Must an Elder be a Polygynist?
Alright, I'll admit it: the title of this article feels a little click-baity. Truth be told, I did that intentionally. I also wasn't entirely sure which grouping to put this article under: it sort of belongs under Word Studies because it centers on the exegesis of a couple Greek words. However, it also belongs under somewhat of a cultural study. Yet then again, since I am writing a response against what I believe to be a dangerous and immoral practice, we could likely say it falls on Apologetics and Daily Life, as it has potential to impact people in numerous ways. But at the end of the day, I have filed this under Language and Word Studies for the aforementioned reason. I digress.
Recently, I was sent an article by a Mr. Charles Dowell, who operates the website StraitwayTruth and runs a church of the same name. A quick once-over of the many posts on both the website and the Facebook page demonstrated much material to me that is, sadly, reminiscent of my Messianic Cage Stage days. Much conspiracy and sensationalism dominate their materials.
The article in question - which I will link to below for honesty's sake - is essentially making the assertion that when 1 Timothy 3:2 states that an elder must be the "husband of one wife" it actually means the man must have at least one wife. The author claims it really should be understood as "a first wife" among many possible wives, not a restriction to a single wife.
Now normally, I would ignore such a site and move on. After all, it doesn’t really affect me, and honestly there isn’t enough time in a day for me to craft decent responses for some of these issues and teachings. However, a friend of mine reached out to inquire about an issue concerning the Greek text of 1 Timothy, as it is referred to by Mr. Dowell in his article. The article in question – if you wish to review it – can be found here. In short, it is a brief treatment of 1 Timothy 3 as it relates to polygyny, a practice which Mr. Dowell readily encourages. (Red Flags, anyone?)
I do not intend to respond to each and every point made in the article, as some are non sequiturs or are otherwise unrelated to the topic and the passage being addressed. However, I wrote up this brief response since I was specifically asked about the Greek of the passage, and I figured since I’ve written this much already, why not re-format it a little and make an article about it. After all, it may help someone else navigate this issue in the future. So that said, here we go.
The aforementioned article hinges on three primary points relating to polygyny, in particular from 1 Timothy 3:2. It does not contend with the definitions of ανηρ (man / husband) or γυναικος (woman / wife), so I will set those aside for now.
It hinges firstly on utilizing μιας (mias) as either an indefinite article (a / an) or the ordinal number, “first.”
Secondarily, it also hinges on the claim quoted in the article, “Thus if we cannot find a prohibition of polygyny up to this point in the teachings of the inspired text, we are in trouble (hermeneutically speaking) finding it here.” That is, since there is no “thou shalt not be a polygamist” from Genesis to 1 Timothy so far, then it must not be an actual prohibition.
The third and final point of the article is one of an appeal to authority or example of notable Biblical figures such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and others. I will address these in order.
1. The Grammatical Argument
The article claims the text of 1 Tim. 3:2 should be understood not to refer to a “husband of one wife” but to a “husband of a wife” or even “husband of a first wife.” The author states this is given by the Greek μια and should be read in likeness with Matthew 28:1, where it is rendered as “first.” Or else, the author claims, it should be taken as it is in Matthew 21:19 and Revelation 19:17, which both use the word as the indefinite article (a / an).
Now, the truthful assertion is that the Greek μιας (feminine form of the Greek εις) can be translated as the indefinite article a/an, and can also be understood as the ordinal number “first.” But this stands against the weight of evidence. The Greek εις occurs over 330 times in the Greek NT in various forms (including its feminine form as it is here), and of those, nearly 300 times it is rendered by nearly every English translation as “one.” The definition given by BDAG (the lexical authority for NT Greek words) is: “a single person or thing, with focus on quantitative aspect, one.” Secondarily, it can be used in contrast to more than one. This will be a key to focus on in a moment.
If we expand beyond the NT and look at the Septuagint (LXX), we find that the word εις appears over 800 times! Of those times, it overwhelmingly is used for the Hebrew אחד (echad) which, once again, represents the cardinal numeric “one” and not the ordinal “first.” The reason this is significant is because in Hebrew, the ordinal number is represented by the word ראשון (rishon), and not even one time does the LXX use εις to translate the Hebrew ראשון. I mention this only to show that Paul, in writing 1 Timothy, no doubt well understood the different between eis (one) and protos (first). The Greek πρωτος (protos) does in fact mean “first” and is used in many places in the NT as such. And interestingly, Mr. Dowell mentions, but yet ignores, this very fact in his article. But this distinction is important.
To summarize point 1 then: μιας could be used in the sense of “first,” but that is only when it is set apart from a group of specific quantity. As an example, the NASB2020 translates εις as “first” in 9 of its 338 occurrences. In 7 of these, it relates to the “first day of the week.” This is a known quantity (there are only 7 days). In the 8th place, the word is found in Titus 3:10 where Paul refers to “Reject[ing] a divisive person after the first (eis) and second warning.” Here, once again, there is a known total quantity: two. A first warning, and a second warning. There need be no more, since they are rejected after the second. Lastly, the 9th and final occurrence of εις in the NASB2020 translated as “first” is found in Rev. 9:12, where we read, “The first woe is passed; behold, two woes are still coming after these things.” Here, just as in every other place, the word is rendered as “first” only when the quantity is known. The places where the proper rendering of “first” for εις occurs in the GNT are very, very few.
