Does God endorse polygamy?

Occasionally I am asked about polygamy.  We see this practiced by some of the characters of the Bible.  This sometimes gets Christians scratching their heads.  images Recently, someone who wanted my help thinking through this topic said, “Polygamy is in the Bible…and I don’t recall polygamy being directly addressed in the Bible as a sin (10 commandments, etc.)  

Sometimes Christians are confused when they see examples of important Bible characters such as Abraham or David involved in polygamous relationships. Unbelievers and skeptics will use an issue like this to “prove” that the Bible is antiquated, irrelevant, and even immoral when viewed in a modern context. The presence of polygamy in the Bible fuels the notion that the Scriptures are anti-woman and chauvinistic. Others see an inconsistency in the Christian’s stance on marriage being between one man and one woman in light of the instances of Old Testament polygamy.  Still others have responded with believing that God actually does or at one time endorsed polygamy. The heretical Mormon religion, in it’s earliest years, believed that polygamous practice was acceptable. While Mormon authorities eventually declared that polygamy must end among it’s members, we find that today, certain Mormon influenced groups continue to engage in this practice.

How are we to respond to this issue?

imagesAs Bible believing Christians, we must recognize that a very important principle of biblical interpretation is to recognize the difference between what the Bible “describes” and what it “prescribes.” Those two things are not always one and the same. For example, when Judas hangs himself, we are not given a prescription on how Christians should deal with their guilty conscience. The text is simply giving a description of what happened.

There are many passages in the Bible that are clearly prescriptive. That is, they are telling you what to do as one of God’s people. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching us not to worry, to be peacemakers, to pray for our enemies, and so on. The New Testament epistles are filled with prescriptions, instructions for the church in how we are to live towards God, one another, and the world.

On the other hand, there are also many passages in the Bible that are descriptive. That is, they give an historically accurate description of events that have taken place. Just because they are descriptive doesn’t mean we can’t learn from these passages.  Indeed, the apostle Paul, writing about the Old Testament revelation, says,

…whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction… (Romans 15:4)

However, we have to be a little more careful with historical narratives as it describes everything…the good, the bad, and the ugly!

So as we come to this topic of polygamy, we see that the Bible describes a number of polygamous situations. How are we to view this?  And how is this to shape our understanding of biblical marriage?

I think the first place we should turn to shape our theology of marriage is not to polygamous David but to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  When He was asked a question about marriage, Jesus’ imagesanswer is quite informative. Jesus said,

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

 Jesus’ standard for marriage is ONE man and ONE woman, indivisible, for life. Period.

Now, I suppose one might say, “Well sure, but Jesus said that hundreds of years after David and Abraham. So maybe Jesus’ teaching was something new that hadn’t been heard before.”  But that isn’t true.

Actually, Jesus says absolutely nothing new. In fact, Jesus’ response is, “Have you not read?” In the parallel account in Mark 10:3, Jesus asks, “What did Moses command you?” Jesus wants to take his questioners back to the Scriptures, to the writings of Moses. When He says, “Have you not read?” it’s His way of saying, “Folks, read your Bibles! God has already spoken about marriage and I don’t have anything to add!”

And so Jesus takes them back to the writings of Moses. Way back. All the way to the beginning of the Bible and He quotes Genesis chapter 2 which says, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’

Again- ONE man. ONE woman. For LIFE. Period.

While many people hold that polygamy isn’t directly addressed in the Bible, we actually see that the Bible’s most clear and powerful word against polygamy is a word in the Bible’s opening pages that tells us what marriage really is and how God designed it from the beginning. What’s more, as we keep reading Genesis we also see that a departure from God’s good design for marriage and sex is associated with disobedience and reaps painful consequences.

imagesIn Genesis 2 God designs the standard for marriage.  In Genesis 3 sin is introduced into the human race.  In Genesis 4 we see the devastating outworking of sin in the human race and we meet the first polygamist, who is Lamech, a descendent of the evil Cain.  Godless Lamech follows in Cain’s violent footsteps, singing a boastful, ego-centric song to his two wives of his murderous vengeance upon another man.

In Genesis 16, we see that Abram’s taking on of a second wife, Hagar, was clearly done due to Abram’s and Sarai’s lack of trust in God.   On the one hand, God had promised Abram offspring. On the other hand, Abram was old and Sarai was infertile. In an attempt to “help God out”, Sarai suggested Abram take a younger woman to have a child by, and that child could become Sarai’s.

So the driving factor behind this polygamous union was a lack of faith. What’s more, we images
are given the details of the conflict that arises in Abram’s home when his two wives clash. As you read the story, it becomes obvious that Abram’s polygamous departure from the Genesis 2 design for marriage brought some unpleasant and painful circumstances into their family. You reap what you sow.

