What Is Polygamy and Why Did God Allow It?

Candice Lucey

Contributing Writer
Published: May 21, 2021
What Is Polygamy and Why Did God Allow It?

Do we have a good Christian polygamy definition? Is polygamy biblical? Picking up one’s cross means laying down one’s desires and perceived entitlements in order to serve others. A husband is to serve one wife and vice versa.

What is Polygamy?

The term “polygamy” refers generally to a man or a woman with multiple spouses. There are also more specific terms. “Marriage to more than one spouse at a time” is known as “polygyny” when multiple wives “share a husband,” or “polyandry, in which co-husbands share a wife.” There is no specific term for same-sex polygamy at this time.

The most famous examples of polygamous societies in the western world include communities of Mormons, but there have been and are many others. A number of groups defend their choice by saying that God permitted polygamy in the Old Testament, but did he truly condone this marital grouping?

Jacob married Leah by mistake and eventually married her sister, Rachel. Moses, King David, and Solomon each married two or more women. Solomon is infamous for his harem of wives and concubines: “For the record, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.” The Bible is filled with examples of polygamy, not in order to condone it but as a historical record. In fact, from the beginning, God had spoken against taking more than one spouse.

Bible Verse and Scripture on Polygamy

God declared that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). They will enjoy a special bond anointed by the Lord. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:16).

Splitting husband and wife apart was violent, even deadly because by divorce one single person was torn in two. “What God has joined together,” said Jesus, “let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). This imagery only works with one man and one woman.

“Monogamy was inherent to God’s plan for humanity from the moment of creation.” God said that man and woman would become “one flesh,” but our flesh became corrupt. “The works of the flesh,” our sinful behaviors, “are evident,” writes Paul to the Galatians. These works include “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,” “jealousy,” “divisions,” and more (Galatians 5:19,20). Marrying multiple individuals is evidence of discontent, greed, jealousy, and lust.

God never said that polygamy was alright. One of his commandments — “you shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) — speaks against marrying multiple partners. “The Bible never really condones this practice. It simply describes it.” Israel “probably picked up the custom of [...] pagan neighbors.”

A sign that God did not favor polygamy is that every instance of it resulted in chaos. “Solomon is the best known and most extreme example of this principle. In the end, it was his many wives who led him into idolatry and destroyed his faith in the Lord.”

Why Did God Permit Polygamy in the Bible?

God’s people were corrupt. He promised after the flood never to destroy them again. Instead, since people were set upon sinful acts (slavery, misogyny, adultery), he created rules for the protection of vulnerable individuals such as women. Divorce could leave a woman impoverished, desperate; she might turn to prostitution in order to earn a living.

If men were allowed to take multiple wives, they could satisfy various desires without divorce. If men were intent on objectifying and abusing women, God determined to put a few safety measures in place.

The Pharisees asked Jesus why the marital union of one man to a single woman mattered to Jesus when God appeared to condone polygamy and divorce. Jesus answered, “because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8).

One rule was that “if [a man] takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights.” If the man “does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money” (Exodus 21:10,11). A woman was purchased for a man’s son to marry. If she was not treated properly, she could leave without refunding the father’s payment.

And an article in The Christian Post by Allen Parr suggested that “God may have permitted polygamy [...] to protect women.” With men going off to war so often, perhaps dying on the battlefield, many women were left unprotected, unsupported. Unless their fathers or brothers were alive and willing to support them, and with so few men available to marry, “the alternative [...] for many of these women was slavery or prostitution. Polygamy was considered a better, though imperfect, option.”

Parr says that men were motivated to marry multiple women to perpetuate “their family lineage if their first wife was barren” and to create “alliances between nations.” He distinguishes between description and prescription: The Bible “tells stories of people who fell short of [God’s] standards. Just because God didn’t strike them down doesn’t mean He condoned their actions.” Parr notes that “God’s patience is not permission.”

