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Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Why is the Bible soft on polygamy?" IT'S NOT!

“Why doesn’t God ever condemn polygamy in the Bible?  It seems like people get away with it all the time!” 

I’ve heard things like this quite a few times over the years, and it’s usually from our ladies.  Totally understandable.  It does seem like the Bible has little to say about this issue and it’s always men who have multiple wives and not the other way around.

So what is there to say about this?  Well, most of us have noticed that the Bible doesn’t read like a modern day how-to manual.  What may not be so obvious is that even when it is not giving us straightforward dos and don’ts, it is still teaching us.  Old Testament narrative in particular teaches us lessons implicitly rather than explicitly.  It’s really quite rare in OT narrative to get anything close to a statement saying, “here’s the point of all this.”

Certainly, we would love to have a passage somewhere in the Bible that says, “Any man who has more than one wife is a jerk and deserves to die.”  But just because the Bible doesn’t say that explicitly does not mean it has nothing to teach about polygamy at all.  In fact, what it does teach about polygamy is quite damning – it simply teaches it implicitly, or through the storyline by showing what happens to people who engage in it.

If I were to summarize this implicit teaching and make it explicit, I would phrase it this way: “Any man who takes more than one wife has rejected God’s design for marriage, is a fool, and will pay for it.”   

First, we’re all familiar with God’s creation of the man and woman in the garden.  He made one man and one woman and said of them, “…a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:25).  One man plus one woman equals one flesh.  That’s the formula, and it’s reiterated in the New Testament (Matt 19:5; Eph 5:31).  In each of these NT texts, Jesus and the apostles always refer to the husband and his wife, not the husband and his wives (e.g. Eph 5:25-33).  NT teaching about divorce, remarriage, and adultery presupposes that one can only be married to one person (Matt 19:3-9; 1 Cor 7:10-16).  All of this NT commentary confirms that Genesis 2 sets up a specific design for marriage – one husband and one wife.  Anyone who deviates from this has rejected God’s design.  When we deviate from God’s design, problems will ensue, which is exactly what we see happening as the OT storyline continues.

Which brings us to the second point – people who do this are fools who will pay for it.  The first closeup example of polygamy that we see is in the life of Abraham.  God promised Abraham (whose name was Abram at the time) that He would make him into a great nation with many offspring (Gen 12).  In Gen 15, God reiterated this promise, making it explicit that an heir would come from Abraham’s own body. 

Now, given God’s design for marriage – one man, one woman – obviously, that heir is going to be born to Abraham and Sarah.  But Abraham and Sarah got tired of waiting so they went outside of God’s design and added a wife, Hagar, to birth the promised son.  How did that work out for everyone?  Massive pain and drama.  That’s the whole point.  Immediately, they were all miserable.  Hagar looked on Sarah with contempt (Gen16:4).  Sarah hated Hagar and was angry at Abraham, cursing him even though the whole thing was her idea (16:5).  Abraham gave Sarah permission to do whatever she wanted to Hagar and she did, treating her harshly (16:6).  Large portions of the following narrative are dedicated to depicting the misery caused by that one foolish decision (16:7-14; 17:17-21; 21:8-21).  It caused nothing but sorrow. 

And God still did things His own way.  In other words, their rejection of monogamy did not benefit them in the way they hoped.  That God rejected Ishmael and named Abraham’s descendents through Isaac emphasized His upholding of His own design for marriage.  “No, we’re not going to do things your way, Abraham.  We’re going to do things My way” (Birdwell paraphrase, Gen18:9-15). 

It would have been great if Abraham and his family learned this lesson, but polygamy turns into a sordid family tradition.  It does skip a generation with Isaac and Rebekah, but consider all the heartache that comes from Jacob having numerous wives.  There are multiple layers to that situation, including the fact that Jacob was tricked into taking Leah to be his wife, when he really wanted Rachel (Gen 29).  So we might not say that Jacob took a second wife just because he was greedy for love.  Yet the narrative still shows polygamy as an evil thing.  Many commentators believe that Jacob’s being deceived into taking two wives was a judgment upon Jacob for his deception of his brother Esau (Gen 27).  In other words, the tables had been turned – Jacob was no longer the deceiver but the deceived.  It should tell us something that this messed up situation with multiple wives was a form of judgment on Jacob rather than a blessing.  Here, too, strife ruled the day (Gen 30, 37).  We might even say that the strife caused by competing wives in Jacob’s household led to the slavery of the nation of Israel! (Gen 37-Exo 1). 

We could look at other examples, including David and Solomon.  In each case, the rejection of God’s design of one husband and one wife leads to horribly painful consequences.  This is one way that the Bible teaches.  It doesn’t always make outright pronouncements, but sometimes shows in a big picture fashion what happens when we don’t do things God’s way.  Such is the case with the Bible’s teaching on polygamy.

So does the Bible have anything to say about polygamy?  Yes.  Is polygamy condemned by God?  No doubt.  We just have to read carefully, understanding the different ways that the Bible communicates truth. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Help For Tortured Souls

Over the years, I’ve counseled with a good number of people struggling with the issue of assurance.  How can I know that I’m saved?  For many people, it comes down to wrong thinking about how their performance relates to their standing with God.  For others, it’s doubt about whether they had a genuine conversion.  Regardless of the circumstances, it can be a paralyzing question to grapple with.