The next polygamous character we see in Genesis is Esau. Esau, of course, is hardly the model of godliness. He was a violent and sinfully impulsive man, unspiritual and totally disregarding of God. The book of Hebrews describes him as unholy and sexually immoral. So whereas in Genesis 16 polygamy is associated with a lack of faith in God, in Genesis 26, polygamy is associated with the ungodliness of Esau. Indeed, he took two pagan wives and these women made life bitter for the family. (Gen 26:34-35)

imagesThe next character who engages in polygamy is Esau’s brother, Jacob. A man who, in his early years is of dubious moral character. We are introduced to Jacob in Genesis 25, and we see a man who for many years relied on his own wits more than God’s wisdom, and he seems hardly better than Esau. It is not until halfway through Genesis 32 that Jacob appears to turn a corner spiritually. Until then, he makes a lot of mistakes and learns some hard lessons. Among those was the marrying of multiple wives. You can read Jacob’s story yourself but even a cursory reading makes it clear that much heartache, pain, family dysfunction, and a proliferation of further sin sprang forth due to Jacob’s deviation from God’s design for marriage and sex.

It must be noted that polygamy, while typically legal in ancient near east cultures, was usually only practiced by those who were wealthy. It takes much resources to sustain multiple wives and all the children that come with such a situation. The instances of polygamy I just mentioned were all people from Abraham’s very wealthy family.   We should not believe that all men in the ancient near east had more than one wife.

Regardless, there is not a single instance in Genesis where polygamy is depicted as something wonderful and desirable. Indeed, we see in Genesis many examples of the damage caused by a rejection of God’s plan for marriage and sex.  Homosexuality, rape, prostitution, selfishness in marriage, etc.  All these practices are associated with godlessness, heartache, and strife. If only we had the wisdom to follow God’s wisdom! If only we would base our view of marriage on what the Designer of marriage says about it!

Genesis 2 is God’s clear, unambiguous word against any perversion of God’s design, including polygamy, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book.  However, Genesis is not the only book that informs our thinking about polygamy.

Because polygamy was typically a temptation for the wealthy and powerful, those who were most vulnerable to this sin were rulers and kings.images

The Bible is aware of this, and speaks directly to it. God knew that one day Israel would have kings, and God, through Moses, gives special instructions for those who would one day rule Israel. In Deuteronomy 17 God specifically says the king must not acquire many wives for himself. (17:17) This doesn’t mean that non-kings can go ahead and acquire many wives!  Genesis 2 applies to everyone, whether princes or paupers. But in Deuteronomy, God is specifically dealing with kings, the ones who will be in the best position to violate Genesis 2. What’s more, the kings of Israel were to be “God’s Anointed” or God’s “Messiah”, who would represent God to the people and who would represent the people to God.   In Deuteronomy 17:17, God specifically warns that the accumulation of wives will turn the king’s heart away from God.

Sadly, despite God’s warning, we see kings violating this standard.

King David ended up with several wives and if you study his family you’ll see that a lot of strife resulted in this.

imagesThe worst offender was Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. And, once again, we see this associated with sin and rebellion. Not surprisingly, God’s ominous prediction in Deuteronomy 17:17 comes true.

For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God… (1 Kings 11:4)

Instead of being God’s Messiah to the people, leading them to God, he ends up leading the way in rebellion, sacrificing to the detestable gods of the pagans instead.

As usual, the departure from God’s standards of marriage and sex are seen to be foolish, ugly, and destructive.

In Ecclesiastes 2, Solomon looks back on his life and all of the ways he sought to content himself outside of God, including his massive harem building.  And yet, at the end of it all, Solomon concludes such pursuits wastes ones life.  He writes,

Then I considered all that my hands had done…and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

Let me be quick to add that while I have been pointing out a lot of the negative familial and relational consequences that come with polygamy, I do not mean to say that we ultimately judge whether something is right or wrong by whether or not we think things are going smoothly in the wake of our action. For awhile, things were probably going quite smoothly for the wealthy, comfortable citizens of Sodom, until the fire came…

My point is simply that God has allowed us, the reader, to take a peek into the lives of these people and show us the fallout that came from trusting their own wisdom and feelings as opposed to God’s. God set the standard in Genesis 2, people violated the standard, and God gives us, the readers, a front row seat, as He allows us to see man’s futile and foolish attempts to build a life outside of Him and His ways.  Such a life comes crashing down in the end.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Prov 16:25)

God’s reason for designing marriage the way He did is not arbitrary. God’s not out to kill our pleasure and steal our joy. In the end, everything that God does is for the benefit and joy of His people, but everything He does is also for His glory.

There are many wonderful reasons why God created marriage, but there is an ultimate reason behind it all.

The apostle Paul describes marriage as a profound mystery that has been fully revealed in the wake of the redemptive work of Christ. He says,

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)

The reason why God created marriage the way He did in Genesis 2 is because it best imagesreflects the image He wants to convey, which is the relationship Jesus has with His wife, the Church.

