How should a missionary counsel a polygamist about his wives? Should they divorce because of adultery or stay together?
This is, indeed, a difficult issue that missionaries face. A very respected missionary friend in the same country where I've served for the past seven years teaches that the Christian man should divorce all but one wife, maintain financial support to all the wives and the children, but recognize that God only sees marriage as "one man/one woman" and anything else is adultery. It seems to me that there is one fundamental flaw with this "black and white" solution: Jacob's twelve sons, by four different women, are all treated as equally legitimate heirs. Does this mean that the pendulum swings back the other way and we say "it's entirely cultural; have as many wives as you want"? I think that God's Word gives us three guiding principles which form the basis for my own counsel.
First, marriage is intended to be between one man and one woman. It is a picture of Jesus Christ's relationship to the church (Ephesians 5), and thankfully Jesus is not a polygamist!
Second, regeneration is not the "undo button" for the consequences of a life in sin. If a person is born again while in jail on a murder charge, he still has to deal with the consequences of his sin. A person will often carry "baggage" into his new life in Christ that must be dealt with through Biblical wisdom. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives some very personal advice in marriage relationships and in the middle of his counsel (verses 17-24) he puts forward the principle "as the Lord has called everyone, so let him walk." Since this advice is given right in the middle of Paul's counsel regarding marriage, I think it's appropriate to apply it to polygamists: as you come to the Lord in our marriage, remain. Don't deepen the effects of sin by adding more wives, but don't try to press an "undo button" which destroys the lives of your other wives and children.
Third, Paul is very clear that office in the church is limited to those who are not polygamists (Titus 1:5-6 and 1 Tim. 3:2).
Therefore, my counsel to polygamist converts has been: maintain your faithful marriage relationships to all your wives, but don't add any more. Be faithful as a member of the church and recognize that your particular sin permanently disqualifies you from office in the church. Since a polygamist is typically going to have a very large number of children, this is a wonderful opportunity to reach a large number of people for Christ, particularly bringing to bear the sinfulness of polygamy and the glorious power of God's redeeming grace!
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