Can a Man Have Two Wives?

Can a Man Have Two Wives?

Dear Roger,

Recently, I was teaching Christian theology in another country to some pastors and pastors’ wives. One pastor told about a man who came often to church; but his family never came with him. One of the church members decided to go into the jungle area where the man lived and meet with the family. He was shocked to discover that this church-attending man had two wives. The practice of polygamy was deeply ingrained in his tribal culture.

The visiting church member proceeded to tell the man that according to the Bible having more than one wife was a sin, and that he must divorce one of the wives before he could again attend their church.

This encounter spread like wildfire throughout the tribe and neither the polygamist, his family, nor any one else from that tribe have darkened the door of the church since. Did this church member do the right thing?

Sincerely, J. (This story/question is a summation of a discussion that I had recently with J.)

Dear J,

I remember an experience early in my ministry when a married man came to me with a similar problem. He had fallen in love with a woman not his wife and was deeply guilt-ridden. He wanted advice about what to do. I told him that the first thing that he needed was to surrender his life to Christ as his Savior and Lord and become a Christian. I shared the gospel with him and asked him if he would like to repent of his sins and invite Jesus into his life. He nodded his head. He was ready.

Then I said, “If you want to come to Jesus you must first give up your sin. Will you confess to God that having a mistress is a sin and that you will end your relationship with the woman immediately?”

He began to weep. His body shook. He was obviously under deep conviction. After more discussion, clarification and tears he decided that he just wasn’t ready to give her up. As we parted I told him that I would pray and fast for him for the next three days in the hope that he might surrender the error of his ways, repent, ask God for forgiveness and forsake the woman forever. Three days later I called him. He was quite curt as he cut off the conversation and hung up on me. I’ve never seen him again.

I’ve thought often of that encounter. He was on the verge of surrendering his life to Christ and becoming a Christian—and then chose to turn away. For years I wondered if I somehow mishandled that sacred moment.

The issue of forsaking sin before coming to Christ revolvers around two opposite poles. One end of the spectrum says that you have to clean up your life and your sin before you can come to Christ. The other pole says that you can come to Christ at any time and then Christ will go to work cleaning up your life—and your sin.

In my encounter with the mistress-laden man above, I chose the former approach. Jesus at times chose the same. When He encounter the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus told him in no uncertain terms that he must surrender all that he owned before he could come and follow Him. Jesus felt deep sorrow and compassion as the young man declined His offer (Luke 18:18-30).

On the other hand, I am more inclined now to handle those sacred moments of potential conversion more carefully. None of us have the personal power to forsake sin and make sense of our broken lives without the life and power of the indwelling Christ. This power is available only to those who become Christians. In other words, we can come to Christ before we forsake all of our sins and then let Christ begin and continue the cleaning up process.

This latter approach was the one He used with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, the hated Roman tax collector, climbed a tree in order better to see Jesus when He walked through town. Jesus proceeded directly to Zacchaeus’ tree and said, “Zacchaeus, you dirty sinner, stop it!” No, of course not, that is not what He said at all. I think Jesus looked into Zacchaeus life and thought: “Zacchaeus is a thieving, selfish, greedy, materialistic man—who is feeling lonely, rejected, guilty and unloved—what he needs is companionship, forgiveness, acceptance and comfort.”

So, instead of saying, “Stop it and come down,” Jesus said, “Come on down, let’s go to your house and have lunch together.” Three hours later the door opened and Zacchaeus stepped out on the porch and announced to the crowd, “Half of all I own I give to the poor, and anything I have stolen from you I will restore four times over!” Then, Jesus stepped out on the steps and said, “Today salvation has come to this house!” (Luke 19:1-10).

In this model Jesus invited Himself right into Zacchaeus’ life and then proceeded to clean up his sin and turn his live completely around. It only took three hours in the presence of Jesus for the transformation to occur—it may take a little longer with some of us.

I conclude that both models are appropriate. The key is having the spiritual insight to know which model to use when.

Jesus was very clear about the sacred solemnity of how we handle those who are close to coming into the kingdom. Sometimes, we need to get out of the way and just let Jesus and the Holy Spirit do their work. Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:13-14: “Woe to you, teachers of the Law, and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the Kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, now will you let those who are trying to.”

As I think back to my encounter with the man struggling to give up his mistress—I am pretty sure that I used the wrong model.

I believe that what I should have done was lead him into a saving relationship with Christ. He wanted and needed Jesus. After all, Jesus said that it only takes a little faith (Matthew17:20) to come into the kingdom—and I believe that he had more than a little faith! Then, I could have befriended him, invited him to church and guided him into a small group where he could grow in Christ. I would like to think that he would mature spiritually to the point where Jesus could inspire him to make the proper decisions regarding his mistress and marriage issues. But, I didn’t handle this well. I have never seen him again.

Well, J, I am really glad we talked yesterday. I think that it is good to ponder just how we handle those who are so close to coming into the Kingdom. We want to do all we can to open the door and not shut it.

Love, Roger

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