Volume 13, Number 1, May-June 2009

Are Polygamous Marriages Authorized by Scripture?

There are those within the Christian community who claim that polygamous marriages are authorized—even commanded—by scripture. But, does scripture really support that assertion? Or has scripture been misapplied to allow men to do what they want to do with women? The truth is important because the spiritual health of our sisters, and our brothers, is at stake.

To understand the truth, we have to go back to the beginning—to the Garden of Eden.  In the Garden we find that God paraded the animals two by two in front of Adam so that he could name them. But, God had an ulterior motive in having Adam name the animals.

Sometimes, because of the way scriptures have been laid out, it is easy to miss a point. Notice the context of the creation of Eve found in Genesis 2:18-22:

“And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.’ Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him.

“And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. “ (NKJV throughout.)

God paraded the animals in front of Adam because they were mated up, and it drove home to Adam at the same time that something was missing for him. After that realization, God then put Adam into a coma, performed a surgical removal of a rib, and from that rib fashioned Eve, the woman.

What happened next was particularly important. Scripture says that “He brought her to the man.” God, the Creator of the woman, her “father,” presented her to the man, who was to become her husband. Viewed in this way, it is easy to see that this was the first wedding, after which Adam proclaimed Eve to be “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

It is worthy of note that God created marriage by bringing Adam and Eve together for the first marriage. Further, He did not present Adam with a Bridgette, a Carole, a Maria, and a Cindy to go with Eve. God created and presented only Eve to Adam. God did not create a polygamous marriage.

To have a better understanding of what marriage is, we need to understand what happened in the Garden. What happened was what is known as a “covenant.” That word is not used here to describe this marriage, but it is used in Malachi 2:14 to describe all marriages. Understanding the meaning of a covenant allows us to see that the creation of a covenant is what transpired in Eden.

The Hebrew word for “covenant” is “bereth.” It means a “covenant, alliance, pledge between men; treaty, alliance, league (man to man); constitution, ordinance (monarch to subjects); agreement, pledge (man to man); alliance (of friendship);  alliance (of marriage); between God and man; alliance (of friendship); covenant (divine ordinance with signs or pledges).

From the definition above, we note that a covenant can be an alliance of marriage relating to God and men. What appeared to be a marriage in Eden was actually a covenant between God, Adam and Eve. It was a sacred, or holy, contract between three, not two, lives.

There is an important aspect of a covenant that is overlooked by those who argue in favor of polygamous marriages. A covenant is unchangeable. Even God does not change the terms of a covenant once it is created. If God is involved in a marriage (and there is no marriage covenant without God), then a covenant is formed between the three of them. It is not possible for the partners to lawfully change the terms of that covenant. Any attempt to change those terms would violate that covenant and be a sin against the other parties to that covenant. Notice Jacob’s and Laban’s marriage covenant called upon God as a witness. Even though Laban coaxed Jacob into accepting two of his daughters instead of just Rachel, whom Jacob wanted, their contract ruled out any additional wives:

And Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore its name was called Galeed, also Mizpah, because he said, “May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent one from another. If you afflict my daughters, or if you take other wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us — see, God is witness between you and me!… The God of Abraham, the God of Nahor, and the God of their father judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac. (Gen 31:48-50, 53).

The would-be polygamist would ask “Where is the sin?” If one covenants with God and God performs His part (and He always does), and then one wants to change the terms of the covenant, it can only be because they have put another god before the One True God with Whom he or she has covenanted.

In order for a polygamous marriage to be legal the man and woman would have to appear before God, and to be in agreement before God that the man could take other women in marriage—before the covenant is finalized. Without the satisfaction of this condition, polygamy can never be legal in God’s eyes.

In the past, the custom of polygamous marriage was acknowledged.  Even the early church, as found in the scriptures, had polygamous marriages within the Church. But, such a marriage prevented a man from being a “bishop” (overseer) or “elder” (1Tim 3:2; Tit 1:6).

Today, it would be hard to find a woman who would agree to polygamy in advance of marriage, assuming that the woman understood the God-inspired nature of marriage. And, what woman would want to be the second wife?

Some women have been convinced by men that God intended men to have multiple wives. But those women have been manipulated by another’s interpretation of scripture at odds with the truth of marriage as found in Genesis.

