In the modern church, today, polygamy is not that dominant but,there are reasons to believe that the ethical issue has takendifferent shapes. Issues of divorce and re-marriages among Christianshave increased rapidly in the past few decades, and this suggeststhat the spirit of having many wives is still with us. For instance,Bob Simpson asserts that the divorce rate in many Western nations isapproaching 50% while those who remarry can do it three times(Simpson, 1998, p. 122).1Simpson and Miriam Zeitzen go further to argue the remarriage anddivorce often results to serial monogamy (Zeitzen, 2008, p. 18).2The fact that Christians are often accused of hypocrisy due to theincreased rates of divorce and remarriages also supports the issue ofserial monogamy being the changed fashion of the ancient polygamy. Inhis research, Bradley Wright has revealed that the rate of divorceamongst the nominal Christians is almost 60% while that of theregular church attendees is about 38% (Wright, 2010, p. 133).3
The paper focuses on the issue of polygamy/polygyny that will betreated as a complex ethical issue requiring the Church to resolve itusing the moral codes borrowed from the Bible and the people’sculture. In this paper, I will explore the topic of polygamy from twodifferent perspectives, that is, using the biblical interpretationsthat support and those that are against polygamy. The foundation forthe arguments for or against polygamy depends on how people interpretthe issue of marriage as illustrated in the Bible. Then, using thesearguments, I will critically analyze the theology of polygamy asdrawn from the Bible and present fair ethical decisions that considerboth sides of the argument.
Theological Arguments on
Biblical Theology against
As stated earlier, the anti-polygamists often support theirarguments and propositions based on how they interpret the Bibleconcerning the issue of marriage. Douglas Wilson, who seeminglysupports monogamy, argues that homosexuality activism can lead to there-definition of marriage, and this can destroy the institution ofmarriage. He believes that when the re-definition of marriage isincluded in law, there will be no foundations within the Bible andthe law to be used against the practice of polygamy (Wilson, 1999, p.92).4The anti-polygamists or the Conservative Christians argue that if thedefinition of marriage in the Bible and the law is changed, therewill be chaos because the action would tolerate men to meet theirsinful sexual desires through fornication, promiscuity and polygamy.
The anti-polygamists add that monogamy is supported by the creationnorm, and Wilson asserts that we cannot find the practice of polygamyin the story of God’s Creation (Wilson, 1999, p. 96).5 is first mentioned in Gen. 4: 19, when Lamech marriesseveral wives. They believe that Eve was created for Adam to make aman complete, and indeed, it was “very good” for him. Therefore,the fall of Adam and Eve came from the man’s willingness to meethis sinful desires, which includes polygamy. (Gen1:27, 2:20, 2:21-23 and 24-25) concludes that it was God’sintention for a male and a female to live together just as Adam andEve were created for each other. Based on their views, as well as,the biblical interpretations of marriage, they believe that the Biblenot only prohibits polygamy but, also condones other sexual behaviorssuch as bestiality, homosexuality and even divorce (Wright,2010, p. 121).6
Those who don’t support polygamy oftensupport the argument for one man to have one wife from Matthew 19:4.They usually focus on the narrative of God’s Creation as presentedin the first chapter of the Bible (Genesis) to support the argument.For instance, Douglas Wilson argues that Jesus Christ was amonogamist because he is the sole bridegroom with only one bride.Although Matthew 25:1-12 indicates that there were ten virgin womenfor one bridegroom, Wilson uses Ephesians 5: 23-25 to support theissue of monogamy. He strongly believes that a man should not havemany wives just as Christ, and that Christ-like love only occurs in amonogamous marriage (Wilson, 1999, p. 98).7
Wilson goes further and references 1 Tim.3:2 and Tit. 1:5-7 where the writers of both letters emphasized thatpolygamy is prohibited for those seeking church eldership, leadershipor bishopric. He argues that this was a way of challenging the socialacceptance of the practice of polygamy that usually signifies wealth,high social class or qualification for any form of leadership. Thesetexts serve as a challenge to polygamists who thought that theirpractices qualify them to lead. Wilson takes into account theambiguity that surrounds polygamy, and asserts that although polygamycannot be considered a sinful act as adultery, it is forbidden basedon the ordinances of redemption and creation (Wilson, 1999, p.102).8 is only allowed in exceptional circumstances and for thosewho do not aspire to become church leaders.
