What's the deal with multiple-wife families and the Bible?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Does the "let each one remain with God in the state in which he was called" clause of 1 Cor.7:24, allow a person to keep two wives if that was his prior condition?

Answer: That's an interesting question to be sure — and it spawns others, like how should a Christian interface with the law of the land? How does God feel about multiple wives? Does the Bible teach that having multiple wives is okay? Does 1 Corinthians 7:24 address this issue? That’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s knock off the legalities first.

Here’s a parallel question. If I had robbed a bank before I was saved and I still had the money after I was saved, should I keep it? The answer (of course) is, No. Give it back and confess. A newly saved person should follow his God-given impulse to repent of sin and to correct wrongs where possible. Having multiple wives is called bigamy, and it is illegal throughout the USA. So, a Christian who finds himself in this position needs to correct it by releasing his second wife.

God wants us to obey the laws-of-the-land, the ones that do not directly countermand his higher laws (like, Go and preach the Gospel). Since bigamy is against the law, and since it is not one of God’s higher orders, then anyone who participates in it is running counter to God’s will. The Scriptures directly admonish Christians to obey civil laws.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1, ESV).

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
(1 Peter 2:13–14, ESV).

(And only when necessary:) “But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29, ESV).

Christians should, not only obey the law-of-the-land but be known for doing so. That’s part of a believer’s testimony before the world. Supporting rebellion anywhere is supporting it everywhere, and that’s what bigamy (or any crime is) — rebellion against authority. Rebellion is Satan’s hallmark, so Christians should distance themselves from even the appearance of it.

In spite of its contemporary illegality, some still argue that since multiple-wife families exist in the Bible, that Christians have a holy right to form similar families, and that this right supersedes any governmental restrictions. I find this interesting, because the New Testament has no examples of a multiple-wife family, yet it contains many references to single-wife families, as well as instructions for running their homes. Some might see this as an argument from silence, but the argument from the Old Testament is not so noisy either.

It’s no secret that many Old Testament men had multiple wives. In fact, Jacob sired twelve sons with his two wives and their two handmaidens—that’s four women! And those unions were blessed with success. Jacob’s sons went on to become the heads of Israel’s twelve tribes and a woman from Judah’s line would ultimately bear the Messiah. Some would argue then, that since God never spoke (overtly) against multi-wife families, and since he injected at least one of these into his redemptive plan, doesn’t this mean that God approves of the multiple-wife scenario?

Sometimes God will weigh-in on an issue, like when he warned the Jews against marrying the women-of-the-land that they’d conquer.

“You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,” (Deuteronomy 7:3, ESV).

In this example, we hear the Bible’s command voice, and we know right where God stands on this issue. Much more of the Bible, however, including the parts that mention these multi-wife families, uses a reporting voice, where it reports on the lives of God’s people as an observer. This voice gives neither commands nor judgments, and it reports on both good and bad behaviors. So, just because multiple-wife families exist in the Bible does not mean that we should adopt that lifestyle. The rule is this. Just because a behavior is not specifically condemned does not mean that it is tacitly approved.

Fortunately, we do not have to rely on the arguments from biblical silence, because God gave holy credence to the one-man-and-one-woman model for marriage.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24, ESV).

No amount of unchallenged biblical behaviors can erase God’s will. The eternal example for marriage is one man and one woman for life. The fact that the Bible contains the sad accounts of how we humans have fallen away from God’s initial ideals does not give us permission to copy these sins.

Now let’s examine the Scripture that supposedly supports multiple wives.

“So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” (1 Corinthians 7:24, ESV).

We’ve already looked at the legal limits of the argument, and we understand that we cannot “launder” sin, that is, turn an illegal condition into a legal one by passing it through this verse. But that’s only one of the roadblocks to justifying multiple-wives. The final one, however, is the one I find most compelling. The notion of a multiple-wife family is nowhere to be found in or around this verse!

The language in 1 Corinthians 7 is very clear. Paul describes the variations on a two-person union, and none of those variations involves turning it into a three-person union. Furthermore, his targets are specific. He’s talking about men and women who are in mixed marriages where some are Christians and some are not. He also talks about divorce and their responsibilities to one another and to God, but other than addressing some issues concerning unmarried people and widows, that’s the contextual limit of the Scripture. Therefore, the effects of “let him there remain” cannot migrate beyond the verse’s context. That’s a basic rule of Bible interpretation...of plain old reading, actually.

Therefore, anyone who’s using this verse to justify having multiple-wives is not displaying even basic reading or reasoning skills. Paul was addressing a very specific audience, and it would be fraudulent to extend his instructions beyond the people who were (and are) in those specific situations.

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