The reason why the husband is supposed to lead and self-sacrificially pour out his life for the benefit of his bride is because that is exactly what Jesus did for His Bride.

The reason why the wife is to joyfully follow the lead of her husband, respecting and submitting to him is because that is exactly how the Church responds to Christ.

The reason why adultery is wrong is because Jesus is always faithful to His Bride.

The reason why spousal abuse is wrong is because Jesus never abuses His Bride.

The reason why sex before marriage is wrong is because Jesus became united to His Bride through a covenant promise.

The reason why polygamy is wrong is because Jesus only has ONE Bride, the Church!

Every deviation from God’s design for sex and marriage tells lies about Jesus Christ and the gospel.

Unlike the failed kings of the Old Testament, Jesus Christ is the perfect Messiah, the perfect husband, and all marriages are to be patterned after His special relationship with His Bride.

As we come to grasp God’s ultimate purpose for marriage, is it not a wonderful thing to know that in Genesis 2, when God the Father brings Adam and Eve together in marriage, He is thinking about more than just Adam and Eve?  He is also thinking about a damsel in distress. He is thinking about a people who are enslaved by a terrible dragon called the devil. A people in bondage to sin and death. And in such a people the Father sees a Bride for His Son.

imagesAs God officiates that first wedding between Adam and Eve, His mind already has in place a plan to send His Son into the world to win a Bride for Himself. Jesus Christ enters into creation, crushes the dragon through His victory on the cross, and purchases His Bride with His own blood. He takes this Bride, tattered and stained by sin and cleanses her, gives her new clothes, gives her a new life, and prepares a home for her. And Jesus says to us, His beloved,

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:2-3)

The Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not commit polygamy.” It actually says much, much more.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Demer

 

 

Embrace the Weirdness!

onward-PPT-standard-church

I want to introduce a new Sunday morning Bible study that I will be leading for the adults at Harbins starting this Sunday, January 10th.  The study will use Russell Moore’s new book, Onward, to guide us as we consider what Biblical Christianity looks like in a culture that is rapidly changing. With the ever-divisive “culture wars,” increasing terrorism fears, and rapidly approaching elections, this Biblical study is certainly designed for such a time as this!

As our culture changes, it is no longer possible for Christians to pretend that we are the moral majority. That may be bad news for America, but it can be very good news for the church. Nominal Christianity won’t work anymore. Nor can Christians double-down on the status quo or retreat into isolation. Instead, the church must boldly speak to the defining social and political issues of our time with a much bigger vision in mind: that of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As Christianity seems increasingly strange–and even subversive–to our culture, it’s time to embrace the distinctiveness of the Christian faith and to be marginalized for the sake of the gospel.

Here’s a short word from Russell Moore:

I hope you can join us this semester as we push onward with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In Him,

Pastor Steve

 

Making Our Way Through the Cultural Fog

It was a trip that I will never forget. I was in the backseat of our Isuzu Trooper (an early forerunner of the SUV) as my father drove through the Andes Mountains on a very, very narrow road covered by very, very thick fog. We were on our way to Manglaralto, a quiet beach on the coast of Ecuador, for our missionary year-end-retreat. We had made the trip many times before, but due to the weather conditions this particular trip was scary.

FogAheadThe weather got so bad that my dad had to pull over at one of the little villages that populate the roadside. I remember him entering a small tienda (store) and a few minutes later coming out while conversing with a heavy-set Ecuadorian man. I watched the man get into a large truck parked a few yards from our car as my dad hurriedly entered our car. My dad then announced that this man was going to help us navigate the fog and get down the mountain. How was this to happen? Well, the man told us to stick to the rear of his truck and keep our eyes on his tail-lights and he would guide us down the narrow, winding roads.

My first thought was, “What if he goes off the side of the mountain?” But dad trusted him, and I had no say in the matter, so for the next few hours we slowly and carefully stayed glued to the rear-end of that truck. Dad kept his focus on the truck’s tail-lights and needless to say, we made it safely through the fog and down the mountain.

