What Does The Bible Say About Polygamy? How Should The Church Handle Polygamists Within Its Fold?

(All Bible quotations, except otherwise stated, are from the New Century Version).

Anthropologically, polygamy is defined as marriage between one person and two or more spouses simultaneously. It exists in two main forms: polygyny, where one man is married to several women, and polyandry, where one woman is married to several men (Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen, International Encyclopedia of Anthropology). For the purpose of this article, we will consider only polygyny, and will use the term “polygamy” to mean “polygyny”, in line with popular practice. Polyandry will not be considered any further here, because it is anathema to the Judeo-Christian faith.

Orthodox Christianity frowns upon polygamy, and insists on the union of one man and one woman as God’s ideal marriage scenario. A polygamist from a non-Christian culture who gets converted to Christianity is naturally confused on how to handle his multiple wives as a Christian. Some denominations insist such a man should put away all other wives, and retain only the first one (who is considered to be his only legal wife), while others believe the polygamist can still live legitimately with his multiple wives as a Christian, but cannot hold any leadership position in the church. What’s the biblical view on polygamy? How should the church handle polygamists within its fold? We shall attempt to answer these questions through a careful examination of the Scriptures.

The first record of polygamy in the Bible involved Lamech, a seventh-generation descendant of Adam, from the lineage of Cain. Lamech is recorded in the Scriptures to have married two women, Adah and Zillah. It’s instructive to note that the practice of polygamy started early in human history (the seventh generation from the first man Adam). Interestingly, there’s no record in the Scriptures of divine rebuke for Lamech’s act. We saw God’s swift response in the condemnation of murder as a sin when Cain killed Abel. However, we do not see a similar divine reaction when Lamech married a second wife. All we are left with here are conjectures and innuendos with respect to the divine response to polygamy. But we must have a clear divine injunction on this issue before we can draw an unbiased conclusion on the divine will concerning polygamy. We will have to look at other instances in Scriptures to draw any reasonable conclusion on God’s perception of polygamy.

Genesis 4:16 So Cain went away from the Lord and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Genesis 4:17 He had sexual relations with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. At that time Cain was building a city, which he named after his son Enoch.

Genesis 4:18 Enoch had a son named Irad, Irad had a son named Mehujael, Mehujael had a son named Methushael, and Methushael had a son named Lamech.

Genesis 4:19 Lamech married two women, Adah and Zillah.

Next, we see Abraham, God’s friend and father of faith and of many nations, dabbling into some form of polygamy. Encouraged by his wife Sarah (then Sarai), Abraham (then Abram) made a concubine of his house maid Hagar, who conceived by him and gave birth to Ishmael. In the old testament, concubines were secondary wives upon whose heads dowry was never paid, but who agreed to live with a man as his wife and to have sexual relations with him. Nowhere did we see God condemning Abraham’s act of taking Hagar as a concubine. Rather, we see God promising to bless the product of that union, Ishmael, and to make him great. Even when Hagar initially ran away from Abraham’s home following maltreatment by Sarah, the angel of God told her to go back to her home and be subject to her mistress Sarah. Although God eventually told Abraham to cast Hagar and her son out (because they were making a mockery of Isaac the promised son), God did not condemn Abraham’s union with Hagar specifically. Here again, we do not see an outright divine rejection of polygamy or a blunt condemnation of it.

Genesis 16:1 Sarai, Abram’s wife, had no children, but she had a slave girl from Egypt named Hagar.

Genesis 16:2 Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the Lord has not allowed me to have children, so have sexual relations with my slave girl. If she has a child, maybe I can have my own family through her.”
Abram did what Sarai said.

Genesis 16:3 It was after he had lived ten years in Canaan that Sarai gave Hagar to her husband Abram. (Hagar was her slave girl from Egypt.)

Genesis 16:4 Abram had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When Hagar learned she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress Sarai badly.

Genesis 16:5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “This is your fault. I gave my slave girl to you, and when she became pregnant, she began to treat me badly. Let the Lord decide who is right—you or me.”

Genesis 16:6 But Abram said to Sarai, “You are Hagar’s mistress. Do anything you want to her.” Then Sarai was hard on Hagar, and Hagar ran away.

Genesis 16:7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the desert, by the road to Shur.

Genesis 16:8 The angel said, “Hagar, Sarai’s slave girl, where have you come from? Where are you going?”
Hagar answered, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

Genesis 16:9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Go home to your mistress and obey her.”

Genesis 16:10 The angel also said, “I will give you so many descendants they cannot be counted.”

Genesis 16:11 The angel added,
“You are now pregnant,
and you will have a son.
You will name him Ishmael,
because the Lord has heard your cries.

Genesis 16:12 Ishmael will be like a wild donkey.
He will be against everyone,
and everyone will be against him.
He will attack all his brothers.”

