A Biblical Case Against Polygamy

It shouldn’t be surprising that civilization hinges on getting sexuality right–or at least right “enough” in a fallen world. Investing our own flesh and blood in the next generation is perhaps the most literal understanding of “having skin in the game,” civilizationally speaking. Family is how we are first dragged kicking and screaming out of our selfishness, and as a casual perusal of child-free reddit suggests, that process seems to halt if one deliberately refuses to have children of his own. Broad and ordered participation in marriage and family is man’s greatest motivation for restraining wickedness.

As our own civilization unravels in response to the thread of sexual morality being yanked out, Christians must be equipped to speak to not only the new barbarisms of our day but the resurging barbarisms of the ancient world. One of those is polygamy. As I wrote a long time ago, fallen male and female nature have their own insidious complementarity. Sexually barbaric men like to accumulate harems, and sexually barbaric women like to trade up to the highest status man available to them. But as more men become incels and more women simultaneously become slatterns, the math alone makes it clear that this shift is already well underway–a larger number of women are opting to sleep with a far smaller number of men.

In light of this change, the Church must be careful. We are no less in a time of change than  the rest of the Western world is. There’s a reason we all have the growing sense that things cannot remain as they were. History has amply provided us with examples of men embracing polygamy as they take advantage of such weakened churches (e.g. the rise of Mohammed, the Munster Rebellion, Joseph Smith, etc.) And as the devil and the world continue to change the kind of pressures they apply against us, Christians would do well to look closely at what God’s Word has to say on the subject.

Now, some will claim that the Bible is silent on the issue. After all, polygamy seems fairly common among the Old Testament Patriarchs and kings. Likewise, there is no explicit or universal prohibition on polygamy in Scripture like there is for sins like murder and adultery. However, the absence of explicit command is a call for us to exercise our God-given wisdom rather than license to do whatever we feel like. And the Bible provides us with a great deal of wisdom on the subject. Let’s look closely at a few examples.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

When the Pharisees brought up the issue of divorce, Jesus went right back to the beginning. He quoted Genesis 2 and reasoned from it, saying “what God has joined together, let not man separate.” When the Pharisees used the example of Mosaic law to justify themselves, Jesus had none of it. He made it explicitly clear that God merely tolerated divorce–going so far as to regulate it by means of giving a civil law to somewhat restrain its evil. But outside of specific narrow exceptions (adultery and abandonment) he established quite clearly that divorce is adultery, a mortal sin. And I do find it interesting that Jesus quotes from Genesis 2 rather than Malachi 2 which makes his exact point. He expects those who hear and believe God’s Word to be able to use it to make sound judgments.

It would be difficult not to reason in the same way as Christ and apply it to polygamy as well. “Have you not read that the two become one flesh?” Therefore what God has made one, let not man divide amongst others so that the three become two fleshes. The self-giving nature of marriage such that two persons share one flesh is certainly undermined by dividing oneself among many instead. And indeed, “wife” is quite singular in this original institution of marriage. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” is a hokey saying, but it’s also a legitimate argument among those who wish to learn from Jesus rather than just making sure He doesn’t step on their toes. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve, Cheryl & Susie” is no less legitimate. And if God tolerated Polygamy among his people, let us not be like the Pharisees and take His longsuffering & forbearance as license.

The First Polygamist

Genesis is sparse on the details of the antediluvian world. That’s why it’s a good idea to sit up and take notice when a detail is important enough to provide. That includes highlighting history’s first polygamist, Lamech. It’s worth observing that he arises out of the ungodly line of Cain. It’s also worth observing that this is the same man who murdered a young man and boasted about it to his two wives, saying, “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” To be sure, this is by no means conclusive. After all, we don’t call metalworking or musical instruments sinful simply because they arose out of Cain’s line. Nevertheless, if you want Scripture to inform you about polygamy rather than just working to justify it, then the deliberate association of polygamy with Lamech should certainly give you pause.

“Rejoice in the wife of your youth.”

When Solomon advises his son to avoid the adulteress, he also commends to him an alternative: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” Once again, we must make two observations. First, “satisfy yourself by marrying another woman” and “remember how many wives you already have” are not among the advice. Second, Solomon and the Holy Spirit make the word “wife” singular here. It is only in verses 16 & 17, where Solomon speaks of promiscuity, that he uses plurals in his imagery of streams flowing in the streets. When he goes back from metaphorical to literal language, he also goes back to a singular wife in his instruction. Both of these observations are in stark contrast to the enormity of Solomon’s own harem. It is clearly not his own norm that Solomon is delivering here, but rather God’s norm. If we seek to heed God’s Wisdom here, then we should necessarily seek monogamy.

