Genesis 2:24 - What is 'one flesh', anyway?
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
For a discussion of what it means to be 'one flesh', please see Matthew 19:3-6 below.
This index is for ready reference to specific passages, but skipping around the index is not really the best way to come to grips with what the bible has to say about marriage. For a basic introduction to and summary of the biblical argument for plural marriage, please go to the Introduction page. Otherwise, click on the links below for a discussion of the text. If there's a bible passage you'd like to get our take on that you don't see here, please let us know using the form in the footer below, and we'll add your verse(s) to the list as soon as we can.
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
For a discussion of what it means to be 'one flesh', please see Matthew 19:3-6 below.
And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah. And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt.
Some people point to this verse and argue that the "first mention" rule, whatever that is, indicates that (a) since the first mention of polygamy in the Bible is this passage, and (b) the first polygamist so mentioned is this guy Lamech, and (c) Lamech was a murderer, and (d) murder is evil, therefore (e) polygamy is evil. In other words, a+b+c+d=e. Sometimes it is argued further that since Lamech is the first mention, that means he originated the practice of polygamy. Everything was monogamously fine until Lamech came along.
The first time shoes appear in scripture is when Moses is told to take his shoes off in front of the burning bush. Does that mean Moses invented shoes? Or that anyone who wears shoes is a prophet?
Lamech was a polygamist and a murderer, so polygamy must be wrong? So what about the thousands of monogamous men who commit murder, or rape, or any other crime? Does that mean monogamy is wrong?
Turn it around: The first mention of murder in the Bible is when Cain rose up and slew Abel. Cain was a farmer; does that make farming evil?
For the record, Lamech was the father (with one wife) of the guy who developed musical instruments, and he was the father (with the other wife) of the guy who started metalworking. Are these industries tainted because their pappy was polygamous? If not, why not? Is polygamy okay because music and metalworking are okay? If not, why not?
If Lamech’s polygamy had anything to do with his murder of another man (or his boasting, which seems to be the real problem), we could expect to see some connection made in the text, like, “Lamech’s wives drove him to murder” or something. Lamech's polygamy is irrelevant.
Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee. But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.
Some have called Abraham's incident with Hagar "a low point in [Abraham’s and Sarah’s] faith”. Whether or not this is true, it doesn’t have anything to do with polygamy. The problem is that Abe and Sarah had a specific word from God, and they chose to take matters into their own hands rather than wait for God to fulfill his promise. The problem is the heart condition (unbelief), not the tool that is used to act out the problem of the heart.
Abraham was called the “friend of God” (James 2:23; see also Isaiah 41:8 and 2 Chronicles 20:7) and is the patriarch of our entire faith. Okay, he waffled a little on his faith that one time, but let’s not confuse the issues. The real problem is that he cooked up a plan to get what he thought was coming, instead of waiting and trusting God. The means he used to get what he wanted were not the problem; the impatience and doubt were the problems.
Actually, there’s an argument that says the problem is that he listened to his wife, who had the Bright Idea in the first place. Maybe the real teaching of the story is that husbands should never listen to their wives....
If God promised a couple today a child, and they grew tired of waiting after a few years and resorted to in vitro fertilization, would that ‘prove’ that in vitro fertilization was wrong for everyone?
As usual, there is nothing in the record in Genesis that says God ever frowned upon the whole Hagar thing; in fact, God blessed Hagar and Ishmael quite generously, and never criticized Abe or Sarah for what they did. We read all that into the story because of our presuppositions. The only evidence that we have that anything went wrong at all is that the bible says Hagar “despised” Sarah once she (Hagar) got pregnant. This goes back to the jealousy thing and relations among the women in the family (see, e.g., Proverbs 30:21-23).
Let’s just stipulate that maintaining a ‘happy family’ with more than one woman in the family is going to be more complicated than keeping just one woman happy. However, it’s also harder to juggle the wants and needs of several children than it is to raise one; that doesn’t mean every couple should only have one child. It’s also harder to run a large business than a small one; that doesn’t mean every business owner should be limited to one employee.The fact that it is difficult doesn't mean it should be outlawed.
And Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured. And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter. And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man: abide with me. And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her. And Jacob said unto Laban, Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in unto her. And Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast. And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her. And Laban gave unto his daughter Leah Zilpah his maid for an handmaid. And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold, it was Leah: and he said to Laban, What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me? And Laban said, It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Fulfil her week, and we will give thee this also for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years. And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week: and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife also. And Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah his handmaid to be her maid. And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years. And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.
Jacob had four women: two wives and two concubines. He only wanted to marry Rachel, but Laban had other plans. Jacob did the upright thing by marrying Leah even though Laban sort of foisted her on him, and Bilhah and Zilpah were part of the package (again, thanks to Laban). Jacob came out of the deal with four wives instead of one, and took care of them and did what he needed to do to keep his family together. He never loved Leah the way he loved Rachel, but he took care of her and provided for her and gave her many children. There is no whisper of criticism in the Bible of Jacob for his polygamy per se ; all of that is read into the text by people who see what they want to see.
As for Leah’s and Rachel’s well-known rivalry, maybe that’s why God told Moses later that men should not marry sisters (at least not if marrying the second sister was going to annoy the first one) (see Leviticus 18:18). Sisters have a special relationship, for better or worse, and when it’s good it’s very good, and when it’s bad it’s very bad. One can picture ideal circumstances where maybe two sisters could get along in the same household, but not the underhanded way Laban set this all up. He sort of guaranteed that Rachel and Leah would have problems by the way he connived the thing to begin with.
To summarize, Laban was the bad actor, Jacob did a passable job of doing the upright thing to straighten out the mess, and the women made do with an untenable situation that was thrust upon them by their father.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
This is just one of a family of verses that refers to a wife, singular, which then is heralded as proof that a man is only supposed to have one wife.
On the same 'logic', a man can only be allowed one house, one servant, one ox, one ass. On the same 'logic', the verse that says "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" would only permit a man to have one neighbor. Or the verse that says "train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" could be argued to permit only one child (and a male at that?...).
If that sounds silly, it's because it is.
Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother. But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way. Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.
There are three things mentioned here that the king is not supposed to multiply: horses, wives, and monetary wealth (“silver and gold”). For some reason, this verse is sometimes used to support the idea that a man can't have more than one wife. On the same logic, of course, that means that the king can also only have one horse, one piece of silver, and one piece of gold.
Or maybe he can have a few pieces of silver and gold. He apparently can “multiply” silver and gold, he just can’t “greatly multiply” his cash. Apparently with respect to money, the king can be a little out in front of the other guys (which makes sense), but with respect to women and horses, the king is supposed to be a ‘regular guy’. And under God’s law, regular guys can have more than one wife. The king just isn’t supposed to take advantage of his status and wealth to horde all the fine women!
In John Gill's commentary, he says that the Jews commonly held that the king could have up to 18 wives and no more. That’s about what King David had; maybe they got it from that. That gives you the idea, though, of what "multiply" might mean. One to ten wives or so, no big deal (if a guy can afford it). Ten to twenty or so must be the king or a very rich man. Over twenty, and people start to wonder what your deal is.
Speaking of “affording it”, that brings up what is the really practical limitation on polygamy: economics. There’s a verse in Exodus that says that if a man brings a second wife on board, he has to maintain the first wife’s standard of living (well, with respect to food and clothing, at least), or else she can walk. The idea seems to be that a prosperous man will be able to take care of more than one woman, and if a man can’t support them properly, he shouldn’t have more than one woman (in the same way that traditionally it was a given that if a man couldn't support a woman so she could bear and raise his children, he shouldn't get married at all).
For the regular guy, the factor limiting the number of wives he could have was his material wealth. The king provision here speaks to the case where you have essentially unlimited wealth, but God says that doesn’t mean you get unlimited wives (or horses).