The majority of cases – and thus the overwhelming evidence – points to the use of the word as the cardinal number “one.” Meaning, not “first” but one, as opposed to many. This is crucial, as it specifically stands against the claims the author makes. The whole point of using μιας (εις) as opposed to πρωτος is specifically to indicate that while πρωτος is the first of a group of some quantity, μιας is definitively one instead of many. This is why translations put together by Greek scholars consistently read, “a husband of one wife.” Even if we use the indefinite article a/an, it doesn’t change the meaning of the Greek text, namely, that it means “a singular person as opposed to many persons.” Mr. Dowell’s argument that it means “a husband must have at least a first wife” crumbles when the word in question is studied not by picking one’s preferred definition, but by examining the semantic range and the contextual usage of the word. But let’s move on to point two.
2. Polygyny isn’t prohibited anywhere prior to this in Scripture, so it must not be prohibited here
This is the author’s second presupposition on which the argument is built. This is a half-truth, however. There is no “thou shalt not have multiple wives” in the Torah. Or anywhere else in the Scriptures (albeit, I do have a friend who says there is, and you can read his take on it here). The simple reality is, God knew the Israelites would have multiple wives. The same goes for slaves, God knew they would have slaves. They were an ANE people, of course this would happen. The Torah’s commands regarding polygamy – and slavery – are to limit its practice and mitigate abuses of power in both situations (more on this in a future article, somewhere down the line).
It is worth noting that it is even explicitly forbidden for kings to take multiple wives for themselves (Deut. 17:17), which should be very telling as well (especially if we are supposed to be a Kingdom of Priests | Kings and Priests).
By the time we come to the NT, we do in fact get a prohibition on polygyny from Yeshua Messiah Himself. On the topic of divorce – which specifically pertains to marriage as a whole – Yeshua says the design from the beginning was for the two to become one flesh. This is evidenced by the archetypes of Adam and Eve. God did not create multiple wives for Adam to marry, He built only Eve. Nor did God design that Eve should be an equal and opposing power (ezer kenegdo) to multiple husbands. The statement is made that they, being two (not three, four, five, etc.) should become one flesh (Matt. 19:5, Gen. 2:24). It is worth noting the word here from the LXX is μιαν, once again implying the two should be one to the exclusion of others. Meaning, Adam should be one with Eve, not one with Eve, and then also one with Martha, and then also one with Lilith, etc.
If we are concerned only with having a “thou shalt not” in the Torah, then perhaps we can allow polygyny. But we know, emphatically, that it is contrary to God’s design. It is no different than claiming that watching pornography is acceptable since the person viewing it is not physically engaging in the acts themselves (I have seen believers make this very excuse). If our theology has us searching for loopholes, chances are, we’re already in the wrong.
3. The great Biblical figures and heroes of the Bible had multiple wives, so clearly it cannot be a bad thing
This one is faulty on multiple levels. But I would counter this simply by rhetorically asking if the author could point to someone, anyone, who is specifically mentioned as having multiple wives and it not being connected by Scripture to something going wrong.
Abraham had one wife, but it was due to his taking of Hagar (Gen. 16:1-6) that we get the issues with Ishmael that plagued Israel for centuries (Gen. 21:8-14). Jacob’s house was in constant strife because of his multiple wives (Gen. 29:31-35; Gen. 30:1-13). The rivalry between the mothers of his children no doubt played a large part of Jacob's favoritism to Joseph, which also no doubt led to much animosity between Joseph and his brothers (a fact which Joseph himself calls evil in Gen. 50:20).
David’s house was filled with strife as well. After all, one of his sons raped one of his daughters (2 Sam. 13:1-14), and then her brother murdered the guilty son (2 Sam. 13:23-33), and then violated his father's concubines (2 Sam. 16:20-23), and tried to stage a coup (2 Sam. 15)…shall I go on?
Gideon’s entire lineage was cut off except for one son, because his son of one wife hated all the others (Judges 9:1-6). In fact, the author of Judges even makes the point in Jdg. 8:30 to specifically link the "problem child" Abimelech to the fact that Gideon had so many wives.
Solomon’s infamous idolatry is specifically connected to his multitude of wives (1 Ki. 11:1-8) – not only the fact that they were foreign – and this, once again, relates to his breaking of Deut. 17:17. It is debated whether Moses himself had multiple wives or not, as it is likely that he had one wife who was called by multiple names, or possibly two subsequent but not simultaneous wives (though we do not know for sure), but even his household received backlash because of his marriage (Num. 12:1-10) nonetheless.
The point being: if we are taking the polygynist behavior of prior generations as an example for us to understand today, then we need to understand it is an example of what not to do.
I could go on a bit more, but I believe this should suffice for now.
At the end of the day, the exegesis offered by the author is very poor. Secondly, the whole promotion of the idea that elders should not only be allowed to have multiple wives, but be encouraged to do so, leads to many issues. Biblical examples of polygyny always indicate strife and discord in one way or another, and an elder in a congregation should be one who is not prone to strife (Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3).
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J. A. Brown