The Catholic Church also condemns thepractice of polygamy because it does not abide with the moral law.According to Augustine writings, the purpose of marriage is promotedbetter by a man with one wife rather that a man with many wives. Thisargument draws support from the first union comprising of one man andone woman, which was indeed made possible by the Divine Being.Augustine also suggested that the patriarchs/fathers can marryseveral wives but only in exceptional circumstances. They cannotbecome polygamists when they want because polygamy is outlawed in theScriptures. The issue of having many wives in exceptionalcircumstances can be applied in the modern times where men canpractice polygamy in states where it is legalized (Hill,2002, p. 54).9
Biblical Theology for
The pro-polygamists are those people that support the practice ofpolygamy and they often take a different approach from theanti-polygamists based on the biblical interpretation of theinstitution of marriage. They claim that their opponents areambiguous in interpreting the Scriptures regarding the issue ofmarriage, and draws support their interpretations mainly fromcultural, sociological and anthropological studies. They believe thatthe creation norm does not in any way mean moral norm and thus thecreation of Eve and Adam is merely a narrative created by the authorto show God as the creator of the man and the woman (O’Donovan,1986, p. 45).10The narrative does not make any case supporting monogamy orcondemning polygamy. Lamech’s behavior was the first recordedpractice of polygamy in the Bible but, his move was not shunned inthe narrative. Although Lamech’s actions are seen and labeled asungodly by some Bible scholars, it does not mean that his ungodlinesswas connected to polygamy.
The pro-polygamists such as Martin Luther King and John Calvin aresome of the giants of Christian faith, who draws support from theProtestant Church that split away from the Catholic Church. TheProtestant church is a reformed Christian movement that targets atrebuilding the Christian doctrines, and the pro-polygamists believethat at some point, polygamy is acceptable as a biblical practice.For example, during the reformation of the Protestant Church, MartinLuther allowed the Landgrave Phillip of Hesse to marry a second wifebut, in secret. The details of this dispensation are contained in adocument known as “The Confessional Advice” and it indicates thatthe Phillip of Hesse was constantly involved in issues of fornicationand adultery. In order to avoid a scandal or public outcry againsthim, Martin Luther advised him to do it in secret, and this showsthat polygamy is acceptable in exceptional circumstances.
There are several texts in the New Testament that can be understoodto be against the practice of polygamy. For example, the passage onthe qualifications for church leadership as they were given by Paulto Titus and Timothy is a notable biblical text that is understood toprohibit polygamy. Timothy3:2 and Titus 1:6 suggest that the churchleaders ought to be “a husband to only one wife.” Thus, the Bibleexplicitly states that those desiring to become bishops, elders orevangelists should not have several wives but, does not forbid thepractice of polygamy amongst other Christians. Matthew 19:1-12 andMark 10:1-10 gives the story of Jesus confirming the understanding ofmarriage in response to the Pharisees’ questions that marriageshould be between one man and one woman. Here Jesus was encouragingpeople to have life-long marriages and avoid divorce but, he wasn’tagainst polygamy. The anti-polygamists should not interpret the Biblefurther than that because even Jesus Himself does not explicitlystate that polygamous is a sinful practice (Cameron,2011, p. 133).11
The pro-polygamists argue that divorce is regulated within polygamyin the Bible, and thus polygamous relationships are not explicitlyforbidden in the Scriptures. Bible scholars such as H. Gunkel, ClausWestermann and R.Smith argue that Genesis 2:24 was meant to describehow a man is attracted to a woman just because Even was made out ofAdam’s bone and flesh. Westermann points out that this text was notintended to be considered as an endorsement of a marital institution,polygamous or monogamous (Westermann, 1984, p. 233).12Thus, people should not interpret the passage to condemn polygamy ofsupport monogamy. Here the biblical interpretations should beneutral, and hence it rules out the fact monogamous marriages arebetter than polygamous marriages.