Now there was a certain man of Ramathaimzophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite: And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there. And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions: But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb. And her adversary also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb. (1 Samuel 1:1-6)
The first thing you notice is that Hannah’s ‘adversary’ (or ‘rival’, or ‘opponent’) is not named in the text. Not a big deal, because it doesn’t matter if it is the other wife, Peninnah. Yet the adversary is commonly identified in commentaries as Peninnah, along with some remarks about how typical it is for plural wives to fight with each other.
Those who are determined to make this a polygamy issue will make it one. However, there’s nothing in the text itself that tells us exactly who Hannah’s enemy is. Let's just play along, though....
Assume for the sake of argument that it was Peninnah. So? Somewhere tonight a man is beating his wife; does that prove monogamy is wrong? Somewhere tonight a woman is cheating on her husband; does that prove monogamy is wrong? Lot’s daughters had sex with him; does that prove we shouldn’t have children? Does it prove we shouldn’t drink alcohol?
See what the problem is here? Just like Lamech and Jacob and any other polygamist that ever had a bad day, an isolated incidence of jealousy or bitterness in a polygamous woman, or some unrelated crime in a polygamous male, does not contaminate the whole institution. The fact that some people are ‘doing it wrong’ doesn’t mean it can never be done right.
The obvious lesson from this example (assuming Peninnah is in fact the adversary) is that compatibility among the women involved in a polygamous household is always an issue, and should be taken into account. In cases where a guy has tried to add a woman to his family without really taking into account his first wife’s opinion of that woman, and it typically doesn’t go well at all. The obvious lesson we can learn from Hannah and her family, the wisdom we can glean here, is that a family considering polygamy should give careful consideration to how the women get along together and whether they are compatible and want to live together as a family. Otherwise, there’s going to be trouble.
And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.
It's worth noting here that the prophet Isaiah said, "Woe unto them who call evil good, and good evil." (Isaiah 5:20) If there is any evidence that God has no problem with polygamy, and even supports it, then we may find ourselves experiencing Isaiah's prophsied woes if we can't get with God's program.
We find just such evidence in the story of David's sin with Bath-Sheba. As God is calling David out through the prophet Nathan, he says, basically (21st century version), "Look, I already gave you a bunch of women, and I would have gladly given you more if you had just asked. Why'd you have to go and steal Uriah's woman from him?" Just let that sink in. God himself gave David several wives, and would have cheerfully given him more if he had underestimated what would make David happy.
Does that sound like a God who condemns and will punish polygamy? Does that sound like a God who would run someone out of a fellowship just for asking questions about how a practice God supported and participated in came to be outlawed by the institutional church? I didn't think so.
Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife. Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.
It is often argued that the turmoil surrounding much of David's life was a by-product of his polygamous lifestyle. He and others in the Old Testament that had various problems in life are taken as a class to represent the relative difficulty and undesirability of polygamy. There's only one problem with that argument: It's not what the Bible says.
Here are all the verses that say that David was a bad man because he was polygamous, or that something bad happened to him or his family because he was polygamous:
Here are all the verses that describe what God actually thought of David's life, generally:
1Sa 25:28 I pray thee, forgive the trespass of thine handmaid: for the LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house; because my lord [that is, David] fighteth the battles of the LORD, and evil hath not been found in thee all thy days.
1Ki 15:3 And [Jeroboam] walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father.
1Ki 15:5 Because David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.
Act 13:22 He raised up unto them David to be their king; to whom also he gave testimony, and said, I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will.
So David has this one blemish on an otherwise unblemished record: "the matter of Uriah". No mention anywhere of polygamy as another exception to the general rule.
And the verses that actually say what the problem was in David's life are quoted above and are unambiguous: Because David committed murder with the sword, his own sons would die by the sword. Because David took another man's wife, another man (David's own son) would take David's wives.
David committed no sin in having multiple wives, at least according to the Bible.
But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and went not fully after the LORD, as did David his father. Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon. And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods. And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the LORD God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice, And had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods: but he kept not that which the LORD commanded.
