The Polygamy Question

polygamyReader Tom submitted a thoughtful question regarding how my views on church and state would apply to polygamy rather than homosexuality.

You have indicated that you would favor laws that outlaw polygamy, so let me reword my earlier question. Let’s say I live in a state that has a referendum on the ballot that states something like “Under the laws of this state, marriage shall be construed as being exclusively monogamous in nature.”

If I vote in the affirmative for such a referendum:

1. Have I necessarily violated 1 Corinthians 5: 12-13?

2. Have I been mean-spirited, placed myself in a morally superior position or in some way ungraciously judged/condemned those who disagree and would like the state to affirm that their own polygamous relationship(s) is/are a marriage?

I am not really asking whether such a referendum ought to be passed, or whether a Christian person ought to vote “Yes” on such a referendum. I am just asking if necessarily they have done something not in keeping with being a follower of Christ.

Tom,

You ask a fair question, but I remind you that I began the series promising only principles and not answers. I’ve not sorted this out to the point of creating a decision tree or algorithmic answer. But good questions help with the sorting out process.

Let me offer some questions to reflect on, rather than answers regarding polygamy.

1. First, what does the Bible say about polygamy? I think the NT teaches monogamy, but plenty of people disagree with me.

2. Second, what does the Bible say about polygamy for non-Christians? Does the Bible address how many wives a non-believer should have?

3. Third, what impact does polygamy have on those who engage in the practice in today’s world? Does it treat women well? Does it tend to demean or objectivize women or men? One thing the Sermon on the Mount teaches is that we may not use people or treat them as less then fully human or of less than equal value to all.

4. Fourth, what impact does polygamy have on a society? Recent studies have shown that polygamy has declined largely due to its inability to successfully compete against monogamous cultures, although the reasons for this are debated. Monogamous cultures historically defeat polygamous cultures — in war, in commerce, etc. Polygamous cultures tend to disappear.

We see something of this in the history of Judah or the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Each good king that opposed idolatry and honored God was followed by his oldest son — a bad king. Why didn’t the good kings of Judah do a better job of raising their children? Well, the king was busy with his harem and didn’t bother with child rearing duties — or something like that. Obviously, if the king had worked hard as a parent, at least some of the good kings would have been followed by good king sons. But the polygamous culture seems to have kept that from happening.

One research paper concludes,

In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery and fraud, as well as decreasing personal abuses. By assuaging the competition for younger brides, normative monogamy decreases (i) the spousal age gap, (ii) fertility, and (iii) gender inequality. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, normative monogamy increases savings, child investment and economic productivity. By increasing the relatedness within households, normative monogamy reduces intra-household conflict, leading to lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death and homicide. 

5. Fifth, the law is largely irrelevant to those in the church if we believe God calls us to monogamy (as I do). But if we expect to enjoy First Amendment protections for our own religious beliefs, shouldn’t we be careful not to infringe the religious beliefs of others? The Golden Rule applies here, as anywhere else. The First Amendment only benefits those who lack political power to protect their practices through the ballot box. Are we at risk of setting a dangerous anti-religious practice precedent if we push a law against polygamy? Of course, this would require that polygamy be taught by some religion as a mandate, not merely permissive.

So, you see, to me it’s not as easy as “God is against polygamy and so I must vote to outlaw it.” While I believe God has rejected polygamy, I know that my view is not universally held even by Christians. And even I would concede that, for example, in a mission field we should not be destroying polygamous marriages as a condition to salvation. God wants monogamy but he has not declared polygamy sinful — and obviously the OT does not make polygamy intolerable to God. So it’s not an easy black/white issue.

I would be very, very concerned that polygamy is bad for women. History suggests that I’m right.

On the other hand, there is the Bob Jones University holding of the US Supreme Court, which basically rules that a law doesn’t violate the First Amendment even if it requires someone to violate his religious beliefs so long as it’s broadly targeted and not enacted for anti-religious reasons. In the Bob Jones U case, the IRS threatened to take away their tax exemption because they opposed inter-racial marriage — based on a peculiar reading of Genesis. The courts upheld the ruling because the IRS position on race wasn’t targeting religion.

Now, this is already the law. But the more the church cooperates in suppressing competing religions through the laws, the more precedents exist for suppressing Christianity. And the gay rights issue will be how it’s done. So acquiescing in banning polygamy may set the precedent that later is used against Christian teachings on homosexuality. Hence, the lawyer in me says to stay away from the polygamy issue. It’ll be used against us.