Genesis 16:13 The slave girl gave a name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are ‘God who sees me,’” because she said to herself, “Have I really seen God who sees me?”

Genesis 16:14 So the well there, between Kadesh and Bered, was called Beer Lahai Roi.

Genesis 16:15 Hagar gave birth to a son for Abram, and Abram named him Ishmael.

Genesis 16:16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael.

Genesis 21:8 Isaac grew, and when he became old enough to eat food, Abraham gave a great feast.

Genesis 21:9 But Sarah saw Ishmael making fun of Isaac. (Ishmael was the son of Abraham by Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave.)

Genesis 21:10 So Sarah said to Abraham, “Throw out this slave woman and her son. Her son should not inherit anything; my son Isaac should receive it all.”

Genesis 21:11 This troubled Abraham very much because Ishmael was also his son.

Genesis 21:12 But God said to Abraham, “Don’t be troubled about the boy and the slave woman. Do whatever Sarah tells you. The descendants I promised you will be from Isaac.

Genesis 21:13 I will also make the descendants of Ishmael into a great nation because he is your son, too.”

Genesis 21:14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a leather bag full of water. He gave them to Hagar and sent her away. Carrying these things and her son, Hagar went and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.

Genesis 21:15 Later, when all the water was gone from the bag, Hagar put her son under a bush.

Genesis 21:16 Then she went away a short distance and sat down. She thought, “My son will die, and I cannot watch this happen.” She sat there and began to cry.

Genesis 21:17 God heard the boy crying, and God’s angel called to Hagar from heaven. He said, “What is wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid! God has heard the boy crying there.

Genesis 21:18 Help him up and take him by the hand. I will make his descendants into a great nation.”

Genesis 21:19 Then God showed Hagar a well of water. So she went to the well and filled her bag with water and gave the boy a drink.

Genesis 21:20 God was with the boy as he grew up. Ishmael lived in the desert and became an archer.

Genesis 21:21 He lived in the Desert of Paran, and his mother found a wife for him in Egypt.

The next instance of polygamy in the Scriptures we’ll consider here involved Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. Jacob set out to marry one woman whom he loved (Rachel), but ended up with four wives! He was deceived into marrying Rachel’s elder sister (because it was against the custom of his in-laws to give out the younger daughter in marriage before the older one), and still ended up marrying Rachel as well. So, although it wasn’t his initial plan, Jacob had two sisters as his wives within seven days! Each of the sisters came into his house with her maid. Now, when both sisters at various times had problems conceiving, like Sarah, they gave out their maids to Jacob to bear children on their behalf. Both maids ended up as Jacob’s concubines or secondary wives. Again, we did not see divine condemnation of the act of polygamy here. No divine displeasure was revealed. God blessed the union of Jacob and his four wives who gave birth to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Genesis 29:15 Then Laban said to Jacob, “You are my relative, but it is not right for you to work for me without pay. What would you like me to pay you?”

Genesis 29:16 Now Laban had two daughters. The older was Leah, and the younger was Rachel.

Genesis 29:17 Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was very beautiful.

Genesis 29:18 Jacob loved Rachel, so he said to Laban, “Let me marry your younger daughter Rachel. If you will, I will work seven years for you.”

Genesis 29:19 Laban said, “It would be better for her to marry you than someone else, so stay here with me.”

Genesis 29:20 So Jacob worked for Laban seven years so he could marry Rachel. But they seemed like just a few days to him because he loved Rachel very much.

Genesis 29:21 After seven years Jacob said to Laban, “Give me Rachel so that I may marry her. The time I promised to work for you is over.”

Genesis 29:22 So Laban gave a feast for all the people there.

Genesis 29:23 That evening he brought his daughter Leah to Jacob, and they had sexual relations.

Genesis 29:24 (Laban gave his slave girl Zilpah to his daughter to be her servant.)

Genesis 29:25 In the morning when Jacob saw that he had had sexual relations with Leah, he said to Laban, “What have you done to me? I worked hard for you so that I could marry Rachel! Why did you trick me?”

Genesis 29:26 Laban said, “In our country we do not allow the younger daughter to marry before the older daughter.

Genesis 29:27 But complete the full week of the marriage ceremony with Leah, and I will give you Rachel to marry also. But you must serve me another seven years.”

Genesis 29:28 So Jacob did this, and when he had completed the week with Leah, Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

Genesis 29:29 (Laban gave his slave girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.)

Genesis 29:30 So Jacob had sexual relations with Rachel also, and Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Jacob worked for Laban for another seven years.

Genesis 30:1 When Rachel saw that she was not having children for Jacob, she envied her sister Leah. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”

Genesis 30:2 Jacob became angry with her and said, “Can I do what only God can do? He is the one who has kept you from having children.”