The claim is also made that Solomon’s hundreds of wives helped lead Solomon to idolatry. Yes, the passage acknowledges that Solomon had “many” strange wives (the word ‘strange’ would be translated ‘foreign’ today, as in our words ‘stranger’ and ‘foreigner’; it doesn’t mean they were weird). But the point, the problem, is that they were ‘foreign’, not that they were ‘many’. Solomon’s essential problem was disobedience of “that which the Lord commanded” (see boldfaced text above). But there is no commandment against polygamy, and God had a specific prohibition against marrying foreign women (just as he had against murder and adultery in the case of David):
When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. (Deuteronomy 7:1-4)
Both David and Solomon are getting the same bad rap. In David’s case, we are asked to overlook the plain prohibitions against murder and adultery and the plain teaching of the scriptures that these were David’s crimes, in order to read into the text a polygamy problem, even though polygamy is not condemned in scripture and David is not criticized in scripture for it. In Solomon’s case, we are being asked to overlook the plain prohibition against marrying foreign women and the plain teaching that this is what he did wrong, again to read into the situation a problem that isn’t there.
The Pharisees also came unto him [Jesus], tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
Notice first that this has nothing directly to do with plural marriage at all. The context is a conversation about divorce (and later, remarriage). Jesus’s point is that married people become one flesh, so we shouldn’t rip that one flesh apart. It’s not exactly clear here (or anywhere else in the bible, for that matter) what “one flesh” means, but Jesus says whatever it is, we shouldn’t mess with it. God puts married people together, and we shouldn’t split them up.
Okay, so there’s the text: Jesus is asked a question about divorce, and he says, “Don’t do it, it is separating what God has joined”. Simple. He includes a subtle rebuke (these are learned men, and he's saying "have you not read?"...) as he invokes the language of Genesis to show that a divorce is not just two people going separate ways, but it is tearing into two pieces something that God has made a unified whole.
Where this goes sideways is when some argue that one flesh can only be a thing with one couple. They can't imagine that a man could be "one flesh" with two or more wives, and they argue that "one" flesh only makes sense in the context of monogamy.
First, there is no textual support for that either way; that is simply an unsubstantiated, abiblical assertion. If the idea is that when a man and woman become married, they become one flesh, then logically, if a man marries more than one woman then he becomes one flesh with each of them. There’s nothing about “one flesh” (biblically) that says that it can’t apply to each marriage relationship. Jacob was “one flesh” with Leah, and he was “one flesh” with Rachel, and he was “one flesh” with Bilhah, and he was “one flesh” with Zilpah.
In fact, apparently a man is one flesh with any woman he sleeps with, whether they’re married to each other or not. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul is discussing sexual immorality, and he says, “Or do you not know that he being joined to a harlot is one body? For He says, The two shall be one flesh.” (1 Cor 6:16) Apparently Paul thinks that any sexual relationship can be described by the term “one flesh”, even if a married guy is sleeping with someone else, so whatever we think “one flesh” means, we have to take that into account.
There’s nothing the bible teaches about what it means to be “one flesh” that requires that a person can only be “one flesh” with one other person. “One flesh” is obviously a consequence of sexual activity, and not as obviously but one position taken by commentators and teachers over the years is that it has to do with children, where the mix of DNA from the father and mother really does, in fact, produce “one flesh” out of the two.
Whether that is the essence of what one flesh means or not, what is clear from the scriptures is that one flesh is what happens when people have sex. According to Paul, one of the reasons you should be picky about who you have sex with is that you will become “one flesh” with that person. Any person you have sex with. All the people you have sex with. But neither in Corinthians nor anywhere else in scripture are we given any limit on the number of people we can become one flesh with.
He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
This has got to be one of the more abused passages of scripture. ‘Suffered’ in this passage is an archaic usage; Moses wasn’t “suffering” emotionally, he “allowed” or “permitted” them to divorce (or “put away”) their wives on the one condition of marital unfaithfulness. The Pharisees came to Jesus with a question about whether it was lawful to put away one’s wife “for every cause”. Jesus gave them the obvious response that God’s intention is for marriage to be permanent.
