What Does the Bible Say About Polygamy?
Debate Notice: Well-known Mormon polygamist Leland Freeborn debates Bob Enyart, the author of this article and pastor of Denver Bible Church.
What does the Bible say about polygamy? And while Christians should oppose polygamy, why did it occur so often in Scripture?
God officiated the first marriage by creating one woman for Adam. In establishing marriage He stated that "a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen 2:24). In the New Testament, Jesus clarified this by saying, "the two shall become one flesh" and He then emphasized that by repeating, "they are no longer two, but one" (Mark 10:8). Further, the nearly balanced birth ratio of boys and girls provides evidence that God designed human beings for monogamy. For otherwise, if the world's culture did not enforce one-man, one-woman marriage, then if the richer men, and the more handsome men, and the more powerful men, took two and three wives each or more, then today there would simply be no women available for hundreds of millions of other men to even propose to. On the other hand, the Bible has many references, negative, neutral, and even positive, to polygamy. Why then do Christians stand almost unanimously against a man simultaneously having two or more wives?
New Testament: No known New Testament believer lived in polygamy and a careful look at Scripture indicates directly that, by New Testament times, polygamy was not considered acceptable moral behavior. How so? The standards of morality (like self-control and humility) for bishops, elders, and deacons in the epistles of Timothy and Titus apply not only to church leaders, but to all Christians. Atheists and other Bible critics claim that verses like those cited below imply that polygamy was allowed by the New Testament apostle Paul for ordinary Christians, because he prohibited it only for leaders. If that interpretation were valid, however, then Paul was also saying that generally it would be fine for Christians to be violent, greedy for money, quarrelsome, and have unruly children, which is nonsense. Paul's standards for elders can not conceivably support such a twisted claim. And likewise, the Bible's command against adultery with a neighbor's wife does not permit adultery with a neighbor's husband. That kind of error illustrates a false antithesis like the logical fallacy of the excluded middle, what KGOV.com calls the "false opposite." Just because the text speaks of wives, does not infer that the principle is inapplicable to husbands. Likewise, because Paul prohibits being violent for leaders does not mean that he supports it for followers. For Paul wrote that church leaders:
must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence... 1 Timothy 3:2-5
The primary difference between church members and church leaders is that, in order to be appointed a leader and maintain that office in good standing, a church leader must actually live the Christian life. The prohibition of polygamy in the New Testament for church leaders does not present a "higher" standard of holiness for bishops, for there is only one standard of holiness: being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. As presented in the epistles, holiness includes sober living and self-control. Are these behaviors only recommended for pastors, whereas other church members are permitted to drunken outbursts of anger? No. When the biblical standards for elders prohibit polygamy and require leading an orderly household, does that mean that God is satisfied with others having disorderly households and permits them to raise disrespectful children?
The biblical requirement that a church leader be the husband of one wife translates literally from the Greek phrase as a one-woman man. That idiomatic expression for monogamy also serves as a general condemnation of promiscuity. This is important to realize. For otherwise, the Bible's qualifications for leaders would have omitted reference to and warning against what is, sadly, one of the leading disqualifiers to leadership, namely, sexual immorality. However, the scriptures do address such immorality by way of this dual-purpose expression. An elder must be a one-woman man, that is, not a polygamist, not an adulterer, not a womanizer. One-womanness, so-to-speak, had essentialy become an idiomatic expression capturing the entire range of sexual purity.
...not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. 1 Timothy 3:6-12
Notice two things about the two passages, in Timothy and Titus, that present leadership standards. The Old Testament is not mostly about Gentiles, but mostly about Israel (including regarding polygamy). Contrariwise, the two passages in the Bible that explain the standards for leadership, not in Israel, but in the Body of Christ, are both written by the Apostle Paul. For as he wrote, to those of us who are Gentiles, "you Gentiles—if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you..." (Ephesians 3:1-2). So first, whereever the law changed between Israel and the Body, between the Covenant of Law and the Covenant of Grace, expect to find indications of that change especially in Paul's writings, through whom God commanded us to "rightly divide the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Thus, whereas God commanded the Israelites to divorce their wives who were outside of God's covenant, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, God inspires Paul to prohibit members of the Body of Christ from divorcing unbelieving spouses (thus Paul taught this, and not Jesus, for Jesus was sent only ot the lost sheep of the house of Israel). Secondly, notice that, after the first requirement, which is a generic overview, of being "blameless", both of Paul's passages, to Timothy and to Titus, begin with one-womanness, that is, with being a one-woman-man, or, as translated, "the husband of one wife":
...appoint elders in every city as I commanded you— if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. Titus 1:5-9