In Deut 21: 15-17, Gen 29:30 and Exod. 21:9-10, polygamy is treatedas a type of marriage that creates competition amongst the man’swives, and often leads to destruction. These biblical texts are usedas evidence to show that to control the problems presented bypolygamy, laws have to be put in place to regulate the practice.Conflict and jealousy amongst the co-wives are some of the rampantsocial and domestic issues associated with polygamous marriages. Itis important to note that polygamy was not condemned instead Godlaid down the rules and laws to manage the conflicts. God tells mennot to become too greedy for wealth and many wives in Deutronomy17:17 to an extent that they will forget Him. Deut. 17:17 is amongthe many biblical texts used by feminists and anti-polygamists tocondemn polygamous marriages since they bring about more problemsthan monogamous marriages.
Some sociologists and cultural anthropologists argue that monogamousmarriages help in reducing crime amongst young men because theycannot blame the rich men from taking all the women. They believethat polygamy increases the number of unmarried young men, which inturn increases cases of theft, murder, rape and substance abuse. here is viewed to be a practice, which is more associatedwith power than sex (Coontz, 2005, p. 188).13Henrich examined the Mormon households of the 19th centuryin his research, and revealed that children in the wealthy polygamousfamily units were not kept well as compared to the kids living inpoor monogamous families. One of the most salient features ofpolygamy is having many children that a single father finds it hardto raise up. The problem of having many children draws support fromthe case of King David, who had a large household. Amnon, his sonraped one of Absalom’s daughters and Absalom killed him leading toa civil conflict and war between the two families.
Pro-polygamists argue that the social ills of polygamy as putforward by the anti-polygamists are also exhibited by monogamousmarriages. Their arguments are based on the belief that polygamyworked well in the past and even today. It is only that the ancientculture has evolved to modern culture, and thus, evolving with thepractice of polygamy. They also argue that those who are restrictedto practice polygamy are denied their human rights and this is a caseof discrimination by the society (Wright, 2010, p. 145).14If women are limited to make choices, they may decide to remainsingle but, this is a traumatic experience especially for those whowant to have sexual relationships. As a result, they becomeprostitutes, and statistics show that in countries that have declaredpolygamy illegal, prostitution is the most rampant sexual behavior.
Pro-polygamists argue that polygamy is widely accepted practice inmany societies around the world, and hence their opponents shouldrecognize its importance in people’s lives. They add that inpolygamous family units, the wives can share domestic chores andsupport each other in childcare, as well as, during times ofillnesses or death. Also, these families can have more economicbenefits due to the economies of scale while using the services suchas water, electricity and even food. The benefits reaped frompolygamous families may outweigh those for monogamous units, if themembers of the former remain obedient to the law of God in theirattitudes and behaviors. is high valued in the Old Testamentdue to its social, economic and political benefits.
It is evident that God continues speaking to us through our historyand we are yet to have full knowledge about God. It, therefore, meansthat we should learn from the modern history and culture tounderstand God’s will for mankind. A good example is that ofslavery where it was once acceptable to enslave people but, over timeit became unacceptable and one cannot even justify the practice usingthe Bible. This applies to polygamy, which is an ethical issue thatis predominant in the modern society but, in different fashions suchas serial monogamy, homosexuality and promiscuity (Zeitzen, 2008, p.28).15Thus, the bible is the bearer of people’s interpretation ofmarriage and thus is some ways it supports polygamy but, in others itcondemns the practice of polygamy particularly for someone seekingchurch leadership.
