Debating the Morality of Polygamy from a Biblical Perspective
The recent ruling by the Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act opened up the doors (from a Federal perspective) for any and all states to define marriage without Federal limitations. While this paves the way for more and more states to readily allow same-sex marriage, I believe the language in the ruling sets the first rung on a ladder that may soon lead to challenges against another Federal law still in effect today – The Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882. This law offends my sense of moral indignation because it was implemented expressly to discriminate against and imprison citizens because of their religious beliefs. The law was passed specifically to persecute members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now, it has continued to be upheld because the Government continues to maintain non-discriminatory rationale for their regulation of marriage as to be limited to one man and one woman and not multiple men and/or multiple women. Most of this rationale is similar type of hysterical nonsense associated with the anti-homosexual zealots with assertions that polygamy leads to incest or polygamy leads to sexual abuse of children. This is absurd prima facie propaganda. There really is no rational reason for it outside of a religious bias against it. Which brings us to the root of the problem.
Remove the anti-Mormon bigotry from the equation as to The Edmunds Act and it all boils down to the Christian influence of American culture and by extension, our government. And this is what I specifically wanted to address right now. The following springs from a debate I had with a fellow Christian about 9 months ago over the proper Biblical stance on the issue of Polygamy. By Biblical I am referring to The Holy Bible as accepted and used by orthodox Protestant Christian denominations. The reason why I want to use her words here is because I believe she presents a commonly held position and thinking from within orthodox Christianity on this topic, and it’s a position I think is wrong and springs from flawed thinking. Her position was that she is opposed to Polygamy because the Biblical Scriptures teach that it is morally wrong in God’s eyes. My position in response was that Scripture in no way teaches that it is morally wrong, but rather presents it as morally neutral and any “immorality” associated with it was her imposing her own beliefs onto Scripture rather than doing a plain reading and understanding of the text itself.
For ease of reading, I will present each of my friend’s arguments (in italics and edited but just for clarity) against Polygamy, and then follow each argument with my response in bold. In the end, I will leave it to the reader to decide for him- or herself as to which position is more sound.
From the very beginning God made one woman for one man and God said THIS is good. This was His design from the beginning. There is a "Bride theme" through out all of Scripture that gives us a picture of the truths that God intends for marriage to reflect (from God presenting the first Bride to the "first Adam" in Genesis to the Bride in Revelation being presented to the Bridegroom--or the "second Adam"--which is Christ. Also, the prophet Jeremiah's “Return, O backsliding children,” says the Lord; “for I am married to you." (Jer. 3:14) to Paul's admonition "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her", (Eph. 5) and his "For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." (2 Cor.11) The institution of marriage and its message spans the whole of Scripture. It is very much a metaphor and those of us who are married; we are literally "living object lessons" that point to something much bigger.This is all true but none of it really speaks to Polygamy, they merely stress the importance of the husband and wife relationships in a practical and metaphorical sense.
Polygamy violates this beautiful typology and is strictly something that began with those who rejected God's teachings. This particular sin eventually infiltrated into Israel and its leadership, but not without consequence.
This is not necessarily true. There is no Scriptural evidence that Polygamy began with those who rejected God’s teachings. It’s a declaration without support. If it were, then the incidences of such would have been met by direct and clear condemnation by God rather than passive allowance.
Recognizing an ideal to aspire to does not make it morally superior – simply an implied preference.
In the Old Testament, the first reference to polygamy (multiple wives) in the Bible was with Lamech a descendant of Cain. (Gen. 4:19) I think this is key as it is a precedent for what will become a "cultural norm" for those people groups that Israel was to drive out of the Promised Land.
Saying something emphatically does not make it true. This is a presentation of an historical occurrence presented within the text without moral judgment.
The next incident of Polygamy is in Gen. 26:34,35 "When Esau was forty years old, he took as wives Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. And they were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah." I don't think this is a mistake that the next time we see Polygamy it is with someone that has the character of Esau. Interestingly, Hebrews 12:16 even calls Esau a "fornicator".
There is no moral judgment concerning Polygamy made in those references to Esau. There is simply an historical event that is recorded without judgment. The fact that the women brought grief to Esau has nothing to do with Polygamy. And the HEBREWS text does not either. The text reads "Lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright." The use of “or” here separates the fornication reference from Esau. And even if you do want to extend the use of the word to Esau here, ignoring the grammatical structure, then it is a spiritual fornication or profane act by Esau that is actually identified here in the text – “who for one morsel of food sold his birthright.” The logistical hurtles to get to a condemnation of Polygamy here violates all hermeneutical sense because the intent of the word is defined in the sentence itself. To better comprehend the meaning in a clearer sense, I would reference the New Century Version translation which properly breaks it up like this: “Be careful that no one takes part in sexual sin or is like Esau and never thinks about God. As the oldest son, Esau would have received everything from his father, but he sold all that for a single meal.”
