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Does the Bible say polygamy is wrong?


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 Sanders, 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.

Published: 19 May 2018

Helpful Resources

Gay Marriage: right or wrong?
by Gary Bates, Lita Cosner
US $4.00