This question led to some great discussion recently. “Does any religion outright forbid polygamy?” Isaiah 4:1 even says,”And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, ‘We will eat our own food and wear our own apparel; Only let us be called by your name, To take away our reproach.’” So can it be argued that Christians can be married to more than one spouse at the same time? Here’s my considered response.
From the earliest time Christianity has not endorsed polygamy. It’s the foundation of the western world’s criminalization of multiple marriages. Jewish tradition ended polygamy during the Diaspora around 1000 AD. So in the west, it’s long been the tradition that one man is to be married to one women at a time. Why did it become the accepted norm?
While polygamy is part of the hebrew scriptures, those same verses don’t hide the trouble it brings. Sometimes there was tension between the wives, as in the case of Abraham (Genesis 16,21). Sometimes the husband loved the one wife more than the other, like Jacob (Genesis 29:15-35). It also happened that the children of the different wives argued and fought, as in the case of David (2 Samuel 13). Therefore, it appears that marriage with more than one wife makes for a difficult situation.
We also see monogamous relationships celebrated in the Hebrew scriptures:
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless day Ecclesiastes 9:9 New International Version 1984 (NIV1984)
May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. Proverbs 5:18-19 New International Version 1984 (NIV1984)
The Shulamite My beloved is mine, and I am his. He feeds his flock among the lilies. Song of Solomon 2:16
And while monogamous relationships are celebrated, polygamous ones never are. This re-enforces to me that polygamy was not the best solution ever.
Origin of Christian Practice
The 2000 year tradition of the church comes from the first parents and the beginning of marriage (Genesis 2:18-24). In verse 18 God says very clearly “I will make a suitable companion to help him,” not two or three companions. His will is that two people, a man and a woman, should become one (verse 24). We find that in Matthew 19:5-6, Jesus quoted this and re-affirmed it’s prominence – “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one”.
Jesus never said, “You can’t marry more than one wife,” but you can’t argue from silence as he also never said anything about marrying more than one wife. Jesus did say, “the two will become one” so we can only assume that the plan for Adam and Eve still applies to us today.
Jesus also said, when he was teaching on divorce said something astounding, “You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32 Why is that? Because the two become one flesh. Again, the focus is on two becoming one. It’s one wife at one time.
Paul told the church in Corinth “Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter. Yes, it is good to abstain from sexual relations. But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife.” 1 Corinthians 7:1-4. Again there is only mention of a monogamous marriage.
Paul uses marriage as an example of how the law no longer applies to us. He wrote to the Romans –
“For example, when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries.” Romans 7:2-3. He was using a lesser to greater argument so we can extrapolate what is good for the goose is good for the gander. He was not endorsing polygamy for men by not mentioning men in his example.
Paul goes on to say that part of the qualification for leadership in the church was for men to be the “husband of one wife.” I Timothy 3:2 Titus 1:5-9 and interestingly enough I Timothy 5:9 tells that the enlisted widow (a widow supported by the church) must have been the “wife of one husband.” Showing us monogamy was expected not only for leaders in the early church, but also for members of the church. It also likely shows women could be married to more than one man as well since if she was widowed by one husband the other could take care of her and so there would be no need for the church to take care of her.
There is nothing in Christian tradition that says polygamy is acceptable or desirable. This is because there is nothing in the New Testament to support it and the examples in Hebrew scriptures make it undesirable. Jesus only supports two becoming one. Paul almost assumes that’s the way it should be for Christians, even though the culture they were a part of allowed polygamy.
It’s only one spouse at one time for Christians.
Finally on a lighter note, Jesus said, “No man can serve to masters.” Sure he was talking about God and money, but I tend to think two wives would see the same results.
Do you have more to add to this discussion? Leave your comments.
Do you have questions? Ask me directly.