The New Testament teaching of Oneness in Christ eliminates polygamy
The teaching of the New Testament concerning polygamy must be considered as a whole. As with all Biblical teaching, the understanding of any particular verses must harmonise with other verses which are clear and unequivocal. For example, although Philippians 1v23 could be misread in isolation as teaching immortal-soulism, we know that this cannot be the true meaning because of the clear NT teaching of the mortality of man. We therefore understand the meaning to be that the dead believers "sleep" in Christ, and, having no knowledge of the passing of time, will seem to be instantaneously translated into the presence of the Lord. We need to use this scriptural method of interpretation and verification for all Biblical subjects, including that of polygamy.
For the basic teaching on this subject we must turn to Matthew 19v4-6. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that the provision of God expressed "at the beginning" is that "a man (shall) leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh". The quotation is from Genesis 2v24. In both scriptures we have in view only one "man" and only one "wife". Note the synonymous and constructive parallelism (such figures of speech are explained here - proverbs - page 1). The one "man" has one "wife". They cleave together and they thus become "one flesh".
The Lord's comment was given in response to an enquiry about divorce "for every cause", which was a corruption of the limited provision for divorce contained in Deuteronomy 24v1,2. Hard-hearted men had enlarged this permission to include "every cause". But Jesus in His answer revealed that the provision was only included in the law "because of the hardness of (their) hearts" Matthew 19v8. It was now to be done away with, and the original intention of God was to be re-established.
This raises an interesting and vital question. If the limited provision for divorce under the law was thus nullified, was there any circumstance atall in which divorce could now be granted? The Lord answers this clearly in Matthew 19v9 and 5v32. The only reason for which divorce could henceforth be granted would be "fornication". This was a drastic change from the law, where "fornication" involving married persons was punished by death. (We are not here addressing the various laws relative to "fornication" - it would be unprofitable to do so at this time because the provisions of the law have no application today). However we can detect a consistency in the two provisions, both of which release the innocent party from a marriage which has been corrupted by sin. And although law has been replaced by grace, the character and purpose of God remain eternal.
The evident reason why "fornication" was now to be grounds for divorce was that another flesh was in this way introduced into what was meant to be a "one flesh" union. This principle is stated clearly in both its spiritual and fleshly aspects in 1 Corinthians 6v15-20, where Genesis 2v24 is quoted by Paul. The temporary allowance of polygamy under the law of Moses has now been withdrawn under the law of Christ. Under the law which allowed polygamy there was no assurance that the "one flesh" union (as originally intended by God) would be complied with.
Genesis 2v24 is invoked in Malachi 2v15, and v14-16 make clear the mind of God regarding faithfulness to "the wife of his youth". The purpose of God was to "seek a godly seed". This would be circumvented by "putting away". The background is the example of Judah - "Judah hath dealt treacherously, for Judah hath profaned the holiness of Yahweh which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god" - v11. And polygamy invariably involves an alien woman or women. Consider Deuteronomy 17v17; 1st Kings 11v1-10 etc. In Christ, polygamy has been excluded, and God's original intention of one "man" and one "wife" who become and remain "one flesh" has been restored.
Another key chapter to consider is Ephesians 5v22-33 where Genesis 2v24 is again quoted by Paul. (This is the third place in the NT we have found this quotation, "and a threefold cord is not quickly broken" Ecclesiastes 4v12 - the number three in the Bible is the first number of completion). In this place Paul draws the analogy between natural marriage and the union between Christ and His bride - note "the husband is the head of the wife" (one of each) and "let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband" (again only one of each) - verses 23 & 33.
1 Corinthians 15v45 speaks of the two Adams. As "the first Adam" had his Eve, so "the last Adam" (Jesus Christ) also has His bride. For anyone to refer to the multitudinous aspect of this bride in a disgusting attempt to ally Christ with polygamous believers is completely unscriptural. Psalm 45 speaks of this composite bride and her individual components - "the king's daughter" and "the virgins her companions" (v13,14) - and this simply demonstrates the richness of the Bible tapestry. This glorious picture also comes out strongly in Songs, e.g. chapter 4. As Israel was the national "son" of God, cp Exodus 4v22, so each Israelite should have aspired to individually be the son or daughter of the living God. These two aspects (composite and individual) described above as they apply to all believers are expounded in proverbs - pages 1 & 2. Many other Scriptures - of which Christadelphians are or should be well aware - illustrate these two aspects - e.g. Daniel 10v4-6; Revelation 1v12-16. We must prepare for this future oneness by demonstrating the same principle now - see 1 Corinthians 12v11-14,27; Galatians 3v27-29; Ephesians 4v3-6; 5v30. This is our destiny in Christ if so be we are shaped after the Divine pattern.
