Presented in Uganda and Kenya during July 2006
Genesis 2:18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to the beasts of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. 21 So the Lord God cause a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept. Then he took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 And the Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which he had taken from the man and brought her to the man. 23 And the man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman because she was taken out of man.” 24 For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Since I started coming to Africa to train local pastors in 2002, there is one question that has been asked in every seminar in every location at every time: what leadership roles are open to a man with two wives? Now, the biblical answer to this question is neither complicated nor is it obscure. Paul tells us in 1 Tim. 3:2 that an overseer (i.e., an elder or pastor) must be “the husband of one wife.” The phrase in Greek is literally “a one-woman man.” In other words, it is not necessary that a pastor be married—Paul himself was not, though Peter was (1 Cor. 9:5). It is necessary though that he be of such character that if he is married he will be faithful to one woman. He may not be a polygamist. As I said, this is neither difficult nor obscure. So why does the question keep being asked?
Part of the reason is that polygamy is such a deeply rooted part of African culture that it just makes sense to people; it makes sense to them, it just seems obvious, that the more powerful a big man is, the more women he will have. Paul’s teaching on the qualifications of leadership are thus so counter-intuitive, so unexpected and strange to the African mind, that people wonder if he could possibly have meant what he said. Well, he did. But I don’t think we will fully grasp that he did until we get some insight into why he did. To do that, we need to back up, all the way back to Genesis, and look at the basic biblical teaching on human sexuality as it relates to God’s design for marriage and the family. I have become convinced that this is a critical need in your country as well as mine. Africans and Americans are both terribly confused about this matter, though their confusion comes at different points. (Our problem is not so much with polygamy as promiscuity.) Satan has used that confusion to abuse us grievously and to ruin countless lives. So let us start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.
It is remarkable that when Adam existed in a perfect world in perfect communion with his Maker, God saw that he was still not complete. “It was not good for the man to be alone.” And so God decided to make a helper suitable for him. And it is interesting that, having said this, God does not proceed immediately to the creation of Eve. First, there is this parade of animals for Adam to name. Why the delay? Because God wanted to prepare Adam for what was coming. In order to give the animals appropriate names, Adam had to study them, to pay attention to their nature. In doing so, he doubtless noticed that they were tending to come past him in pairs: two dogs, two sheep, two goats, two cows. At some point the question had to start forming in his head, “Where’s mine?” But in all the animal kingdom “there was not found a helper suitable for him.” So by the time Eve comes along, he is definitely ready for her.
God then puts Adam to sleep and makes Eve out of his rib. It has been said that woman was made, not from man’s head, that she might dominate him, nor from his foot, that he might dominate her, but from his side, that they might walk together in harmony. Now: how many ribs did God take from Adam’s side? One. How many women did he make from it? One. So the original design for marriage involved one man and one woman. To make sure we don’t miss this point, Moses stops to comment on it in vs. 24. “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Verse 24 then gives the biblical pattern for marriage, and it is extremely important that each element of it be observed in the order in which they are given. There are three things that happen. First, a man leaves his father and his mother. In other words, having arrived at adulthood, he is ready to stand on his own, cease being a dependent, and support his own family. Second, he cleaves unto his wife. To cleave is to be joined, to form a strong bond. In other words, he enters into a covenant with the woman of his choice, that they will be faithful to one another for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, keeping only unto her as long as they both shall live. Third, they become one flesh. The union of their hearts and lives is expressed in that physical union through which the Lord may give them the blessing of children.
