The Disturbing Truth About Polygamy

polygamy

Are you going to watch the season premier of “My Five Wives” on TLC?

That was the question I was asked the other day. To be honest, I had never even heard of the show. I had heard of “Sister Wives” – the Mormon family with one husband, four wives, and a troop of kids. It seems that four wives wasn’t chaotic enough for TLC – they had to up their game and bring in a family with five.

While I didn’t watch the opening of the show, it did launch a rather interesting discussion about the Bible and polygamy.

Here’s the tough truth – there is no biblical mandate against having multiple wives. The verse that most Christians use against polygamy is where the Apostle Paul instructs that leaders should be husbands of one wife.

On the surface this seems to be a clear indicator of the Christian view of polygamy. Except that polygamy wasn’t rampant in the time and area Paul was writing. It doesn’t make sense that he would be addressing a problem that wasn’t really a problem. There is some merit to the argument that Paul is referring to divorce/remarriage rather than polygamy (but that’s a discussion for another post). Suffice to say, the Bible never comes out and says polygamy is sin.

But Chris, wouldn’t it be considered sinning if you’re having sex outside the bonds of marriage?

The biblical standard for sexual fidelity means within marriage, yes. But it’s not outside marriage if you’re having sex with one of the women you’re married to.

Interestingly, in the OT, polygamy was not about getting more nookie but about preserving the clan/family line and protecting women. With no male child a family line might die out. Multiple wives made possible the preservation of the family line. As for protecting women, in the ancient world there was no possibility for social advancement for women. If you didn’t get married you had a good chance of being destitute. Polygamy allowed for women to be taken into a family and cared for when they might not have been okay otherwise.

Several characters in OT stories have multiple wives. They are never condemned. But here’s the thing – it never ends well and always causes drama and grief. To my knowledge, every character we’re told about that is involved in polygamous families has some serious issues to contend with.

In the end I wouldn’t treat it as a salvation issue – the Bible never says that you’re excluded from eternity with God if you have multiple wives. I don’t judge the polygamists in that regard (the families from the shows are Mormons, and I do hold to a  clear belief that Mormonism is NOT the Christian faith), but THEORETICALLY it would be possible for a Christian to be a polygamist and still be saved.

But overall I DO think it’s definitely on the “pretty dumb idea” list. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a polygamy advocate.

If I tried to marry another woman my wife would kill me – she doesn’t believe in divorce!

19 Replies to “The Disturbing Truth About Polygamy”

  1. Not only does the Bible not condemn polygamy, but God told David that he would’ve given him more wives if he desired them who were not already married. So I don’t buy the whole “starvation and destitution” qualifier. There could’ve easily been a mandate to feed the poor single women.

    Also the law gives instruction on how multiple wives are to be treated fairly, which shows that he openly condoned it. Jacob didn’t marry rachael because she would’ve starved. He married her because he didn’t get the wife he wanted.

    To my knowledge, every character who ever got married dealt with serious issues regardless of the number of wives.

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    1. Your reply made me smile, especially the last line.

      Laws like that governing Levirate Marriage (man takes brother’s widow to father a child) is an example of taking care of the bloodline and family. It was a practical consideration.

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  2. Pastor Linzey,

    I think the problem that so many people can successfully argue for the Bible’s supposed permission toward polygamy is because most Christians don’t ever read it cover to cover. In Deuteronomy, God does expressly forbid the Israelites from appointing a king with multiple wives:

    “You may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose…he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself” (Dt 17:15,17, NRSV).

    Also, this is what happened to Solomon for having multiple wives;

    “Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David” (1Ki 11:3-4, NRSV).

    Finally, Jesus himself only recognizes one form of marriage:

    “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Mk 10:7-8, NRSV).

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    1. The OT passages are not about the problem of polygamy per se but about women who would turn a heart away from God. This was why there was a prohibition on marrying foreigners. It wasn’t a race issue but a religious one.

      Kings married for political alliances. Any king with multiple wives would be aligned with nations that didn’t serve Yahweh.

      And Jesus was quoting the OT to talk about divorce, not making a statement on polygamy. 🙂

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      1. I am not understanding your rush to defend polygamy. I think Deuteronomy 17 is a direct command for kings to avoid it. Also, the weight of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage circumvent any other ideas about marriage, to include polygamy and homosexuality. The only Jewish men who had multiple wives following the patriarchal period were monarchs, never the priests nor the commoners. If the Mosaic law permitted polygamy, I would think every Jewish man to the lowest farmer would’ve taken more than one wife. Yet, the Hebrew scriptures do not show that.

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        1. I’m not rushing to defend anything. I’ve seen Christians get uptight about this issue but i don’t see it as a salvation issue. I think it’s more cultural.

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      2. If Jesus said that a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the 2 shall become 1 flesh (Mark 10:7-8), how shall the man also be 1 flesh with another and another etc. at the same time? Or how shall the 1st wife be one flesh with her husband and another wife, since they are 1? Furthermore, a man cannot leave his father n mother multiple times (unless he can’t hold down a job or is a lazy mooch), so it implies 1 union/marriage. Since Jesus said it (the above marriage definition in a sense), since God created Adam n Eve and not another woman or man as well, since most people’s consciences would agree more than 1 spouse (husbands or wives) would be trouble, it seems logical that God doesn’t want us to have more than 1 spouse. The reason of wanting to keep a family line seems the least likely reason any man would have multiple wives. I’m guessing polygamists have other things in mind than that! Glad this isn’t a real issue for most people in our society. The question of my business, really. Obviously those in Bible times followed God n still did the wrong thing in 1 way or another, but they always paid for their mistakes (just like today).

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  3. I truly believe that the biblical standard for marriage is the union between one man and one woman. Yes, polygamy was rampant in OT times and, as you point out, it rarely ever ended well. However, just because it happened doesn’t mean it was the correct thing to do. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lied a lot to protect their own skins, so does that mean it’s okay for us to do something similar? We need to be discerning and not use what was to justify actions that they were never intended to justify.

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      1. Agree completely. I was not suggesting we condemn anyone. This is basically the same line I take with those of our brethren who condemn those who support Gay marriages. It’s not our job to condemn, it’s our job to share the Good News.

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    1. That’s always a tricky question. Because the culture of people in the Bible is andro-centric it never talks about it from a female perspective.

      In the Bible (and in many parts of the world today) the family line is perpetuated by the male. The idea of continuing the family line is removed with the single female idea.

      I supposed theoretically, though, the same understanding of appropriate/inappropriate would (should?) apply to committed marriages revolving around a single female.

      I know they exist, but I’ve never met anyone who is comfortable with the idea of sharing a spouse with another sexual partner. I’m a committed monogamist 🙂

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