Re: Social Problems (was Social Problems--Part A)

Charles Cairns (
Sun, 22 Feb 1998 07:21:17 -0500

Hello Russell,

You wrote re: Paul's words in 1 Timothy 3:2: (A bishop then must be
blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour,
given to hospitality, apt to teach)

>My thoughts on this verse: I've consulted John Calvin's commentary on this
>passage. First, Calvin agrees with Chrysostom, a church father, and says
>that "in a bishop [Paul] expressly condemns polygamy," whereas Jews of
>Paul's time thought they could imitate the patriarchs and middle easterners
>of Paul's day...

I think Calvin and Chrysostom -- and Russell :) -- are partially right, but
of course what I find most interesting about the passage is not what Paul
says, but what he doesn't say. He is not condemning polygamy, but rather
insisting on monogamy, and those are very different things. And his words
are confined to men in a specific church office.

But I think there is more going on. In 1 Cor 7:8-9, he writes:
I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they
abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is
better to marry than to burn.

Paul was well aware of the weakness of the flesh. I believe it's very likely
that because he knew how weak men are, and that men in church authority,
like bishops, should remove themselves from temptation, that it would be a
good idea if they married. It's not entirely unlikely that this feeling
informed his words in 1 Timothy 3:2. It can't be the only reason, because I
don't think the grammar supports it, but I think it's a component of it.

>"But here it might be objected, that what is sinful in all ought not to
>have been condemned in bishops alone." Calvin then remarks that the
>original law, laid out in Genesis 2:4, was never repealed. "But [God]
>might, to some extent, bear with that in others which, in a bishop, would
>have been excessively vile, and therefore not to be endured."

If this behavior was as "excessively vile" as Calvin says, why didn't Paul
say so? What I think instead is that polygamy ran so counter to Calvin's
beliefs and environment that he couldn't fathom it a part of a Christian's
life, so he interpreted scripture in a way that made him comfortable. (BTW,
I don't understand the relationship of Gen 2:4--can someone help me?)

>We certainly should have no difficulty with the idea that God bears with us
>even in our sinfulness, and gently leads us along so that eventually,
>perhaps after centuries, his people have changed. No doubt we can recite
>many practices "taken for granted" say, a thousand years ago, which are,
>however, considered wrong, wrong, wrong today.

Yes, I'm convinced God does bear with us. I, for one, have disappointed him
time and time again, and he's never left my side. But during those times I
knew what I was doing was wrong, and there was biblical precedent to convict
me of having been wrong. I don't see the biblical precedent that would
convict me were I a polygamist living in a community that allows it. In
fact, just the opposite. There is a long tradition in the Old Testament
(which continued in the Church Age) of responsible polygamy. Yet at each
opportunity to address it, the bible is either silent or selective.

Would I practice polygamy today? No, not in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1998.
Not because God prohibits it, but because my community does, and because
gender roles in our society will not permit it. But in another place and
another time, who knows?

>Yes, one-sided, although two guys. We could take a poll among the women in
>our lives and find out what they think of polygamy.

Yes, very one-sided indeed. I wonder if this debate would exist were the
women on the list discussing polyandry.