There are instances in which polygamy is expressly condemned (e.g. Solomon). However, if you digest the entire context in these situations you will notice that the condemnation of the Lord is rooted in how the multiple marriages could tamper with the heart affections of the individual by fostering affection for the gods of their partner(s). Therefore, it is for spiritual adultery – which is a violation of the covenantal agreement between the individual Jew and God, that a polygamous lifestyle is expressly condemned and not simply marrying more than one woman. Similarly, marrying non-Israelites would infringe on the same covenantal hopes for future obedience due to having a double-minded allegiance. The foreign women had covenant(s) with their gods and were, therefore, incompatible with entering into a “one flesh” marriage with the people of Israel. The issue was not “how many wives” but where does the spiritual allegiance of the wives stand. We see this more clearly in the life of Moses. In Numbers 12:1-10, Moses is being ridiculed for marrying a “Cushite woman” – the Hebrew term broadly referring to the countries of the Upper Nile south of Egypt. In a narrower sense, Cush consisted of the territory between the 2nd and 4th cataracts of the Nile, roughly the present northern Sudan. The OT generally uses the term in that sense. The Greeks called this land Ethiopia and eventually, this is the name that identifies the land today although farther to the south and east. Moses is never condemned or rebuked by the Lord for marrying a non-Israelite. Why? Marrying a non-Israelite was not THE issue to the Lord. The issue was one of keeping the covenantal agreement and not allowing the heart affections for Him to be altered through allegiance to a marriage partner who worshiped other gods. If a non-Israelite did pledge allegiance to the covenant made with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob they were, seemingly, accepted and brought into the faith community of Israel, being protected and defended by God Himself as a fellow covenant-keeper even though he or she was not an Israelite as exemplified by Miriam (sister of Moses), being struck with leprosy for condemning Moses in marrying a Cushite (see Numb. 12:9-15).
Again, the thrust of the Old Testament storyline is centered on and directly related to the various covenants between God and Israel. Therefore, it is incredibly helpful to see the Old Testament stories with the framework of a covenantal relationship as a backdrop for various unique social and religious constructs (slavery, rituals, etc.) including polygamy. It is within this framework that God’s neglect to cite polygamy as a dastardly action becomes more understandable. Similarly, it also addresses why God does not address all shortcomings and sinful actions of Israel that He could cite (e.g. slavery and uniquely harsh punishments such as a child being stoned for “talking back” to their parent, etc.).
The recording of the Old Testament is focused on the particular agreements – the covenant standards (“promises”) within a particular time period. Again, if God were to cite all the things He could cite regarding the wrongs done by the people of Israel we would have an Old Testament that could not be contained in the Library of Congress. However, since God’s relationship with Israel (as well as Gentile converts) revolved around His covenantal agreements and, primarily, His covenantal faithfulness in light of Israel’s unfaithfulness, we are given just enough information to support that storyline. A storyline that is created to make Jesus the hero because He is the great covenant Maker and the incredible covenant Keeper all in one. Therefore, we need to understand that just because God does not condemn some action in the Old Testament (i.e. polygamy) it does not mean that he was indifferent to it or sponsoring it in the sense of His original intent.
With the previous information serving as a backdrop, I believe there are three reasons why I believe polygamy would be wrong for us to practice today.
Jesus’ teaching on marriage
I would argue that the outlook that Jesus operated by was rooted within the covenantal framework of the Old Testament briefly outlined above. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, it is the heart that matters most. Jesus taught the core truth that obedience that God desires rises from a love for God and not simply a standard from God. The external rituals of “keeping the Law” that most Jews and religious leaders operated under could not possibly approach the righteous standard God the Father demanded and desired. Only Jesus could live such a life and thereby offer a New Covenant facilitated by His life and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We see these two contrary views clash in the interactions between the Pharisees and Jesus involving marriage. Fascinatingly, the Pharisee’s are looking for a “right or wrong” answer concerning divorce and remarriage while Jesus responds within a covenantal framework that provides for His answer in the immediate context but provides the blueprint for all genuine marriages and anything that would deviate from this standard created from the very beginning of creation would violate God’s intent and definition of marriage:
And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. 2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together let not man separate.” Mark 10:1-10.
Within the answer that Jesus provides, we see the blueprint for marriage – a promise or vow of commitment of one man and one woman toward each other with their entire being – heart, soul, body, mind, and will to become single-minded in their effort to spread the fame of God throughout all of creation. They would do this under the covenantal Lordship of their God, their Creator. Therefore, while the Pharisees simply want a “right or wrong” answer, Jesus provides the blueprint for all marriages. Incredibly, Jesus’ reply provides not simply an answer, but a complete paradigm on which all marriages should be constructed and, therefore, eliminates any other pattern that may deviate from His original covenantal framework. This would include polygamy, polyandry, homosexual marriage, etc.
Additionally, during another tussle with the Pharisees regarding divorce, Jesus again refers back to the original blueprint for marriage enshrined at creation and gives us a crystal clear reason as to why God allowed a deviation from this standard – “because of your hardness of heart.”