Genesis 30:3 Then Rachel said, “Here is my slave girl Bilhah. Have sexual relations with her so she can give birth to a child for me. Then I can have my own family through her.”

Genesis 30:4 So Rachel gave Bilhah, her slave girl, to Jacob as a wife, and he had sexual relations with her.

Genesis 30:5 She became pregnant and gave Jacob a son.

Genesis 30:6 Rachel said, “God has judged me innocent. He has listened to my prayer and has given me a son,” so she named him Dan.

Genesis 30:7 Bilhah became pregnant again and gave Jacob a second son.

Genesis 30:8 Rachel said, “I have struggled hard with my sister, and I have won.” So she named that son Naphtali.

Genesis 30:9 Leah saw that she had stopped having children, so she gave her slave girl Zilpah to Jacob as a wife.

Genesis 30:10 When Zilpah had a son,

Genesis 30:11 Leah said, “I am lucky,” so she named him Gad.

Genesis 30:12 Zilpah gave birth to another son,

Genesis 30:13 and Leah said, “I am very happy! Now women will call me happy,” so she named him Asher.

It wasn’t until the time of Moses that God made plain his mind concerning polygamy. In the Mosaic covenant, polygamy was accepted as normal, with laws laid out to regulate the practice. In the law, it was alright for a man to marry more than one woman, but the rights of the wives (especially the first one) were to be dutifully protected. Even if the first wife was not her husband’s favourite or was no longer loved, if she gave birth to the man’s first son, her son retained the rights of firstborn, and provisions for her upkeep must not be diminished under any circumstances. Thus, polygamy received divine acceptance and approval under the law, and any question or doubt about its legitimacy was finally put to rest among the Jews. Any man who wanted and had the means could marry as many women as he wished. However, the wives (especially the first one who was at greatest risk of neglect) must be properly taken care of, and each wife was to be treated justly and fairly. We even see some Levites (who worked as assistants to the priests and taught the people the law) having polygamous families. Elkanah, Samuel’s father, who was a Levite (1 Chronicles 6), had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, was the first wife, and though barren for a long time, never lost her husband’s love, though Peninnah the second wife had children before her. Also, under the law, if a married man died without having offsprings, his brother or next of kin (even though married) was to marry his widow and raise up kids for his late brother, to preserve the dead man’s name in Israel. This law obviously promoted polygamy as a means of perpetuating a family’s lineage.

Deuteronomy 21:15 A man might have two wives, one he loves and one he doesn’t. Both wives might have sons by him. If the older son belongs to the wife he does not love,

Deuteronomy 21:16 when that man wills his property to his sons he must not give the son of the wife he loves what belongs to the older son, the son of the wife he does not love.

Deuteronomy 21:17 He must agree to give the older son two shares of everything he owns, even though the older son is from the wife he does not love. That son was the first to prove his father could have children, so he has the rights that belong to the older son.

Deuteronomy 25:5 If two brothers are living together, and one of them dies without having a son, his widow must not marry someone outside her husband’s family. Her husband’s brother must marry her, which is his duty to her as a brother-in-law.

Deuteronomy 25:6 The first son she has counts as the son of the dead brother so that his name will not be forgotten in Israel.

Deuteronomy 25:7 But if a man does not want to marry his brother’s widow, she should go to the elders at the town gate. She should say, “My brother-in-law will not carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He refuses to do his duty for me.”

Deuteronomy 25:8 Then the elders of the town must call for the man and talk to him. But if he is stubborn and says, “I don’t want to marry her,”

Deuteronomy 25:9 the woman must go up to him in front of the leaders. She must take off one of his sandals and spit in his face and say, “This is for the man who won’t continue his brother’s family!”

Deuteronomy 25:10 Then that man’s family shall be known in Israel as the Family of the Unsandaled.

Exodus 21:7 “And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

Exodus 21:8 If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her.

Exodus 21:9 And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters.

Exodus 21:10 If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights.

Exodus 21:11 And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money (NKJV).

1 Samuel 1:1 There was a man named Elkanah son of Jeroham from Ramathaim in the mountains of Ephraim. Elkanah was from the family of Zuph. (Jeroham was Elihu’s son. Elihu was Tohu’s son, and Tohu was the son of Zuph from the family group of Ephraim.)

1 Samuel 1:2 Elkanah had two wives named Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.

1 Samuel 1:3 Every year Elkanah left his town of Ramah and went up to Shiloh to worship the Lord All-Powerful and to offer sacrifices to him. Shiloh was where Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, served as priests of the Lord.

1 Samuel 1:4 When Elkanah offered sacrifices, he always gave a share of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to her sons and daughters.

1 Samuel 1:5 But Elkanah always gave a special share of the meat to Hannah, because he loved Hannah and because the Lord had kept her from having children.

