IS POLYGYNY ALLOWED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?
Polygyny, the act of a male marrying more than one wife at the same time, and it has been practiced by many human communities around the world, through history. From Far Asia to the Near East, as well as in Africa and the American continent before European migration.
The Jewish people were not exception, as the practice was widespread and accepted in their world.
Since there is not explicit prohibition in the NT about the Jewish practice of polygyny, the question has risen at times, are Christians theologically allowed in the Scripture to marry more than one wife at the same time?
Or if not, where is the Scriptural prohibition stated?
GOD’s VIEW ON MARRIAGE
The first marriage was established by God when He created a man and a woman, and He commanded and blessed their marital union, with the purpose of providing mutual help, emotional support, and physical contact with procreation.
(Gn 1:27-28; 2:18, 24-25)
Adam and Eve were commanded to unite themselves as one, through purpose, emotions, and physical intercourse to help and comfort each other, and reproduce.
God could have given Adam two wives, since two women could have served better the role of helpers, companions, and mothers of humanity, but He gave Adam only one woman, taken from his ribs, to be united with her spiritually and physically, for the rest of his life.
God’s decision and verbal expressions involved no other idea than two, exactly as God made them. Since God could have given Adam more than one wife, it’s clear that in this model of human marriage, God’s intention was to provide one woman for everyman, and one man for every woman, not multiple partners.
MULTIPLE WIVES IN THE OT
Like with divorce, slavery, property, and other social issues, we can distinguish God’s intentions from the development that caused the legislative permission of plural marriage in the Old Testament.
After God instituted monogamous marriage, and monogamy was the rule across all humanity, we can see that it was a sinful man called Lamech, fourth generation from Adam, who took the liberty of breaking this rule and marry two wives.
We know that he was sinful because with pride, he proclaimed himself worthy of more protection than Cain, without God’s permission, pretending to force God to assists him, and with pride he boasted of his murderous acts (Gn 4:23-24). Polygyny started, as far as Scripture is concern, as a disobedience to God’s express command of monogamy.
The second time the Earth started to be populated, it was through three monogamous families, Noah and his three sons and their respective monogamous partners.
(Gn 6:10, 18; 1Pe 3:20)
The next case we see in Scripture is of Abraham, that after being in a monogamous relationship with Sarah his wife for most of his life (Gn 11:29-30), at 85 years of age, he procreated from his wife’s slave Hagar, his firstborn son Ishmael (Gn 16:1-4, 16). Nevertheless, God always considered only Sarah as Abraham’s ‘wife’ and only her child as inheritor of God’s promise (Gn 17:15-16, 19).
Even though God did not command Abraham to have a child with Hagar, and God had mercy on her and Ishmael, God did not support that union.
After Hagar left and Sarah passed, Abraham married again and then passed himself (Gn 25:1)
Isaac was monogamous, but after him, his son Jacob’s case was different.
Jacob was in love with Rachel, his uncle Laban’s second daughter and asked her for marriage, but he was forced by Laban into marrying first Rachel’s older sister Leah, before he could give him Rachel, so he ended up unwillingly, married to two sisters (Gn 29:16-30), who later each of them gave their servants also as ‘wives’ to Jacob in a race for procreation that ended up producing the fathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel from these four women (Gn 30:3-13).
God never commanded Jacob to do this, even though He blessed the young lives that were born from these relationships. A proof of this, is that God Himself for bided later in the Law, for a man to marry two sisters (Lv 18:18).
GOD never commanded a man to marry more than one wife, but since it happened, the same as divorce or slavery, God legislated about them in a regulatory manner, but never as a command (Ex 21:10-11).
Kings like David and Solomon took not only a vast number of wives, but also concubines, meaning mistresses that were not married to them officially. God never commanded this. Even when in an occasion He mentioned the matter, it was as a reproach and not as an approval (1Sam 11:27; 12:8).
With the exception of the Levirate (Dt 25:5-10), where the duty of a man to marry his brother’s widow is legislated, and where no plural marriage is mentioned, God never demanded plural marriage from anyone, the same as He never demanded divorce or slaves, or other social irregularities.
JESUS’s VIEW ON MARRIAGE
Jesus represents the center point of the universe. Everything that ever happened or existed before his incarnation, finds the fulfilment in his earthly life and work, and from this historical reality, his life, words and actions, the rest of the universe projects into infinity.
In his regenerative work, Lord Jesus set straight with less concessions, not only our fallen condition, but also all the ethical, moral, and theological aspects that were wrong in the times before his, not due to God’s commands, but as a product of our own sinfulness, and one of these was the institution of marriage.
Christian concept of marriage is based on the idea that Lord Jesus held of it, with no variants.
