nothing wrong with remarrying after one's spouse dies.

Still others say this verse teaches that a Christian is not eligible for the office of bishop or elder if he has been divorced and remarried. Certainly, God hates divorce, but Jesus and Paul allowed for divorce under certain circumstances. Some have tried to impose a prohibition against anyone becoming a bishop or elder who has ever had a divorce. Since the Bible allows for divorce under certain circumstances, divorce doesn't seem to be the qualification this is referring to.

And now we get to the consideration we're concerned with: polygamy. Some claim that a candidate for bishop or elder cannot be a polygamist, while others object to this interpretation because they believe polygamy did not exist in the early Christian church. Still others go so far as to assert that a polygamist would not have been allowed membership in an early Christian church. Their argument goes something like this: If a polygamist would not have been allowed church membership, it's obvious that he would not have been allowed a high position of rulership. Therefore, why even bother to make this stipulation in the first place?

Certainly there was some polygamy in the first century. Exactly how much is a matter of debate. We know that Herod the Great had ten wives. True, he didn’t have them all at one time. Herod put two of them to death. Nevertheless, he did have several wives at the same time.

In places like Lystra, polygamy was not all that uncommon. Even today, in some African tribes, polygamy is commonplace.

Calvin Said Polygamy Was "Exceedingly Prevalent" Among New Testament Believers
Calvin believed polygamy was sinful. Nevertheless, he acknowledged it's existence, not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. In
Calvin's commentary on 1Timothy 3:1-2, Calvin said polygamy was "exceedingly prevalent" among early New Testament believers. Evidently, this did not prevent them from becoming members of the church.

Justin Martyr Said Many Christians Had Four Or Five Wives
Like Calvin, Justin Martyr (c.160) was certainly no fan of polygamy. Nevertheless, he acknowledged it's existence in the early New Testament church, perhaps mainly among New Testament Jewish Christians. He rebukes the Jews for allowing polygamy:

Your imprudent and blind masters [i.e., Jewish teachers] even until this time permit each man to have four or five wives. And if anyone sees a beautiful woman and desires to have her, they quote the doings of Jacob
Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 134).

Nevertheless, as critical as Justin Martyr was of polygamy, he entitled this chapter: "The marriages of Jacob are a figure of the Church."

Some claim that a polygamist can become a Christian but they are not allowed positions of rulership. One of the reasons, it is claimed, is that the relationship between Christ and his "bride," the Church, cannot be portrayed by polygamy. "Christ does not have many brides or many churches," they claim. "Monogamous marriage is a type of the relationship between Christ and his people, the church; polygamy is not. So there is something to be modeled about Christ and the church by one husband married exclusively to one wife."

Ironically, Justin Martyr, as we've just seen, believed the marriages of Jacob were a figure of the Church, even though he opposed polygamy. So some oppose polygamy because it cannot possibly be a figure of the Church, while others, like Justin Martyr, oppose polygamy because it is a figure of the Church.

There is certainly much merit in the position that a polygamous marriage can portray the relationship of Christ and the church just as well as, if not better than, a monogamous one. For example, although it is true that Christ does not have many brides, it is also true that His one bride is composed of many people. Likewise, Christianity is not a polytheistic religion. Christians believe in one God who is three persons. The word "trinity" means "three in one" or "three united." I know this puzzles many people. It was a source of major contention in the early church and still is to some extent today. Christianity is monotheistic, not polytheistic. Why? Because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three people who have a lot of things in common, such as:

1. All three are eternal.

2. All three are omiscient (all-knowing).

3. All three are omnipotent (all-powerful).

4. And last, but not least, all three agree with each other on everything, at least everything that is important.

So perhaps, if a man had several wives who were in a perfect harmonious relationship, perhaps it would not really be a polygamous relationship. Perhaps it would be a monogamous relationship.

In my judgment, the explanation that seems to fit the context of 1 Timothy 3:1-2 best is that Paul is excluding candidates who have a history of sinful sexual behaviour, especially if that sinful behaviour has not been repented of. But another explanation that I find logical is hinted at in 1 Corinthians 7:32-33:

He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord--how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world--how he may please his wife (NKJV).

A man only has so much time and energy. A polygamist with the responsibility of providing for the well-being of many wives probably would not have enough time and energy left over to provide for the well-being of the parishioners of a congregation. Being a bishop, deacon or elder requires a huge investment of time and energy, as does being a polygamist. Therefore, it would probably be counter-productive for a polygamist to have a high position of leadership in the church.

Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely that a polygamist would be restricted from an office of leadership simply based upon the misguided notion that polygamy is somehow unethical.