Even with all the people I’ve talked to about this issue, I’ve never come across anyone as tortured by it as John Bunyan.  The Puritan tinker/theologian/preacher/author is best known for writing The Pilgrim’s Progress.  What many people don’t know is the agony that he endured for years while wrestling with this issue of assurance.  I don’t use the word “torture” lightly.  The poor man was tormented.  In his autobiography – Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners – he details his road from debauched unbeliever to confessing believer to tortured doubter to elated son of God. 

For those who struggle with assurance of salvation, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  First of all, it will put to words what you perhaps have thought you alone have experienced.  There is great hope in seeing that others have suffered as we have.  “I’m not alone” is a comforting thought indeed.  Even greater comfort and hope can be derived from the knowledge that this venerable giant of the faith suffered horribly from doubt and that his doubt was eventually remedied.  If John Bunyan doubted and found a resolution, you can, too.

Second, Bunyan explains how this doubt was remedied.  Nothing is more discouraging than vague platitudes prescribed for real, felt despair.  Bunyan is specific and detailed as he prescribes the truths that freed him from doubt forever.  I won’t give it away here by summarizing it; the benefit of reading the whole account is too beneficial.  Suffice to say you will not be disappointed.

Third, Bunyan explains why he believes the Lord allowed him to suffer under his doubt for so long.  He believed that God was gracious, loving, and kind to put him through such a dark and horrible years-long season because it taught him things that benefited him and others for the rest of his life.  Indeed, we could say, those lessons continue to benefit the church through Bunyan’s writings still today.  You could benefit from those lessons by reading this book.

Fourth, reading the Puritans is good for the soul.  I’ve never doubted my salvation for a single day, but this book has blessed me tremendously.  So compelling is Bunyan’s experience that I found it difficult to put the book down.  His eventual joy and love for the Savior after finding the truth that freed him from doubt is so infectious it will delight any believer, whether you’ve struggled with doubt or not.  I’ve found this to be true of every Puritan I’ve read.  Some modern books tend to be somewhat shallow, unclear, and repetitive.  Not so with the Puritans.  (Some Puritans are difficult to read – I wouldn’t start with John Owen!)  John Bunyan certainly is a great place to start.

You can find it free on the Kindle Store.  Or get it on the cheap here.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Is Respect Something That Must Be Earned?

It’s not unusual to hear that “respect is something that’s earned.”  The idea is that respect is not automatically afforded to anyone.  A person must live in a respectable manner before they deserve to be treated with respect and highly regarded. 

I’ve often heard this from people about authority figures that they don’t respect.  This is a pertinent topic given the content of the message on Sunday.  We’re commanded to submit to authority in the Scriptures.  As we saw in both Paul and Peter, we’re taught to obey authority in any context in our lives – in the community, the home, and the church.  But does that entail respect?  Is it appropriate for Christians to adopt the common notion that “respect must be earned” – especially as it pertains to authority figures?

The short answer is that according to the Bible, when it comes to authority figures, respect is not something that is earned…it’s something that is commanded.  In fact, in every New Testament text we referenced on Sunday regarding the command to submit to authority, there is an accompanying command to respect that authority.

In Rom 13, Paul calls believers to be subject to governmental authority.  In v7, he concludes the teaching with, Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.  The previous verses indicate that taxes are owed by virtue of the fact that those authorities are in power.  By extension, we should understand Paul to be saying the same thing about respect or honor. 

But some might argue that what Paul really means is that we “owe” respect to those who have earned it.  I think that requires us to read something into the text that isn’t there.  However, a more significant rebuttal is the cross-reference in 1 Peter 2:17, where the apostle Peter calls us to honor governmental authorities without reference to their having earned it.  It appears from both Paul and Peter’s writings that we are to respect all governmental authority.  Remember that both Paul and Peter wrote these things under Nero, an evil tyrant.  If they required believers to respect governmental leaders in that context, what excuse do we have to do otherwise?

What about authority in the workplace?  Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1Pet 2:18).  Here we could say that Peter explicitly commands respect for those who have not “earned” it in that he includes the phrase “but also to the unjust.”  Even the unjust, unreasonable boss or master should be obeyed, not just with a modicum of respect, but as Peter writes, “with all respect.”

And in the home?  Let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5:33).  That’s Paul’s command, but Peter agrees and adds specifically that it should be done in the case of an ungodly husband, that is, one who has not “earned” respect: Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct (1Pet 3:1-2).  As you know, Paul tells children to honor their mother and father in Ephesians 6:1-3.

That would seem to cover every kind of authority.  If we could think of another kind of authority not explicitly mentioned in such passages – perhaps the leadership of a homeschool co-op or the leadership of a homeowners association, some authority that we might not be able to easily fit into governmental, workplace, church, or home authority – is it likely that the character of God would be different in those situations?  Remember why God holds earthly authorities to be so important – they are extensions of His authority.  All authority is from Him (Rom 13:1-4).  So His desire that we respect any authority should apply to all authority. 

We are required not only to obey, but to treat authority figures with respect.  Rightly understood, submission assumes a respectful attitude toward authority.  If we understand that submission is a matter of the heart and our hearts are on board with that, treating an authority with respect will be a relatively easy task.  It’s only those who hold to a merely outward submission – with hearts inwardly twisting against that authority – who would find it difficult to be respectful in obedience.  True submission will be respectful submission.

Perhaps, admiration is earned.  But respect is not.  It’s commanded.