We live in a day of unprecedented social change. The forces which have brought about everything from radical Islam to the redefinition of marriage and family have been at work for a long time, but it’s only more recently that their fruit has ripened unto harvest. It’s not as if there haven’t been those who have sought to stem the tide of these changes. But many of us refused to heed their warnings, and now we find ourselves up to our necks in cultural conditions for which we are not sufficiently prepared.
This is not the first time that societies that have had considerable biblical influence in the past have fallen into significant moral decay. And since God is still King, we can rest assured the world is not spinning out of control. Far from it! Not only will he one day call everyone to account; even now he is at work to fulfill his purposes. This doesn’t imply, however, that we should sit back and do nothing. Or worse, go with the flow and celebrate misguided and destructive value systems. Instead, God’s ongoing presence and power should embolden us to engage the culture as never before.
In order to do this effectively, we need to be biblically informed. Mindlessly spouting traditional values assuming they are biblical isn’t enough to withstand the constant barrage of ungodly propaganda or those who use the Bible to justify it. It is this misuse of the Bible that I wish to address here.
More and more people are claiming the Bible supports the ever-expanding alternatives to marriage and family. They do so in two ways. First, they tell us that passages that have historically been used to forbid certain behaviors, particularly homosexuality, have been wrongly applied. They claim that a proper understanding of the contexts reveals that only very specific kinds of sexual expressions were to be regarded as sinful. The argument continues that since current behaviors were not in mind in these passages, they should be permitted.
This approach to Scripture is flawed for at least a couple of reasons. First, how do we know that these contexts do in fact limit the directives contained therein? This is a case where a supposed understanding of the cultural background is being used to determine the meaning of a text. While historical and cultural background can be helpful, it is not to be confused with the Scriptures’ own authority. Not only do we not have the ability to determine beyond a reasonable doubt the exact cultural issues of those days, even if we did, that is no guaranty that the relevant passages are speaking to those cultural practices alone.
Second, a biblical derived understanding of marriage and family doesn’t depend on prohibitions alone, but also upon both explicate and implicit passages about God’s design of human community. The institutions of marriage and family were not the product of social engineering. They were established by God. The first two chapters of Genesis reveal God’s ideal structure for the building of human civilization: children were to emerge through the life-long commitment between one man and one woman. This is the primary biblical context within which the rest of the Bible is revealed. It is this that enables us to properly understand God’s directives regarding adultery, divorce, marriage, and family.
Yeshua’s teaching on divorce is most instructive in this regard. When he was asked to comment on what appeared to be the Torah’s permissive view of divorce, he said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:8-9). While divorce was permitted, it was never a best practice as far as God was concerned.
So, does that mean divorce is permitted or not? Is Yeshua now forbidding his followers to do something that Torah had permitted? No, rather he was providing a truly godly understanding of God’s revelation through Moses. If you look at the passage from Deuteronomy referenced here, you will see it is not actually permitting divorce, but forbidding a man from remarrying a woman he had divorced, who had a second divorce from the subsequent marriage. Acknowledging and regulating an activity is not the same as permitting it. Yeshua was saying that, based on Genesis, the people of Israel should have upheld the ideal standard of lifelong monogamous marriage all along.
Polygamy, like divorce, was also tolerated in Scripture. Not only is it not forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Covenant Writings also appear to generally tolerate it, since it is only forbidden for certain spiritual leaders (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1-13). Therefore some may say that it is right to assert that polygamy is biblical.
I bring this up for two reasons. One, how we deal with the explicate and implicit biblical references regarding polygamy affects how we determine the Bible’s take on other social and moral issues, whether they are mentioned in the Bible or not. On the one hand classic liberalism asserts that Scripture is so culturally bound that so much of it is irrelevant to modern times. On the other hand when evangelicals require chapter and verse as the only basis of truth and practice, there is a tendency to miss out on the fullness of the whole Bible, especially those Scriptural elements that provide very clear implications for godly living.
The second reason why I mention polygamy is that there is already an indication that countries, such as the United States and Canada, which for so long had determined that it was not in their best interest for their people to have multiples spouses are already beginning to rethink that position. As the culture becomes even more open to changing our understanding of marriage and family, it is necessary to take a closer look at what the Bible actually teaches about this.
Even though there are no explicit prohibitions again polygamy (apart from the exceptions I mentioned already), as we saw with divorce, Yeshua didn’t need a prohibition to impress upon the people how bad something really was. But that was Yeshua, right? He had the authority to establish truth in the moment, did he not? But that was not what he was doing in that case. He was providing the correct understanding and application of Scripture. Just because we don’t have his comments on polygamy, that doesn’t mean we can’t use a similar interpretive technique. While polygamy is not forbidden, like divorce, the Bible paints it in a negative light. Polygamous relationship were always problematic. That’s why in the New Covenant Writings, if men were in such relationships, it was sufficient reason alone to disqualify them from being elders or deacons. If leaders were called to such a standard, what impression do you think the people would get? It’s not as if monogamy was special just for leadership. For as we saw with the divorce issue, God instituted monogamy as the marriage standard. In his wisdom he didn’t forbid it in biblical times. Rather he controlled it, so as to provide the best way to protect women and children in a society that embraced it. That is why even today, we should be careful when confronting polygamy in cultures of which it is still a part. Dismantling polygamous households will do more damage than good. In those cases, providing good godly controls upon this substandard form of marriage is the best approach. But for societies that have already attained to God’s best practice of monogamous marriage, to reintroduce polygamy is not only a disservice to all involved, it is simply not biblical.
Whether it is divorce, polygamy or anything else, let us call one another to God’s ideal standards. Why settle for anything less?