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Does the Bible say polygamy is wrong?

Published: 19 May 2018 (GMT+10)

Daniel, US, writes:

Genesis never tells us that all the descendants of Cain were wicked, and Scripture does not teach that polygamy is wrong.

Lita Cosner, CMI-US, responds:

Thanks for writing in.

You’re correct that Genesis does not tell us that all Cain’s descendants were wicked. It only gives us information about the moral character of Lamech, his descendant, who was a wicked, vengeful man.

Scripture’s teaching about polygamy is a little more complex. God clearly created one man and one woman in the beginning—it was Adam and Eve, not Adam, Eve, Cynthia, Shelley, and May. So the marriage which serves as the prototype for God’s design of human relationships is one man and one woman, for life. Jesus reaffirmed this principle when he said, “In the beginning he created them male and female”. But weren’t godly men like Abraham, Jacob, and David polygamous? Well, yes. But Abraham’s relationship with Hagar was Sarah’s idea, and resulted in a lot of conflict. And God clearly stated the child of promise would come through Sarah. Jacob only wanted to be married to Rachel, but was tricked into marrying Leah, and then they each gave a servant to him as well. So he ended up with four wives, but really only wanted one. David’s polygamy caused a lot of family turmoil, including Amnon’s rape of Tamar, Absalom’s murder of Amnon, and more. And Solomon’s out-of-control polygamy caused him to engage in the worship of his wives’ idols.

In the New Testament era, one requirement for elders is that they be “the husband of one wife”—excluding polygamists. Why? It’s likely that because the church is the bride of Christ, having an elder with more than one wife is not suitable because his polygamy is not a suitable imitation of Christ’s ‘monogamous’ dedication to the Church.

So why doesn’t the Bible outright say that polygamy is always sinful in every instance? Because the world is fallen, and sometimes a less than ideal solution is better than the alternative. In the ancient world, a lot of women would be widows, because many men would be killed in war, by sickness and by their hazardous work. Women had their own mortality risks like childbirth, but widows were in a very vulnerable situation. One way to provide for widows is to provide for them to be remarried. But what about when women outnumber men? Polygamy would be one way to mercifully provide for the ‘excess’ women. It’s not ideal, it’s not a reflection of God’s original design, and Christians are called to provide for widows in a way that would make polygamy unnecessary. But that’s how we can say that polygamy is wrong—in the sense that it falls short of God’s created design for human marriage—without a text in Scripture that says polygamy is always wrong and sinful.

I hope this is helpful.

Helpful Resources

Gay Marriage: right or wrong?
by Gary Bates, Lita Cosner
US $3.50

Reader’s comments

Sandra W.
Thank you for the clear and easy to understand answer to this question. It will help when friends ask me this question.
Danny J.
In regards to the part about Rachel and Leah there were also issues with competition between them for Jacob's affections. There was also bullying in the case of Manoah's wives with his more favored (and barren) wife Hannah (then future prophet Samuel's mother) being taunted by his less favored (and fertile) wife Peninah.
In the case of the rules for the church elder, I think another reason why he was to have only one wife was so he can devote his time to the ministry as well, as many wives would require a lot of attention and resources.
Carolyn B.
Although correct in its assumptions, I find that this message has overlooked the most important reason for monogamy. Marriage is not only a physical relationship, it is a spiritual one. Family breakdown, abuse and self gratification are physical, and are always the motives for voluntary polygamy. They carry fear, jealousy, shame and humiliation for many. But trust, preferential love, exclusivity and respect for a spouse's feelings are the motives for spiritual love, and they lead to a far greater desire for the physical than anything else. Studies have shown, contrary to belief, that Christian women have a much deeper physical relationship with their husbands than those outside of Christ's love.
Outside of Christ, polygamy which aims to provide for widows has been decided by leaders to be culturally acceptable, but it is not condoned in the New Testament. Instead, the Church is commanded to provide for them. The Apostle Paul states Godly standards regarding marriage very clearly in his letters. King David's polygamy was often politically motivated, but when it became personal, he was punished severely for it.

Polygamy was never intended by God, and it is not acceptable to bend the rules rather than follow Biblical direction. True love will never exalt itself over others.
Ian B.
Interestingly, when the prophet Nathan is sent to King David to expose his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12, the Lord said through him "I also gave you your master's house, AND YOUR MASTER'S WIVES...………………….and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these". I have been a Christian for some 44 years, and I still can't get why Nathan wasn't told to tell David to get rid of the "many wives". It seems that the Lord sort of looked the other way on this.
Hakan S.
Something happened when Jesus taught: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother...and the two shall become one flesh" (Matthew 19:5). Isn't this just a quote from Genesis 2:24? Yes, except that he inserted the word "two". It's not in the original. From this point on, if not earlier, marriage is for two.
Kevin M.
This is a good answer. There are places in our own day where polygamy is practised, so that widows can be provided for. This is true for people like those where my wife and I worked in the Indonesian province of Papua. But we also saw the sad results of jealousy and conflicts that arose as a result, particularly when both wives lived in close proximity. The solution some adopted was to have the two wives living kilometres apart, the husband travelling back and forth frequently to spend time with each family. But there is no doubt that monogamy is by far the preferable arrangement.

Besides this, the instruction in 1 Timothy 3 about elders and deacons having one wife makes a dilemma for such men. Should a godly man who cares for his brother's widow and children be barred from office in the church if he has married her? Or should he ignore her widowhood to retain his place in church leadership? That too would be out of keeping with Christ's command for us to love one another and care for widows and orphans. People really do have to face these hard decisions in our day and they need heavenly wisdom to make the best choice. Pray for such people!
Carolyn B.
To Ian B re his question about why God delivered David his master's wives:

In non-Christian societies a man had many wives, which is wrong. These were given over to David as part of his victory in war. God gave him his master's harem, but they were not given to him as spouses. The original text says that God offered "more of such things," not necessarily speaking of women. These "wives" would have become servants in his house and kingdom. David still had only 1 true wife.
Hope this helps.
Susanna N.
Deuteronomy 17:17 (NKJV) "Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away.....”
The Bible does not only teach us by its heroes’ faith and good choices, but also by their mistakes and sins. All the examples of polygamy in the Bible clearly teaches us how it results in extreme problems in the relationships.
The original design of one man and one woman is clearly what God’s will is for us.

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