I have been recently asked on several occasions about polygamy—marriage between a man and multiple women (polygyny) or the converse (polyandry). What is a Christian perspective?
Interestingly, the discussion is more theologically complex than that gay issue in that, whereas the homosexuality is clearly repudiated throughout the Scriptures, polygamy was practiced in Israel in OT times. As such, it is a complicated discussion. However, I think when worked through, it becomes clear that a biblically faithful Christian position would reject polygamy.
The Old Testament
As I have repeatedly written in terms of the gay marriage issue, Genesis 1:27–28 and 2:24 lay the foundation for Christian marriage. Gen 1:27–28 speaks of male and female as image bearers being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth. This applies first to Adam and Eve, one man and one woman. However, polygamy is not ruled out. Gen 2:24 is a little clearer. The writer states that a man (singular) shall leave his father (singular) and mother (singular) and cleave to his wife (singular). They shall “become one flesh.” In the Masoretic Text the word two is missing. However, it is implied. In a wide range of other ancient OT versions “two” is found including the LXX (also Syriac Peshitta, Samaritan Pentateuch, etc). When Jesus and Paul cite this text (further below), they include “two” suggesting that the Hebrew text they knew did include it. Anyway, monogamy is implied in the creation narrative.
Subsequent to the fall there are many examples of polygamy (polygyny) in the OT. The first is Lamech who had two wives (Gen 4:19). Lamech plays an important part in the expansion of human sin and corruption in the Genesis narrative. Polygamy would then seem part of this spread of sin. Other polygamists (polygynists) include Abraham (Gen 16:3; 21:1–13; 25:1), Ishmael (Gen 28:9), Jacob (Gen 29:1–30; 30:4, 9), Esau (Gen 26:34; 28:9; 36:2), Moses (Exod 2:21; 18:1–6; Num 12:1), Gideon (Judg 8:30), David who had seven named wives and many others (1 Sam 18:27; 19:11; 25:39, 42–43; 27:3; 2 Sam 2:2–3; 3:13–14; 5:13; 6:20–23; 11:27; 1 Chron 3:1–9), Solomon who had 700 wives (1 Kings 11:3), Rehoboam who had a paltry 18 (2 Chron 11:21), and Elkinah (one of whom was Hannah, 1 Sam 1:1–2). It seems polygamy (polygyny), was common among Israel’s monarchy and elite. (There are no instances of polyandry in the biblical data). Whether or not polygamy was common in the general populace is unclear.
What is significant is this all these examples are post-Gen 3 indicating the corruption of the ideal of marriage in the creation narratives—one man (Adam), one wife (Eve), the two become one flesh, have children, and they too get married and so the earth is filled (Gen 1:26–28; 2:24). Polygamy would appear to be a corruption of God’s ideal of monogamous heterosexual relationships.
Yet, while there are innumerable laws concerning sexual relationships in the Levitical law there is no ban on polygamy. In Exod 21:10 a man who takes “another wife” must ensure she is well-fed, clothed, and protected. The emphasis is social justice and possible polygamy is assumed. Under Levirate marriage protocols, when a brother dies and leaves a heir without a widow, the brother is obligated to marry her even if he already has a wife (Deut 25:5–10, cf. Ruth 3–4; Matt 22:23–33). This is also an act of social justice for the widow. In Deut 21:15–17 rules are given concerning the fair distribution of the inheritance to the children of the “loved” and “unloved” wife. Again justice is the key. While the king is warned not to take many wives, this does not outlaw polygamy, but is based on a concern that the king will take on the religious allegiance of non-Jewish wives (Deut 17:17).
It is claimed by some that monogamy was favoured in a range of texts (Isa 50:1; Jer 2:2; Ezek 16:8; Prov 12:4; 18:22; 31:10–31; Ps 128:3). However, while the exclusive relationship of God and Israel could be seen to support monogamy, none of these texts explicitly state this. Rather, they speak of the ideal of the faithful wife without regard for how many wives a man actually has.
Coming to later Judaism, we find polygamy was acceptable. Herod the Great had ten wives (Josephus. Ant. 17.19–20; J.W. 1.562). Josephus indicates that polygamy was common among Israel’s elite (Josephus, Ant. 12.186–189; 13.380; J.W. 1.97). The Rabbinic writings assume polygamy and give many instructions concerning it (e.g. M. Yebam. 1, 21b; m. Giṭ. 8:6 A). However, some Rabbinic writings criticised it. For example, b. ’Abot 2.5 reads: “he who multiplies wives multiplies witchcraft” (cf. b. Yebam. 44a). This could indicate the Rabbis were split on it. Among the Essenes of the Dead Sea Community in Qumran, polygamy was forbidden with Gen 1:27; 7:9; Lev 18:18; Deut 17:17 used in support (CD 4.20–5.6; 11QT 52.17–18). Polygamy was eventually outlawed in Judaism in the eleventh century in the Herem R. Gershom of Mayence (Responsa, “Ashera,” 42.1).