The Bible does not explicitly dismiss polygamy as a sinful practice,and thus, it becomes a secondary issue the same as the issue ofslavery. If polygamy is viewed as a “normal” sin as deceit,fornication, divorce or adultery, then it becomes the common sinsthat surround humanity including the Conservative Christians. Today,people often brand slavery as unbiblical and yet it was notexplicitly condemned in the Scriptures. Therefore, the fact that wedon’t practice it today reveals that God still speaks to us throughhumanity and this makes polygamy remain a debatable and a complexissue.
The scriptures offer a benchmark for pro-polygamists andanti-polygamists to make their cases, and thus it requires someone tomake ethical conclusions that equally consider both sides.Pro-polygamists argue that polygamy is not explicitly condemned inthe Bible and hence it is an approved marital state. God onlyrequires those practicing polygamy to abide by the rules thatpertains the God’s desired attitude and behavior of polygamists soas to be prosperous and happy. Tom Wright is a famous Bible scholarand a Bishop who has presented a new model that guides theunderstanding of the place of the Bible in this era of biblicalconfusion. In the 10th Chapter, he presents a case study onmonogamous and devises an approach through which the Christians candefend monogamy as the only God-approved marital status (Wright,2005, p. 67).16He claims that God’s authority prevails and thus when He speaksthrough Jesus that a man should have only one wife, He meant it.
Based on these arguments, it is, therefore, difficult to make alogical conclusion about polygamy since the arguments from both sidesseem to exploit the ambiguity of the biblical texts concerning theinstitution of marriage. In my opinion, I would take intoconsiderations the biblical arguments, as well as, the sociological,cultural and anthropological arguments to make a logical and aninformed decision. Thus, polygamy will remain a debatable issue if atall the pro-polygamists and anti-polygamists’ arguments areanalyzed from different dimensions. The fact that God speaks to usthrough human also makes the issue complex in that we can rely on Himto guide us in making the right choices regarding the practice ofpolygamy.
Cameron, Andrew. Joinedup life: a Christian account of how ethics works.Nottingham: IVP, 2011.
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: From Obedience toIntimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, New York City: VikingAdult, 2005.
Hill, Michael. Thehow and why of love: an introduction to evangelical ethics.Sydney: Matthias Media, 2002.
O’Donovan, Oliver. Resurrectionand moral order: an outline for evangelical ethics,Leicester and Grand Rapids: IVP and Eerdmans, 1986.
Simpson, Bob. Changing Families, an Ethnographic Approach toDivorce and Separation. Oxford: Berg, 1998.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Minneapolis:Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity, What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man,Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999.
Wright, Bradley. Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites …andOther Lies You`ve Been Told. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House,2010.
Wright, Tom. Scripture and the Authority of God (New Edition).New York: SPCK, 2005.
Zeitzen, Miriam. : A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Oxford:Berg, 2008.
1 Simpson, Bob. Changing Families, an Ethnographic Approach to Divorce and Separation. Oxford: Berg, 1998.
2 Zeitzen, Miriam. : A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Oxford: Berg, 2008.
3 Wright, Bradley. Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites …and Other Lies You`ve Been Told. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2010.
4 Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity, What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man, Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999.
5 Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity, What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man, Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999.
6 Wright, Bradley. Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites …and Other Lies You`ve Been Told. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2010.
7 Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity, What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man, Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999.
8 Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity, What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man, Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999.
9 Hill, Michael. The how and why of love: an introduction to evangelical ethics. Sydney: Matthias Media, 2002.
10 O’Donovan, Oliver. Resurrection and moral order: an outline for evangelical ethics, Leicester and Grand Rapids: IVP and Eerdmans, 1986.
11 Cameron, Andrew. Joined up life: a Christian account of how ethics works. Nottingham: IVP, 2011.
12 Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
13 Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, New York City: Viking Adult, 2005.
14 Wright, Bradley. Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites …and Other Lies You`ve Been Told. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2010.
15 Zeitzen, Miriam. : A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Oxford: Berg, 2008.
16 Wright, Tom. Scripture and the Authority of God (New Edition). New York: SPCK, 2005.