No one is without bias when reading and interpreting Scripture. We all come from different cultures, backgrounds, and denominations. Some of us have learned certain biblical teachings since childhood and have held onto them with deep conviction. But what if some of these teachings are wrong? Have we dared to ask this question? Conversely, what if some of these teachings are right, and they have now been compromised? As an American, I have seen my culture drastically change over the last two decades, and the Western church has often sailed along with it. It is possible that we do not even realize it, but that is the ultimate problem. In many ways, it has become more important to be politically correct than to uphold truth. Social justice has taken the place of meeting the needs within the church. Feminism has caused dissension within the home and the church. Homosexuality has become acceptable within certain denominations, and even practiced by some leaders. Why are these changes occurring? Is it because we are reading Scripture through the tainted lens of our culture, seeing what we want to see? Do we place the constant change of culture above the Word of God? It is necessary to consider that what may seem controversial to us may be clear in Scripture, and what may seem foreign and supposedly sinful may be acceptable in Scripture.
While many controversial topics have been heavily studied in light of Scripture, polygamy has received little scholarly attention. If you read a commentary on passages involving polygamy, you will often discover that the verdict is clear from the start: polygamy was never God’s intention. It’s stated as a fact and rarely debated. But what about polygamous men and women in the Bible who are described as being righteous? It’s as if their spiritual quality is overlooked or written off as less important compared to their foreign (or barbaric) marriage practice. However, I ask you to consider if God calls just anyone righteous? In reading the Old Testament it is obvious that God’s chosen people did not act righteously most of the time, and they were judged and punished many times over. There’s no gray area for God when it comes to sin. He is merciful and gracious, yes, but when people live a lifestyle of disobedience they are severely disciplined and eventually cut off if no change occurs. So why not David? He had many wives but was blessed and protected by God. He is not judged harshly by God until he decides to commit adultery with Bathsheba and murder her husband to keep it quiet. (Adultery and murder, not polygamy.) As a result of his sin, his first child with Bathsheba dies and his household is filled with strife from that day forward. But David repents as soon as he is confronted with his sin and is described as a man after God’s own heart. He is a man concerned about his spiritual condition and that of his household. Is that not something worth considering when searching for biblical truth?
Consider a different cultural example. According to the law of Moses, Jews were not supposed to eat certain kinds of meat because of the impurity of the animal:
“Nevertheless, you are not to eat of these, among those which chew the cud, or among those which divide the hoof: the camel, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you. Likewise, the shaphan, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you; the rabbit also, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you; and the pig, for though it divides the hoof, thus making a split hoof, it does not chew cud, it is unclean to you. You shall not eat of their flesh nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.” ~ Leviticus 11:4-8 NASB
This may seem preposterous to us because, really, what would we do without bacon? But the Jews were to follow these instructions to the letter. These animals (plus many more, keep reading in Lev. 11) must not be eaten. These instructions became so ingrained in Jewish culture that God uses them to teach Peter a life-changing lesson in Acts 10:
“On the next day, as they (people from Cornelius’ household) were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.’ Again a voice came to him a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.” ~ Acts 10:9-16 NASB
The Lord knew what Peter considered to be unclean because He Himself gave the Jews their law. But not only is the Lord declaring food to no longer be unclean, but more importantly, He’s declaring that the Gentiles are no longer to be considered unclean because He has cleansed them. At the moment Peter receives his revelation, members of Cornelius’ household (who is a centurion) are on their way to speak with him. They had received a message from the Lord, and Peter was the one that God called to teach them. Peter even says to Cornelius and his household, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29). God had provided guidelines and cleansing rituals in the law to prevent the Jews from getting sick and spreading disease. However, such guidelines became a point of contention with Gentiles who practiced and ate “unclean” things, and in truth, the Gentiles were viewed the same way as unclean food. But God declared otherwise. Were the Jews wrong for following lawful instructions? No. But it became so ingrained in their culture that even when God told Peter to do something different, his first instinct was to say “no.” Peter was appalled by God’s command to kill and eat what he saw in his vision. Yet, does God ever command people to sin? Surely not! Peter witnessed firsthand that what he thought was unclean (the Gentiles) could also receive the Holy Spirit, the seal of God.
In Mark 7 Jesus was also confronted with this same issue by the Pharisees. Jesus’ disciples were supposedly eating food with unclean (or unwashed) hands, and the Pharisees took the opportunity to question Jesus about it. Rather, they wanted to discredit their ministry because they weren’t following the teachings of the elders. But Jesus, knowing their intentions, declared that they have neglected the command of God in order to follow teachings of men (vv. 8-13). He further explained to the crowd that “there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man” (v. 15). Of course, Jesus’ disciples had a difficult time understanding this teaching so He graciously provided an explanation:
“‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.) And He was saying, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.'” ~ Mark 7:18-23
Jesus’ words were quite controversial. Why? Because they were all still under the law. The law says “unclean” but Jesus says “clean.” How can this be? Is Jesus violating the law? As Paul would say, may it never be! Rather, the Jews became so obsessed with following the outward instructions that they neglected their inward spiritual condition. They appeared holy on the outside but inside they were unclean. And what’s worse is that they didn’t even recognize it.
So what does a discussion about unclean food have to do with biblical polygamy? More than polygamy, it’s about seeking biblical truth. Cultural teachings have become so embedded in the church that we have called rotten fruit good and good fruit rotten. Why? Because we have lost the ability to tell the difference. We are no different than the Pharisees who pointed out unclean hands and couldn’t see that they neglected the command of God for teachings of men. The church cries out for God’s justice to be done in the world without realizing that we have sealed our own judgment because of our own lack of understanding. Why was David a man after God’s own heart? Because he obeyed when God commanded. He yielded his spirit to follow God’s will. He did what most of us would not be willing to do. And when he failed he poured out his soul to God in anguish and grief and did not shake his fist at God when he experienced judgment. He understood that God was just in giving him what he deserved.
So what about the church? At this moment are we worthy to be called the body of Christ? To be an extension of our Savior who gave up everything for us? How can His body stay intact when its members fight each other and run in opposite directions following their own understanding of truth? The church is full of gaping wounds but we fail to see it. We claim to follow Christ but serve our culture, and we interpret God’s Word accordingly. What’s more is we teach newcomers who seek truth to do the same thing.
Each one of us is accountable because we have access to the Word of God, and we have the ability to understand it if we have His Spirit and ask for the Lord’s guidance and wisdom. Don’t rely on other people’s interpretations. Ask God yourself. He is ready to share it with those who have ears to hear. But what will we do when we are given instructions like He gave Peter? What if He asks us to do something so countercultural that it seems wrong? How many of us have dismissed instructions because they were exactly that: countercultural? The church cannot be effective in the world if the body is dying from the inside out. Why is it dying? Because the cancer of the world has metastasized throughout its members except the head which is Christ. The head is sending messages to the members of the body but very few receive them.
How will we respond? We still have the opportunity to act like David and pour out our souls in anguish for our own failure. We have ignored our spiritual condition for the sake of cultural relativism, and we will destroy ourselves if the church does not repent. This is the moment where the church determines if she will face a spiritual exile. God has been patient, but He is also just. His interaction with ancient Israel is a testament to these things.
The world is rapidly changing, but truth remains the same. Which one will we choose?
© Lauren Heiligenthal