In 1996 I was involved in a vigorous newsgroup discussion on issues of polygamy and marriage as seen in Islam and Christianity.
Instead of always saying what Christians do NOT believe or practice, I want to make a positive statement on what we do believe and recognize as the revealed will of God. Why do we not practise or believe polygamy to be a valid option?
God does reveal His will, character, and intentions not only in direct commands, but also by the way He acts in creation and history, as well as through the form and even "literary style" His revelation is expressed. In order to understand the meaning and purpose of our being, it is most important to look at the account of creation. That is when our maker gave the paradigm for our living.
We read in Genesis 1 [the very first chapter of the Bible]:
25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
Do you see the Hebrew poetic structure of emphasis, the parallelism in verse 27? There "in the image of God" corresponds to "male and female". Man(kind) is 'one' [created HIM], but God sees the need to make two different and complementary beings in order to adequately represent Himself in His image. This verse is also a strong pointer towards a "relationship character" (plurality) of the nature of the ONE God, which is supported by the rest of Holy Scripture. But here I don't want to get into a Trinity debate. That is elaborated upon in my web pages. Here I want to look the other direction.
Not "what the image says about the source", but what meaning and intention the source gives to the image, i.e. us in our relationship as men and women.
We are together to reflect the "nature of God". Marriage is a creation ordinance of the highest calling. God has created us as men and women in order that we in godly marriages reflect some of his own nature, that we be a a visualization of his glory.
Because our own very being and the way we do relate as husband and wife is so bound up with the character of God, therefore marriage is such an awesome and holy institution in Christianity. [I agree that many don't know this and many don't live accordingly either. But here it is not the bad practice of some but the revelation of God that concerns us.]
While the above is the summary statement of the meaning of creation of man as male and female, in chapter two of Genesis more details are given.
19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called `woman,' for she was taken out of man." 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Whole books have been written about the depth of meaning in this passage. Just a few thoughts here. The creation example God himself gives is that of "one man, one women, to become one flesh", together representing the image of their creator and rule in His place over creation as His representative / vicegerent (as the Qur'an also puts it).
From this passage and creation event in 2:21-23 the conclusion is drawn that a man [general case - not just Adam, since he didn't even have any parents] will ... be united to his wife [NOT wives], and they will be ONE flesh. Even in this very passage, the creation of one woman for one man is concluded with a remark that declares this as the normative pattern. It is the goal of marriage to become one. They do not become one just by having sex. This is a lifelong process of working on truly develop a oneness of mind, soul and spirit, which is a intended as a truly God-glorifying relationship [his image].
This intention is impossible to fulfill if a husband cannot fully devote all his marital love to his one wife, because he has several of them that demand his devotion. Also, because this "unity" of husband and wife [one flesh] is the express purpose of the creation of mankind as male and female, therefore divorce, is such a serious subject. When some religious people came to Jesus with a question on what reasons are enough to divorce one's wife, Jesus responded not with pointing to the divorce laws given in the Torah of Moses, nor did he quote a number of cases where divorce is reported in the scriptures, but he pointed back to this above passage to establish the meaning of marriage from its creation ordinance. He taught us that God puts a man and woman together in marriage, and what God has joined together man has no authority to separate.
The temptation is to argue that in Genesis God only joined together Adam and Eve -- two individuals. But this argument resists the teaching of Christ, who insisted that Adam and Eve were a paradigmatic couple. When God joined them together, He was joining together every man and woman who has ever come together sexually in a covenant bond. And this paradigm was: One man and one woman.
As important as it is to look at God's way of creating the first marriage, it is also important to see how the first incidence of polygamy is reported in the Bible. After the original fall into sin is reported in chapter 3 of Genesis, then chapter 4 reports the escalation of sin in mankind that is set against God. From the first rebellion against God's command by Adam and Eve, the next step is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and then several generations down the line from this brother murderer Cain, Lamech is born. Two things are noted about Lamech: 1) He married TWO women, and 2) he proudfully boasts to his wives "Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I HAVE KILLED a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times."