Aside from illegal unions, which of course were prevalent, in Roman society monogamy was practiced and polygamy legally rejected. If Christianity rejects polygamy as I believe it does, it is one of those rare occasions where it prefers an aspect of the Roman way of life over the Jewish.
The New Testament
When we come to the NT, the first thing to note is that there is no example of a Christian living in a polygamous situation in the NT. However, neither is there any statement that endorses it or any implicit statements which could lead to its acceptability. On the other hand, while there is no explicit rejection of polygamy, it is implicitly rejected.
As I have noted in previous blogs, in the NT both Jesus and Paul cite Gen 2:24 stating that “the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8/Matt 19:5; 1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31). Although this is not explicit, it implies two becoming one, rather than some multiple spouse arrangement (see above on Gen). What follows in the passage reinforces monogamy. For Jesus, even after divorce, remarriage is only appropriate if one’s spouse is guilty of porneia (sexual immorality) (Matt 19:9); or, in the case of Mark’s Jesus, not at all (Mark 10:10–12). Paul endorses this teaching of Jesus stating a divorced Christian should reconcile to his or her spouse or remain single (1 Cor 7:10–11). The exception seems to be when the spouse is a non-Christian and chooses to leave, then the believing spouse is no longer “enslaved” which I think indicates freedom to remarry (1 Cor 7:15, see further a forthcoming blog on divorce). It seems to make sense that if remarriage is not always permissible even after divorce, there is no way Jesus or Paul would have considered polygamy an option.
Three passages in the Pastorals, 1 Tim 3:2, 12; Tit 1:6 state that a church leader should be “the husband of but one wife.” While there are complexities in interpretation of this clause (see any commentary on this), it would seem best to see here that Paul is endorsing that church leaders, where married, are faithful within their monogamous marriage. If it was expected of church leaders where faithful and monogamous and to be exemplars, this suggests that the ideal of Christian marriage is faithful monogamy.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul implicitly endorses monogamy stating that, due to the problem of sexual immorality (especially rampant in Corinth), “each man (singular) should have his own wife (singular) and each women (singular) her own husband (singular)” (1 Cor 7:2). In the next two verses, he speaks of “the wife” (singular) and “the husband” (singular) ruling out more than one of either (cf. 1 Cor 7:16). Against the backdrop of a patriarchal society, Paul then speaks of the utter mutuality of this monogamous relationship and gives instructions on remaining in this monogamous marital state unless an unbelieving spouse wants out (above). Throughout, monogamy appears assumed.
In Eph 5:22–33 Paul addresses all wives and husbands and assumes monogamy throughout. The parallel of Christ married to the one church suggests exclusivity. In v. 33 Paul says, “However, let each one of you love his own wife (singular) as himself, and let the wife (singular) see that she respects her husband (singular).”
Later Christian writers such as Tertullian repudiated polygamy. He writes in To His Wife: “we do not indeed forbid the union of man and woman, blest by God as the seminary of the human race, and devised for the replenishment of the earth and the furnishing of the world, and therefore permitted, yet singly. For Adam was the one husband of Eve, and Eve his one wife, one rib” (Tertullian, Ux. 1.2).
Considering the redemptive story, it seems polygamy is a corruption of God’s ideal for marriage. It is found post-fall only in the OT (almost exclusively among the elite), and not in the NT. The NT data strongly suggests Jesus and the first Christians rejected this practice.
This issue of course is not greatly relevant to us at this point. There is no big move in our culture to liberalise where polygamy is concerned. However, it may well become an issue in the future as western sexual ethics continues to loosen up and we become more multi-cultural. It is a bigger issue in other cultures where polygamy is practised. Missiologists have dealt with this for many years, working through how to deal with converts who are in polygamist marriages. In many cases, new converts are encouraged to remain faithful to their multiple spouses in such situations, but future generations are urged to be monogamous. This makes good sense as breaking up the marital unit especially in third world countries could have grave repercussions for the discarded wives and children.
For us in the church in the west, I believe we Christians should hold onto the Christian tradition in marriage despite on-going revision in the wider society. If polygamy becomes a touchstone issue, we should graciously resist it. If, as in the case of gay marriage, we find society legitimising it, we should hold firm faithful to the biblical standards. Where we encounter people in polygamous relationships, we can learn a lot from our missionary forbears as to how to respond. Whatever we decide is our church policy, all people regardless of sexuality and marital state should be welcome to become a part of the community of faith. God’s welcome is to all.
In the meantime, those of us who are married should be faithful and loving to our spouses. I think one wife or husband is enough for any person. I think that is what God desires.