Allied to and reinforcing the above teaching of monogamy in Christ we read in 1 Corinthians 7v2 "let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband". In Christ there is one "husband" and one "wife". The expression of this verse - another synonymous and constructive parallelism - requires that anyone promoting polygamy must also promote polyandry - we think this would be "a bridge too far" for any fleshly-minded man who would destroy the love and happiness of his true wife to satisfy his own evil desires. And how can such a man, continuing in his sin, fulfil the admonition to "love his wife even as himself" and also many other commandments? To such a continuing sinner the words of John the Baptist are applicable - "bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance" - Matthew 3v8. And Paul commands "works meet for repentance" - Acts 26v20.
A brother who engages in polygamy also engages in "fornication" for which the true wife can obtain divorce (subject to the limitations outlined in page 1). And the true wife (if a sister) will, like the rest of the believers, not tolerate the unrepentant sin of her husband. She will not eat with and nor will she live as a wife with a continually sinning unrepentant husband. In practical terms this usually means that she will leave him, taking her children with her, & will be supported (if necessary) by other believers. All believers will follow the command of Paul in 1 Corinthians 5v9-11.
A significant insight into the mind of God on this matter is brought into view in the history of Sarah and Hagar, the two wives of Abraham. This polygamous situation only came about through a lack of faith on the part of Sarah. However she came to realise her mistake, and on two occasions effected the banishment of the bondwoman. On the second occasion, which also involved Hagar's son Ishmael, she stated "Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac" - Genesis 21v10. Her demand was shown to have Divine sanction when Paul, quoting these words in Galatians 4v30 to support his allegory of the superiority of grace over law, precedes them with the significant question "what saith the scripture?"
The prospect of the above scriptural procedure and discipline acts as a strong deterrent to brothers who might be tempted to sin. They know that they cannot add any extra "wife" - and if they attempt to do so will inevitably lose their sister-wife. Because any other woman is always an alien (i.e. a non-believer) the choice is a stark one. The scriptural principles involved are found in Deuteronomy 13v5,11; 17v12,13; 19v19,20; 21v21; 1 Timothy 5v20. We are not dealing in this article with the sin of marriage to an alien, for which established scriptural procedures apply.
When we look at 1 Timothy 3v1-13 and Titus 1v4-9 we are given the qualifications for "bishops" and "deacons". One of these qualifications is "the husband of one wife". The question has been asked, if this command only applies to bishops and deacons, may there not be some leeway for others in Christ to not be "the husband of one wife"? This is the type of passage which critics of the Bible seize on, thinking to show that such "contradictions" disprove the reliability of the Bible. However as Christadelphians we know there must be an explanation which is consistent with the clear teaching of one "man" and one "wife" considered above.
It should be stated here that with only those meeting the qualification of being "the husband of one wife" being selected as "bishops" and 'deacons", the ecclesias would always have before them the glorious teaching of Christ and His one bride as discussed above - Ephesians 5v22-33 being especially applicable. This example could not be guaranteed if polygamous brothers (assuming there were such - see below) were eligible to serve.
Rather than trying to make tortured "explanations" (cobbled together for nefarious purposes into a mould which they do not fit) it is sound exegesis and exposition (whatever the subject, whether Divine or profane) to seek for the true explanation which fits all of the facts. Such an explanation is found in the realisation that the circumstances of a certain class of believers have not been provided for by specific command. And we need to remember that the Bible gives us certain basic principles on all subjects, thus allowing us to apply these principles to related matters.
