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What insights do you have for missionaries trying to address polygamy in polygamous cultures?

I think you are right to look hard at the divorce texts, like Mark 10. The only exception seems to be found in Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 13, where divorce is virtually commanded. These marriages were illegitimate since the wives that were put away were foreign (Canaanite?). These marriages jeopardized the racial purity of the nation Israel, particularly as it related to the Messianic line. One can see why these marriages had to be set aside. This situation is obviously unusual, but the reason for dissolving these marriage unions is clear.

The “one woman” texts of Timothy and Titus we deal with the qualifications for church leaders — elders and deacons — and not the qualifications for church membership, baptism, or the like. While God’s standards for leaders are an ideal for which every Christian should strive, they are not directly applicable to Christians in general.

Rather than requiring that a leader have only one wife at a time, or in a lifetime (depending on how one understands this), I tend to see the “one woman man” qualification as a more general qualification for a leader. A leader is to be a “one woman man” in the same way a dog is a “one man dog.” The leader is faithful and devoted to one woman in his life. He does not have a wandering eye, nor does he flirt with other women. The intimacies of his relationship with his own wife is not shared with any other woman. (It is not enough for him simply not to marry another. He could be unfaithful to his wife, but still be married to only one woman.) This goes beyond a prohibition of adultery, or of polygamy, then. Taking “one woman man” more generally actually makes it a higher standard for a leader’s conduct outside his marriage.

On a “command level” (a clear command) there is no direct prohibition of polygamy. We can infer that it is less than ideal, but we cannot say, with dogmatism, that it is directly forbidden, other than for leaders.

In terms of the formal statement you sent, I would question points (a) and (b) a bit. It is true that God is eternal, and He is not timebound, but I don’t see the connection to polygamy. In fact, the statement as it reads seems inconsistent. It appears to say: “God is eternal and unchanging, and thus His Word and His rules do not change, except in very limited and unusual circumstances.” If God is timeless and unchanging, He is timeless and unchanging, period.

To say that God’s rules never change would be open to challenge. If you take the argument of Galatians 3 that the law was our tutor or schoolmaster, to lead us to Christ (verse 24), then God did change in His dealings with us after the coming of Christ, after we became sons rather than slaves. Our “rules” as parents change as our children mature and grow up, and rightly so. This seems to be Paul’s argument in Galatians. We are no longer slaves, but sons.

It is clear that God does change some rules over time. (Not that God Himself changes, but that He has an eternal plan that includes change. It is logically inconsistent to think that just because God Himself is eternal and does not change, that He cannot bring about change.) It would appear, for example, that Adam and Eve did not eat meat before the flood(Genesis 1:29-30). But after the flood, man was allowed to eat meat (Genesis 9:3-4). When the Law of Moses was given, certain kinds of meat could be eaten, while others were prohibited as unclean. And then, in Mark 7:19 and Acts 10 & 11, God made it clear that “all foods were now clean.” In other words, the unchanging God does incorporate change in the way He deals with men, even though He remains the same. The same could be said for the observance of the Sabbath. Violating the Sabbath was once a capital crime (Numbers 15:32-36), but later became a matter of personal conviction (Romans 14:5).

When it comes to marriage, it would seem that from the outset, God had indicated that the ideal was for one man and one woman to become one flesh for life (Matthew 19:3-6). While there are some very restricted “exceptions” to the no divorce policy of the Bible, our Lord wants it to be clear that any divorce, whether biblical or not, falls short of God’s ideal.

I think that monogamous marriage is most clearly the ideal after the coming of our Lord. From this point on we read of no Christian who has multiple wives. I would take Ephesians chapter 5 to be a central text, because Paul makes it clear in this passage that the relationship of a husband and his wife is to model the relationship of Christ and His church. In Ephesians 5:32 Paul speaks of the relationship of Christ and His church as a mystery. That mystery was hinted at and partially revealed in the Old Testament, but only clearly explained and understood in the New, after the coming of our Lord and His sacrificial death, by which He purchased His bride. It would seem to me, then, that New Testament saints have more reason to pursue the “one woman man” ideal for life. The monogamous marriage is thus clearly the ideal. Nevertheless, polygamy is not directly forbidden, except for leaders. I would proclaim the good news of the gospel and embrace all new converts, welcoming them into the church. I would not make a leader of a man who had more than one wife. I would teach monogamy as the ideal for all saints, and a requirement for leaders.

One can hardly avoid dealing with 1 Corinthians chapter 7, for surely Paul instructs the Corinthians remain in the circumstances in which they came to faith. This does not include remaining in sin (Romans 6:1ff.), for the prostitute must surely give up her trade (compare John 8:11). And it is not wrong to try and improve ones circumstances, either (1 Corinthians 7:21). But when one’s circumstances are not a matter of sin, the saint should be content to remain as he or she was when called to faith. Only if one can biblically prove that polygamy is a sin that is prohibited should saved polygamists be required to forsake their marriages.

I find the use of the word “principle” in the matter of addressing polygamy as an “ideal” a little confusing, and probably not quite accurate. Some have used a four-fold classification of principles:

*A principle may be absolute, throughout Scripture, black and white, always negatively condemned, or always positively praised, .

*A principle may be a praiseworthy goal, always striven for but often not attained.

*A principle may be a norm throughout Scripture, with exceptions, usually followed throughout Scripture, but with occasional situations where the opposite is accepted for good reasons, or even preferable, in Christian freedom under God’s guidance.

*A principle may be a free option throughout Scripture with various choices honoring to God.

I’m not convinced of this four-fold classification of principles, either. A principle is a general guideline, which has numerous applications. For example, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), or, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). The prohibition of lying is a specific command. The same would be true of Paul’s statements concerning the role of women in the church (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:9-15; 1 Corinthians 14:34-38). I’m not sure that I would say that some principles are absolute, and others are not. I would say that some principles may take precedence over others. Thus, I may be free to drink a glass of wine as a matter of personal liberty (a biblical principle), but my obligation not to cause my weaker brother to stumble obligates me not to drink, even if it is a liberty, for the sake of my brother.

I think we need to be very careful when we speak of exceptions. I think examples of Scripture texts are required, and if there are none, then the statement needs to be modified. I doubt that one can establish that monogamy is the rule and polygamy is the exception from examples on this list. Again I see that word “exceptional,” which makes me nervous.

I would stay away from using the Timothy and Titus texts, other than in relation to church leadership, which is the context of those passages.

I don’t agree with the statement that “The wording in Timothy-Titus is literally ‘a man for one woman’. It is more literally “one woman man” (I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as ‘a man for one woman.’).

For a conclusion I would say: In the Scriptures, the ideal for marriage is one man, married to one woman, for life. Polygamy was tolerated, but it almost always had less than desirable consequences. Divorce is abhorrent to God, and allowed only in the most restricted circumstances. Thus, those who have come to faith as polygamists should remain married, and be accepted (with wives and children) into the church. They should not be made leaders, however, and the ideal of monogamous marriage should be taught, so that future generations might follow the “better way.”

Related Topics: Christian Home, Missions, Cultural Issues