1 Samuel 1:6 Peninnah would tease Hannah and upset her, because the Lord had made her unable to have children.

With divine approval given to polygamy in the Mosaic Law, it became commonplace to see men of God and prophets like David (someone affectionately described as “a man after God’s heart”) marrying several women. When David sinned by committing adultery with a married woman when he was king of Israel, God rebuked him strongly, and even told him that if he had wanted more wives, he (God) would have given him, hence God’s anger at his taking another man’s wife. Solomon, David’s son through Bathsheba (David’s tenth wife perhaps, and formerly wife of Uriah), ended up as God’s favourite for the throne of Israel (after the reign of David), as well as Christ’s progeny (Matthew 1). Solomon became the greatest polygamist ever recorded in the Scriptures (and perhaps in history too!): he had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3)! Yet, Solomon was the wisest man that lived among men in his time, having received a special gift of wisdom from God (1 Kings 4:29-34). Polygamy was obviously nothing to worry about with the patriarchs!

The Acts 13:21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years.

The Acts 13:22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ’I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’ (NIV).

2 Samuel 3:1 There was a long war between the people who supported Saul’s family and those who supported David’s family. The supporters of David’s family became stronger and stronger, but the supporters of Saul’s family became weaker and weaker.

2 Samuel 3:2 Sons were born to David at Hebron. The first was Amnon, whose mother was Ahinoam from Jezreel.

2 Samuel 3:3 The second son was Kileab, whose mother was Abigail, the widow of Nabal from Carmel. The third son was Absalom, whose mother was Maacah daughter of Talmai, the king of Geshur.

2 Samuel 3:4 The fourth son was Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith. The fifth son was Shephatiah, whose mother was Abital.

2 Samuel 3:5 The sixth son was Ithream, whose mother was Eglah, David’s wife. These sons were born to David at Hebron.

2 Samuel 5:9 David then took up residence in the fortress and called it the City of David. He built up the area around it, from the terraces inward.

2 Samuel 5:10 And he became more and more powerful, because the LORD God Almighty was with him.

2 Samuel 5:11 Now Hiram king of Tyre sent envoys to David, along with cedar logs and carpenters and stonemasons, and they built a palace for David.

2 Samuel 5:12 Then David knew that the LORD had established him as king over Israel and had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.

2 Samuel 5:13 After he left Hebron, David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem, and more sons and daughters were born to him.

2 Samuel 5:14 These are the names of the children born to him there: Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon,

2 Samuel 5:15 Ibhar, Elishua, Nepheg, Japhia,
2 Samuel 5:16 Elishama, Eliada and Eliphelet (NIV).

2 Samuel 12:1 The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to David, he said, “There were two men in a city. One was rich, but the other was poor.

2 Samuel 12:2 The rich man had many sheep and cattle.

2 Samuel 12:3 But the poor man had nothing except one little female lamb he had bought. The poor man fed the lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food and drank from his cup and slept in his arms. The lamb was like a daughter to him.

2 Samuel 12:4 “Then a traveler stopped to visit the rich man. The rich man wanted to feed the traveler, but he didn’t want to take one of his own sheep or cattle. Instead, he took the lamb from the poor man and cooked it for his visitor.”

2 Samuel 12:5 David became very angry at the rich man. He said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this should die!

2 Samuel 12:6 He must pay for the lamb four times for doing such a thing. He had no mercy!”

2 Samuel 12:7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I appointed you king of Israel and saved you from Saul.

2 Samuel 12:8 I gave you his kingdom and his wives. And I made you king of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you even more.

2 Samuel 12:9 So why did you ignore the Lord’s command? Why did you do what he says is wrong? You killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the Ammonites and took his wife to be your wife!

2 Samuel 12:10 Now there will always be people in your family who will die by a sword, because you did not respect me; you took the wife of Uriah the Hittite for yourself!’

2 Samuel 12:11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘I am bringing trouble to you from your own family. While you watch, I will take your wives from you and give them to someone who is very close to you. He will have sexual relations with your wives, and everyone will know it.

2 Samuel 12:12 You had sexual relations with Bathsheba in secret, but I will do this so all the people of Israel can see it.’”

2 Samuel 12:13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan answered, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You will not die.

2 Samuel 12:14 But what you did caused the Lord’s enemies to lose all respect for him. For this reason the son who was born to you will die.”

2 Samuel 12:15 Then Nathan went home. And the Lord caused the son of David and Bathsheba, Uriah’s widow, to be very sick.

2 Samuel 12:16 David prayed to God for the baby. David fasted and went into his house and stayed there, lying on the ground all night.

2 Samuel 12:17 The elders of David’s family came to him and tried to pull him up from the ground, but he refused to get up or to eat food with them.

2 Samuel 12:18 On the seventh day the baby died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him that the baby was dead. They said, “Look, we tried to talk to David while the baby was alive, but he refused to listen to us. If we tell him the baby is dead, he may do something awful.”