Song of Solomon

Here we have a book about the love between a husband and wife as both a good gift of God and as an image of God’s love for his Church–a point reiterated in Ephesians 5. But in each case, there is but one bridegroom and but one bride. No other lover or beloved intrudes on the intimacy therein. Neither is there a “2nd Song of Solomon ” about one of his other wives. In these places we get a glimpse into marriage as God designed it, and in both cases, polygamy is completely alien to the imagery God gives us. There’s nothing we can do to shoehorn it in.

“Each man should have his own wife.”

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul instructs Christians on how to resist temptations to fornication: “Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” As always, we find the same singular nouns used throughout–a consistency in God’s instructions regarding marriage we dare not overlook. But there is another practical point to be found in Paul’s instructions. If each man is to have his own wife, simple math would suggest that men should not seek to acquire more wives.

Polygamous societies always result in lower status men being denied the option of having their own wives. Accordingly, the man who hoards women for himself falls under the judgement of James’ words: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” We rightly condemn women who subject their husbands to temptation by withholding sex. In ordinary circumstances, polygamists likewise create such temptation for their brothers in Christ.

“An overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.”

When the New Testament establishes the qualifications for pastors and deacons, it consistently starts with the stipulation that he must be the husband of one wife. These lists include items that concern moral character (e.g self-controlled), skills (e.g. apt to teach), and items that are really both (e.g. hospitable). Now these positions obviously require a higher standard coram mundo than what is applied to laity. So it’s not an explicit requirement that all Christian men be monogamous. Nevertheless, there is no other entry on theses list that ordinary Christian men are morally exempt from.

We are all to be sober, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, etc. These are all things every Christian man ought to aspire to and strive for. There is no Scriptural reason to place “Husband of one wife” in a different category. They are higher standards for church workers because every Christian is a sinner, and sanctification is a lifelong process. If a man is not sufficiently there yet, then he shouldn’t be put in charge. Nevertheless, recent converts, men who have lapsed, and the like are still to be morally reformed through the teaching of God’s Word in all of these respects.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but these are the passages of Scripture that came to my mind first. None of them are a blatant “thou shalt not marry a second wife.” But together I think they make it clear that polygamy is an evil of a fallen world which Christians ought to resist. But before I address some possible objections to my case, I do want to make two caveats:

First, this case against polygamy is a matter of moral wisdom, not a moral absolute. In other words, it is possible for there to be real exceptions in exceptional circumstances. I would compare the matter to divorce or contraception. I have no problem saying that both of these things are great evils. Nevertheless, I also acknowledge that there are Biblical exceptions in which divorce is not counted as a moral infraction, namely abandonment and adultery. Likewise, though the vast majority of our uses for contraception are blatantly sinful (fornicating freely, hating children, breaking the golden rule, etc.) there are a handful of cases in which it could be considered legitimate medicine (for example, when a wife belatedly discovers that pregnancy would be fatal to both her and her unborn child.) But beware, because exceptions are exceptional–by their nature, it is quite unlikely that they apply to you.

Second, this case against polygamy is with respect to marrying additional wives. It is not my contention that having two wives puts one in some kind of state of perpetual adultery. It’s not as though the 2nd marriage were not a real marriage or that one has a duty to divorce once he realizes the immorality of polygamy. Divorcing a faithful spouse, after all, is an even greater evil. We repent of our sins, but we cannot always undo them–anymore than one could undo a past of fornication and debauchery.

With that clarified, let’s move on to some objections.

What about the Old Testament kings and Patriarchs?

Certainly, many of them had multiple wives, and we don’t consider them unrepentant sinners because of it. Nevertheless, we do consider them to be sinners in general; their actions aren’t universally endorsed by Scripture. True, God never calls any of them on the carpet over their polygamy. But then, God directly calling out anyone in an explicit and visible way is a relatively rare event–even for the patriarchs. We often think of the Old Testament as wall-to-wall miracles, but that’s only due to the nature of the writing. We only get a few pages in between times God talks to Abraham. Abraham got a few decades.

It’s also true that we never see them repenting over their polygamy either. But then, I doubt they realized all of their moral failings anymore than I realize all of mine–especially things so normalized by one’s culture. If our status as a Christian required us to be cognizant of our every failing, then no one would be saved. So the mere fact of Patriarchal polygamy isn’t compelling license by itself.

