Can we tolerate homosexual relationships on the basis that polygamy was tolerated under the Old Testament dispensation?

How are we to evaluate it that appeals are being made to the fact that polygamy was accepted under the old dispensation to cast homosexual relationships as acceptable? We have to do here with a stance which regards homosexual relationships as still sinful but which fudges the issue of whether or not this sin is one that will keep people out of heaven. After all, we are told, polygamy is not in accordance with God’s created order, yet that did not bar Abraham or Jacob from the Kingdom of God.

Such an appeal betrays spiritual ignorance: ignorance of the contents of the Bible, and ignorance of the progressive nature of revelation from the old to the new dispensation. Scripture is entirely clear as regards how serious homosexual conduct is: it is, like adultery, a sin that will keep a person out of the Kingdom of God if not confessed before God and broken with. I need only cite I Corinthians 6:9,10: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” Moreover, defending homosexual relationships by an appeal to heterosexual polygamy is indicative of an ignorance of church history. Quite early in the history of the church in her New Testament form, the issue of how polygamy relates to homosexual behaviour was already raised and answered.

God’s good created order is marriage between one man and one woman. Rightly do we call monogamy a created ordnance: it is among Cain’s progeny that polygamy first crops up after the Fall. Nevertheless, of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, only Isaac had a monogamous marriage. In this regard, Isaac reveals himself not to have been a man of his time in the sense that his father, Abraham, and both his sons — not just Esau, but even Jacob — were.

Under the old dispensation, the LORD tolerated polygamy. When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, a married woman, Nathan can say, even in the LORD’s Name, to him, “I gave thee thy master’s [i.e. Saul’s] house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things” (II Samuel 12:8).

The Old Testament lays the charge to Solomon not that he had a plurality of wives, but that the number of wives he had taken was very large; this was an infringement of the royal law (Deuteronomy 17:17). Incidentally, Church Fathers, Reformers and Puritans, assuming that Solomon penned Ecclesiastes in maturity, have regarded that book as an implicit confession of his sinful conduct and his massively sumptuous lifestyle, and for that reason, they saw no reason to call Solomon’s salvation into question.

Even though polygamy was tolerated under the old dispensation, in practice the great majority of Israelite men lived monogamously: only the wealthiest could afford to keep more than one wife. The Old Testament also unfailingly points out to us the drawbacks of polygamy, illustrating them by sketching the domestic strife faced by Abraham, Jacob and Elkanah.

The Mosaic laws hedge the detrimental aspects of polygamy. A man is obliged to give the benefits of primogeniture to the eldest son of his first wife, not the eldest son of his favourite wife (Deuteronomy 21:15–17). He is forbidden from restricting sexual intercourse to his favourite wife; each of the wives he has married enjoys conjugal rights (Exodus 21:10).

The New Testament explicitly makes the created order the norm and indeed the requirement. Under the New Testament dispensation, polygamy can still be tolerated in a situation of transition. We can apply this quite practically in our day to the case of a Muslim with four wives who is converted to Christ: he is not then meant to send three of his wives packing. However, even in such a liminal case, a bigamist cannot hold office in the church (I Timothy 3:2). For those who have been brought up Christian or who come to faith when single, the applicable standard — even in a society that allows for polygamy — is the created order of marriage between one man and one woman. One constant, however, between the old and the new dispensation is that homosexual conduct is a sin. In fact, it is an abominable sin — a category which the Old Testament does not apply to all sins. The Biblical meaning of an abomination is a sin which will keep someone out of the Kingdom of God.

As regards the relationship between the old and the new dispensation, even the first Church Father, Irenaeus, spoke of the divine pedagogy: in salvation-history terms, the people of God was growing up under the old dispensation, and under the new dispensation, she has attained adulthood.

Availing himself of that principle, the Church Father Augustine explains why polygamy was allowed under the old dispensation but not under the new: “Righteousness is not changeable, but the times which righteousness rules are not equal” (Confessions III.vii). Homosexual conduct of any form (not excluding stable homosexual relationships) God has rejected in all ages, for it is a sin against nature, which is to say, a breach of His created order. It is a sin clean contrary to the given that sexuality ought to be between man and woman.