This man is not only going against the principle of justice by killing for an injury [instead of 'eye for an eye...'], he even boast about it. Also, the escalation of revenge and sin is clear from the seven to the seventy- seven. It is THIS man who is reported to first marry two wives, probably as expression of his power and strength/wealth. But certainly not because of his piety.
Note: Neither his boasting of murder nor his polygamy are expressedly condemned in this passage. Both are just reported as matters of fact. But the whole composition of the text in chapters 3-4 clearly describes the increase and escalation of sinfulness on the earth. I hope it is not lost on you that one of the two points mentioned about this "pinnacle" of sinfulness [since Lamech is the last of the chain] are murder and polygamy. I agree that polygamy is not on the level of murder as a criminal act - it isn't even a "criminal" act at all. But it is significant that the issue of polygamy in the Bible is FIRST introduced in the context of the increasing development of sinfulness being the rebellion against the will of God. And Biblically it belongs there because it is part of the corruption of God's initial intention of what marriage should be.
This insight that marriage is an image of God's nature/character is not restricted to the first two chapters. This is a theme that runs through the whole Bible. Both positive and negative. What is the part of God's nature that we can know/experience? It is His relationship with us. And that is where this image of a marriage is used over and over again. Positive: God is the "husband" of Israel which is a picture for his love and faithfulness, his care and provision, ... and negative: The idolatery of the people of God is time and again likened to adultary and prostitution. Let me just include two paragraphs from a Bible dictionary.
iii. Figurative Use
Frequently the relationship between God and his people is depicted as that between husband and wife. This imagery is particularly developed in the prophets, which often employ the entire history of a marriage relationship (Jer. 3:1-14; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-3). Among the points so illustrated by the prophets are: the good that befalls the homeless or childless woman when her husband receives her (Isa. 54:1-3; Ezek. 16:8-14); unfaithful wife's entering into prostitution, a metaphor for idolatry (Jer. 3:1-2; Hos.1:2); the unfaithful spouse's misuse in her prostitution and adultery of the good things provided by her faithful spouse (Ezek 16:15-26, 30-34; Hos. 2:8); the unfaithful spouse's desire to remain on friendly terms with her spouse without becomimg faithful herself (Jer. 3:3b-5); the rejection of the unfaithful one (God's judgment of his people - Ezek. 16:27, 35-63; Hos. 2:2 [which contains the text of a bill of divorce], 3-13); the true lover's seeking for his unfaithful beloved (Jer. 3:6-14; Hos. 2:14-20; 3:1-5). and reconciliation, restoration, and rejoicing (Isa. 54:1-8; 62:4-5).
At Eph. 5:22-30, within the context of the ethical code of the ideal household (cf. Col. 3:18-19; 1 Pt 3:1,7), the husband-wife relationsbip is metaphorically applied to the relationship of Christ and the Church; Gen. 2:24 is cited as the foundation for the unity of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-33). At Rev. 19:7-9 the messianic banquet of Christ at the end of the age is depicted as a wedding feast in which the marriage of the Lamb (Christ) and his bride (the Church) is celebrated (cf Matt. 22:2-14, Luke 14:15).
The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Allen C Myers (rev. editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987, pp694-95
The New Testament clearly teaches that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman, one flesh. This is more than a man and a woman agreeing to live together sexually, even with the consent of their society. It is the exclusive commitment of a man and a woman to each other in a lifelong companionship of mutual love and care, until death parts them. Its exclusive nature rules out polygamy as an option for the Christian.
In their teaching on marriage, Jesus and Paul pointed out that this was God's purpose from the beginning. Clearly, God tolerated attitudes to marriage among his ancient people which fell short of his own ideal, because of 'the hardness of their hearts'. Even so, the Old Testament records some bitter experiences of rivalries, jealousies, conspiracies and murders, which were the direct outcome of the polygamous marriages of some of the key personalities in the Old Testament.
