|Elkanah and His Two Wives. Wikimedia|
However, polygamy certainly was not the original marital institution. In the Old Testament, it was allowed because of the hardness of human hearts due to sin. The Law was given for the lawless (1Tim.1:9; Matt.19:5,6,8). One must note that even in the Old Testament unrestricted polygamy was not allowed (Deut.17:17).
...the commandments of Grace are tougher and more demanding than the commandments of the Law. The Bible tells us that the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came with Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Jesus ushered in the era of Grace. Not that grace was absent in the Old Testament; but that grace could only be available even in the Old Testament because of the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the earth. And, when Christ came Grace came in reality, for until then everything was only shadows (Col.2:17). Therefore, it says, "Grace and truth came with Jesus Christ".
The commandments of Grace, therefore, supersede the commandments of the Law. Grace teaches us true righteousness (Tit.2:11,12; Matt.5:20).
Thus, certain things that were allowed in the Old Testament (like divorce, swearing, polygamy, and tit-for-tat ethics) are not allowed anymore in the New Testament (Matt.5:31,34, 38,39). Most of these things were allowed because of the hardness of human hearts, but God never originally intended them so (Matt.19:8). However, in the Age of Grace when His Grace transforms our hearts, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves and to pray for our enemies, we are called not to resist evil people but turn our left cheek to someone who slaps on our right (i.e. severely insults and humiliates us). The demands of Grace are higher than the demands of the Law. [Grace Above Law]
In the earlier days of Christian work in Africa, the missionaries came face to face with the problem of polygamy. The question of what a person who has turned to Christ do with his multiple wives became an issue. To abandon them might mean doing injustice to them (since, they had come into the relationship before) and unwanted subjection of women and children to suffering. However, in most cases, the churches decided that those who had many wives should not be permitted to be baptized until they have sent away all the other wives except one (usually the first wife). It was also decided that a polygamist who becomes a believer may be admitted for lay leadership but not for ordination. This, however, had been met by severe criticisms with leaders objecting that "the usual practice of enforcing the separation of wives from their husbands, upon their conversion to Christianity, is quite unwarrantable, and opposed to the plain teaching of our Lord." (See Muthengi, p.71). Another view that the previous polygamist must keep only the first legal wife and take care of the other wives as sisters (having no sexual relationship with them) is also not without criticism.
A few more facts must be noted about the relationship between the Old Order of Law and the New Order of Grace:
1. The validity of the Old Law was not annulled by the New (Matt.5:17)
2. However, what was put to death in the New, with regard to the Old, was not supposed to be resurrected again (Rom.7:4; Luke 5:36,37; Col.2:20,21)
3. The old only gradually vanishes and fades away in the presence of the New (Heb.8:13). For instance, Paul didn't altogether give up the observance of the Old Testament Law and visiting the Temple, although he preached the New Testament. Similarly, Jesus also asked the lepers to show themselves to the priests after He healed them.
4. One must remember that Grace is not Lawless, but is the Original Law that teaches the perfect righteousness of God (Tit.2:11,12).
And so, with regard to pre-baptism polygamists we can say that the New Testament does not say that their marriages within the Old system was not legal (but, with regard to the hardness of hearts); however, it declares them to be no longer binding within the New Covenant, in the same way that it was no longer binding for the Apostles to visit the Temple every year anymore. However, one must no longer approach this issue after the manner of the rigidity of Law (in a legalistic pattern; for the New Testament is not merely about law) but after the spirit of Grace. Thus, to even put away the wives without proper "restitution" would be more evil. Also, since marriage is seen as a covenant, the comparison with cases of how the New Testament deals with some Old Testament issues like Temple law or even Slavery Laws may only be a little proximate, but not exactly mirroring. Further, we do note that slavery was not immediately abolished under the New Testament. Both the Temple Laws, for the Jewish Christians, and the Slavery Laws were still applicable except that the New Testament introduced the element of grace and the Christian was no longer legally required to visit the Temple, and while slavery was allowed, the masters were instructed to not be violent against the slaves, but even as the slaves were to serve the masters as slaves to Christ, the masters were to treat their slaves remembering that they had a Master in heaven (Eph.6:5-9). Christ came in the middle as Lord of both. But, the issue becomes a little complicated with regard to the issue of pre-baptism polygamy, and we cannot specify a general rigid rule for every situation. While the principles of justice are universal, the manner in which justice is to be meted out in a particular situation is only determined after a proper assessment of that situation. That is where one needs divine wisdom.
In any case, however, the New Testament gives no rationale for allowing polygamous sexual relationships. For, if the "hardness of heart" has already been dealt with already, then "loving wife as Christ loved His Church" is the spirit reflected even in the Song of Songs (the Old Testament book written by the most polygamist king ever), leaving no excuse.
Julius K. Muthengi, "Polygamy and the Church in Africa"
Josphat Yego, "Polygamy and the African Church"