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Sunday, October 18, 2009

A while back, on the newsgroups I was involved in a vigorous discussion on polygamy and why Christians reject it. For some strange reasons many Muslims have the urge to prove to Christians that polygamy is allowed in the Bible. Why can't they accept that Christians do not accept polygamy as a valid alternative? Anyway, after much debate I finished my involvement by posting the below article and hope it will help Muslims to understand why the Christian Church traditionally does not accept polygamy.

The Meaning of Marriage - A Christian Perspective

We did have a vigorous discussion on "polygamy". [For me "did",
even though it might continue, but I am saying goodbye now with
this article as my final message on the issue.]

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.

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.

Genesis 2:

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
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

And yet another inclusion:

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
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):

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an
overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above
reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled,
respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness,
not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money...
He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will
not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap. Deacons, likewise,
are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine,
and not pursuing dishonest gain... They must first be tested; and
then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons....
A deacon must be the husband of but one wife ...
Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these
instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people
ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church
of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

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

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

May God's blessing reach you,

Jochen Katz

Some of my ideas and formulations were inspired by the article