The Patriarchs were also a lot more likely to find themselves in exceptional circumstances. Abraham took Hagar essentially as a concubine at Sarah’s behest in order to make God’s promise of a child happen (I don’t think we can commend Abraham for that episode, though.) Jacob contracted to marry Rachel, but was swindled into marrying Leah instead. He then fulfilled his original engagement. As for his other wives, he took his first two wives’ maids as concubines in submission to their impulsiveness. (Again, I don’t think we can really commend Jacob for that choice. In Genesis, “He listened to his wife” never ends well.)

David, a man after God’s own heart, certainly had multiple wives. However, he also continually gained, lost, and regained them his entire life–generally due to his anointing as king in one way or another. Once again, we find that his circumstances were truly exceptional. How often does God just strike a woman’s husband dead because he insulted you and you may want to take responsibility for this new widow you’ve made who just went far our of her way to assist you as king? How often are you thrown into exile and your wife is forcibly married to someone else? How often do you receive wives as inheritance, spoils of war, or tokens of political alliance?

The wives of David and Israel’s other kings are inextricably wrapped up in a vocation that is largely alien to the modern mind. It is in that context which we must understand God’s comment to David through Nathan, “I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms… and if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.” God is explicitly speaking about David’s inheritance of the kingship.  Certainly his multiple wives were declared to be good gifts of God, but that is in keeping with David’s office. We cannot therefore conclude that God approves of polygamy per se just because He counted David’s as a gift.

God has often blessed individuals, nations, and the world even through the sins of men. Jesus’ family tree, for example, includes both incest (Ruth was a Moabite) and prostitution (Judah and… Tamar?) but we can hardly consider that a mark of God’s approval. As Joseph wisely said of his brothers, “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Between that and David’s unique vocation, his polygamy is adequately explained without resorting to some broad permissibility.

To be sure, it’s not our place to retroactively judge David or Jacob on matters of moral wisdom. We are too far removed from their lives to do so adequately. Nevertheless, it is out place to decide whether or not it’s right to follow their examples in our own lives based on the wisdom God has given to us. When it comes to polygamy, I see no Godly wisdom to commend it as good or right today.

Didn’t Luther endorse bigamy?

The question of polygamy is not a new one in the Lutheran tradition. The Reformation was also a time of great change, and occasionally, people had suggested polygamy as one of them. There are several cases in which figures like Luther and Melanchthon refused to forbid a man from taking another wife.

One of them was with respect to a man whose wife became incapable of intercourse due to illness and sought a second wife for the sake of children and his chastity. That is where we get Luther’s infamous quote, “I confess that I cannot forbid a man from marrying several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture.” But that quote is not the full story. Luther wrote this as advice to the husband’s ruler–on whether to allow his desire to legally stand or not. The husband in question had already received permission in his spiritual counsel from Andreas Carlstadt (who later broke from the Lutherans and became a notorious radical.) Luther’s advice to the husband’s ruler is simply to not interfere with what had already transpired. The larger quote is this:

The husband must be sure and convinced in his own conscience by means of the Word of God that it is lawful in his case. Therefore let him seek out such men as may convince him by the Word of God, whether Carlstadt, or some other, matters not at all to the Prince. For if the fellow is not sure of his case, then the permission of the Prince will not make him so; nor is it for the Prince to decide on this point, for it is the priests business to expound the Word of God, and, as Zacharias says, from their lips the Law of the Lord must be learned. I, for my part, admit I can raise no objection if a man wishes to take several wives since Holy Scripture does not forbid this; but I should not like to see this example introduced amongst Christians. … It does not beseem Christians to seize greedily and for their own advantage on every thing to which their freedom gives them a right. … No Christian surely is so God-forsaken as not to be able to practice continence when his partner, owing to the Divine dispensation, proves unfit for matrimony. Still, we may well let things take their course.

This is not a statement of license for polygamy. It is a statement of political tolerance in a particular case–entirely in keeping with the argument I’ve laid out thus far.

Another better-known example of Luther permitting bigamy is in regards to Phillip of Hesse, a German prince and supporter of the Reformation who sought another wife because he hated his first wife and continually fled from her into fornication. He nagged Luther for years on the issue, even leveraging political pressure against him. Eventually, Luther wished to quietly concede the point and permit it.