2 Samuel 12:19 When David saw his servants whispering, he knew that the baby was dead. So he asked them, “Is the baby dead?”
They answered, “Yes, he is dead.”

2 Samuel 12:20 Then David got up from the floor, washed himself, put lotions on, and changed his clothes. Then he went into the Lord’s house to worship. After that, he went home and asked for something to eat. His servants gave him some food, and he ate.

2 Samuel 12:21 David’s servants said to him, “Why are you doing this? When the baby was still alive, you fasted and you cried. Now that the baby is dead, you get up and eat food.”

2 Samuel 12:22 David said, “While the baby was still alive, I fasted, and I cried. I thought, ‘Who knows? Maybe the Lord will feel sorry for me and let the baby live.’

2 Samuel 12:23 But now that the baby is dead, why should I fast? I can’t bring him back to life. Someday I will go to him, but he cannot come back to me.”

2 Samuel 12:24 Then David comforted Bathsheba his wife. He slept with her and had sexual relations with her. She became pregnant again and had another son, whom David named Solomon. The Lord loved Solomon.

2 Samuel 12:25 The Lord sent word through Nathan the prophet to name the baby Jedidiah, because the Lord loved the child.

The Lord Jesus Christ did not touch on the issue of polygamy when he came on the scene (there’s no record of that in the Gospels), because it was already a settled law in the Mosaic covenant, with no controversies surrounding it among the Jews, for they had accepted polygamy as divinely approved for whoever wanted to practice it. Like Jesus told us, he didn’t come to destroy the Mosaic law, but to fulfill it. Jesus was born as a Jew under the law, and lived and fulfilled the law in his lifetime. He even warned the Jews (to whom he exclusively ministered) against breaking the least precepts of the law and teaching men to do so, for such a person would be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven. Thus, in his lifetime and earthly ministry, Jesus taught and upheld the law. The law was only abolished after Christ’s death on the cross, after he had paid the ransom to deliver mankind from the curse of sin and death, and from the wrath of the law. But, while he lived, he taught and upheld the law. So, Jesus didn’t challenge polygamy as prescribed in the Mosaic law. The only issue he dealt with in relation to marriage that was recorded in the Gospels was the issue of divorce, not polygamy. When asked if a man could divorce his wife for any reason, in order to marry another woman, Jesus tried to make the people understand that God intended for marriage to be a lifelong union that should only be dissolved by the death of a partner. He was against divorce for frivolous reasons, as the Jews in his time were doing. Jesus was emphatic about the fact that except for sexual immorality, a monogamous man who divorced his wife to marry another woman was still legally bound to his first wife in the sight of God. Therefore, any new sexual relationship contracted by such a man was adulterous. But, what if a polygamous-inclined Jew, rather than divorce his wife, decided to take another woman as second wife? Would Jesus, as a Jew under the law, have considered that new marriage adulterous? Certainly not! Under the law, a Jewish man could choose to be monogamous or polygamous. If a monogamous man decided to divorce his wife for frivolous reasons (in order to marry another woman), that divorce was not acceptable before God. And because the marital bond still existed between such a mischievous man and his wife (in the sight of God), any other marriage contracted by him would be unlawful and adulterous. That’s what Jesus tried to explain to the people. The question he was asked wasn’t about the legality of polygamy among the Jews (which was a settled law) and so, his response should not be seen as a repudiation and an outlawing of polygamy among the Jews to whom he ministered.

St. Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

St. Matthew 5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

St. Matthew 5:19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (NIV).

Matthew 19:3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus and tried to trick him. They asked, “Is it right for a man to divorce his wife for any reason he chooses?”

Matthew 19:4 Jesus answered, “Surely you have read in the Scriptures: When God made the world, ‘he made them male and female.’

Matthew 19:5 And God said, ‘So a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one body.’

Matthew 19:6 So there are not two, but one. God has joined the two together, so no one should separate them.”

Matthew 19:7 The Pharisees asked, “Why then did Moses give a command for a man to divorce his wife by giving her divorce papers?”

Matthew 19:8 Jesus answered, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because you refused to accept God’s teaching, but divorce was not allowed in the beginning.

Matthew 19:9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman is guilty of adultery. The only reason for a man to divorce his wife is if his wife has sexual relations with another man.”

