Does the Bible Permit Polygamy?
The sexual revolution has challenged all traditional societal structures—none more aggressively than the institution of marriage.
Conservative Christians, for the most part, are firm in their convictions concerning God’s prohibition against so-called “same-sex marriage” because Scripture is clear in its condemnation of it (Gen. 19:1-13, Lev. 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10). Believers are also convinced that children need a healthy home with both a loving mother and father (Eph. 6:1-4).
But what about families with multiple parents? Is it wrong for a man to marry more than one woman? Can a husband and wife marry another husband and wife? Polygamy (one person marries multiple people) and polyamory (multiple romantic relationships with consent from all involved) are popular today. Some are even entering into multiple marriages —two sets of husbands and wives all married to each other (some call it polyfamory).
Many conservative Christians would most likely disapprove of a marriage outside of one man and one woman, but I am not confident in the average believer’s ability to defend such a view from Scripture in all cases. For instance, the Bible nowhere condemns polygamy. Some of Scripture’s most prominent figures had more than one wife. The first polygamist was Lamech. He “married two women” (Genesis 4:19). Abraham had three wives—Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah. Jacob, David, and Solomon all had multiple wives as well. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. These are some of the Old Testament’s great men of faith! It would appear that, at least for a time, God allowed polygamy. If that is the case, why do Christians not approve of polygamy today?
I submit that God does not permit polygamy. Instead, His design for marriage is the life-long, covenantal, monogamous union between one man and one woman. Let us consider two questions concerning God’s view on marriage:
1. Why did God allow polygamy in the Old Testament?
Though the Bible does not explicitly prohibit polygamy, several factors lead one to conclude that polygamy is not God’s plan for marriage.
First, we must recognize the difference in the Bible between descriptive and prescriptive texts. Descriptive texts "describe" events taking place in the Bible, but aren't necessarily actions we should model. Prescriptive texts are those in which God has shared through the writer what He wills for our lives. For example, we see in the story of Abraham that he married Sarah and Hagar. Likewise, we are told of Jacob marrying both Leah and Rachel. In both cases we see where events are described, but neither Abraham nor Jacob was told by God to marry multiple wives. God's only "prescriptive" for marriage is found in multiple places in the Bible and only references the union of one man and one woman (Gen 2:24, Matt 19:5, Mark 10:7, Eph 5:31, 1 Tim 3:2 & 12, 1 Corin 7:2).
Second, though God did not command men to take multiple wives, He may have used this cultural practice to express His common grace. In ancient times, single women were often financially destitute. They depended on men— fathers, brothers, and husbands—for food, shelter, and protection (see Ruth 1). It would have been financially advantageous for a woman to enter a polygamous marriage, and this could be viewed as the mercy of God.
Third, the nature of these polygamous relationships in the Old Testament is often spoken of negatively. For example, Abraham only took Hagar to be his wife because he failed to trust God’s promise that he and Sarah would have a son. Jacob’s marriage to Leah was not initially desired, and when he later married Rachel, it turned out to be full of strife between the sisters. The prophet Nathan told a parable to King David about a man who had one ewe lamb that he loved. A wealthy man who had many lambs took the ewe and slaughtered it for dinner. The point of that story was to convict David of his sins of covetousness and adultery. David was not content with his many wives. Instead, his sin of covetousness led him right into the sin of adultery. David took Bathsheba from a monogamous marriage with Uriah to be another one of his many wives. Although Solomon preached wisdom, he did not practice it. Kings were forbidden to marry multiple women (Deut. 17:14-20); yet, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Even though the Bible does not say to not practice polygamy, it certainly provides many examples of the devastation that the sin of polygamy leaves in its wake.
Fourth, the New Testament authors uphold Old Testament figures—such as Abraham and David—for their faith, but not as moral examples. We are told to mimic the faith of these men, but not necessarily all of their actions, particularly their marital practices.
2. Is marriage defined biblically as the life-long, covenantal, monogamous, union between one man and one woman?
God explicitly states His design for marriage in Genesis 2:22-24. The Lord created the woman and “brought her to the man”. “Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” God’s original design for marriage is one man and one woman who come together to form one flesh.
Jesus spoke of this important union in his conversation with the Pharisees, who wanted to know Jesus’ view regarding divorce. Jesus told them that God’s intentions from the beginning were a life-long, covenantal, monogamous union between one man and one woman. He said to the Pharisees, “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:6-9).
God’s ultimate design for marriage is to display the gospel. In marriage, the husband represents Christ, and the bride represents the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Though the church is composed of multiple people, she is referred to as one Bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7, 21:2). Polygamy, therefore, tears down the Christ-exalting picture of one bride and one groom in marriage.
Furthermore, the language of the New Testament explicitly states that marriage is between one man and one woman. Consider Ephesians 5:22-33, and take notice of the singular nouns—husband and wife. Paul’s instructions in Colossians 3:19, “Husbands love your wives” should not be understood as multiple husbands married to one woman or visa-versa. Rather, he’s instructing all the men in the church to individually love their one wife.
Additionally, the expectation for elders and deacons is that they are married to one wife (1 Tim. 3:2, 12). Church leaders are to be examples for Christians to follow. Surely, marriage is an essential way in which they model godliness to their congregations.
Though the Bible does not specifically forbid having multiple wives or husbands, it is not God’s original plan. The Lord’s expectation for marriage is that it be held as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.
Not only does the Bible command that a marriage is between one husband and one wife, the one husband-one wife paradigm is best for every member in the family. God’s displeasure with Israel was because He viewed Himself as Israel’s husband, and her idolatry was akin to adultery. No self-respecting husband would be happy if another man had his wife. The same can be said for the wife about her husband. Marriage demands a holy jealousy for one’s spouse. This is why the Lord revealed Himself as a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). God is jealous in the same way a husband would be jealous if he caught his wife being unfaithful.
Children also need the one husband-one wife structure in the family for two reasons. One, God is our Father, and children need their earthly fathers to model godliness to them as much as possible. Secondly, children need to see the gospel in their parents’ marriage. The image of Christ and His bride, the church, is skewed when there are multiple parents.
Perhaps more than at any time in our history, Christians must understand the biblical definition of marriage. Society is built on the foundation of individual families, and families will only be as strong as the marriage that forms them.
Brandon is the Associate Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN and leads the TJC RE:GENERATION ministry for the church. Brandon is married to Sherrie and has a daugher, Emma.
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