God's Scriptural instructions for the leaders of the country in Deut. 17. says specifically... "Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself." Well, yeah, I don't think they did so well with that... Solomon I think was the "poster child" for that one. (1 Kings 11:11) But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites, from the nations of whom the Lord had said to the children of Israel, “You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods." I think with both David and Solomon they were drawn into the cultural norms of their day. It was a strategic and expected thing for a king to make alliances and ensure political protection to marry into these neighboring people groups.... but God did WARN them about such things, and with both David and Solomon the women got them into trouble. This was NOT a good thing!
Again, looking to other translations, the more correct translation of Deut. 17:17 as to the things to look for when choosing a king is “The king must not have many wives, or his heart will be led away from God.”
This is not a statement of one wife, but not having “many” wives.
This is a nebulous statement that recognizes a truism that was played out with Solomon and David as you point out. Too many wives, especially too many foreign wives who bring their foreign gods into the equation, and you have a recipe for disaster by distracting the King away from God.
But it’s not anything that presents a universal moral principle of one spouse only.
Sorry to say, when the Kings behave as such then the "church leadership" slips down the slippery slope as well. (Ezra 9:1-3) "When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, ‘The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.’ So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished." (Mal. 2:11) "Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah has profaned the Lord’s holy institution which He loves: he has married the daughter of a foreign god."
These verses have nothing to do with marrying more than one woman and everything to do with marrying foreign women who worshipped foreign gods and brought those into the families and the nation tainting God’s people. But let’s move on out of the Prophets and talk New Testament now.
Who were the Men of God in the New Testament that had multiple wives?
No one that I can find has more than one wife. (Let me know if you find one!) There may have been a few cultural hold-outs within the converted Gentiles, (hence Paul's admonition in Tim. and Titus,) but as far as I can tell Israel had abandoned Polygamy.
What does the New Testament say about Polygamy?
It is true that the New Testament does not bear record to Men of God having multiple wives, but for a very good reason. By the time of the New Testament, monogamy was the norm for Greek and Roman societies but it was still residually hanging on within Palestinian Judaism. For example, Josephus records that Herod in the first century had 10 wives plus a large harem and the school of Shammai was still a proponent of polygamy as a cultural practice. The practice was a dying practice, however. But not because God’s command through Scripture or prophecy. It was an intellectual debate between the different rabbinical schools and leaders that was stemming the tide toward a more ordered society which benefited by the carnal restraint of monogamy.
Again, this does not do anything more than utilize the New Testament as a source for recognizing a cultural shift between the end of the OT period and the beginning of the NT period. It does not give support to the notion that Polygamy itself is anything other than morally neutral.
So here are the New Testament verses concerning wives and marriage: Christ echoes the original intent of marriage in Matt. 19:4 “And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
This is true, but it has no bearing on the topic of the morality of polygamy. Becoming “one flesh” is simply a reference to sexual intercourse as evidenced by the verse in 1 Cor. 6:15-17: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Messiah? Shall I then take the members of Messiah and make them members of a whore? Let it not be! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a whore is one body? For He says, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ And he who is joined to the Master is one spirit."
In other words, be careful who you have sex with because it is not simply a physical union between the two of you but the two of you become one flesh together – it is a carnal and spiritual union whether we want to admit it or not. Sex is not to be entered into frivolously.
But that has no bearing on Polygamy itself as a concept. It is entirely possible for someone to leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and then take another wife. In fact, we have centuries of recorded scriptural history where this was the case and done without moral judgment against it by God. In fact, in some instances, where a man’s brother dies and he is obligated by moral and scriptural law to marry his brother’s widow (regardless of whether he is already married), it could be argued that God encourages it.
Again in Mark 10:6-7 “But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.’"
Again, you can maybe argue a certain spiritual “ideal” here, but all I see is the basic recognition of man and woman as intended to be together but no requirement that it be exclusive.
The "husband of one wife" verses: (1Tim 3:2) "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach." (1Tim 3:12) "Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well."