Paul’s Follow-up on Polygamy

The New Testament portrays marriage between a husband and a wife, and between the church and Christ. John Piper wrote that “a husband and a wife represent one Lord and one church.” This is not “God plus many brides but “one Lord, one church — as long as they both shall live.”

By the time of Christ, Israelite men no longer took several wives. When Paul instructed Christians regarding marriage, he always referred to monogamy. However, “it seems that [Roman] customs and habits had rubbed off on many of the occupied peoples of the Empire” including “serial polygamy,” a cycle of marriage-divorce-remarriage-divorce.

Many Romans had multiple ex-wives. Paul exhorted Christians to “let marriage be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4). He also wrote, “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).

Even if a man believes he can live in a loving relationship with multiple wives, “it raises big questions about [his] understanding of the exclusivity of sexual love (which the biblical writers often use as a symbol for the exclusivity of our relationship with God).” The sacrificial love Paul refers to in Ephesians makes room for monogamous marriages only. “Husbands,” writes Paul, “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

This sort of love denies “self” for the sake of the bride. Christians were told they must pick up their respective crosses in order to follow Christ (Luke 9:23). A polygamous life is one of fulfilling desires, nourishing sin, and self-love. Picking up one’s cross means laying down one’s desires and perceived entitlements in order to serve others. A husband is to serve one wife and vice versa.

In the New Testament, under the inspiration of God, Paul wrote that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:28). Paul refers to one man, one woman; he takes us back to Genesis 2:24. A man marries one woman and they become one flesh. To abuse the other person is to abuse one’s own body. The church is a body of many members, but marriage is a single body formed from two people.

Polygamy Definition in the Modern Context

There are examples of historical and contemporary polygamy within many cultures and religions. For example, “both polygamy and polyandry were practiced in ancient times among certain sections of the Hindu society,” which excluded Brahmin Hindus. Even today, there is no Hindu law against these customs. The main factors discouraging polygamy are the cost and the “time required to raise the family well.”

Certain Islamic groups allow polygamy, saying “that an imbalance of the ratio of men to women means that polygamy serves to help women maintain a respectable presence.” Islamic polygamy protects women from becoming mistresses. Mistresses would be left in a “shameful and un-protected state. As a co-wife, they have legal rights and status” and the laws of Islam require that the husband “must be able to love them equally.”

“In Cameroon, traditional rulers may marry as many wives as they wish.” Moreover, tradition dictates that “once a [...] traditional ruler dies, the heir takes over his wives.”

“The twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City — either side of the Utah-Arizona border” are home to nearly 8,000 people and are “the headquarters of the FLDS, which is famous for its conservative way of life and polygyny.” FLDS stands for Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, an offshoot of the Mormons. According to their beliefs, you need three wives to enter heaven.

Finally, Bountiful, BC is an FLDS community in Canada where leaders provided under-aged wives to their men. Only a few years ago, several people were convicted of crimes, including exploiting and sexually abusing young girls as part of their cult.

Outdated Ideas of Marriage

The Bible never relents on the picture of marital customs, but the New Testament demonstrates a new possibility for women, one which was promoted by the New Church: singleness for women. Mary and Martha remained unmarried. Jesus’ mother appears to be widowed at some point, since Jesus commits her to the care of his disciple, John.

She does not remarry as far as we know. In the Book of Acts, we see that Lydia moved in the lofty circles of Roman commerce and industry,” while “Damaris held her own in the rarefied air of Greek academia and high culture.” Damaris and Lydia were “leading lights of Greco-Roman society.”

Each woman above is important enough to be named, and not as wives. Even if they did marry, this was not significant to Luke. The church was commissioned to look after its members, which would include widows and unmarried women.

A new era had emerged in which marriage was not necessary in order to protect women. The Holy Spirit, moving through Christians, sought to protect every person in fellowship regardless of sex, age, or marital status.

Other Sources

Polygamy Definition and Meaning

Polygamy in the Bible - What Does God Say

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/cglade

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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