On the other hand, if I were convinced that polygamy truly is bad for women (and I am) and/or society (that, too), I think principle overrides prudence — if the risks to society are real. Love for women would compel me to vote against any law that threatens their mistreatment. I think Deuteronomy and the prophets are quite clear on this sort of question. If the church can’t stand for the oppressed, we have no business existing, much less claiming tax privileges.

I realize that there are a lot of “ifs” in what I just said, but that’s how I’d approach the question. But my thinking is very much a work in progress.

Ultimately, “love your neighbor” rules the day, and so voting to protect those who cannot protect themselves is right. It’s what Christians ought to do. Rather than seeing ourselves as sex or morality police, we should think of ourselves as caring for those without political power and subject to abuse — sometimes even by the government. By thinking of others, we’ll both be doing what we’ve been commanded to do and also we’ll be perceived as caring people. Both would be very good things.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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17 Responses to The Polygamy Question

  1. Price says:

    Perhaps it is cultural… God told David that if he had given him several wives and if he had wanted more He would have provided them.. That seems more than toleration… but do you know how large a closet a man would have to have to store all of those shoes !!

  2. Richard constant says:

    I think one of the good places to start would be with the Ethiopian eunuch.
    What kind of message did he take back to his homeland, what was his culture I would say that it was far different down the 1st century Jewish culture.
    But that’s where I’d start J did the Ethiopian eunuch carry rules or a message of love

  3. Bob Brandon says:

    Another consideration: the evolution of marriage law in the West. Essentially, marriage became a matter of contract as law becomes rooted in legislation as time passed and societies developed rather than in a tribal or royal absolute right to rule. The secular problem with polygamy is that it would violate the law of volitional contract between consenting persons in that it allow one party to use the same consideration to bind two distinct parties. It’s not real surprising that among the renegade Latter Day Saints promoting polygamy today (Warren Jeffs et al.), they deny the jurisdiction of secular law to control their activities. It’s essentially about power and religion is simply a gloss.

  4. Jay,

    The only part of your response that I agree with is:

    “God wants monogamy but he has not declared polygamy sinful — and obviously the OT does not make polygamy intolerable to God.”

    The remainder of your article is nothing more than a sophistic appeal to fear and emotion. Every argument you made against polygamy could be equally made against monogamy. I know of people who would argue the merits of celibacy, some of them being biblical (e.g. Apostle Paul-1 Cor 7.7) and against monogamy in the same fashion.

    Just because there is a bad example of something does not mean that every instance or even most instances of that thing are bad. The same arguments that you used against polygamy could easily be used against monogamy;
    Monogamy is bad for women, “does it treat women well?”
    Does monogamy treat women as “less then fully human or of less than equal value to all”?
    “what impact does (monogamy) have on those who engage in the practice in today’s world?

    If monogamy is so wonderful, why are there so many organizations set up to help monogamous women get away from their abusive monogamous husbands?

    But this is the issue: polygamy is not sinful and God is not against polygamy. Period. He may prefer monogamy, but he is not against celibacy (e.g. Jesus & Paul) nor is he against polygamy (e.g. King David). If someone could be “called to monogamy” as you stated, what keeps others from being “called” to celibacy or polygamy?

    You stated very clearly that polygamy is not sin. I applaud you on that difficult admittance. But remember, Paul argued the “merits” of singlehood and yet almost all people chose/choose to marry, doing differently than what he advocated in the scriptures. I pray many will choose to do differently from your opinion and choose polygamy. It is VERY biblical and (like monogamy) can be very much a blessing to all involved, including and especially the children.

    On the other hand, what about the freedom of adult women to choose the type of marriage they want? It seems you have failed to consider that there might be women (more than you think) out there who actually WANT to be polygamous. They should not have this right taken away or be vilified for desiring this type of marriage (neither should men, by the way).

    In addition, you seem to have a very limited view of polygamy. There are all types of polygamy just as there are all types of monogamy. Most people think of patriarchal polygamy, but there is also matriarchal polygamy, and (my choice) egalitarian polygamy, where neither the man nor the women are above the other(s) or are even the “head” of the other(s). Egalitarian polygamy (or egalitarian monogamy) can be very freeing for women. In polygamy, just as in monogamy, women can have the choice to have a career or stay home, etc, and the husband could choose to be the home caretaker if he wanted. And if all the wives choose to work outside the home and the husband takes care of the house/children, think of the economic benefits of that!

