A longtime reader of desiringGod content and a podcast listener who lives in Africa, writes in with an honest question: “Pastor John, I am a married man with four children and recently I met another woman. I love her and have told my wife about her. What I would like to know from you is whether or not it is wrong to have two wives as a Christian?”
Before you answer, Pastor John, of course we should keep in mind a number of African countries do allow polygamous civil marriage, as of course is true in the Middle East, as was true in the Old Testament in the Bible. Closer to home, in the state of Utah, polygamy is technically illegal but not enforced. More broadly, a Gallup survey has been tracking opinions on key moral issues in America since the early 2000s. In 2001, 7% of Americans said polygamy was morally acceptable. Today that number is 16%. Popular American TV shows are spotlighting polygamy and are perhaps pushing this. And the SCOTUS decision opens the door for all types of so-called “marriages” now, as we talked about yesterday.
So what are we to make of polygamy from a Christian perspective?
Let’s cut to the chase. I don’t believe that the will of God today as revealed in the New Testament and, rightly read, the Old Testament is to give permission or promotion to polygamy. So that is the statement. Here are my six biblical reasons.
1) In the beginning God created man male and female with the purpose that they would marry and the two would become one flesh. So the Lord made woman from the side of man and then Adam says in Genesis 2:23, “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.” And here’s this absolutely key verse that both Jesus and Paul quote: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). That verse is cited by Jesus and Paul as decisive in the meaning of marriage today. And the meaning focuses especially on this leaving parents and cleaving to one wife and becoming one flesh with her. That one flesh reality is profoundly compromised by polygamy.
2) When Jesus dealt with divorce and showed how the Pharisees were getting divorces when they shouldn’t — even though it was permitted in the Old Testament — he showed us in his response a way to understand why polygamy was also permitted and yet is now forbidden. Here is what he said: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And they said, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” And we could imagine them also saying, “Why then did he permit polygamy?” if that were the issue. Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:4–8).
So the reason Jesus did not any longer permit what had been permitted is because he chalked it up in the Old Testament to tolerance of the expressions of the hardness of the heart. And he is raising the standard. The reason Jesus didn’t address polygamy the same way he addressed divorce was that in his day the Jewish culture had basically already given it up. It just wasn’t an issue. People weren’t coming to him with multiple wives and saying, “Is this okay?” That would have been nice for us today or for certain cultures if he had, but he didn’t. So the point there was there is a way to understand the tolerance of an act in the Old Testament which now is forbidden.
3) You can see already in Genesis 4 that polygamy was, indeed, owing to the growing of the hardness of the heart after the fall of Adam and Eve. I think that is exactly what Moses wants us to see in the way he describes Lamech, the seventh generation from Adam. Here is what it says in Genesis 4:19: “Lamech took two wives,” — the first time it has ever happened — “Lamech said to his wives: ‘Ada and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-seven fold” (Genesis 4:23–24). You can’t imagine a more high-handed, ugly, mean-spirited, in-your-face, against God statement than that — and it comes right after saying he took two wives, unlike the others. So things are getting so bad, people are now multiplying wives.
4) Paul’s description of marriage as a picture of Christ and the church is seriously compromised by polygamy. When Paul opens this truth, namely Genesis 2:24, he describes it as a mystery. Now a mystery in Paul’s language was something that was partly revealed in the Old Testament, but now has become clear. And he says, “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two should become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31–32). The most basic and significant meaning of marriage in the New Testament is that a husband and a wife represent one Lord and one church. Since this is now more clearly revealed than ever, it is more important than ever to renounce polygamy and hold fast to the original intention of marriage as one man, one woman — one Lord, one church — as long as they both shall live.
5) It is required of elders that they be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2). Now probably that doesn’t refer to polygamy, because in 1 Timothy 5:9 the same phrase is used to describe the widows who need to qualify for the care of the church. They are supposed to be wives of one husband, and there is no evidence that polyandry, multiple husbands, was a problem. And, therefore, “wife of one husband” or “husband of one wife” is probably not directly addressed to the issue of polygamy, but rather, it probably was addressed to be faithful to your spouse and don’t be divorced from you spouse. But here is the point: Regarding polygamy, Paul never would have used those words without qualification if polygamy were being permitted in the church and among the leaders of the church. He just never would have been able to use that language without some qualification.
6) The Bible does seem to show the likelihood that with more than one wife there is almost inevitable favoritism of the one over the other as in the case of Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah. In a sense this is the flip-side warning of saying that the husband and his wife are one flesh. A husband cannot be all that he should be in one-flesh union with his wife if he must divide his affections among several women. That is certainly not the way Christ treats the church. He does not divide his affections among several different wives.
So for these six reasons and more, I am sure, I would say that polygamy was permitted because of the hardness of our hearts until the coming of Jesus and that, with Jesus, the standards are raised and the mystery of the meaning of marriage is clarified and we should be committed to making plain the beauties of Christ and his church through our covenant faithfulness between one husband, one wife.