From the article "Polygamy" by Gottfried Osei-Mensah in Exploring the Christian Faith A Contemporary Handbook of What Christians Believe and Why Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996, p. 206
Let me specifically quote in full the relevant passage of Ephesians 5:
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-- 30 for we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Without getting into a deep discussion of what all this means in detail, it should be clear to everybody that our roles and expectations for our marriage relationship are defined by the relationship of Jesus Christ to his bride, the Church. And it is a sacrificial, costly love.
And the important thing is not that our marriage relationship is taken as a symbol to understand the relationship of Christ with his church [even though this is true, but we are weak and sinful and hardly ever have perfect marriages] but it is the other way around, we are to orient our marriage life at the character of Christ. We are called again, to reflect the divine image in our natural relationship of husband and wife. And this is yet again, bound together with the creation story, of "one man, one woman, one flesh". This is THE fundamental paradigm.
And there is only one bride of Christ. Even though she is looking very divided on the outside of her "organizational sturctures" in the inside she is one, the true believers of all churches have always recognized that we belong together. And the Bible only speaks of one bride, of one church all the way through. And the prayer for unity is formost on Jesus agenda. See for example his own prayer in John 17 [and John 13:34-35], but also in many other passages. The impact of the church comes from the divine love in the life of the believers that becomes visible to the world, expressed in a clear unity. The fact that Christians often have been disobedient and in disagreement and unloving is judgment on ourselves, but does not detract from the command given and the principles we are supposed to live out.
And our marriages are supposed to be an image for the world to see of how God loves us, how Christ cares for the Church. And a polygamous marriage would distroy this image we are called to display to the world of God's love and power in the transformation of lives. To display the ONE church monogamous marriages are the only way. Hence we cannot allow polygamy for Christians if being Christian means to follow God's will for our life as revealed in his holy word.
The law of Moses was regulating divorce and polygamy as problems of life which are real and have to be dealt with. We are the redeemed of God and no longer under the law, that was given to restrain evil. We are not only on the path of avoidance of evil, but on the path of positively seeking God's highest will and calling and to live out the ideal as best possible in the power and grace that he gives.
Just as divorce was allowed because of the general sinfulness of man, but not as God's original plan, so polygamy for a time had its place in a world that is in general far from God. It might have been at times the lesser evil given the context and circumstances. But because it wasn't as God intended it, even though he allowed it, so it was often the cause of much heartbreak as is clearly seen in many records of these polygamous situations in the Bible, but the Church has also the specific calling of exemplifying God's restoration. We are a new creation. [2 Cor. 5] And as such we are to orient ourselves at what God intended not what he allowed due to the sinfulness in this world. Our sin has been dealt with on the cross and our life here now should be a display of his redemption and the new spirit that he has given us to live our life as He wishes it.
God's power to live differently. We are no longer bound by those laws which only regulated and restrained the evil in this world, but are to set positive examples of what God intended this world to be and what he intended marriage to be. The Christian Church has the calling to display the values and behaviors of God's kingdom and of his character. We are called to orient ourselves on the image God gave us of what marriage was supposed to be, not what God for some time allowed it to be. We are called to live th higher standard, not the easy way out. Yes, often it would be easier not to be a Christian. It isn't allowed for us everything that seems okay for others. But we are called as ambassadors and representatives of God in this world and that has its own standards.
I hope that was somehow clear. I realize that everything I said starting from Ephesians 5 onwards might be very difficult to understand for non- Christians. Since you don't know Christ, how can you understand from his example how a Christian marriage should be? If you don't know true Christian marriages then how can you understand the nature of Christ's relationship to us? But maybe it at least gave you a glimpse. This is so much more bound up with lived reality and cannot adequately expressed on words anyway. Without the experience of true Christian fellowship, all of this will stay somewhat theoretical and unreal.