    Maybe, instead of arguing the “merits” for or against any type of marriage, it would be more beneficial if we taught proper ways to practice polygamy in godly ways (just like we do for monogamous marriages) so others can have better choices to live by, so they can see that there are godly and wonderfully loving ways to live polygamy. Would this not “be doing what we’ve been commanded to do and also we’ll be perceived as caring people”?

    Since polygamous King David is the one whose lineage God chose to bring the Messiah through, obviously God does not have a problem with polygamy, but God has a problem when any marriage is lived in an ungodly fashion.

    As for me? I will live my life doing exactly as I have prescribed above. I am an adult female who once wrestled with the idea of polygamy, but since has “chosen” polygamy of my own free will and I will live it to the best of my ability, being that godly example so others can know that there is a good side of polygamy, just the same as abused children of monogamy (and there are many) need to know there is a good side to monogamy.

    Shalom.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Mary,

    Consider these passages —

    (Mat 19:4-6 ESV) 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

    “They are no longer two but one flesh” sure sounds like monogamy.

    “Hold fast to his wife” refers to “wife” singular.

    (1Co 7:2 ESV) 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.

    Again, “wife” is singular, and Paul’s language throughout 1 Cor 7 assumes one husband, one wife.

    (1Co 7:4-5 ESV) 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

    How can a wife have authority over her husband’s body if he has multiple wives?

    http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Tyndale/staff/Instone-Brewer/prepub/Jesus%20on%20Monogamy.pdf is a paper by David Instone-Brewer, an expert on Jewish marriage law during the First Century and author of an important book on divorce and remarriage. He argues that Jesus’ words in Matt 19 indicate that his followers are to be monogamous. It’s a good read by someone far more expert in these things than I am. But he also agrees that those converted in a polygamous marriage should not be required to divorce their extra wives.

    (1Co 7:17-20 ESV) Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.

    My browser doesn’t interpret the Hebrew or Greek texts in a readable font, but that doesn’t prevent his argument from being easily followed.

  6. Price says:

    Jay… couple of things.. First, we look at how God dealt with David… 2 Samual 12:8 I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.” It’s hard to imagine that God would have given David “wives” if that was counter to His will.. It was after all a reward, not a punishment…

    Secondly, was Solomon married to his wives ? If so, was he not “one flesh” with each of them ? If so, then monogamy isn’t being indicated by the passage you cited..

    But, as I understand it, the culture of this time or perhaps better said, up until this time, allowed for multiple wives without it being considered inappropriate.. Heck, most of the Patriarchs had multiple wives it seems.. And then there were the “hand maidens and concubines”..

    My point is that if one man and one woman was the original intent then the whole of the OT was sure messed up in that regard. And God didn’t seem to have an issue with it at all… In fact as mentioned above, He seemed to have been responsible for David having multiple wives…

    There seems to have been a shift in culture at some point…. It seems that the first mention of it is when Paul puts a restriction on Elders to have one wife at a time… But some would note that he doesn’t place this same restrictions on deacons or the members of the congregation…

    I struggle to see a command or even much of an implication that having multiple wives is forbidden by God… Perhaps it was something He knew that would happen culturally as He must of known about the eventual rejection of slavery…??

  7. Larry Cheek says:

    As i observe communications about men in the scriptures having multiple wives, it really makes me wonder about the term adultery, A man with multiple wives would not be committing adultery by marrying yet another wife. The only possibility of him committing adultery would be if he was to go after another mans wife. If there is a possibility of a man married to multiple wives, what would limit a wife from being married to multiple husbands?

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Price,

    It’s true that culture changed. The Greeks and Romans were monogamous — which is one reason historians believe they defeated their enemies. For some reason, monogamy gave nations a competitive advantage over polygamous cultures. Hence, Alexander and Rome changed the culture.

    But it appears that the culture wasn’t so changed that polygamy ended. It mainly went out of fashion. There were some polygamous marriages during Roman times — but these seem to have been exceptional — and mainly among the wealthy. After all, wives and children are expensive, esp. in a world where women had limited opportunity to earn money.

