by Ken Hamrick
As soon as homosexual marriage becomes legalized and common-place in all fifty states, you can bet that challenges to anti-polygamy laws will shortly follow. Riding the momentum of the moral revolution, polygamy will be easier to legalize than homosexual marriage. Evangelicals, such as Southern Baptists, should take the time now to sort through this issue and be prepared. What would you say to a repentant, believing man at your altar, asking Christ to save him—and who just happens to have three wives (all by legal marriage)?
The common knee-jerk reaction is to tell him to divorce all but the first wife. But is that counsel Biblically sound? Is not the covenant of marriage to be broken only by death or by adultery? Many would say that any polygamous marriage is no marriage at all and only adultery in legal disguise. However, if we hold Scripture to be our standard, then we find that it contradicts such characterizations of polygamy as adultery. Certainly, Scripture holds up monogamy as the ideal standard of what marriage should be. But although polygamy is not what God intended for marriage, Scripture does not indicate that God sees it as adultery. On the contrary, David had three hundred wives, but did not incur God’s displeasure for his adultery until Bathsheba. And, of course, there are other examples of polygamy in the Old Testament, such as Jacob and Solomon. Dr. Russell Moore, in a recent article on the comparison of divorce with same-sex marriage*, stated:
Take the worst-case scenario of an unbiblically divorced and remarried couple. Suppose this couple repents of their sin and ask to be received, or welcomed back, into the church. What does repentance look like for them? They have, in this scenario, committed an adulterous act (Matt. 5:32-33). Do they repent of this adultery by doing the same sinful action again, abandoning and divorcing one another? No. In most cases, the church recognizes that they should acknowledge their past sin and resolve to be faithful from now on to one another. Why is this the case? It’s because their marriages may have been sinfully entered into, but they are, in fact, marriages.
I think the same thing applies to polygamy: the “marriages may have been sinfully entered into, but they are, in fact, marriages.” Nowhere in Scripture is polygamy called adultery. In fact, if a man has more than one wife and divorces one, then he causes that one to commit adultery by divorcing her. Any man who is the husband of more than one wife is not to be given the office of bishop, but it is not said that he cannot be even a member of the church. While we should expect that no believer would choose polygamy, we also do not find any calls in the epistles for new converts who have more than one wife to divorce all but one.
Marriage is intended to be between one man and one woman for life. However, the intended ideal does not define marriage itself, else those who divorce would disqualify their previous relationship as being a real marriage, since it was not for life—then their next marriage to other people would actually be their first real marriage. But the intended ideal is not the definition. Marriage is not always for life, and (mostly in days of old) marriage is not always between only two people. The fact that new believers were not charged with divorcing any wives in excess of the first shows that it was not continuing in adultery. Less than ideal? Yes. Sin? Quite possibly, but not the kind of sin that disqualifies the marriage.
Those who insist that polygamy is equivalent to adultery (and should disqualify the marriage) have overlooked the main intention of God for marriage. God intends for marriage not only that one believing man and one believing woman become one flesh for life, but also that [heterosexual] marriage itself would be an institution of law, both moral and civil, that is binding and legitimate even when it fails to meet the ideal.
So then, how should we counsel the new believer who married multiple wives before finding Christ? We should counsel him to remain faithful to his wives and abandon none. We should explain to him what the Biblical ideal is for marriage, and that sin has caused him to fall short of that ideal—but how righteousness requires that he honor his marriage vows even in such a regrettable situation.
The battle over marriage ought to drive us to be more precise, not less. Any sweeping condemnations that do not come from the precise truth of Scripture but only from our righteous indignation WILL NOT STAND IN THAT BATTLE. Every exaggeration and inaccuracy in our position is a weakness. You see, the issue is not merely theoretical but on its way to your front door.
Ken Hamrick, 2014
* Russell Moore, “Is Divorce Equivalent to Homosexuality?”, published 9-24-2014, at http://www.russellmoore.com/2014/09/24/is-divorce-equivalent-to-homosexuality/