On one occasion, when asked about divorce, Jesus answered:
“They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.”
5And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6But 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, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’
So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
In teaching about divorce, a process allowed in the Law and abused by many, Jesus returns to the original teaching of marriage, by quoting Genesis 2:24, stating that God made ‘a man and a woman’ to unite themselves in a unbreakable relationship, closer than ‘parental – child’ relationship, to become forever ‘one flesh’, unless there was immorality involved (Mt 5:32).
Jesus redeemed the institution of marriage and set it back in the proper place and manner it should have always had, by claiming back the monogamy and commitment God granted on Adam and Eve at the beginning, leaving only sexual immorality as a concession for divorce.
Jesus’s idea of marriage was monogamous, as God intended it, and gives no permissible allowance to anything else than divorce for sexual immorality. And He expressly said it:
“So they are no longer two, but one.”
THE APOSTLE’s VIEW ON MARRIAGE
The Apostles following the teachings of the Lord, focused their instruction on the assumption that all readers understood that monogamy was the rule established by Jesus, which was one of the first distinctions with Judaism.
Apostle Paul writes more than anyone in the NT about marital unions, always using expressions that indicate an acceptance of monogamy.
“However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband”
In a contextual analysis, if polygyny would have been a common practice, and Paul could have written in plural, and he did not, leaves the conclusion that the Apostle only referred to monogamous unions among the believers. To conclude that it was only an ‘expression’, considering that not once any Apostle refers or talks about plural marriage, it would be a baseless assumption adding to the Scripture.
WHEN speaking about sexual immorality at Corinth, Paul says that to protect the community against the temptations of Temple and common prostitution:
‘Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.’ (1Co 7:2) in a direct monogamous expression. There is no other interpretation of these verse. A man for each woman, and a woman for each man.
Furthermore, in his recommendations about abstinence within married couples, he said:
“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
Paul advices not to abstain unnecessarily from sexual intercourse because that will expose the partners to be tempted by others; and strengthens his point by declaring that we belong physically to our spouse.
If plurality of wives was allowed among Christians in Corinth, how can a woman be the owner of her husband’s body if this belongs equally to another woman?
And how can a man be tempted if one of his wives desires to abstain for a time, but the others do not?
If there existed any possibility of plural unions, at least in this letter Paul would have made a mention of it, but he makes none, neither do the other apostles. Polygynist members would have been left without pastoral guidance.
THE ROMAN VIEW ON MARRIAGE
Another important, however not decisive factor, is the fact that in Jesus’s times, polygamy was outlawed in the Roman Empire.
The Romans were pagans, and immoral, but were the most civilized culture of the time, and that is exactly what allowed them to conquer and administer a vast empire on horse, boat, and foot, for more than 1000 years, and be culturally strong enough to leave a legal legacy that serves as the basis of modern Law all over the Western world.
Monogamy was not invented in Rome, but came as a cultural legacy from the Greeks, and was one of the few ethical agreements with Christianity (1).
Monogamy had deep roots in the mentality of the Romans. In the Roman legend of the rapture of the Sabine women, the Roman leader, Romulus, abducted the local single Sabine women refused to the Romans in marriage; but pleased their captured women by promising them inheritance, monogamy, and children (2).
Even further, only Roman Law demanded mutual consent from woman and men to marry, apart from the permission of both parents (3).
In conclusion, matrimony had the same legal value, rights, and obligations of a secular marriage today, not more, not less.
The Apostles were adamant in demanding subjection to Civil Roman Law, or to any government they lived under (Ro 13:1-7; Tit 3:4; 1Pe 2:13-14). If polygyny was not commanded, but only ‘allowed’ in ancient times, how could they practice something God had not commanded in a Roman society that considered that a crime?. Christians were ordered to obey the government in everything unless a policy contradicts a God’s command. Multiple marriage was never given as a command, not in the OT neither in the NT.
Furthermore, it is recorded that Christians committed crimes against the Empire, from cannibalism, through idolatry to pacifism, and many more, but never polygamy, contrary to what is said about the Jewish polygamists (4).
POST APOSTOLIC VIEW ON MARRIAGE
The primitive Christians condemned polygyny directly.
Justin Martyr (100-165CE), condemned Judaism for practicing plural marriage after the incarnation of Jesus (5)
Tertullian (160-240CE) condemns it (6); Basil of Caesarea (330-379CE) condemns it (7), also Irenaeus (130CE) and Clement of Alexandria (150-215CE).