Some have argued that because Jesus made reference to Adam and Eve at the beginning, therefore he was holding out monogamy as God’s ideal, since at the beginning it was one man and one woman that were involved in marriage. Such people also maintain that it’s two people that are said to become one, not three or four or more. They’re certainly right about monogamy being God’s ideal marriage scenario. However, the issue of two people becoming one in marriage is not just achieved in monogamy only. In fact, any two people who have sexual relations are said to become one. Thus, even having sex with a prostitute is becoming one body with her! The “two becoming one” is in the context of sexual union, as the apostle Paul made us to understand. Thus, a polygamous man becomes one with each of his wives in sexual union. Adam obviously had no choice than to be monogamous, because there was only one woman created for him. That, no doubt, is God’s ideal marriage relationship. However, polygamy was adopted by some men when more women became available, and God ended up accepting it as another marriage option, although it was not his ideal option. Despite polygamy not being his ideal option for man, God allowed polygamy to operate under his permissive will, and equally blessed polygamous unions involving his people.

1 Corinthians 6:15 Surely you know that your bodies are parts of Christ himself. So I must never take the parts of Christ and join them to a prostitute!

1 Corinthians 6:16 It is written in the Scriptures, “The two will become one body.” So you should know that anyone who joins with a prostitute becomes one body with the prostitute.

1 Corinthians 6:17 But the one who joins with the Lord is one spirit with the Lord.

1 Corinthians 6:18 So run away from sexual sin. Every other sin people do is outside their bodies, but those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies.

1 Corinthians 6:19 You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves,

1 Corinthians 6:20 because you were bought by God for a price. So honor God with your bodies.

The issue of polygamy was conspicuously missing in the apostolic writings. No apostle mentioned polygamy as a sin, even as they all outlined the new covenant and what constitutes sin for new testament believers, following the abolition of the Mosaic law. From the rule of scripture, whatever is not expressly forbidden by divine law is not sin, for sin is transgression of the law (1John 3:7). Where there is no law, there is no sin (Romans 4:5). You cannot violate a nonexistent law! The only instance polygamy was mentioned in the apostolic epistles was in relation to the appointment of elders and deacons in the church. In both his pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul insisted that only men who were husbands of one wife should be appointed to leadership positions in the church. Thus, the apostle recommended that polygamists be excluded from the positions of elders/bishops and deacons in the church. Apart from that, nothing again was mentioned by the apostles in relation to polygamy or polygamists in the church.

1 Timothy 3:1 This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

1 Timothy 3:2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach;

1 Timothy 3:3 not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous;

1 Timothy 3:4 one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence

1 Timothy 3:5 (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?);

1 Timothy 3:6 not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil.

1 Timothy 3:7 Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

1 Timothy 3:8 Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money,

1 Timothy 3:9 holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience.

1 Timothy 3:10 But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless.

1 Timothy 3:11 Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.

1 Timothy 3:12 Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.

1 Timothy 3:13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus (NKJV).

Titus 1:5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—

Titus 1:6 if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.

Titus 1:7 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,

Titus 1:8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled,

Titus 1:9 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 (NKJV).

Paul’s reason for excluding polygamists from leadership positions in the church may have more to do with their unavailability to perform the role well, by virtue of the distractions from multiplied domestic responsibilities, than by the fact that polygamy inherently disqualifies from service because of divine displeasure towards it! Paul was already concerned that a married man would have less time for the Lord than an unmarried man, because of the demand on the married man’s time by his wife, whom he has to please. How much more then would such domestic demands be on the time of a polygamist, by virtue of his numerous wives! Thus, from Paul’s line of reasoning, a polygamist would have insufficient time for the very demanding work of ministering to the Lord and his flock. It’s understandable then that Paul would exclude such a man from overseeing the church. This exclusion would not be on the grounds that polygamy was unacceptable to God (and its practitioners therefore needed to be ostracised or shamed, by denying them honourable positions in the church); rather, it would be on the grounds of the polygamist not having the time for the job, by virtue of the cares of multiple wives! That would make sense even to the polygamist! No thorough-bred Jew like Paul, who was versed in the law, would ever disparage polygamy or view it as inherently sinful. Paul would never condemn a practice that God himself approved and legitimised in the law. No wonder he did not speak ill of polygamy anywhere in his writings, though he viewed marriage in general as a distraction from serving the Lord, and wished everyone would remain single and celibate like himself.

1 Corinthians 7:8 Now for those who are not married and for the widows I say this: It is good for them to stay unmarried as I am.

1 Corinthians 7:9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry. It is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.

1 Corinthians 7:25 Now I write about people who are not married. I have no command from the Lord about this; I give my opinion. But I can be trusted, because the Lord has shown me mercy.

1 Corinthians 7:26 The present time is a time of trouble, so I think it is good for you to stay the way you are.

1 Corinthians 7:27 If you have a wife, do not try to become free from her. If you are not married, do not try to find a wife.

1 Corinthians 7:28 But if you decide to marry, you have not sinned. And if a girl who has never married decides to marry, she has not sinned. But those who marry will have trouble in this life, and I want you to be free from trouble.

1 Corinthians 7:29 Brothers and sisters, this is what I mean: We do not have much time left. So starting now, those who have wives should live as if they had no wives.

