Polygamy Post Conversion to Christianity

Question
I live in Iran. I had two wives when I came to the Lord, so what do I do now? Do I have to divorce one? I have children by both. There’s been no adultery.
Answer
God’s people have wrestled with this issue for millennia as the gospel has spread to nations where polygamy is practiced. Unfortunately, Christians have not been of one voice on this question because the Scriptures have been understood in various ways.

On the whole, we would be wise to apply to the question of polygamy the perspectives that Jesus presented on divorce in Matthew 19:3-12. There Jesus insisted on two crucial issues: (1) We should discern God’s ideal for marriage in what happened with Adam and Eve before the Fall into sin, and (2) God’s law does often regulate less than ideal circumstances due to the hardness of his people’s hearts. Yet, the instructions of Scripture allowed for polygamy, but regulated it.

So, let’s look briefly at what the Bible says about polygamy, covenant marriage, and God and vows.

Polygamy

The first record of polygamy mentioned in the Bible was that of Lamech of the cursed line of Cain. Genesis 4:19 states, "And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah." Abraham, Jacob, David, and many others had multiple wives. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Deuteronomy appears to legislate polygamy as a social practice but not condemn it (Deut. 21:15-17). Clearly polygamy is taught in the Bible.

This wasn’t just an Old Testament reality. In the New Testament we also observe that some men had multiple wives. Paul specifically states that someone married to multiple wives may not serve in church leadership. 1 Timothy 3:2 says, "Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach" (cf. 1 Tim. 3:12; Tit. 1:6). So, there were men in the early church that had multiple wives as well.

It is noteworthy that Paul doesn’t condemn polygamy, but regulates the types of church service that are affected by it. While Paul also taught monogamy as God’s ideal (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:32), he understood the complexities of bringing the gospel to cultures that practiced polygamy.

Nowhere in Scripture do we see that polygamy is explicitly forbidden. See "Polygamy OK?" below. Of course, where polygamy is against the law of a country or state, it is biblically outlawed as well (cf. Rom. 13:1-7). However, in many Muslim countries, such as Iran, polygamy is permitted.

Covenant Marriage

God’s ideal marriage is between one naturally born man and one naturally born woman (cf. Mal. 2:14-16). Genesis 2:24 states, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (cf. Eph. 2:21-33). From the very beginning, God designed man and woman to be joined together in marriage with the purpose of reflecting his image, which is the image of the Triune God (cf. Gen. 1:27-28). The Trinitarian God, who has revealed himself as three persons in one being, is the same God who created man and woman as one flesh. As Jesus stated, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh" (Mark 10:7-8; cf. Matt. 19:5; 1 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 5:31).

Marriage is not a mere contract, but a covenant before the Lord. Marriage is a covenant cut between three parties — a man, a woman, and God himself. According to Ephesians 5:21-33, marriage is fundamentally about a commitment, or a vow. It is keeping a covenant with a spouse as a reflection of God’s own covenant with us through Christ Jesus.

Marriage is until death (Rom. 7:1-2; 1 Cor. 7:39). According to Jesus, the only grounds for divorce to be considered are adultery (Matt 19:9) and dissertation (1 Cor. 7:15) — and this because of the hardness of our hearts.

God and Vows

If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Numbers 30:2).

Marriage is a covenant, a vow. It is binding before God. And it’s serious business. God doesn’t take vows lightly.

Let’s consider Jephthah. In Judges 11 we observe a warrior named Jephthah. He was an upright man and skilled leader who was sought out by the people to command an army against the Ammonites. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him (Judges 11:29). Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he made a vow. [1] We're told "Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, 'If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering'" (Judges 11:30-31).

God honored Jephthah’s prayer/vow. The Lord gave the Ammonites into his hand (Judges 11:32-33). Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah. What first came out of his house? It was his daughter. We read of this in Judges 11:34-35:

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow."

The daughter’s reply is significant:

So she said to her father, "Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions" (Judges 11:37)

Both Jephthah and his daughter understood the significance of a vow before the Lord. It must be kept!

Likewise, marriage is a vow before the Lord, and it must be kept!

In Conclusion

What is a man who becomes a Christian to do if he lives in a predominantly Muslim nation where polygamy is legal and he has more than one wife?

Muslim marriages are made between a man and a woman. And the God of the Bible is witness to it. Any marriage is always a covenant before the Lord. I know of no Christian church that doesn’t recognize a Muslim marriage. Why? Because the marriage is understood as being made before God himself.

God’s ideal marriage is between one man and one woman. The Bible regulates but doesn’t forbid polygamy. Vows before God are binding. So, I recommend that converts to Christianity should not divorce any of their wives. They shouldn't discriminate between them, rather love all wives as Christ loves the church. They should care for all that are in their family.

God understands that we live in a broken world and that we have broken lives, but please note some Christians may disagree with this answer.

Footnote

[1] It can be said that Jephthah’s vow was rash and sinful, but please consider some important points:

First, even today in Israel and the surrounding regions, it is not uncommon to have animals going in and out of one’s home. Jephthah may have thought an animal would have been the first one out the door of his home. He may not have intended a human sacrifice at all.

Second, all human sacrifice isn’t necessarily sinful. In the covenant of redemption, God the Father and God the Son were in covenant together. In the midst of the war between the kingdom of darkness (Satan) and the kingdom of light (God), the Bible presents God the Son as the redeemer of God’s elect and God the Father as the one that sovereignly ordained, commands, allows and accepts the Son’s sacrifice. Jesus was sacrificed by the sovereign will of his own Father (Acts 2:23; 4:28). Voluntarily dying for a just cause isn’t sinful. Even in today’s world when a police officer takes a vow to serve and protect and does so by giving his life, we call him a hero.

Much in the same way that vows were made between the Father and the Son, Jephthah also made a vow before God. In both cases, there was war (Gen. 3:15; Judges 11:30-31), and the ones sacrificed willingly gave up their lives (John 10:18; Judges 11:36). Both fathers sacrificed their only child (John 3:16; Judges 11:34). And in both cases, covenant victory was achieved (Col. 2:15; Judges 11:32-33; cf. John 12:31; Eph. 4:8; Col. 2:10). These similarities between these vows are absolutely striking.

However, there is another option that is not inconsistent with what was just stated. We know Jephthah was a man of faith (cf. Heb. 11:32-34). The Spirit was upon Jephthah (Judges 11:29; compare Gideon [Judges 6:34-36] and Samson [14:6, 9; 15:14, 9) and wouldn’t lead him into a sinful vow. Human sacrifices are clearly forbidden in the Law (Deut. 12:31; 18:9-12; cf. 2 Kings 3:27; Isa. 57:5). And in that era, when men returned from battle, women would come forth in a procession to participate in celebratory dancing (cf. Exod. 15:20; Judges 5:28; 1 Sam. 18:6; cf. 2 Sam. 1:20; Psa. 68:25).

So, Jephthah through the Spirit may have been speaking of a human "living sacrifice" (Psa. 51:17; cf. Rom. 12:1) of full-time service to the Lord and a vow of chastity. Jephthah’s daughter even took two months to lament her virginity; "Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions" (Judges 11:37). These types of symbolic offerings are throughout the Old Testament. For instance, in Leviticus 8, Aaron and his sons were symbolically offered to the Lord as a wave offering. Please also see 1 Sam. 1:11, 22-28.

No matter the solution(s) one embraces above, it doesn’t change the reality that covenant vows before the Lord must be fulfilled. Jephthah did that and so must we.

Related Topics

Polygamy OK?
Jephthah and Sinful Vows
Jephthah and Sinful Vows - Part 2

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).