    So the Jews in the Gospels theoretically approved polygamy based on the OT but very few would in fact have been polygamous. Part of that is due to the Pax Romana — not many men were being killed in war, leaving the ratio of men to women roughly equal. (In fact, the Romans didn’t trust the Jews to serve in the military, and so they were exempt from military service except under other Jews, such as the temple guard.) Polygamy is much more common when the men are going off to war and dying young. So with a culture that insisted on marriage, if some men had been given multiple wives, there wouldn’t be enough women to go around.

    That’s the historical background, and I don’t think it’s much in dispute.

    Obviously, God wasn’t greatly concerned with polygamy in OT times, but then it’s fairly common to see the Bible as increasingly revealed revelation of God’s will. We shouldn’t be surprised to find God’s will in the NT more perfectly revealed than in the OT. Hence, we see a clear trend toward better treatment of slaves and women in the NT than in the OT. The trendlines matter.

    Just so, in the SOTM, Jesus teaches us a better way to read Torah — in many ways stricter and yet also in many ways freeing.

    So the fact that, for a time, God allowed polygamy hardly proves that polygamy is God’s will forever. And even if polygamy is tolerable, that hardly makes it commendable. It’s not necessarily about black and white rules. Sometimes it’s about good, better, best.

    So, yes, I think it’s very much like slavery. In a missionary phase of rapid church growth, they could hardly require polygamous converts to give up their wives. It would have left the former wives destitute in many cases and required divorce as a condition to salvation for a church opposed to divorce. But it seems very clear that European polygamy died with the ascension of Christianity, as a matter of history.

    And with Jesus and Paul building their theology on Gen 2, it seems inevitable that the church would read Gen 2 as arguing for monogamy. I mean, it’s a monogamous passage, rarely referenced in the OT but often referenced in the NT — as God calls us back to his original image.

  9. Price says:

    Just for kicks I googled first man with two wives… Lamech.. Gen 4.. Then I noticed in Duet 21 there instructions in the Law about how to handle inheritance when a man has two wives.. One would think that if God had been offended by it He would have issued rules saying no more of that garbage folks… one wife and one wife only !! But, I can hardly say that it was God’s intent or we would have had Eve and Betty… The other interesting thing is that there are no examples of a woman having two husbands…

  10. Jay,

    There are no NT verses that teach that all marriages must be only one husband and one wife (parable of the 10 virgins???). You should not use a passage that is addressing divorce to make mandates about who can get married. Jesus in Matt 19 was not addressing who can marry, he was addressing divorce. Jesus was simply teaching that from the beginning a man and woman were intended to stay together.

    You said:
    “After all, wives and children are expensive, esp. in a world where women had limited opportunity to earn money.”

    Please read about the Proverbs 31 woman again. She did not stay home, she was out buying and selling and PROVIDING FOR her family. Her buying and selling was not of low priced items, but of LAND. That would have taken some authority in the society for a woman to buy and sell property. Her husband was the one who was staying home and was known in the gates, etc. Also, husbands are not expensive?

    And why would the scriptures use the word “wives” instead of “wife”? Saying “wife” would apply to any married man, whether he had one or ten wives. If a man has 3 wives and Jesus says “love your wife”, he would know Jesus wasn’t just speaking of his first wife.

    It sounds like you are wanting western civilization/culture to trump God’s word (you think that western civilization is superior). The Romans also murdered the Jews who would not give up their polygamy. I wonder why polygamy declined? The Hebrew civilization was both monogamous and polygamous and God sanctions both because He does not prohibit polygamy. If you are going to study civilizations, then also study the Israelite civilization.

    It is still the fact that there are no passages that teach polygamy as sin. Period. It may be an issue of merit, but that should be left up to each individual person to decide. Something may have merit for one person and not for another.

    Stop arguing the “merits” of monogamy. Arguing “merits” is not arguing “righteousness”, but opinion. Your opinion is just as valid for making your decisions for your life as my opinions are valid for making my decisions for my life.

    Therefore:
    “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Rom 14:4

  11. Royce says:

    Eating in the church building with all your wives is sinful.

  12. Dwight says:

    I used to think that polygomy was sinful, due to in house coC teaching against it, without any real scripture to say so or in condemnation of it, but not so much any more. Now mono might be preferred, but it wasn’t even commanded, as opposed to poly. Most of the men in the Bible had one wife and if successful, they might have had more. The more successful and wealthy, the more wives. Joseph only had Mary that we know of.
    Larry, you bring up a valid point. As I come to think about it adultery wasn’t just having a relationship outside your man and wife state, but having a relationship outside your man and wife state with anothers wife…marry another. Poly wasn’t considered adultery, but then again they entered into a covenant with thier spouse.
    Jay, the Jews had the Torah and read Gen.2 as well, so they obviously realized it talked about monogomy or may be not if they went the route of polygamy. Gen.2 only argues that a woman leave her family and be joined to a man, not for poly or mono.