What doesn't make any sense is extending that principle to whatever issue people feel like extending it to. Jesus’s plain teaching is that divorce “for every cause” is wrong, that marriage should be permanent, and he goes on to say that unless your wife has already violated the marriage covenant by having sex with someone else, then ‘putting her away’ for an insufficient reason puts her in the awkward position of actually ‘committing adultery’, which is something God really frowns upon. That’s it. Period.
Some folks think that they can apply that principle to other things they don’t like or think should change. What they apparently fail to grasp is that Jesus was not changing anything or making new law, he wasn’t dumping the Old Testament teaching, he was straightening out a misconception (or delusion) of the religious leaders that altered God’s original intention for marriage (including Moses’s divorce provision, for that matter).
In like manner, today’s religious leaders, following the traditions of the Roman church, have outlawed plural marriage, altering God’s original intention and his law, and arguably bringing themselves under Paul’s curse in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 (“Now the Spirit speaks expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.”). The whole “celibacy is really spiritual, monogamy is okay, but polygamy is awful” thing is non-biblical, and arguably cursed by God.
Jesus taught us clearly, unequivocally, that marriage is meant to be permanent, and that wives should not be divorced for any reason short of adultery, or else we make them to be adulteresses when they remarry. That’s about it, and to take his teaching and twist it to be a proof text for some other topic that Jesus in fact said nothing about, is just wrong. Jesus’s complete silence on the custom of plural marriage is thundering, if polygamy is the heinous crime some people think it is.
Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.
This may be one of the most misleading translation choices in the entire Bible, because it uses parallel language in English to describe the two relationships, even though Paul’s Greek uses different words with different nuances. In fact, Paul’s writing actually supports New Testament polygamy(!).
When Paul says that every man should have “his own wife”, he uses the word heautou, which is a possessive word that indicates ownership, complete possession. ("It's mine and you can't have it.") When he says that every woman should have “her own husband”, though, he uses the word idios, which is a kind of possessive relationship that does not require complete control or ownership.
To demonstrate, look at the following verses:
Matthew 9:1 And he entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city.
John 4:44 For Jesus himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country.
Acts 2:8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
In each of those examples, "own" is a translation of idios. Would anyone seriously argue that Jesus “owned” his city, or that a prophet “owns” his homeland, or that you can “own” your native tongue? In the Greek, that passage is actually pretty persuasive evidence that Paul had asymmetrical polygamous relationships in mind.
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.
It has been argued that this teaching “makes sense only with monogamy”, because “Jesus will not have multiple brides”. But is that really the case? Or is that argument a case of begging the question?
First of all, what is “the church”? The word translated “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia, a Greek word that basically means “assembly”. In fact, this word is translated ‘assembly’ three times in Acts 19, when it says that Paul got in trouble for preaching in Ephesus, and an “assembly” was called to figure out what to do with him ( see Acts 19:32, 39, 41). Same word, ekklesia, but divorced from its religious application, it is translated simply “assembly”.
Whenever Paul (or another New Testament author) is talking to or about “the church”, you should be able freely to substitute “the assembly” and it should still make sense (or substitute “shepherd” for “pastor”, or “servant” for “deacon”, or “supervisor” for “bishop”, etc.). A “church” is an assembly of people called for a purpose, and there are many more than one of them around the world. Yet in Ephesians, Paul teaches that “the assembly” is the bride of Christ. The Jews were polygamous, so it would have been no big stretch for them to picture Christ married to more than one assembly. It’s just a stretch for us because we’ve been conditioned by 1500 years of Roman teaching.
Here’s a point to consider from the scriptural usage of the word ‘church’, or ‘assembly’: The usage of singular and plural in the New Testament is very clear, and leads to an interesting conclusion. Whenever Paul writes to a “church” (assembly), singular, he is talking about the church/assembly in some particular city or location, like someone's house ( see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:2 or 1 Thessalonians 1:1 or Romans 16:5). On the other hand, when Paul is writing to an area or a region, he writes to the “ churches”, plural ( see, e.g., Galatians 1:2 or 1 Thessalonians 2:14). Scripturally speaking, a church is a group of Christians meeting together (“where two or three are gathered in my name…”), and when you stretch out over larger territory with more than one group of Christians, you talk about “churches”.