From ancient Christian history, polygyny was openly treated as something sinful and against established apostolic doctrine.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF POLYGYNY
Christians that support a lenient stand on plural marriage, base their opinion on four main reasons. The practice of some of the Patriarchs, with David and Solomon; the Law of Levirate; the parable of the Ten Virgins in the NT, and the Elder’s requirements of having only ‘one wife’.
PATRIARCHS AND KINGS
David had many wives, and Solomon even more.
David was never told by God to do this, even though He allowed it; neither was Solomon, who ended up betraying God for his multiple wives. The Mosaic legislation regulated the allowance, but it did not command it. This cannot be said of the NT period.
The Law commanded a man to marry his brother’s widow if she had no children (Lv 25:5-10). This was an allowance to provide for the widow being left unprotected in a male dominant society. Instead of giving herself to prostitution, a widow could demand to be taken in marriage by her dead husband’s brother.
This was given
not taking into consideration the marital status of the man to marry. The focus
was on the widow, not the marital status of the brother-in-Law.
As all social Law, this was abolished with the coming of Jesus (Ro 3:20; Ga 3:19; He 8:8,13).
THE TEN VIRGINS PARABLE
This parable has been the strongest claim from supporters of plural marriage in Christianity.
It is said that the ten virgins were promised to marry the bridegroom that was coming; and that therefore, Jesus implicitly supported plural marriage.
The fulness of Revelation was not completed until the death of the last apostle, presumably John, at the end of the first century. Until then, revelation was gradual, and during the earthly life of the Lord, many things were still allowed which later where abolished by the apostles. During the life of Jesus, tithes were still and obligation (Lk 11:42); Circumcision was still a command (Lk 2:21); and Baptism was not yet obligatory (Mt 16:16); among other precepts, like divorces, sacrifices and temple worship.
It is possible that Jesus was referring to plural marriage in this case, but only as a current illustration allowed at the time, but since it is not plural marriage the central lesson of the parable, it cannot be taken as an approval to the New Covenant period.
However, this is an assumption. History has other explanation.
In Judaism, the betrothal period ended in the final day when the groom came to collect his wife from her parent’s home. His friends and the bride’s friends, waited for him at the bride’s house or nearby, all single and in separate groups, very much like they do these days in oriental weddings, Greek, Arab, and Jewish weddings.
In his case, these ten virgins, were single female friends of the bride, that were awaiting the husband’s arrival, and five of them missed the time and were left out. The groom got married to his bride, the weeding was not interrupted.
The idea that Jesus was referring to a multiple marriage is a fantasy that contradicts hermeneutics and Jewish history, especially since weddings were done one at the time, not all at the same time for a polygamous man.
THE ELDER’s ‘ONE WIFE’
Another strong argument is that the Pauline rule that an Elder should be the ‘husband of one wife’ (1Ti 3:2; Tit 1:6).
It has been said that this exception confirms the rule, that other non-clerical brethren were allowed to have more than ‘one wife’.
Considering that no mention of plural marriage exists in the NT; this conclusion is highly unlikely. But other interpretations have been given about it.
The Greek expression of ‘one wife’ was commonly understood to be faithful to your wife. In other words, as the NIV, NLT, and other translate, it should read,‘Be faithful to his wife’. It’s a call for honesty, not indication of existing different forms of marriage.
Another interpretation is the one history gives.
Since early times, the Christian Church allowed Elders to marry, but in the ordained ministry, only non-divorcees were allowed to be admitted into ministry. Divorce and remarriage were seen as a failure, and not as a good example for the community, and the Apostolic Canons show that as a rule, followed to these days by the oriental churches. It is said to come from this command of Paul, who wanted strong and not sensual people in the ministry (1Co 7:38).
Polygyny was never God’s command. God’s intentions for humanity was always monogamy, built on love and intimate trust between a man and a woman for life, and to reproduce the human race.
Due to human uncontrolled passions and the savage conditions of the ancient world, God allowed polygyny to protect defenseless women and children, but that was still not his express will.
Jesus redeemed the institution of marriage by putting it back in the monogamous and permanent condition the Father intended it for mankind, and so it passed on to the apostles, to this day.
Monogamy is assumed in the NT, and that is the reason why there are no rules about it. And the plentiful teachings on marriage are always expressed in monogamous language, making it plain clear that that was the rule in the whole Church.
Plural marriage is all aspects, antichristian and corrodes the intimacy of Holy Matrimony, exposing it to sexual immorality.
(1) Walter Scheidel, Population and Demography, 2006.
(2) Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage, 1991.
(3) Harold Whetstone Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans, 2012.
(4) George Hayward Joyce, Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, 2007.
(5) Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 134.
(6) Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:2, 1885.
(7) Mark P. Shea, When Evangelicals treat Catholic tradition like revelation, 1996.