Similarly, in the Mosaic Law, there is not a higher standard of holiness for priests, although God does impose upon them various symbolic ordinances to point forward to the great high priest, Jesus Christ. For, just like the standards for bishops and deacons, the Levitical priesthood could not require a higher standard of holiness because the only valid standard of holiness, for all believers, is God Himself. There can be no standard higher than Him. Three times Luke refers to Him as the Highest. What then of the qualifications for the priesthood? The Bible student can easily identify the symbolism in the priestly regulations of Leviticus 21, and realizes that they do not infer something that does not and cannot exist, namely, a higher standard of righteousness:
|No blind priests||In Jesus the blind see (John 9:7)|
|No lame priests||In Jesus the lame walk (John 5:9)|
|Do not tear clothes||Jesus’ robe is not torn (John 19:24)|
|No broken hands/feet||Jesus’ bones were not broken (Ps. 34:20; 22:17; John 19:33)|
though his hands and feet were pierced (Ps. 22:16)
|Do not marry a harlot||Don’t join Christ to a harlot (1 Cor. 6:15)|
|No divorcees/widows||Christ’s Bride is a virgin (Mat. 25:1)|
|No eunuchs||Christians should multiply (Mat. 28:19; 13:23)|
|Defective eye||Jesus gives eye salve (Rev. 3:18)|
|Covered head||Jesus is the head (1 Cor. 11:3)|
|Always in the sanctuary||Jesus ever lives to make intercession (Heb. 7:24-25)|
|Do not touch the dead||Jesus frees from death, and the sting of sin is death (1 Cor. 15)|
The qualifications and regulations for priests do not imply a higher standard of righteousness, for there is no such thing. Therefore also, because there can be no higher standard of righteousness for church leaders, the New Testament's prohibition for polygamy among church leaders applies also to all believers: thus traditional Christian teaching opposes thievery, murder, polygamy, drunkenness, etc.
Old Testament: Polygamy was widespread among God's people, including the great patriarchs of the faith. While polygamy is not affirmed in the New Testament, it occurred in many cultures and polygamy was practiced by Old Testament beleivers and others including Lamech, Abraham, Esau, Jacob, Ashur, Gideon, Elkanah, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Jehoram, Joash (Jehoiada), Ahab, Jehoiachin, Belshazzar, and Ahasuerus. Further, the Mosaic Law specifically permitted polygamy at Exodus 21:10, Leviticus 19:20 and Deuteronomy 21:15-17.
After the Fall, the paradise faded and sin and its consequences pervaded all aspects of the human experience, from marriage and child raising to commerce, and so on. God responded, for example, by permitting child discipline including spanking, which would not have been so from the beginning. He instituted and regulated criminal justice including restitution, flogging and the death penalty. In family law God regulated divorce (Ezra 10:3; Deut. 24:1; Mat. 5:32; etc.). These consequences of the Fall were not so from the beginning (Mat. 19:8), that is, they do not reflect God's original design for innocent mankind. As Jesus said, God permitted divorce, "for sexual immorality" (Mat. 5:32; 19:9; etc.) which includes abandonment (1 Cor. 7:4, 15, 9, 27-28; Ex. 21:10-11) for the marriage covenant is destroyed by sexual immorality which includes abandonment.
Thus God regulated behaviors that He had not originally designed: spanking, the death penalty, polygamy, slavery, etc. (See for example this author's article on Slavery in the Bible and God and the Death Penalty.) But why would God permit polygamy in Old Testament times? After the global Flood, the earth was such a hostile and lawless place that women simply could not survive on their own. A woman effectively had only four options:
1. live in her father's house
2. live in her husband's house
3. live as a slave
4. live as a harlot
Outside of living in one of these options, a woman faced only death. God permitted polygamy and concubinage, which is an expansion of option two above, out of mercy to women and because of the wonderful and intense desire He put within women to raise children. As in Scripture (and implied by scant secular archaeological extra-biblical references), in the centuries after the Flood life expectancies plummeted. (Incidentally, plummeting life expectancies explain why Egypt's Pharaohs spent their lives and their massive wealth building pyramid tombs while obsessing about their deaths, and they thereby set a precedent which other emperors later mimicked to show their grandeur.) Postdiluvian fathers died younger and younger, and the ruins of ancient walled cities still testify how commonplace was the mass killing of men from plundered villages. Yet a woman simply needed a man to survive. Thus Scripture never permitted polyandry, whereby a woman would have multiple husbands. However out of mercy toward women, God regulated polygamy.
By the time of the New Testament, mankind had progressed sufficiently that even though a woman would still have a hard time surviving on her own, she could be supported by the infrastructure around her, not governmental though, as with Nimrod and Marx, but by her extended family, fellow church members, friends and neighbors. Thus the standards of acceptable behavior for all men, as revealed by God through the writings of the Apostle Paul, standards that must be adhered to among church leaders, include self control, sobriety, and being at-most, "the husband of one wife."
By Bob Enyart
See Also: See Pastor Enyart's article on Slavery in the Bible and his debate with a well-known Mormon polygamist Leland Freeborn. Also, hear Bob Enyart's interview with Newsweek's Lisa Miller, rebutting her cover story about homosexual marriage during which Bob caught her red-handed, having intentionally misrepresented the Bible when instead of quoting Scripture directly, Ms. Miller quoted a secondary source that she knew to be incorrect.