1 Corinthians 7:30 Those who are crying should live as if they were not crying. Those who are happy should live as if they were not happy. Those who buy things should live as if they own nothing.

1 Corinthians 7:31 Those who use the things of the world should live as if they were not using them, because this world in its present form will soon be gone.

1 Corinthians 7:32 I want you to be free from worry. A man who is not married is busy with the Lord’s work, trying to please the Lord.

1 Corinthians 7:33 But a man who is married is busy with things of the world, trying to please his wife.

1 Corinthians 7:34 He must think about two things—pleasing his wife and pleasing the Lord. A woman who is not married or a girl who has never married is busy with the Lord’s work. She wants to be holy in body and spirit. But a married woman is busy with things of the world, as to how she can please her husband.

1 Corinthians 7:35 I am saying this to help you, not to limit you. But I want you to live in the right way, to give yourselves fully to the Lord without concern for other things.

Should polygamists who embrace Christianity be made to put away all wives, less the first one, as some insist? Must polygamists break up their families and convert to monogamy before they’re accepted by the church? Paul does not appear to think so. The apostle was emphatic about the fact that people should continue in the marital states they were in before they came to Christ (provided those marital states did not violate any clear Scriptural injunctions). He advised those who were married before getting to know the Lord not to seek for divorce on becoming Christians, but to continue with their various spouses, even if those spouses were not Christians. That applies to polygamists too. Polygamists coming to the Lord should not seek to put away their wives, nor should they be required to do so, but should continue living together as they were before they became Christians. That makes perfect sense! Polygamy may not be God’s ideal scenario in marriage, but neither is it a sin! It wasn’t God’s original and perfect will, but God approved of it after men began practicing it, and it thus became his permissive will. If God has accepted polygamy, who are we to reject polygamists and ostracise them? May we be careful not to appear more holy and righteous than our Maker. What God has sanctified, let no man call impure!

1 Corinthians 7:10 Now I give this command for the married people. (The command is not from me; it is from the Lord.) A wife should not leave her husband.

1 Corinthians 7:11 But if she does leave, she must not marry again, or she should make up with her husband. Also the husband should not divorce his wife.

1 Corinthians 7:13 And if a Christian woman has a husband who is not a believer, and he is happy to live with her, she must not divorce him.

1 Corinthians 7:14 The husband who is not a believer is made holy through his believing wife. And the wife who is not a believer is made holy through her believing husband. If this were not true, your children would not be clean, but now your children are holy.

1 Corinthians 7:15 But if those who are not believers decide to leave, let them leave. When this happens, the Christian man or woman is free. But God called us to live in peace.

1 Corinthians 7:16 Wife, you don’t know; maybe you will save your husband. And husband, you don’t know; maybe you will save your wife.

1 Corinthians 7:17 But in any case each one of you should continue to live the way God has given you to live—the way you were when God called you. This is a rule I make in all the churches.

1 Corinthians 7:18 If a man was already circumcised when he was called, he should not undo his circumcision. If a man was without circumcision when he was called, he should not be circumcised.

1 Corinthians 7:19 It is not important if a man is circumcised or not. The important thing is obeying God’s commands.

1 Corinthians 7:20 Each one of you should stay the way you were when God called you.

1 Corinthians 7:21 If you were a slave when God called you, do not let that bother you. But if you can be free, then make good use of your freedom.

1 Corinthians 7:22 Those who were slaves when the Lord called them are free persons who belong to the Lord. In the same way, those who were free when they were called are now Christ’s slaves.

1 Corinthians 7:23 You all were bought at a great price, so do not become slaves of people.

1 Corinthians 7:24 Brothers and sisters, each of you should stay as you were when you were called, and stay there with God.