Marriage and the related matter of polygamy is one such example. As we have seen above, polygamy is excluded for brothers in Christ. Male candidates for baptism who are already married cannot add another woman to an existing marriage as an extra wife after they have been baptized and taken upon themselves the obligation to obey the commandments of Christ. If such disobey they cannot be retained within the ecclesia while they continue in disobedience. In reality they are committing "fornication", and fornicators cannot be retained in fellowship, as is made very plain in the New Testament Scriptures. It might be added here that such disobedience always involves alien women, therefore adding sin to sin.
The believers about whom there was no direct command were those who had already contracted polygamous marriages under the law of Moses, which permitted them. There may also have been converts from paganism who were polygamous. Such believers would have been accepted for baptism under the principle of 1 Corinthians 7v24 (in a chapter speaking mainly of marriage)- "Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God". Supporting this understanding is the fact that nowhere in the NT do we find any command to break up a pre-existing polygamous marriage. And there are spiritual and practical considerations which support such a position. But their new status as brothers in Christ means they are henceforth subject to His commands, one of which is one "man" and one "wife". They cannot change the past, but must conform in the future. See above paragraph where the consequences of disobedience are discussed.
A proponent of polygamy has endeavoured to twist the above clear scriptural teaching by asserting (in an endeavour to teach polygamy) that the Greek word translated "one" wife in Timothy and Titus should be rendered exclusively as "first". If the discussion of the meaning of this word were to take place within the clear scriptural teaching of one "man" and one "wife", we could have an exchange of views. But when the proponent of polygamy tries to prove that it means "first" in the context of "many" - i.e. the first wife among others contemporaneously, there is nothing to discuss, because as we have seen above, this assertion is not consistent with clear and consistent Bible teaching.
The Greek word 'mia' translated "one" has the meanings of "one, first, agree" etc. However it is translated many times in contexts which cannot mean "first". For example Matthew 17v4 where Peter suggests to Jesus the erection of "three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias". The word translated "one" three times is 'mia', and obviously cannot mean "first". Again, Matthew 5v18 tells us "one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled". Here "one" tittle is from 'mia', and cannot be translated as "first". And "one" jot is from a related word with a similar meaning, so the same thing applies. Many other examples can be cited, which any Bible student is able to find via the use of a good concordance.
As mentioned above, a discussion could be held concerning the aspect of "first" if it were to be understood in the context of only one wife. However we would not be able to limit our understanding even then in this way because we cannot definitively prove that this is meant to be the only meaning in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In 1 Timothy 5v9 the same related word as noted in the above paragraph is used - "having been the wife of one man". The meaning here is obvious. But in the above passages, while "first" may express the ideal, because the word has the several meanings as shown above, especially simply "one" (in which way it is translated correctly multiple times) we cannot so limit it.
In conclusion, where we do not have any definitive command beyond simply "the husband of one wife", surely the only possible way we can apply these verses is as follows:
A brother chosen for ecclesial office should be "the husband of one wife". This is the minimum requirement. If that wife is his first and only one, so much the better. But beyond the minimum qualification we cannot go. We are on safe scriptural ground in taking this position.
SUMMARISING OUR POSITION: The New Testament clearly teaches the one "man" and one "wife" principle for those in Christ. The belief in or practice of polygamy is a reason for withdrawal until such time as this false belief or practice has been renounced and discarded. Believers will act in accordance with scriptural precept towards the sinner. This summarises the scriptural position of sound Christadelphians since the re-discovery of the Truth over 150 years ago, and the position remains the same today.
The exalted theme of ONENESS in Christ and Christian marriage is built upon the ONENESS of God Himself (Deuteronomy 6v4 quoted by Jesus Christ in Mark 12v29) and the ONENESS of the Father and the Son (John 10v30). Again we have "a threefold cord" which "is not quickly broken". In the beautiful prayer on behalf of His disciples in John 17, the Lord asks His Father: "That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" - verse 21. See Ephesians 4v6 - "One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all". Zechariah 14v9 tells us of the future fulfilment for those who demonstrate this principle of ONENESS now - "And Yahweh shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall Yahweh be one, and his name one" - see RV. It is to this exalted hope we are called in Christ, and only those who follow the pattern will be granted that unity of Divine nature. It starts now with our diligent mental and moral application of the principles set forth in the word of God "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" - 2 Timothy 3v16.