I am reminded of that incident when I consider the thick cultural fog that we have drifted into as a nation. You could feel the fog thickening as our culture celebrated the “gender-transition” of one our country’s most iconic Olympic athletes.That event was closely followed by the landmark decision by our Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage. Those developments should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying any sort of attention to our nation’s consistent cultural drift toward the idolatry of absolute sexual autonomy, but they were troubling none-the-less.

crossroadI sat down last week intending to write some reflections after the Supreme Court decision, but I really found that I had nothing to add to the conversation. There were plenty of resources and websites already available to help people think through these issues (like those listed here). So, I deleted all that I had written and decided to think about my local church. How can I help Harbins Community Baptist Church navigate these murky days? Certainly I can point them to some of the resources that I linked to above, but what basic Biblical truths will serve as the tail-lights that will guides us through this fog? I zeroed in on five things we must do:

  1. We must rest in God’s sovereignty. I have often said that the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty its he sweetest doctrine that I hold to. I feel that even more intensely during days like these. The only way the true church will endure this moment in history, just as it has endured worse moments in the past, is to rest in the clear Biblical truth that our God rules with absolute and unquestioned sovereignty and that there is nothing happening in this dark world that is outside of His perfect and providential purposes. We must believe that! Our faith will not survive unless it is anchored to a rock-solid belief that our God rules absolutely. Now, the type of sovereignty I’m talking about is not the namby-pamby, weak-kneed “sovereignty” that most evangelicals embrace which treats God like a absent Landlord in need of a good PR firm to make up for the evils that seek past his notice. No, I’m talking the absolute sovereignty that the Apostle Paul embraced when he said that, “from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). I’m talking about a God who “does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), who says, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 43:10). I’m talking about reading and believing verses like Lamentations 3:37 which proclaim, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” I’m talking about pastors standing in the pulpit of God’s true church urging the people to believe in the God who says, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). God is holy and just and good and loving and absolutely sovereign over good and evil, including the evil fog of our day.
  2. We must recognize man’s total depravity. The doctrine of the total depravity of man is key to both understanding and being compassionate toward those caught in up in the various expressions sexual brokenness that are celebrated in our culture. The view, commonly held by Christians of our day, that all men are in their heart-of-hearts essentially good may be well intentioned but it’s Biblically ignorant. The Bible clearly teaches “that the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). The Biblical view of man’s spiritual condition is outlined in Romans 3 where we read that, “no one does good, not even one.” It’s only when we believe what the Bible teaches about depravity that we can understand how and why the world becomes futile in it’s thinking and why it embraces and even celebrates unnatural relationships. But the scriptural understanding of depravity also helps us see that every single one of us are lost and broken, and apart from the saving and transforming grace of God, we would remain in our spiritually-dead, totally-depraved state: 1Corinthians 6:9-11: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” So depravity helps to understand the fog and have compassion for those still lost in it.
  3. We must return to the church’s mission. If people are indeed depraved and in need of radical transformation, then the church must stay on mission. I’m afraid that the church in general has experienced some significant mission creep over the past couple of decades. Somehow the mission of the church shifted from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) to social justice. The church certainly should be engaged in social good and seeking justice, but the problem with affixing the church’s mission to social justice is that social justice is a moving mark. The moment same-sex marriage became a matter of social justice in the eyes of the world, was the moment many in the church found themselves confused and straying off-course. The result for many wasn’t a course correction, but a capitulation. But the Bible makes clear that the mission of the church isn’t social justice, the mission of the church is the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The gospel message will certainly fuel good deeds, but it will also anchor us to the unchanging truth of God’s Word. To show true love to the world is to speak the good news of grace, but a grace that doesn’t overlook sin but instead overcomes it: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). The gospel message is the only means of lifting the fog of sin that settles on every human being.
  4. We must remember our citizenship. If we truly have experienced life-transforming grace, then we have also been given a new citizenship. A couple of days ago we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day, and as I watched fireworks and enjoyed a Fourth of July rodeo, I found myself experiencing a weird mixture of national pride and deep lament over where our nation is currently heading. For many the lament over our nation direction can sometimes border on despair and fear. But I was reminded that no matter how far this nation drifts from its Christian roots, no matter how pervasive secularism becomes, my ultimate citizenship is that of a different kingdom. I am a citizen of heaven first, and The United States of America second. I am thankful that I was saved out of the domain of darkness and brought into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). When Christ returns we know that the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord (Revelation 11:9) and that includes America, but until that day we must remember that we are strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11). We lay hold of our true citizenship by looking to a lasting city, a city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14). And we stand strong by being grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28). Only when we understand our higher citizenship will we endure the deep sorrow we feel about this nations’ trajectory.
  5. We must realize who our true enemy is. With the animus that is now aimed at those who oppose the secular doctrine of absolute sexual autonomy it is easy to forget who our real enemy is. Though the world may hate us and even harm us for our beliefs, the Scriptures are clear that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Keeping these truths in mind will allow us to maintain a winsome witness in the midst of pervasive persecution. These truths will allow us to walk in wisdom toward outsiders (Colossians 4:5), and they will drive us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We must not forget the Apostle Peter’s words given to a generation of Believers who were living in much more perilous times than we do: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11-12). We must allow God to be our defender while we loving fight the good fight of faith.

I know there is much more to say, and much more has already been said by men and women much smarter than me, but these are at least some of the foundational Biblical truths that I want to encourage our church to hold tightly to if are to make it through the fog. I pray that God will give us grace to be faithful during these challenging days.