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him:
“Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 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’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He 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 19:3-8
Clearly, God never intended or wanted divorce to shatter the standard enshrined at creation, however, due to the human condition God allowed it via Moses. In other words, the allowance for a thing (divorce) is not the promotion or acceptance of that thing. It is reasonable to assume that polygamy would also be a type of “allowance” within the marriage context because polygamy is a deviation from the ideal standard of marriage between one man and one woman enshrined by God at creation.
Paul’s teaching on marriage
In dealing with sexual immorality at Corinth, Paul refers back to the original design by God for marriage when he says, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh” (I Cor. 6:16). The Apostle Paul aligns his understanding of the God-intended marriage as an extension of the teaching of Jesus – the one man and one woman standard, as THE final standard for gender and amount of people entering into a marriage covenant. In this case, the expression of sexuality that is to be uniquely confined to the marriage union and, therefore, sexual activity with a prostitute is sinful. Therefore, surely polygamy would be a violation of Paul’s understanding of marriage given his appeal to Gen. 2.
Paul’s teaching to Timothy regarding the qualifications of an Elder
In Paul’s instruction to Timothy regarding the type of character he should look for in a person qualifying to be an elder, there is a curious standard that he must be the husband of one wife (I Timothy 3:2b). Assumedly, this could naturally be interpreted that other believers could have more than one wife, be polygamous. I believe there are two reasons why this cannot be used to support polygamous marriage.
- Paul’s previous teaching in Corinth (cited above) clearly exposes us to Paul’s understanding of a one man for one woman understanding of marriage in Gen 2. However, let’s consider that Paul was allowing for polygamy among the believers other than elders. Would this not create a contradiction in categories – a “regular” Christian in Ephesus is allowed to have multiple wives while an Elder must only have one wife? There is simply no basis for creating this categorical dichotomy between the leadership and believers in the church. In other words, if polygamy is wrong for church officers then it is wrong for everybody.
- By extension to the previous point, the character qualities in a prospective elder are also the very same character qualities for all Christians, just in increasing measure (i.e. “mature”); it would make no sense at all to create another with marriage to one woman as a stipulation as a qualification indicating maturity. If this were what Paul is teaching, then would this not incite people to pursue a divorce in order to become an Elder? Can you imagine a person coming to salvation from a pagan background, growing to maturity in the faith, desiring and gifted to be an Elder, and yet having to divorce his wife in order to qualify for the office of an elder? If we are to believe that polygamy was acceptable to Paul, just not to men serving in the office of Elder, then this is the dynamic that is being tacitly espoused. It simply makes no good sense to believe that this teaching would be endorsed by the Apostle Paul.
The imagery of God’s covenant relationship with Israel.
As previously mentioned, within the very institution of marriage created by God, when a man commits to a woman and a woman to a man, they are making a covenant to be faithful to one another. For a man to marry more than one woman or for a woman to marry more than one man is a violation of the exclusive commitment to one another. The very nature of the marriage union is broken. In the Old Testament, we see this imagery of “one meant for one” expressed when the (one) bride of Israel commits “adultery” with other nations. Similarly, we see the (one) Groom claiming His (one) Bride – Israel. Polygamy in this case violates the imagery of God as expressed between Himself and His people. The very notion of having multiple “marriages” involving other nations was the basis for God’s displeasure and the expressed reason for Israel’s Babylonian captivity. Simply stated, polygamy is a deviation from the heavenly vision that God had in His unique relationship with Israel and Israel (was supposed to have) to God.
The imagery of Christ as husband and the Church as His bride.
The imagery contained in Paul’s writing to the church at Ephesus can only be expressed and sustained within the one-man/one-woman dynamic of marriage.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:21-33
Did you happen to notice Paul’s reference to Gen., 2 in v. 31 along with the connection that this God-ordained institution of one man for one woman was part of the unfolding mystery of Christ’s future coming for His Church, the bride of Christ? Again, God’s original intent in the creative order of the one-man for one-woman marriage covenant was a vivid depiction of an intimate and holistic picture of the union (body, soul, spirit, mind, will) between Christ and His Church. The notion of marriage involving multiple wives (polygamy) or multiple husbands (polyandry) or same-sex partners violates the very core of the Gospel imagery contained in this passage. Simply put, any arrangement that deviates from the one-man/one-woman commitment to a lifelong union together violates both the explicit and implicit teaching of the Bible from the beginning of creation to the culmination of the joining together of Christ and His Church for eternity as expressed in the Gospel. The marriage union of one man with one woman is THE supporting analogy that Paul employs to convey the union between Christ and His Church. If Paul would have espoused polygamy on any level, it would destroy the teaching given in Ephesians 5:21-33. Again, it simply makes no sense to believe Paul would ever teach any marriage form deviating from the one man for one woman covenant of marriage.
The Bible consists of stories, which rotate around the centerpiece of God’s glory in redeeming fallen humanity. It is this love-inspired, Glory-revealing redemptive meta-story of God that is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that provides for us a framework for life. As we keep this truth as our focal point, we can manage all of the “issues” within the story (e.g. polygamy) by assigning the appropriate weight and emphasis in support of the story. To do anything other than this is to obscure the person and work of Jesus Christ.