The situation of the German town of Munster, as it developed during the
radical Reformation, was very nearly akin to Jim Jones' Jonestown, with crazy people running the
show. For a time polygamy was not only permitted but mandatory for
the inhabitants of this coercive socialist utopia. Upon making
polygamy mandatory, the Munster communards found themselves obliged also to criminalize
'quarreling,' because one half the human race did not take naturally to
polygamy and fell to quarreling, which was made a capital crime. Rather ominously, this same group also did
away with money, as Pol Pot would later do:
"'For not only have we put all our belongings into a
common pool under the care of deacons, and live from it according to
our need; we praise God through Christ with one heart and mind and
are eager to help one another with every kind of service. And
accordingly, everything which has served the purposes of
self-seeking and private property, such as buying and selling,
working for money, taking interest and practicing usury … or eating
and drinking the sweat of the poor … and indeed everything which
offends us against love – all such things are abolished amongst us
by the power of love and community.'" (Anabaptist pamphlet sent
in October 1534, quoted in Murray N. Rothbard, 'Messianic Communism
in the Protestant Reformation,' an except available on LewRockwell.com).
As Libertarian Murray Rothbard insightfully notices, the
elimination of private property did not yield an egalitarian
society, but ensured only that the ruling elite controlled all the
wealth. Polygamy turned out to be more popular with the male segment of the population than with the female,
quelle surprise. It is difficult to fathom how the Munster Communards
derived their coercive wealth-sharing from a New Testament pattern
which is plainly described as non-coercive: "While it remained, was
it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own
power?" (Acts 5:4), nor how they justified a reign of terror in the
name of love, nor how they saw fit to impose upon new covenant
believers a system not compatible with Jesus' marriage
teaching, and which was never mandatory even upon those patriarchs
who practiced it, nor anywhere commended even in the Old
Testament, rather, "Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and
running waters out of thine own well. . .Let thy fountain be
blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth." (Proverb 5:15-18).
Some people think they find permission for polygamy in an unexpected place,
Paul's teaching on the marital status of bishops:
"A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach..." (1 Timothy 3:2).
"For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly." (Titus 1:5-6).
'Elders' and 'bishops' are the same office in the New Testament, though
they would later be pryed apart into a hierarchy. Some people explain these
verses by saying that, because there were so many Christian men in the
church who had multiple wives (polygamy, they say, being very common in
those days), Paul wants elders selected from that subset of men in the
church who had only one wife at the moment. They say this verse has nothing
to do with divorce, only polygamy. There were in fact places in the world
where polygamists could be found: Persia, then governed by Parthia, even
Palestine, where Herod the Great had married, and murdered, multiple wives,
India, and many other far-flung places. The Greeks and Romans were aware of
"It is a Median custom to select the bravest person as
king, but this does not generally prevail, being confined to the
mountain tribes. The custom for the kings to have many wives is more
general, it is found among all the mountaineers also, but they are
not permitted to have less than five. In the same manner the women
think it honorable for husbands to have as many wives as possible,
and esteem it a misfortune if they have less than five." (Strabo,
Geography, Book XI, Chapter XIII, Section 11, p. 266)
Geographer Pomponius Mela describes African nomads who practice polygamy:
"Although, being scattered all over in family groups and
without law, they take no common counsel, still, because individual
men have several wives and for that reason more children than usual
(both those eligible to receive an inheritance and those not
eligible), they are never few in number." (Pomponius Mela,
Description of the World, Book 1, Section 42, p. 47).
But Paul didn't go to any of those places to preach! The places he went,
and where Timothy and Titus were likely to go, practiced monogamy and had
done so for a long time. There was no room in Roman law, which held sway
over a considerable chunk of the globe, for multiple wives, though divorce
was permitted. Some parts of the empire, including Palestine, were allowed
to retain their own laws, but the Romans were proud of their laws and imposed
them wherever possible. Paul's category: "the husband of one wife,"
would have struck his readers as a novelty, though the inverse category:
'the wife of one husband,' was familiar to them. The 'univira,' or wife of one husband, was an honored figure at Roman weddings. She was not a woman who was married to only one man at the moment, but a woman who had been married to only one man, cumulatively:
"Women who had been content with a single marriage used to be honored
with a crown of chastity. For they thought that the mind of a married woman
was particularly loyal and uncorrupted if it knew not how to leave the
bed on which she had surrendered her virginity, believing that trial of
many marriages was as it were the sign of a legalized incontinence."
(Valerius Maximus, 'Memorable Doings and Sayings,' Book II.1).
Though in the first century, divorce was common in the Roman empire, and
indeed every kind of sexual immorality (as in our own day), Romans remembered
the early years of their Republic in an idealized way as the home on earth
of marital fidelity:
"From the founding of the city [Rome] down to its five hundred and
twentieth year there was no case of divorce between man and wife. Sp. Carvilius
was the first to put his wife away for cause of barrenness. Although he
was thought to have a tolerable reason for so doing, he did not escape
criticism, because they considered that even desire for children ought
not to have been placed ahead of conjugal loyalty." (Valerius Maximus,
'Memorable Doings and Sayings,' Book II.1).
Neither was monogamy a new idea introduced by Rome in the Greek-speaking
areas where Paul spread the gospels. Athenian law for the most part, with
the exception of a period when war had depopulated the city, allowed a
man to register as a citizen-son only the offspring of his marriage with
a free-born citizen wife: "For this is what living with a woman as one's
wife means—to have children by her and to introduce the sons to the
members of the clan and of the deme, and to betroth the daughters to
husbands as one's own." (Demosthenes, LIX, Against Neaera, Section
122). Any other offspring he might have with any other
woman was, not a citizen, but an illegitimate child deprived of civil rights.
Consequently, a man had only one lawful wife at a time. Divorce was allowed,
but not multiple concurrent wives.
Sometimes people slide into this interpretation with the best of intentions.
Their beloved pastor gets divorced, through no fault of his own (it's always
through no fault of his own). Paul's instructions do not specifically exclude
a divorced man, but only remarriage. But then the lonely pastor gets remarried.
These people ought to say, 'We are making a compassionate exception in
this case rather than obeying Paul's instructions to the letter,' before
they start off down a journey of fantasy anthropology. Polygamy would not
have been common in Paul's Greek-speaking churches.