In conclusion, polygamy, the marriage of one man to multiple women at the same time, made its entry into the human race about seven generations from the first couple, Adam and Eve. That original monogamous marriage arrangement was obviously God’s ideal for humankind- one man married to one woman. However, polygamy crept into the human race very early, with notable prophets and men of God like Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all indulging in it. Initially, there was divine silence about polygamy, with God’s mind about the issue not clearly and definitely known. However, from the time of Moses, God spoke loud and clear, in giving approval to polygamy and in legitimising it. God even specifically encouraged polygamy in the Mosaic law, by commanding married men to marry the widows of their brothers who died without having offsprings, in order to raise up children for their late brothers and perpetuate their brothers’ lineage. When the Lord Jesus Christ came on the scene, he didn’t talk about the issue of polygamy, because it was already a settled law among the Jews, with no controversies surrounding it. Jesus lived under the Mosaic law and taught and upheld its precepts in his lifetime and earthly ministry. He even preached against violating any precepts of the law, for that would diminish a Jew’s standing in the kingdom of heaven. It was not until after Christ’s death that the Mosaic law was abolished, after Jesus had fulfilled it and paid mankind’s ransom from the power of sin and death, and from the jurisdiction of the law. So, Jesus didn’t challenge the settled law of polygamy among the Jews while he lived and ministered to them. The only area concerning marriage that Jesus dealt with was the issue of frivolous divorce by monogamous Jews, in order to marry a new woman. Jesus considered that unacceptable and adulterous. However, a polygamous-inclined Jew deciding to marry another wife in addition to the one(s) he already had couldn’t have been condemned by Jesus, for that was approved by the Mosaic law, which Jesus upheld in his lifetime. Also, it’s not only in monogamy that two people become one. That can also happen in polygamy, and in any sexual relationship for that matter, including relationships with prostitutes, for the concept of “two becoming one” refers to sexual intercourse between two people, as Paul explained. Thus, a polygamist becomes one with each of his wives when he has sexual relations with them. The apostle Paul taught that people should remain in the marital states they were in before coming to Christ (assuming those marriages did not violate any Scriptural precepts, like homosexual marriages which are forbidden in the Scriptures), and should not seek to be divorced from their spouses just because they have become Christians. That applies to polygamists too. The only restriction the apostle Paul placed on polygamists in the church was that they shouldn’t be appointed as bishops/elders and deacons in the church, probably because they wouldn’t have the time to do the job well, because of domestic distractions. Other than that, polygamists are free to participate in all church activities, as they’re approved of God. Polygamy may not be God’s ideal marriage arrangement, and it may not be God’s perfect will for man, but God did approve of polygamy and permitted it, thus legitimising it. Therefore, let no man sanctimoniously reject what God has approved and thus make himself to appear holier than his Creator and more just than his Maker. Polygamy is not a sin!

The Acts 10:15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (NIV).

Job 4:17 ’Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker? (NIV).

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Published by Dr. Ndubuisi Emmanuel Ojo

Dr Ojo is a Biblical scholar and teacher who believes firmly in the original Apostolic faith as the only authentic version of Christianity, and the only legitimate basis for Christian doctrine and conduct.

4 thoughts on “What Does The Bible Say About Polygamy? How Should The Church Handle Polygamists Within Its Fold?

  1. An interesting and truthful dissertation. In my country, as in most, polygamy is illegal. And God expects us to be obey laws as long as they do not violate his commands. So for most in a polygamous situation it would be considered sinful, in my understanding. Especially if the laws of legal residence don’t recognize the marriages as legitimate. In that situation I’m not sure what the course of action would be upon conversion. It would be complicated for sure. Blessings!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your kind appraisal of the article. Like you rightly pointed out, we need to obey the laws of the land we find ourselves in as Christians, as long as those laws do not violate God’s commands. In any land where polygamy is forbidden by law, it becomes unlawful to indulge in it, though not sinful, as sin is transgression of God’s law. I’d love to know how Muslims who practice polygamy by default are treated in your country, especially those who come with their multiple wives from their countries of origin and are settling in your country. Does your country require them to disrupt their polygamous families and convert to monogamy? Are there no exceptions for polygamy on religious grounds? I would think freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs should necessitate waivers for cases like this. Finally, doesn’t it seem evil that same-sex unions are recognised and approved by law in most Western countries while polygamy is outlawed?
      Once more, thanks for your interesting comment, even as I eagerly await your response to the questions raised.
      God bless you!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My apologies, I lost track of this conversation for quite a while and just located it.
        To your point about sin being a transgression of God’s law only, I would agree that we have been commanded by God to obey the authorities unless it causes us to disobey God. That said, the fact that God did not condemn polygamy in the Bible should not be interpreted to mean that He condones it. And certainly, He did not institute or command the practice. Therefore, to disregard the laws of the country concerning this or any other forbidden practice (not specifically commanded by God) would constitute sin.
        There are no legal exceptions in my country for polygamy. No one is asked to disrupt their pre-existing (and transacted outside the United States) polygamous families, as co-habitation is not illegal in at least 49 states. However, only the first marriage would be legally recognized. For those who would seek to begin a polygamous marriage within the U.S. there is no allowance for that within the law. It is considered a felony and is punishable for up to 5 years in prison.
        The laws in the U.S. do give religious freedom; however, this isn’t intended as a license to practice religious ‘beliefs’. If that were the case, then satanists would be permitted to make human sacrifices, as that is part of their religious belief system. It is intended to say that you are free to worship any god, within any religious system without coercion or governmental interference.
        Blessings!

        Like

      2. Thanks for your response. It’s quite instructive. We may not agree on everything, but I certainly appreciate your contributions. My conclusion is that, we must find a way to accommodate polygamists who turn to the Lord, as God has accommodated them in the past, especially as God hates divorce or putting away.
        God bless you!

        Liked by 1 person

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