Letters to a Christian

Question 4

Polygamy/Remarriage Issues

The three following questions are from real situations. Your answer to them would be a great contribution to Christian life.

1. I come from an African country where until 1961, polygamy was allowed. One of my uncles has been lawfully living with his two wives and he has had several children with each one of them. When I have a chance to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with him and his two wives and all the three receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior, shall I ask my uncle to divorce one of the two wives (probably the one he married last) in order to fulfill the command of Jesus? Should the wife thus divorced seek to get married again?

2. Before becoming a believer, my sister-in-law married a divorced man. They lived together for 15 years and two years ago, my sister became a Christian, but her husband remains a non-believer. She then understood that she has been living in adultery with her “husband” and she now wants to leave him. They have together 5 children, two of them under age 7. What should I advise her to do?

3. My wife and I have been witnessing to a woman who has been living common law with a partner for seven years. Very recently, we learned that the woman had been in fact married before but hided it from her current partner. They have had two children together but she didn’t have any child with the husband to whom she was previously married before and with whom she stayed for less than one year. She is now a baby Christian and we would like to keep on encouraging her in her walk with the Lord. What should we tell her?

BCBSR Response

Thanks for taking time to read the article and for asking the questions. I deal with some of these concepts at

But with regards to your questions, I would like to bring up the Law of the Conscience, which is expressed to a degree in the following:

Romans 14:23  But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.

Though this deals more with the gray area of eating meats sacrificed to idols, yet it appears to me the more general principle is the idea to not violate one's own conscience. To act in faith is to act in accordance with one's convictions. Natural those convictions are to be born of the Word of God as the Spirit of God directs. However not all Christians are on the same level of spiritual maturity to be open to revelation of the application of the Word of God concerning particular areas.

For example while some of these issues concerning divorce and remarriage seem clear enough to me from the Word, I have Christian friends who don't see it my way, my response to which is "let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind." Philipians 3:15,16

If a Christian is committing a explicit form of adultery or other such sexual immorality, it seems to me the Bible is clear on such a matter.

"this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God;"1Thess 4:3-5

And if repentance doesn't following, then the following action must be taken:

"now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner——not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person."1Cor 5:11-13

However with regards to adulterous remarriages, given that in the Old Testament God tolerated them while at the same time condemning more overt forms of adultery with the death penalty, should the Christian community not also make some distinction in these two forms of sin? Granted that Jesus has revealed as adulterous what once was tolerated, and Paul also applies this in such verses as, "A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband." 1Cor 7:10,11 Yet I wonder if his statements in 1Tim 3:2;3:12 and Titus 1:6 concerning a qualification for eldership being that he must be a husband of but one wife may indicate that polygamy was tolerated to a degree in the early church though it disqualified one from leadership. For even in the Law of Moses the priest for example could not marry a divorced woman, implying that leadership was to be held at a higher standard.

But far from being optional I would think the issue in the early church would primarily be dealing with such cases as you mention, namely what if an adulterous marriage was entered into ignorantly?

Just to digress for a moment concerning any sins done ignorantly, under the Law of Moses people are still culpable for sins done ignorantly. In fact the Mosaic sacificial system only covered sins done ignorantly. Other sins were dealt with by death or exile, unless God's grace intervened. But I just want to point out that in the Bible "ignorance" of one's sinfulness is not equated with "innocence". However we notice once again the Law of Moses deals differently with sins of ignorance compared to sins done consciously.

But it's this conscious awareness where the problem enters. I have a Christian friend for example who is divorced and remarried whom I have a regular Bible study with, and also one of the men who discipled me, his son divorced and he is now looking for a new wife for his son. But these men are not open to hearing me out on the issue. While they feel they're acting in a good conscience, yet it appears to me that such people have a blind spot in their thinking. They just don't see what the Bible says on the issue. And so also for many Christians.