The Bible itself is not at all fuzzy about homosexual conduct or homosexual relationships, and the Early Church was likewise unanimous in its thinking and pronouncements on this issue. Just as in our own day, homosexual behaviour occurred in the whole gamut of forms in Classical antiquity, from sheer promiscuity to stable, lifelong homosexual relationships. The argument that the latter is supposedly acceptable because there is fidelity is alien to Scripture; nowhere does the Bible connect the notion of faithfulness with that which it expressly calls sin. One cannot remain faithful to sinful behaviour; one has to break with it.

Augustine writes: “Can it at any time or place be unjust to love God with all one’s heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind; and his neighbour as himself? Therefore those foul offences which are against nature, are everywhere and at all times detestable and punishable; such as were those of the men of Sodom: which should all nations commit, they should all stand guilty of the same crime, by the law of God, which has not so made men that they should so abuse one another. For even that fellowship which should be between God and us is violated when that same nature of which He is Author is polluted by perversity of lust.” (Confessions III.viii)

Nor can an appeal ever be made to tendencies to sins such as pride or greed to make out that there is nothing sinful about homosexual feelings. All these feelings are in contravention of the good image of God in which and according to which we were created. Such sinful feelings (and this includes homosexual feelings), however, will not keep us out of the Kingdom of God if we fight them, looking unto Jesus and in the power of His Spirit. It is greatly consoling that, as part of Answer 56 in the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, the forgiveness of sins also encompasses our sinful nature, against which our struggle is lifelong. Both the former and the latter are true; forgiveness of sins always gives rise to breaking with sin and struggling against our sinful nature and sinful feelings.

How are we to respond to the phenomenon of office-bearers and opinion-formers in the church appealing to Solomon’s polygamy, or to the fact that pride and greed are also sins, to discount homosexual feelings as sin, and their failure to state bluntly that even a stable homosexual relationship will keep a man or woman out of the Kingdom of God? The answer is simple. The words of Paul, and thus of the Holy Spirit, apply: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). Watch and pray, that you are not induced by anyone to depart from what God has to say to us in His Word.

It is of vital importance, in the profoundest sense of the word ‘vital’, for the church to call sin what the Bible calls sin, and for the church to pronounce Scripture unambiguously where Scripture says plainly that a particular sin keeps a person out of the Kingdom of God. For how are people going to fight the fight of faith if the trumpet of preaching and of church witness gives an uncertain sound (cf. I Cor. 14:8)? A church is deserving of the name of church only where the keys of the Kingdom of God are being handled rightly. That is to say, it is to be a church where believers hear that as often as they take refuge in the promises of God, all their sins are forgiven them for Christ’s sake, and where the witness is given to those who do not repent in their hearts that the wrath of God remains upon them as long as they persist in their unrepentance (see Answer 84 of the Heidelberg Catechism).

A church is not a church unless it faithfully preserves the witness of Scripture; nor is a Christian really a Christian unless he faithfully preserves the same. A Christian does not make himself out to be above the world, as a Pharisee would. Preserving the witness of Scripture is something other than legalism or moralising. Moreover, a Christian keeps himself distinct from the world, which is not least expressed in his sexual purity. Joseph’s attitude is an example for all to follow in this regard: he kept his sexual feelings in check because he knew that if he caved in to the circumstances in which he found himself, he would be doing a great wickedness and be sinning against God (Gen. 39:9).

The church is called to empathise with those of homosexual orientation. We are doing people an injustice if we assert that they have consciously chosen it. If they yield to that orientation and express it in homosexual conduct, even if that is in a stable relationship, then we must lovingly and earnestly convey to them the message of repentance. Those who give themselves over to homosexual behaviour are outside the scope of God’s forgiving and renewing grace, just as adulterers, gluttons, drunkards and thieves are. I Cor. 6:11 sets this out in clear terms: “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”

There are examples of people who have been saved from their homosexual orientation. Where this does not happen, we — being poor sinners who have learned to flee to Christ — are not at liberty to ascribe that to a lack of faith. Due to the Fall, this life will always remain broken. What is certain is that every Christian will have to battle his predispositions in some domain of life or other. He to whom it is given to wage that struggle in the strength of Christ enjoys the knowledge that he will also share in Christ’s victory. We are to hold out this message to all. Those who believe this message sincerely are blessed with the knowledge that nothing will separate them from the love of God.

(Originally published in the English Churchman nr. 8011 Friday 28 September en 5 October 2018 page 10)

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