However, the fact that Luther wished to concede the point quietly is really all you need to know on the matter. Luther was not exactly known for shrinking away from making controversial public statements. The fact that he himself was so uncomfortable with that private judgment should be a huge red flag for us. At best, in the course of pastoral council, he allowed bigamy in what he believed was an extraordinary circumstance. At worst, it was a rare example of Luther caving to political pressure despite his reputation for resisting it. You may judge the matter for yourself, but neither of these constitutes a blessing of polygamy.

Instead, let’s consider an earlier (and better) statement from Luther to Phillip on the subject:

As regards the other matter, my faithful warning and advice is that no man, Christians in particular, should have more than one wife, not only for the reason that offense would be given, and Christians must not needlessly give, but most diligently avoid giving, offense, but also for the reason that we have no word of God regarding this matter on which we might base a belief that such action would be well-pleasing to God and to Christians. Let heathen and Turks do what they please. Some of the ancient fathers had many wives, but they were urged to this by necessity, as Abraham and Jacob, and later many kings, who according to the law of Moses obtained the wives of their friends, on the death of the latter, as an inheritance. The example of the fathers is not a sufficient argument to convince a Christian: he must have, in addition, a divine word that makes him sure, just as they had a word of that kind from God. For where there was no need or cause, the ancient fathers did not have more than one wife, as Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and many others. For this reason I cannot advise for, but must advise against, your intention, particularly since you are a Christian, unless there were an extreme necessity, as, for instance, if the wife were leprous or the husband were deprived of her for some other reason. On what grounds to forbid other people such marriages I know not.

That, I believe, is where the matter truly stands. We should never broadly say “polygamy is not a sin” anymore than we should broadly say “divorce is not a sin.” The rule is that it is a sin; it’s only in the exceptions that it may be permissible. At best, it can be tolerated in certain circumstances.

We have been blessed to have lived in a civilization where polygamy has long been unthinkable, and we are cursed to now be losing that civilization due to our own sin. But in the chaos of one age passing into another, let us not allow bizarre circumstances or worldly pressures to cause us to forget God’s Word and design. Neither let us take an absence of moral command as a license to flout moral wisdom.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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4 Responses to A Biblical Case Against Polygamy

  1. Joseph Quent says:

    Does not “rejoice in the wife of thy youth” rather mean “don’t divorce her just because she got fat and old” rather than “don’t add more”? Especially coming from Solomon who had thousands.

    • Matt says:

      I think “don’t replace her with another wife” (with or without divorce) and “don’t sideline/supplement her” fall into the same fundamental sense of the instruction. And again, the use of a singular “wife” is all the more significant coming from Solomon who had thousands.

  2. Matthew Etzell says:

    I have read that Leviticus 18:18 is a direct prohibition of polygamy. The verse is normally understood as only prohibiting a man from marrying his wife’s sister while his wife is still alive. However, from what I have read argued elsewhere, this is a misunderstanding of the original Hebrew in that it uses a word-for-word translation of an idiomatic phrase which describes the joining of two like things (including things which are not alive, such as the curtains of the Tabernacle). Thus, when Leviticus 18:18 forbids marrying a woman and her sister, the prohibition isn’t limited to the woman’s literal sister, but extends to other women in general.

    Additionally, there is a grammatical difference between Leviticus 18:6-17 and Leviticus 18:18-23, indicating that these are two distinct sets of laws, the former dealing with prohibiting sexual relationships among close kin, and the latter addressing sexual acts which are prohibited regardless of kinship.

    Finally, note that the reason given for the prohibition in Leviticus 18:18 is to avoid rivalry between wives, a situation not limited to literal sisters.

  3. Malcolm Smith says:

    Why was polygamy permitted in the OT? The short answer is that, as with divorce, it was a concession to human weakness. The long answer is that it provided protection for women. Yes! Remember other aspects of the Mosaic Law. A workman must be paid every day – not once a fortnight as with us – because he needed the money on a day to day basis. If a man took another’s outer garment as a guarantee for a loan, he must return it at night, otherwise the poor fellow would have nothing to sleep in. In the ancient world, many people lived on the edge. Added to this the fact that many men were killed in war, and we have the situation whereby a woman was often left with the choice of either sharing a rich man, or having a destitute man, or none at all.
    At least by NT times the Jews had developed a system of public charity for those unable to care for themselves, and the church also found a way to support surplus women.
    Also, although no-one would accuse the Herods of being models of virtue, it might be noted that, although Herod the Great was a polygamist, his sons weren’t.

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