This usage is backed up by Jesus’s own language in The Revelation (chapters 2 and 3), where he dictates his seven letters to the seven churches (assemblies). That passage suggests that Jesus has seven brides, at least.
Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins is also pertinent. Ten women are set to meet the bridegroom, but five aren’t prepared when he returns, so he only takes five with him. A bridegroom returning to claim his five or ten brides may sound really strange to us, but it wouldn’t have sounded strange 2,000 years ago, and we shouldn’t try to re-write it just because we’re uncomfortable with it.
A discussion of the belief in a mystical universal church/assembly (apart from the final actual gathering of all believers contemplated in The Revelation) is beyond the scope of this article. It is sufficient here to note that as the word ekklesia was understood in the first century, it would have been translated 'assembly' or 'gathering', and the idea that "there can be only one" would be nonsensical.
Ultimately, there are things we can learn from the metaphor that Christ is our Husband, just as there are things we can learn from the idea that Christ is our Shepherd, or our Head, or our Bread of Life, or our Rock. These are all useful ideas as far as they go, but we should try to stick within the application that is given to us, and not try to make the metaphor carry weight it was never intended to carry.
Paul’s actual teaching in Ephesians 5 (delivered from the extra freight some people want it to carry) is that women ought to submit to their men because men are the head of their women in the same way that Christ is the head of his assemblies, and men ought to love their women in the same way that Christ loves his assemblies. The text doesn't limit a man to one wife any more than it limits Christ to one assembly. And there’s no good reason to stretch the metaphor to teach more than it was intended to teach. Paul’s teaching about how husbands and wives ought to act applies to every relationship a husband has with each of his wives, just as it applies to every relationship Christ has with each of his assemblies.
A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife....
Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife....
Ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife....
These familiar passages are typically cited in support of the proposition that no Christian should be polygamous. In fact, from a Western cultural point of view, they are often used in the support of the proposition that no person should be polygamous, and that in fact polygamy should be criminalized. For everybody.
The idea is that here is the smoking gun, that one Bible verse that clearly teaches that polygamy was expressly forbidden by the apostles (and therefore it is unacceptable to God, and families should be broken up, and people should go to prison for even trying or kicked out of churches for even thinking about it or asking hard questions). Let's look more closely at that....
The context is that Paul is giving Timothy and Titus (two young church planters) advice about what sorts of qualities to look for in appointing elders (or overseers, or deacons), and he includes a rather substantial list of items on the checklist. It’s not clear from the text, however, how the need for those qualities would be applied in individual cases, and it’s not clear how those qualities relate to morality, anyway. For instance, the same verses say an overseer should be “given to hospitality” and “apt to teach”. That's a great idea, totally reasonable, but does it imply that all Christian men are required to be given to hospitality and apt to teach, or else be considered 'not a real Christian'? Are men who are not extremely hospitable or not great teachers second class citizens? Sinners? Should they be excommunicated? Imprisoned? Does the passage “expressly forbid” anyone who can't teach or doesn't enjoy hosting small groups in his home from being a church leader? From being a church member? From being a friend?
There is a huge leap from “we’d prefer that our elders be good teachers and throw great parties” to “any male with more than one wife should be run out of the church and sent to prison”. Paul is listing some things for Timothy and Titus to look for in an overseer, but the criteria he presents don’t have anything to do with sin (right? he wouldn’t have to say anything about any activity that no Christian ought to be doing, right?). These criteria have to do with having the spare time and the resources and the skills necessary to be a good leader.
So at most, in his "husband of one wife" comment, in the context of the full list of qualifications, Paul is suggesting that there is something about having a large household (lots of wives and kids) that would inhibit a man’s leadership potential (his time constraints, perhaps?); he’s not saying that polygamy is sin, any more than he’s saying that having uppity children is sin (another requirement for elderness is that one’s wife and children be in complete submission, not undisciplined or unruly), or that not being a good teacher is a sin. Conversely, Paul didn't list murder, adultery, armed robbery, or selling drugs to school children as disqualifications for church leadership. There's a reason for that....
