What About Polygamy?

By Wayne Jackson

"Polygamy is very prevalent in our country [Papua New Guinea]. What is the Bible position on this practice?"

Polygamy is the practice of being married to more than one spouse at the same time. The first case of polygamy recorded in the Scriptures had to do with a descendant of the infamous Cain, Lamech, who “took unto him two wives” (Genesis 4:19). The manner in which the practice is introduced into the sacred text (in obvious contrast to 2:24) reveals that it did not have Jehovah’s approval.

Later in Old Testament history, polygamy was practiced to some extent; both David and Solomon, for example, were polygamists. Though the cohabitation of a man with several wives was tolerated under the Mosaic regime, it was not the divine ideal, and it never brought genuine happiness to those who indulged. In most cases, polygamy accelerated even greater levels of unacceptable conduct (cf. 1 Kings 11:1-3).

One must remember that many evils were “overlooked” (i.e., the deserved punishment was not extracted) in those days when divine revelation was more rudimentary than it was under the New Testament economy (cf. Matthew 19:8; Acts 14:16; 17:30).

Jesus taught that the divine pattern is that “the two [not three, four, etc.] shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5). Polygamy mars the “one flesh” ideal. Moreover, the Lord insisted that though the original marital standard had been relaxed during a period when the “hardness” of men’s hearts prevailed, under his forthcoming administration, the divinely-designed marriage arrangement would be restored to its initial format — one man for one woman (Matthew 19:4ff).

The monogamous family is God’s authorized plan for marriage until the end of time. The New Testament takes for granted the relationship of one man for one woman in the marriage arrangement (see 1 Corinthians 7:2; 9:5; Ephesians 5:23ff).

But Polygamy has been, and continues to be, practiced in some places in modern times.

Islam allows a man to have as many as four wives at a time (Qur’an, Sura 4.3). In addition, a Muslim man may keep a concubine. Mohammed had eleven wives and two concubines. One of his “wives,” whom he married at the age of fifty-five, was only nine years old (Hadith 7.64).

It is rather widely known that polygamy was a feature of early Mormonism. Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Mormon sect, claimed to have received the doctrine of plural wives by divine revelation. In the Mormon textbook known as the Pearl of Great Price, it is stated that on July 12, 1843 a “revelation” was given “through Joseph Smith, the Prophet” concerning a “new and everlasting covenant.” The published explanation for this alleged revelation affirms the notion that marriage is an “eternal” union (when solemnized by the authority of the priesthood), and that a plurality of wives and concubines is permitted (Introduction to Section 132). Those who rejected the revelation were to be “damned” (132.4). Both Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, had multiple wives. Though polygamy was banned in 1890, many Mormons in isolated areas of Utah still practice it.

With the modern advent of the so-called “historical critical” methods of Bible interpretation, new views have begun to emerge relative to the practice of polygamy. Some allege that the Bible is culturally conditioned, and that it is adaptable to various marital customs — including polygamy (see Christianity Today, February 11, 1991, p. 33). One writer states: “For those who are already in polygamy [in various nations], to break their covenant of marriage would be adultery” (John Edwards, An In Depth Study of Marriage and Divorce, St. Louis: Edwards, 1985, p. 33).

Such a view is antagonistic to the Scriptures. The divine standard is monogamy. Any deviation from that is transgression — regardless of the fluctuating mores of varying societies.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.