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Doesn't Paul condemn plural marriage?

by W. John Walsh

Doesn't Paul condemn plural marriage in the New Testament when he says Bishops should only have one wife?

Paul wote:

"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)

President George Albert Smith shed some light on this matter when he said:

"There is an opinion in the breasts of many persons, who suppose that they believe the Bible, that Christ, when he came, did away with plural marriage, and that he inaugurated what is termed monogamy; and there are certain arguments and quotations used to maintain this view of the subject, one of which is found in Paul's first epistle to Timothy (3 chap. 2 v.), where Paul says: 'A bishop should be blameless, the husband of one wife.' The friends of monogamy render it in this way: 'A bishop should be blameless, the husband of but one wife.' That would imply that any one but a bishop might have more. But they will say, 'We mean a bishop should be blameless, the husband of one wife only.' Well, that would also admit of the construction that other people might have more than one. I understand it to mean that a bishop must be a married man.

A short time ago, the Minister from the King of Greece to the United States called on President Young. I inquired of him in relation to the religion of his country, and asked him if the clergy were allowed to marry. It is generally understood that the Roman Catholic clergy are not allowed to marry. How is it with the Greek clergy? 'Well,' said he, 'all the clergy marry, except the bishop.' I replied, 'You render the saying of Paul differently from what we do. We interpret it to mean--a bishop should be blameless, the husband of one wife at least,' and 'we construe it,' said he, 'directly opposite.'"

Now this passage does not prove that a man should have but one wife. It only proves that a bishop should be a married man." (Journal of Discourses, Vol.13, p.39)

Personally, I have always interpreted the verse the same way as President Smith -- meaning the Bishop should be a married man.  Bishops have responsibilities to minister to families and it's hard to understand the needs of a married couple unless you are married yourself. 

However, other Latter-day Saints have said that Paul meant a Bishop should have only one wife, but the instructions were for that specific audience.  While the doctrines of the gospel never change, they may be applied differently at different times.  For example, before the atonement of Christ, the children of Israel were commanded to offer animal sacrifices by the shedding of blood.   After the resurrection of Jesus, the people were told to stop animal sacrifice.   The Book of Mormon teaches:

"And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.  And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not." (3 Nephi 9:19-20)

God gives different commandments at different times.  This is a principle that should be understood by most Christians, as very few Christian demoniations teach that animal sacrifices should still be performed.  Animal sacrifices were appropriate Moses' day, but most denominations teach that they are no longer appropriate for ours.

While Paul's instructions to Timothy contain priceless gospel truths, it's important to remember that they are specific instructions given to a specific person at a specific point in time.  As with animal sacrifice, the Lord may command his people differently at different points in time.

In either case, it would be inappropriate to interpret the verses as an absolute prohibition on plural marriage.

(See Plural Marriage home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)

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