Beyond that, though, there’s a non-trivial argument that the verse is mistranslated, anyway. The whole thing turns on how to translate the Greek word mia, and as often happens, people will find what they’re looking for.
In ordinary use, mia can reasonably be translated “one” or “first”, or even as the indefinite article “a”. (For instance, just a few verses after the thing in Titus 1 about “one wife”, Paul says something about rejecting someone from the church “after the first ( mia) and second admonition” ( see Titus 3:10).) And the only way you can really decide how to translate mia into English is to figure out what you think the author is trying to say from context clues, and then make it say that.
Consider the possibilities: If Paul were saying an elder should be the husband of “a” wife, then he’d be looking for married guys as opposed to singles. This actually makes a ton of sense, because Paul has already said that how a guy runs his house is a dead giveaway of what kind of elder he’ll make in the “household of God”. Obviously, a single guy has no wife, no children, and no household to manage, so how could the apostles tell what sort of elder he’d make? Based on the rest of what Paul says about the importance of measuring a guy's character by looking at the demeanor of the members of his household, "a" looks like a pretty good choice for the translation of mia in this context.
On the other hand, Paul could be saying an elder should be the husband of the “first” wife, which would be a person who has never been divorced. This person has demonstrated commitment and stability and faithfulness, in addition to whatever operating skills are needed to run a household or small community. Lots to like about "first", also.
On the other other hand, Paul could be saying husband of “one” wife. This gets a little complicated, for two different reasons. On the one hand, Paul would be overturning the witness of scripture and the history of the Jewish people without even a side comment. Seems a little odd. Paul could be a little arrogant at times (if ‘arrogant’ seems strong, think ‘pushy’ or ‘bull headed’), but even he didn’t just start making stuff up that contradicted the scriptures. In fact, he’s the guy who said “all scripture (which at the time was only the Old Testament) is profitable for teaching and training in righteousness”.
On top of that, think about what that requirement would really mean. King David, Solomon, Moses, Abraham, Josiah (just to name a few of the prominent polygamists in the Bible)—all disqualified from leadership in the church. Weird outcome if you ask me.
The other thing that complicates this is the way the “no divorce and remarriage” people use this verse to disqualify any divorced person from leadership. He may be the husband of one woman at a time, but he’s not really a “one woman man”, as they say, so he’s off the short list. The problem with that is that it raises divorce to the status of unpardonable sin (which is basically what that camp wants to do) and totally overlooks the fact that God’s law provides for divorce in some cases. In other words, not every divorced person is a wrongdoer in God’s eyes.
Taking that argument to its strictest conclusion, if we translate mia as "one" so we can cut the divorced guys, then the verse would also disqualify remarried widowers . After all, the guy’s been married to two wives, so he’s not a one-woman man, right? Seems absurd, but once you start down this trail, the logic of it carries you to that conclusion.
Translating mia as “one" in this context contradicts plain scripture, makes God a sinner (discussed elsewhere), disqualifies godly men from leadership, and leads to awkward and unsupportable results with respect to divorce, widowhood, and remarriage. Translating it as “a" wife (elders should be married) makes the most sense, but either “a” or “first” is a good solid choice that is consistent with what the rest of scripture teaches about marriage. Elders should be married, and they should stick with their marriages. The only worrisome issue with “first” is that it suggests that a past murderer who has repented could be an elder, but a past divorcé could not.
Ultimately, if there is a group of people out there that sincerely to the bottom of their hearts after studying and praying about this cannot shake the idea that Paul didn’t want polygamists (such as David, Moses, etc.) to help oversee the church, then the solution is simple: Just don’t ever make a polygamist an overseer or elder or deacon in your church. Fine. But don’t try to turn that into an argument that polygamy is morally reprehensible unless you're prepared to also argue that a man that sucks at teaching or enjoys an evening glass of wine or has an uppity a wife isn't a "real" Christian....
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