I say that the order is crucial. In fact, it is essential to biblical marriage. It is not accidental. Leave; cleave; become one flesh. It does not say that a man and a woman will become one flesh, and then if they like it they may (or may not) decide to leave and cleave! Now, given the powerful nature of the temptations that young people face, many modern people think of God as a hard taskmaster here, as indeed an overbearing, strict, and repressive killjoy. But nowhere does his loving care for us become more evident than in the rules he devised for regulating our sexual desires and creating a healthy marriage. This order was given to us, not to frustrate us or repress our natural urges, but for our protection. First, it is for our physical protection. If every man and woman would follow the procedure given to us in Genesis 2:24, sexually transmitted diseases would disappear from the human race. If every man and woman would follow the procedure given to us in Genesis 2:24, teenage pregnancies would vanish from the land. If every man and woman would follow the procedure given to us in Genesis 2:24, HIV AIDS would perish from the earth. But it is not just for our physical protection that God set marriage up the way he did. It is for our emotional protection as well. Sexual intercourse is an act of such intimacy, of such vulnerability, that it can only be experienced as truly blessed in the context of a complete and profound trust between two people. Now, gentlemen, if you talk a woman into bed with you before you have made the covenant with her of which being one flesh is the God-ordained expression, how is that trust ever going to be established? What is the message you are sending to her by the emotional manipulation you use to do so? You will deny it, of course, but it is there nonetheless in the very nature of what you are doing. Surely it is that she is merely the means to the end of your own physical pleasure—a mere apparatus. Surely it is that she is valued primarily for her body. Surely it is not that it is her character as expressed in her total personality that makes you want her by your side for life! To say that to her, you would have to respect her enough to wait. Even if you go on to get married, by violating the order God has given you have sowed the seeds of future mistrust and strife and bitterness, both outside of bed and in it, too. Only by following God’s instructions can you lay the foundation for a marriage that will be whole and blessed, both outside of bed and in it, too. And that brings us to the second reason for this teaching. God has set up the rules the way he did not only for our protection, but also positively, for our blessing. He wants you to have a marriage that will be a fountain of joy and strength for you and your family. Fallen human beings can mess it up even if they follow the rules. But they will make it even harder on themselves if they forget or ignore the order: leave, cleave, one flesh.
If you have already transgressed in this area, do not despair. God is a God of forgiveness and a God of grace, and he can heal even these wounds that you are inflicting on your future marriage, or have inflicted on your present one in the past. But if you have not yet transgressed, why would you want to set yourself up for such problems? Why would you want to make more difficult the most challenging relationship, and the most important, you will ever have with another human being? Why wouldn’t you want to lay the foundation of trust--in one another and in the Lord--on which alone a truly good marriage can be built? God has placed restrictions on sexual expression for our protection and our blessing, because he loves us.
God’s original design for marriage then was one man with one woman, and this is clearly seen in Genesis. But as fallen human cultures developed, polygamy arose basically out of a misguided greed. In the rest of the Old Testament, it was permitted, no doubt due to the hardness of men’s hearts, even though it had never been God’s ideal. Abraham, David: many of the Old Testament saints practiced it. But if you look back at their lives, I think you will see that they had many problems as a result. Nevertheless, polygamy was not actually forbidden until the New Testament. Why? And why then? The answer to those questions takes us into the most profound depths of theology.
God’s design for marriage from the beginning had the good of his human creatures as its end. But there was another reason for it that could not be revealed until after Christ had come. When it was revealed, it would be enough to take our breath away. We reach it in Ephesians chapter 5:
Ephesians 5:22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ also is head of the church, he himself being the savior of the body. . . . 25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that he might present to himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and blameless. . . . 31 “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is great, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.
Part of God’s plan for a Christian marriage is that it should be an illustration, an object lesson, a living parable which teaches us about Christ’s love for the church. (Please see the exposition of this passage in my series on Ephesians in the Sermon Menu for more detail on how this can work in practice. See especially Ephesians 5:21, 5:22-24, and 5:25-29) Part of the purpose of Genesis 2:24 is to prepare the human race in general, and God’s people in particular, for this. Now, for how many churches did Christ die? One. There are many denominations and many congregations in which it manifests itself, but there is only one Body of Christ, only one Bride, only one true church. So now we see why it is so important that all Christian men be monogamous and why especially it is so important that the pastor or elder be the husband of no more than one wife. A Christian marriage is a portrait of Christ and the church. If you marry a second woman, you are messing up the picture! The pastor must be a man who leads by teaching and by example. How can he perform his job if, at such a crucial point, he has to say, “Do as I say, but not as I do”? It is not possible. And so we see that Paul’s instructions for leaders make sense as part of the whole picture of the biblical ethic. It is not an arbitrary rule, but one that flows from the heart of what marriage is, what the ministry is, who Christ is, and what the church is.
This then is the biblical ethic of human sexuality and marriage, based on the biblical explanation of why God has ordained these things the way he did. Leave; cleave; one flesh; abstinence outside of marriage; faithfulness to one spouse within it. Why? Because thus you will be protected from great physical and emotional harm. Because thus you will be better able to experience the blessings God intends marriage to bring you. Because thus you will have the inestimable privilege of portraying to the world a picture of the love between Christ and his church. Because in this great privilege it is the high calling of our leaders to be examples to the rest of us. Ultimately, because God loves you. Our thinking on these matters has become so perverted, so degraded, that it will take great faith for some of us to believe that last affirmation. But that is the faith to which Scripture calls us. May God grant it to us today, for the sake of our lives and for the sake of our families and for the sake of his family, the church. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated Aug 16, 2006