I want to look at one more passage, since this was brought up in the polygamy discussion from the Muslim side and false conclusions were drawn from it.
1 Timothy 3 explicitely forbids polygamy for church leaders. Let me try to clear up some of the problematic reasoning in regard to this passage with an analogy.
If you read in your car manual in the chapter that describes the maintainance of the transmission system that you have to be very careful that no water gets into the transmission oil would it be reasonable to conclude that since there is no mentioning of of being careful that no water gets into the gas tank, it is perfectly okay to pour water in the gas tank? Everybody knows that this would be a completely inappropriate conclusion. Even if nowhere in the manual is a mentioning of not pouring water in the gas tank, this doesn't mean it is okay.
In a similar way we have to first realize that this is not an exhaustive treatment on polygamy [it isn't a treatment of polygamy at all], but this is a list of qualifications for leadership. If it were a paragraph where different issues related to polygamy are treated then stressing that it is forbidden for leaders and otherwise silence might imply that it is not forbidden for others. But since this is not about polygamy but about leadership requirements a comment on OTHER people is not expected in this passage and if we don't find what we can't even reasonably expect to find then saying "that it is not forbidden means it is allowed" is a very weak argument indeed and as reasonable as the above way of reading the car manual. With these remarks as background let us now look at this passage.
1 Timothy 3:1-15 (in excerpts):
Basically ALL the requirements listed are clearly characteristics EVERY true believer should strife to work for [temperate, gentle, self-controled, honest, not a drunkard, ...] Should we conclude since it is not explicitely mentioned that these are virtues for all it is okay to be drunk, to be greedy, to be violent etc? This would surely be a very sick way of reasoning. Why then should the command to monogamy be the only part of that list which is for leaders ONLY? Is there anything to indicate that this requirement has a special role in this list and while all other requirements are virtues for everybody to strive after, this one is only for leaders and the other people can disregard it if they wish? No, all the listed characteristics are for all the believers but many are maybe young believers, maybe weak people and have not yet reached the progress in character necessary to be a rolemodel. But the goal is the same for all. These are the common standards, but they are the absolute requirements for leadership. Why? The last sentence gives the answer: "I am writing you these instructions so that, ..., you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church, ..." Even though it is express requirement for the leaders, the purpose is that all people from these instructions know how the people of God should live. The final goal is not just for the leaders, but explicitely for all Christians [people in God's household, the church]. Why then are the leaders singled out specifically? Because it is their role as those to whom the others look to learn. That is why they have to be "able to TEACH", since their main function will be to teach the other believers to grow in faith and obedience. But it is clear that you cannot effectively teach what you don't live yourself. The word and the life has to be in congruence. If your life contradicts your words, then your words will not have much effect. Leaders cannot teach the principles of a Biblical marriage if they themselves are not good examples. This function as rolemodels is clearly stressed in the New Testament. The elders do set a pattern for the other believers we are explicitely exhorted to follow the pattern of lived faith of our elders. (Hebrews 13:7,17). The stress for the standard of monogamy for the leaders in the church is because they are to exemplify the will of God for all of God's people in word, deed, character, and behavior.
[One more general remark. Usually polygamy is only an option for the more affluent, for the influential, the successful, who are already leaders in the business world, for those who are the natural leaders of the community. The fact that for those who might be the easiest able to have polygamous marriages it is forbidden is another hint that it actually is envisioned as the general rule. For others it isn't even an option. So there would not be a reason to forbid the impossible.]
Obviously, this is not exhaustive. Much more could be said on the issue of marriage in the Bible and why monogamy is God's standard for us. These are some of my thoughts which I find in their entirety to be very clear.
I hope it helped at least some to understand how Christians look at this and how we interpret the Bible, God's holy word and standard for living.
May God's blessing reach you,
[Some of my ideas and formulations were inspired by the article Discipline of Faithfulness.]
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