To such people I don't give advice. Rather I try to give instruction and explanation if they are open to it. But I don't disfellowship them over this issue. So also concerning third parties. Instruction comes before application. Revelation before application, (which by the way tends to result in more revelation. John 14:21) If a Christian is living in an adulterous remarriage but doesn't realize it, then don't give them advice. Give them teaching.

But if they've develop conviction that their remarriage is adulterous, then there should be some application. Conviction without application is not really a conviction after all, is it? Having said that, let's get down to it. Concerning the cases you mentioned:

1) Concerning the case of polygamy, while this parallel form of polygamy is most commonly referred to as "polygamy", yet is it all that different from the serial form of polygamy in which a man divorces his wife and marriages another, repeating this process a number of times? One might say that Western society is full of polygamists, the issues involved are quite similar. Should they divorce their present spouse? What about the children?

First of all concerning children, if the issue is adultery then imagine if a married man went out to have sex with a prostitute and the prostitute got pregnant and had a child. If the man realizes that he is committing adultery and wants to repent, whether his prostitute has a child or not should have no bearing on his decision to stop having sexual relations with her. However, he does bear responsibility to the child. And so also in the case of polygamy (whether serial or parallel), he bears some responsibility to his adulterous partner. For the child was innocent and the woman ignorant as we he. Yet responsibilities were incurred.

If a thief steals something and the repents, should he not also give something in return. Indeed according to the Law of Moses he should give back even more than he stole. Though of course in this case we are dealing with an initial state of ignorance.

Shall I be more expicit? If a person knowingly is committing adultery, then they should stop committing adultery. Don't you think? And they should attempt to make restitution for the damage they did. Even the secular legal system we have here in the States advocates things like paying alimony and child support.

Now concerning the adulterous wife, in which it was her first "marriage", it is much likened to a situation another one of my friends is in. For he had married a divorced woman, and later divorced. So his first marriage was adulterous and therefore illegitimate. So also the case you pointed out concerning the second wife in polygamy. Since her first marriage was illegitimate, and therefore not really a marriage in God's eyes, she is free to marry.

2) You speak of your sister-in-law marrying a divorced man. Yes she would be free to "divorce" out of an adulterous relationship and remarry, if she does it for the right reason. However the problem is that she may be doing it for the wrong reasons. If she views her first marriage as legitimate, then her divorce and remarriage would be kind of like "But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin", which I mentioned above. Thus the instruction to her would be that it would be sinful to divorce and remarry out of a legitimate marriage. Then deal with the issue with whether her marriage was legitimate to start with.

But this also begs another question. What if someone does divorce and remarry out of a marriage that at the time they reckon "legitimate", but which was actually illegitimate. Then they haved sinned. But the sin was not that the remarriage was an adultery. Rather the sin was the violation of one's conscience in that they are not acting out of faith in what God says concerning legitimate marriages. In fact that may be why the exception clause is given in Matthew 5:32, the idea being that such divorce and remarriage is only legitimate for cases in which the marriage is itself adulterous. The reason for the divorce should be that the marriage is illegitimate to begin with.

And though the children be illegitimate, yet they both hold responsibility towards them.

3) This one reminds me of "you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband" John 4:18. Cohabitation itself does not engender a marriage. And in any case this woman was already married before. This of course is adulterous. Paul instructs, "A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband." 1Cor 7:10,11 The application should be obvious. What should you tell her? There's lots of things we need instruction in. But how long and how much other instruction should you give before dealing with this issue. I just find it interesting that it appears this is one of the first issues that Jesus dealt with in his confrontation with the woman at the well to make the woman well.

The Christian life inevitably involves the testing of a person's faith through applications. Enduring through such tests generates models. And there are so few good models today when it comes to the area of divorce and remarriage. In contrast let me also say that if action is not taken then by their example they are teaching both their children and all those around them that it's OK to commit adultery. On the other hand if they stop committing adultery they may very well be treating with contempt by much of the "Christian" community. In any case they'll serve as models.



The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources Jul 29,2015