Towards a biblical response
Polygamy is the practice of having more than one wife or husband at once.
It is practised in a number of religions, including some branches of Mormonism, African tribal cults and Islam.
In Islam, polygamy is allowed for men, with the specific limitation that they can only take four wives at any one time and that they must treat all their wives fairly. Muslim women on the other hand are allowed only one husband. Among world leaders, in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma has five wives.
By contrast, Christianity has stood for monogamous marriage, one man married to one woman. This is based on God’s creation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2.21-24), which Jesus endorsed as the pattern for marriage (Matthew 19.4-6).
Facing the problems
The question of polygamy has classically raised problems for those on the mission field. Suppose a polygamist becomes a Christian. What is he then to do with his multiple wives? To simply abandon all but one of them may leave rejected women without their family and perhaps any means of support.
With people from many different backgrounds and cultures now settling in Britain, the churches are likely to come across this matter on our own doorstep in coming years.
The situation for Christianity is further complicated by the fact that many of the Old Testament heroes of the faith were polygamists. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all had many wives. How then can Christianity be so insistent upon monogamous marriage?
Multiple marriages in the OT
To understand something of the Old Testament peoples’ attitude towards polygamy, we need to take into account the culture and social background prevalent during those times.
Finding security in strong families, people desired to have numerous children, and this could be accomplished more easily through multiple wives. In the East, for a girl to remain unmarried was thought an insult to her as well as her family. When there were a disproportionate excess of females, perhaps after a war, polygamy provided a solution. Polygamy tended to be common among the rich and was thought to carry prestige, many wives being part of the display of wealth. The position and importance offered by numerous family alliances was also a factor in polygamy.
Sanctioned or permitted?
There is little question that polygamy was permitted by God in Old Testament times. The question is not whether God permitted polygamy, but whether he sanctioned it. That is, was polygamy, like divorce, something God tolerated but did not really desire?
There is much evidence, even within the Old Testament itself, that polygamy was never God’s ideal for human society.
That monogamy was his ideal for human beings is indicated in several ways in the Old Testament.
* In Eden, God made only one wife for Adam (Genesis 2.18ff), so setting the ideal precedent for the whole human race (of which Adam was the head).
* Polygamy is first mentioned in the Bible in connection with the emergence of the wicked Cainite civilisation (Genesis 4.19,23). Aggressive, arrogant Lamech was the first polygamist.
* Leaders were often the men who became polygamists and God clearly forbade the kings of Israel from following this practice. The king ‘must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray’ (Deuteronomy 17.17).
* The people of God who became polygamists suffered in various ways under it. Of Solomon, who ‘loved many foreign women’, we are told that ‘his wives led him astray’ and ‘turned his heart after other gods’ (1 Kings 11.1,3,4). It was spiritually detrimental.
* Polygamy usually comes about in the context of sin in the Old Testament. Abraham’s marriage to Hagar was associated with his unbelief (Genesis 16.1ff). David was not at a spiritual high when he added Abigail and Ahinoam as his wives (1 Samuel 25.42,43); nor was Jacob when he married Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29.23,28).
* Polygamy brought jealousy among the wives and disharmony in families. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Genesis 29.31). Elkanah’s wife was considered a ‘rival’ by the other, who used to provoke her in order to irritate her (1 Samuel 1.6). (Just over a year ago in Kenya, I talked with a pastor who had just had to take the funeral of a man in a polygamous marriage, murdered by one of his sons who believed his mother was being unfairly treated compared to another of the man’s wives.)
* When polygamy is mentioned in Old Testament teaching, the conditional, not the imperative, is used. ‘If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights’ (Exodus 21.10). Polygamy is not encouraged, but if it happens the polygamist must act fairly.
We can see, therefore, that, though polygamy might be tolerated in the Old Testament, it was not God’s will. It seems that, while God does not promote corruption, he does legislate for imperfection.
The NT and monogamy
When we come to the New Testament the ideal of monogamy clearly emerges.
* The Lord Jesus reaffirmed the creation order of marriage being between one man and one woman. In marriage it is two that become one, not three or more that become one (Matthew 19.4-6).
* The New Testament sets down monogamy as a precondition for church leaders. ‘Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife…’ (1 Timothy 3.2).
* Monogamy was not only required of church leaders, but assumed as the norm for all. Paul wrote: ‘But since there is so much immorality each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband’ (1 Corinthians 7.2).
The ideal of one man and one woman in marriage becomes even clearer in the New Testament as we realise that human marriage is meant to be a picture of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5.25). There is only one Saviour and only one church, the bride of Christ (singular, not plural). Deviation from this pattern carries the connotation of idolatry.
Further, it seems that the imperfect situation of polygamy was tolerated by God, along with the imperfect animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, until the coming of the perfect sacrifice of Christ. With the coming of Christ and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit to Christians, we are called to aim at perfection in the way we live. Though we will never achieve it in this life, yet as the redeemed people of God, we are to aim at it. ‘Be perfect, therefore’, said Jesus to his disciples, ‘as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5.48).
It might be conceded that polygamy is probably better than immorality, even though it is not as good as monogamy. At least polygamy is a closed system, it is not ‘free love’. Polygamy is at least a relationship where a woman is treated as a person, not as a mere object, as in prostitution.
Nonetheless, polygamy in itself is wrong. It degrades women. Whereas God made male and female equally in his image (though different), polygamy treats women as if they are not equal to men. It is, therefore, an attack upon the image of God.
There are other arguments against polygamy, such as the relatively equal numbers of males and females born into the world in God’s providence. This would seem to imply that one man for one woman is the way things ought to be.
John Benton was indebted to some work by Norman Geisler in writing this.