  13. Tom says:

    Hi Jay,

    What I’m really asking is not specifically whether marriage should be considered by law as monogomaous in nature or not, but rather whether the advocation of such a judgement would be incongruous with being a follower of Christ. The original context of course was the Canadian Advice posting with quote from Carey Nieuwhof: “It is actually strange to ask non-Christians to hold Christian values” which was in relation to an understanding of marriage as conjugal in nature.

    Actually, looking at the historical facts, considering marriage as conjugal is not strange at all insofar as that has been the understanding of marriage for pretty much all cultures throughout history many, if not most of which had no inkling of the existence of Christianity. Rather, is it not strange that this long held understanding of the nature of marriage is now being discarded, even by those who understand themselves to be Christians.

    Nieuwhof additionally advises that such a public judgement of marriage as conjugal be discarded because it “… is destroying any potential relationship”. Additionally, you have raised I Cor. 5:12-13 as being important.

    So the intent of my question is to understand the principle(s) whereby Christian public advocacy of marriage as monogamous is pleasing to God but advocacy of marriage as conjugal is displeasing to God.

    Thanks,

    Tom

  14. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Tom,

    In the US, the question is entirely moot. Gay marriage is legal and cannot be made illegal without a constitutional amendment. So whether I’m for or against legalizing gay marriage by non-Christians is rather like asking whether I’m for or against the Confederacy or independence from Great Britain. Fun to discuss but not of much practical impact. I mean, denial is not a particularly effective strategy for anything.

    Far more relevant is whether Christians may engage in a homosexual marriage with God’s approval, and we’ve covered that ground at great length.

    Also relevant is how the church — which must not engage in gay sex or marriages — deals with non-Christians who are gay. How does the church reach out to the gay community in a way that shows the love of Jesus while simultaneously being unwilling to condone gay sexual activity?

    The churches that deal with this best are the churches that, rather as Francis of Assisi suggested (according to legend), preach the gospel and use words only when absolutely necessary. That is, they don’t so much talk about showing the love of Jesus as they live the love of Jesus — and do so in ways that are costly and sacrificial, such as by helping homeless, gay men and women dealing with terminal AIDS — not as a marketing strategy but because the Spirit has moved them to be Jesus in that community.

  15. Tom says:

    Hi Jay,

    But is it my imagination that these rules are being promoted:

    1. Do not advocate political views that differ from the majoritiy rulings of the Supreme Court; Except possibly if there is a constitutional amendment under consideration.

    2. Do not dissent from the political advancement of a special interest’s group false ideology as that will hinder ministry to members of said interest group.

    If you are finding my questions tiring, please tell me to go away.

    Thanks,

    Tom

  16. Tom says:

    Jay,

    What I am raising is the implicit false dilemma in your response; That Christians may either:

    1. Speak and act in the public square in accordance with the truth (in this case concerning the advocation of marriage lawfully as being conjugal in nature).

    Or

    2. Serve their (disagreeing) neighbors in ways costly and sacrifical.

    The implication is present that one cannot do both. However, as the implication is only implied and is not made explicit, there is no suporting evidence or argument for why this would be the case. How can it be that if we are to follow Jesus, that we must also suppress the truth in the same way as some of our neighbors Paul speaks of in Romans 1:18?

    -Tom

  17. Dwight says:

    Marriage is conjugal by definition. There were many who were husband and wife, note husband and wife were male and female, before being married or conjugating. Marriage was imitated in acts of harlotry and homosexuality and bestiality, but marriage was not reserved or purposed for them.

    Jesus aided many who he did not ask in what sin they were in or make healing conditional, because man was in sin in general. But he did speak out against sexual immorality in general.
    The Hebrew audience that Jesus spoke to and walked with understood homosexuality, adultery, bestiality to be sinful and thus any such incidences would have been hidden by the guilty.
    But Jesus still never turned any one away in helping them, unless they rejected Jesus. This is what Jesus came to do for the world. We should emulate Jesus in giving even to the sinners. And still teach against sin. The most important thing is to help others and lead them to Christ.

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