I am still working through the first chapter of Murray's work entitled Principles of Conduct. The first chapter is entitled "Introductory Questions" and he appears to be managing some potential objections or problems prior to diving into his main subject.
On pages 14-19 he tackles a tough question.
Here is the issue: Does the Bible really have ONE ethical standard for mankind from beginning to end? Is there not, possibly, one ethic that was expected for Old Testament believers and a different ethic for New Testament believers?
In answering this question he addresses the apparent inconsistency between the Testaments on the subjects of polygamy and divorce.
I appreciate Murray's willingness to not step around a hard issue. He goes right at it.
Polygamy and Divorce
He says "Monogamy is surely a principle of the Christian ethic. Old Testament saints practiced polygamy." [p. 14]
He says even more bluntly "polygamy and divorce were practiced without overt disapprobation...in the Old Testament period." [p. 14]
He says "The polygamy and divorce with which we are now concerned would meet with the severest reproof and condemnation in the New Testament; but in the Old Testament there appears to be no overt pronouncement of condemnation and no infliction of disciplinary judgment." [p. 15]
In answering this problem, Murray turns to the New Testament text in which Jesus, when speaking on the subject of divorce, tells the Pharisees that "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so [Matt 19:8]."
Murray extracts from this text a principle, which he also applies to polygamy, that God may "permit" or "tolerate" certain behaviors which He does not necessarily "legitimate."
To put it in Murray's own words "Men were permitted to take more wives than one, but from the beginning it was not so. Sufferance there indeed was, but no legitimation or sanction of the practice [p. 17]."
Murray admits this is not a comfortable or easy conclusion. It is hard to wrap our minds around the fact that God deals very severely in both Testaments with many sins, many which we might view as "small" matters, but when it comes to this big issue of polygamy and divorce, there appears to be a strange permissiveness.
Again, Murray addresses this and says simply "It is not ours to resolve all difficulties in our understanding of God's ways with men. It is not ours to understand some of the patent facts of God's providence."
Murray also reminds his readers that believers under the Old Testament did not have all the privileges which we enjoy in the New Testament era, particularly the fuller and complete revelation of the Bible and the extent of the gracious influences of the Holy Spirit.
Murray concludes this section of this chapter by pointing out that the issues of polygamy and divorce do not, therefore, suggest a fundamental difference in ethics between the two testaments. Rather, "the underlying premiss is that there is a basic agreement between the Old Testament and the New on the norms or standards of behavior..." [p. 19].
This section made me wonder about what sorts of cultural sins might be going on among the people of God today which the Lord is "tolerating" but not "legitimizing." While we do have the privilege of a completed Bible, we are nevertheless still suffering from various degrees of "hardness" of heart. We are not fully sanctified. And we live in a culture that must make many practices appear "normal" which God Himself would not approve of.
Our study of Biblical ethics may actually discover some of these areas, and suggest that our lives need to change. Will we be prepared to do so? Will we change the way we live to match the standards set in Scripture, or will we argue that "everyone else" (including most Christians) are doing it...so it must be okay?