A great verse, but all it establishes is 2 things: (1) Polygamy must have been practiced in the church for him to make this point. (2) the author, as led by the Holy Spirit, pronounces no moral judgment against Polygamy itself but instead recognizes the practical reality that the type of person the church would want in leadership should not be trying to manage a house with multiple wives and all the distractions that would create (most especially the number of children). I say this, because all of the references are combined with other level-headed practical aspects and not focusing on the spiritual side so much. These are examples of the type of person who would be well-suited for leading out in what amounts to a miniature sub-society within the greater society.
There are plenty of times that Paul rebukes sin within the church. He avoids doing it here, further driving home my point that he may have believed Monogamy was the proper ideal (he was a Roman citizen and so was likely raised with that cultural belief) but he avoided condemning the Polygamous practice in the church. Further evidence that Polygamy itself is morally neutral.
(Titus 1:6) "if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination."
Actually, this is not just a general reference to the generic “man.” It is direction from Paul to Titus specifically about the qualities to look for when appointing “elders” in the churches he planted. His words are simple variations of the same words used to Timothy for appointing elders/bishops and deacons. Paul obviously believed the better ideal was monogamy but avoided condemning the practice of polygamy because he had no moral or scriptural authority to do it.
The instruction is in reference to wives in the singular and not the plural: (1Cor. 7:1-2) "Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband."
Actually, the word translated “own” as in “let each man have his own wife” is the Greek “heautou” and the word translated “own” as in “let each woman have her own husband” is the very different “idios.”
“Heatou” is singular possessive such as “eating his own bread”.
“Idios” is the more passive sense of being the one to whom I belong such as serving your “own” master (who may well have other servants as well) or as when scripture refers to Jesus returning to His “own” country (which would be the country of many other citizens as well).
Paul is reinforcing Genesis 3:18 where God said that it isn’t good for man to be alone. He is not addressing Polygamy or Monogamy. However, if we are going to go there with that scripture, it actually supports the notion of Polygamy rather than work against it by establishing that the man “owns” the woman as a possessive but that she is “owned” by him as one of possibly many.
(Eph. 5:33) “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
That statement has no bearing on Polygamy. Why is it impossible to love more than one wife as himself? The directive to the wife would apply to all the wives. Just as we can love all of our children fully and equally, if a man has more than one wife there is nothing inherent in our make-up that says he can’t love both (or more) equally – even if that is hard for us to understand because of our cultural bias.
(1Pet. 3:7) “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.”
This has nothing to do with polygamy and everything to do with loving and honoring your wife (or wives if you so chose).
Exo. 21:10 and Deut. 21:15 both expressly allow a man to take more than one wife – even a wife he does not love.
Remember when the Sadducees attempted to trap Jesus by giving him a hypothetical based on Deut. 25:5 about the aforementioned requirement of a brother to marry his brother’s widow (a requirement that makes no distinction as to whether the surviving brother is already married or not – in fact, within the culture, it is implicit that unless each surviving brother in the hypothetical were just reaching marrying age, they would already be married or at least promised to someone else). Jesus did not take the bait and instead responded back to them that they obviously do not know the scripture or they would realize that there is no marriage in Heaven and that in the resurrection none will marry – so it is effectively an irrelevant emphasis by them that misses the point of eternity.
So, does that mean I’m positing or advocating support for Polygamy as the norm across this nation and the world? No. I am asserting that when the whole of Scripture is read without imposing a presupposition, then there is no support for the notion of a moral basis against polygamy itself as an institution. There are practical reasons to avoid it, for sure. There have even been societal reasons that highly support the notion of Monogamy as the most conducive to a Western-type of culture. And there are demonstrative problems with the practice as imposed by religious inculcation where it is abused and used as a means of controlling women and indulging in lustful behavior.
But abuse of the practice does not make it inherently “wrong.”
What it means is that it is a practice with a greater probability of problems. But, of course, we also live in a society now where more than 50% of the marriages end in divorce, and the number is actually slightly higher than the national average among professing Christians. So, I think throwing stones at those who desire a Polygamist lifestyle is just tossing them through our own glass house and perhaps it’s time we stopped using scripture to justify our own misgivings about something that simply rubs us wrong primarily because we were raised in a culture that tells us it is wrong. It is the ongoing debate over malum in se versus malum prohibitum – something that is wrong in itself versus something that is wrong because it is against the law.
I do not subscribe to the doctrine of malum prohibitum on moral issues (free will and individual responsibility reign in these areas) and Polygamy is not malum in seor God would have been explicit about it rather than requiring us to connect disparate dots buried out of context throughout the Bible.