To expose that error, we must examine the scriptures to which others appeal as support for polygamous marriages. To understand those scriptures, we must understand that scripture does not always define matters as black and white, good or evil. There are those things which God commands (keep the Sabbath), those things which God forbids (idolatry, adultery) and those things God allows, but does not command. This third realm is where polygamy lies.

Polygamy Allowed, Not Commanded in O. T.

What this means is that while God may allow polygamy, He nowhere commands polygamy. This is where polygamists go “off base.” A scripture used to support polygamy is found in Exodus 21:7-11.

“And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 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. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money” (Ex 21:17-11).

The reading of that verse produces only one sure fact. If a man takes more than the first wife then he can’t diminish the rights of the first wife. This scripture does not order or condone a second wife or polygamy. Neither does it define polygamy as sin, in and of itself. Polygamists point to David and Solomon as scriptural examples of polygamy, but neither command or even recommend it.

Church Leaders Could Not Be Polygamists

It is clear that polygamy also existed in the early church. One can understand that point by extension because the conditions for setting a man as either an elder or a deacon was that he be the husband of one wife. In short, he could not be practicing polygamy.

“Neither shall he [the king] multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself” (Deut 17:17).

Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife (1Tim 3:2).

Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach (1Tim 3:12),

An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient (Titus 1:6, NIV).

How the overseers, elders and deacons—in those Christian sects which promote polygamy—deal with the plain scriptures which prohibit a husband of more than one wife from being in those offices escapes this author.

At no point in David’s or Solomon’s history does God record a command for polygamous marriage. Abraham had only one wife. Isaac had only one wife. Jacob, who became Israel, wanted one wife but ended up with both Leah and Rachel because of  Laban’s trickery.

There is a very important point to be gleaned from studying those polygamous situations; God never commanded polygamy. The difference between what men want and what God decreed is crucial to our understanding. Polygamy lies in a gray area where we must look to the surrounding circumstances to understand whether or not sin lies here.

For instance, today polygamy is not customary. Only women who have been subjected to scripture-twisting in support of a mandated-polygamy theology would agree to such a marriage. Moreover, although it is this author’s personal belief that neither the federal nor state constitutions in the United States authorize interference with the marriage covenants of its citizens, it is clear that every jurisdiction has attempted to interfere with marriage by outlawing polygamy.

First Marriage Covenant Cannot be Violated

Setting aside the law for now, and incorporating the knowledge we already have about the marriage covenant, it becomes obviously incumbent upon the man to secure, in advance, the permission of the potential wife if he desires a polygamous marriage. He cannot wait until after the marriage to spring it on his wife. Moreover, she has to agree to the polygamous marriage before the covenant is struck with God, i.e., before the marriage covenant is entered into.

On top of that, the woman must be convinced by the truth, not a lie. It is a lie to say that God commands polygamous marriages. No scripture agrees with that statement. If the woman knows the truth, that the man desires a polygamous marriage, and if she is willing to give him that kind of marriage knowing that no law of God commands such a marriage, then they may freely enter into such a marriage covenant with God. Of course, there is still the alleged “law” to deal with, but that is a subject for a different article.

There is a reason God designed the marriage covenant the way that He did. If God had determined that man needed multiple “help mates” then He would have commanded polygamy—and would have made it clear to man that He commanded it. God did not command polygamy. Man engaged in polygamy on his own. God determined that, as long as adultery is not involved, then certain rules needed to be created to protect that special wife—the first one.

We ought to have the mind of God in all things. God’s mind concerning marriage was the joining of the lives of three: God, the man and the woman. God could easily have made more than one woman from the rib taken from Adam. He didn’t do that. Instead He created the union of three as the standard.

In conclusion, we find that, while polygamy is condoned, it is nowhere commanded. Those men who demand a polygamous marriage after a first wife is taken are in fact sinning against God and against the wife. He sins because he desires to change the unchangeable, the covenant with God and his wife. He sins because he develops his desire as a god before the One True God. He sins against his wife because he wishes to change his covenant with his wife.

So, while polygamy is not sin in and of itself, practicing polygamy in a way that violates the covenant with the wife and God is sin, and sin is something of which we should repent when we see it.          &


Read related article: Stop This Marriage Madness



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