No, it’s not a personal care issue we’re facing at the moment. No, we’re not looking to assimilate Mormon teaching into Biblical Christianity. No, I’ve not met someone else. It’s just that someone pointed out that if God could get His head round some of the Bible’s great heroes and their ‘dodgoire’ sexual ethics, why can’t he tolerate the sexual self expression of us lesser mortals? In other words, why can’t God learn to tolerate homo- sexual activity in the same way that he tolerated poly-marital sexual activity?
Australian Bishop, Glenn Davies put it this way in his Briefing essay, ‘Is Polygamy a Sin?’
‘Conservative Christians in the Anglican Communion – especially those in Africa- have fought a long, hard battle against the acceptance and blessing of homosexual activity. Now, some Western Anglicans are charging the Africans with hypocrisy for arguing against one form of sexual deviancy whilst accepting another –polygamy’.
The Briefing Issue 318 March 2005
His article is worth reading if you want to follow up this issue.
A few definitions are in order. Polygamy is multiple simultaneous marriage. It’s not a massive feature of western life. Our issue is serial monogamy rather than simultaneous polygamy. Technically polygamy is a term that covers polygyny (marriage to more than one woman) and polyandry (marriage to more than one man). It was common throughout the ancient world. Even in the first century it was not unknown amongst the Jews. According to Davies’ research, the lex Antoniana de civitae issued in 212AD made monogamy the law for Roman citizens, but it also made an exception for Jews.
1. Polygamy was never God’s intention for humanity
In the ancient Near East, creation narratives were used to demonstrate not just what was, but also what should be. The Bible teaches that the world was created with a purposeful order. To deviate from that order was sin. God created male and female. He designed humanity so that men would marry women and then exercise dominion over the world. Therefore a man was expected to leave his family and cleave to a woman who would become his [only] wife. Only these two people were supposed to enter into the marriage designed by God (Genesis 2:24). This view of marriage was reiterated and reinforced by both Jesus (Matthew 19:4-6) and Paul (1 Corinthians 7:2 & Ephesians 5:31). Anything that deviates from this pattern of marriage fails to fulfil God’s creation purposes. Therefore polygamy can never be God’s ideal for human relationships.
2. Polygamy was sometimes observed in Old Testament times
There’s no getting away from it, most of the Old Testament Patriarchs and many of the Old Testament Kings were polygamous. It would be so much easier if it wasn’t the case. But it was. Lamech, Jacob, Esau, Jacob , Gideon, Elkanah, David and Solomon all had multiple wives (Genesis 4:19, 29:21-30, 36:2, Judges 8:30, 1 Samuel 1:1-2). That’s some line up. Presumably polygamy was popular precisely because it gave people social status. It also enabled them to make various political alliances (2 Samuel 3:2-5, 5:13-16, 12:7-10, 1 Kings 3:1, 11:1-4). The list of names highlights that to have more than one wife was a significant sign of power and wealth that few could achieve. However, the fact remains that polygamy was clearly practised in Old Testament times and apparently without the obvious disapproval of God. But Christopher Ash’s observation is helpful at this point. In his book on marriage he says,
‘The Old Testament did not forbid polygamy, nor very clearly disapprove (for the most part). It is concerned with the telling of a much bigger story, of which the polygamy of kings is moistly but a minor prop on a grand stage. The Old Testament writers were not primarily concerned to teach us lessons about the sex lives of its kings and patriarchs. These men lived in cultures where it was acceptable for the rich and powerful to have more than one wife. Had the narrators turned aside to indicate approval or disapproval of every action described, the story would never have been told’
Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, p252.
And yet, there are one or two ways in which the authors make it obvious that polygamy wasn’t the way things should be. Where multiple simultaneous marriages are described, the picture of family life that emerges could hardly be taken as an endorsement!
3. Polygamy was regulated by God’s law
Whilst it’s true that legislation existed under the Mosaic Law to regulate polygamy (Exodus 21:10-11), this legislation didn’t legitimize polygamy. We could never say that polygamy was lawful, in the true sense of being an activity approved of by God. The appearance of regulation in the Mosaic Law amounts to little more than divine permission. He accommodated His requirements for His people taking into account their propensity for sin. It’s similar to the divine permission for divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). God’s Law was an attempt to make the worst of a bad situation. And so, the Mosaic Law gave protection to concubines and multiple wives, but not in order to sanction the practice. It was tolerated by God’s Law. It was never approved of by God. He simply sought to regulate it and limit the damage that it would cause. It had the potential to wreck a family. And so God gave His word to prevent sin from causing further damage. Once sin erupts at the heart of a relationship it has a habit of multiplying and worsening the situation. And so, the Bible regularly seeks to limit the effects of sin.
4. Polygamy prohibits a man from eldership
I know it’ll sound like a semantic sleight of hand but the Bible doesn’t view polygamy in the same way that it views adultery. The reason for that, I think, is that a polygamist extends his exclusive marriage relationship by including other wives in his marriage covenant. But an adulterer violates his exclusive marriage relationship by breaking his marriage covenant with his wife. I take it that the reason that the Old Testament distinguishes adultery from polygamy is that polygamy was plural marriage which still operated within covenantal boundaries. Adultery broke those boundaries. Nevertheless, polygamous marriage still violates God’s original intention and breaks the seventh commandment. For that reason, when Paul outlines the requirements for an overseer, he indicates that the elder must be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2&12, Titus 1:6). If polygamy is wrong for church leaders, it’s wrong for everyone else. As John Frame points out, ‘Scripture does not require elders to follow different moral principles than other Christians’.
Therefore, even though it has occured in the history of God’s people and even though it continues to occur in an African context, polygamy is wrong. God has always thought so. He’s tolerated it and regulated it. But he still opposes it. It’s a heterosexual sin applied to marriage. It’s different to homosexual sexual sin. And it’s still wrong.
For further reading see
G. Davies, ‘Is Polygamy a Sin? A Consideration of Polygamy and the Bible, The Briefing Issue 318, March 2005
J. Frame, The Seventh Commandment: Sexual Purity’, The Doctrine of the Christian Life