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Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus (at 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6) about one of the requirements for appointing overseers or bishops is usually translated as:
‘The husband of one wife.’
‘Faithful or true to his one wife.’
Was Paul forbidding polygamy for all Christians here? Was he making polygamy a sin?
Most western Christian denominations teach that polygamy is a sin. Yet, according to the Old Law, polygamy was not only allowed among faithful IsraElites, it was often required in the case of levirate (brother-in-law) marriages. —see Deuteronomy 25:5
While polygamy wasn’t a sin in ancient IsraEl, it was later forbidden by Roman laws in the 1st century. Historians will tell you that this was the case throughout the Empire, except for Palestine, where King Herod the Great had 10 wives. One source claims that by the 1st century, polygamy was mostly only practiced by the Jewish aristocracy.
This cultural consideration may have been the primary reason why Paul forbade Christian elders from having more than one wife. It may have caused many Gentiles to look down upon Christians and to speak ill of them if their overseers openly practiced something taboo and/or illegal in the local area, and some Jews may have begun to view it poorly too.
Remember, more and more Christians were living outside of Palestine as more and more people converted, and Roman culture was dominant. Polygamy was also not tolerated by the Greeks, who had previously dominated the entire eastern Mediterranean since the 4th century BCE. So polygamy had been taboo, scorned, or even against the law, for at least 400 years in the territories around Israel, with these cultures also influencing Israel itself.
Understand that we aren’t promoting polygamy here. It’s clear from the case of Adam and Eve that God originally intended for a man to have just one ‘helper’ or mate.
However, these instructions to Timothy and Titus have long been taken out of their contexts by Christian leaders to forbid polygamy among any of its members. This has caused many problems and heartache for families. Today there are many cases where religions compel men to put away other wives and children (e.g. in parts of Africa) before they can even be baptized. Yet these people are neither violating local laws nor God’s Laws.
Although the standard set by God was monogamy, there are no commands forbidding Christians from having more than one wife, other than the standards that Paul set for overseers.
In fact, in the Bible’s patriarchal societies, great men of faith such as Job, AbraHam, Jacob, David, and many others, had multiple wives and concubines. Yet these men were not condemned by God.
So there is little scriptural basis for Christians in monogamous societies to judge or impose their own standards upon polygamous societies.
For more information, see the subheading ‘Polygamy’ in the commentary, Christian Morality.