[This is part one of a four part series. Links to the other article can be found here.]
The institution of marriage seems to be in the public eye all the time today. Usually, it is with the topic of same-sex marriage, but there are other ways that the traditional view of one man and one woman is questioned. One of these is the subject of polygamy. There are many well-meaning Christians who believe that it is ok for a Christian to be a polygamist. In fact, one website opens its article on the subject by saying, “Have you ever wondered why God never condemned polygamy? It’s not hard to prove from the Old Testament and the New Testament that polygamy was, and still is, a valid form of marriage and is not sinful.”
That is a pretty confident statement to make about a topic that a vast majority of Christians believe is a sin (the name of that article is “Polygamy is not sinful”). Of course, just because a majority believes something about a topic does not automatically mean that it is correct. This is why I am covering this subject.
The one fact that is impossible to deny is that there are many practicing polygamists in the Bible. From Abraham to Jacob and (possibly) Moses to David the simple fact is that there were many faithful men in the Scriptures who had more than one wife. This is not the only argument used to support the idea that polygamy is sanctioned by God. It is argued that various Old Testament passages, such as Leviticus 18:18, Deuteronomy 17:17, and many others support the institution of polygamy, as do some New Testament passages.
Since there are so many arguments from the pro-polygamy side, I will be examining the subject in a series. In this article, I will study what the New Testament teaches about the topic. For the record, I am going to use the term “polygamy.” Those on the pro-polygamy side would be correct that this subject has more to do with polygyny (a man marrying more than one woman) rather than polyandry (a woman marrying more than one man).
The Teachings of Jesus
The teachings of Jesus are naturally going to be the most important place for Christians to look when discussing a controversial topic and polygamy is no different. The passage that comes up in this topic is Matthew 19:4-9.
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Mark 10:12 adds, “And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
The most common argument from these verses that is used against polygamy is that a husband and wife become “one” flesh. How can a man become “one” with multiple women? The text says the “two” become one not three or four. Those who believe in Christian polygamy, however, have noted that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6:16, says that a man becomes one flesh with a prostitute. Since a man can become one flesh with someone he is not married to, including a prostitute (and more than likely has a wife as well), then it could be possible for a man to be one flesh with more than one wife. I understand this point, but I do not believe that this is the major point about polygamy that we can take away from this passage.
Quite simply, Christ’s argument about someone divorcing their spouse and committing adultery would fail miserably if polygamy was acceptable in the first place. Wouldn’t this, by implication, also condemn polygamy? If a person is committing adultery if the divorce isn’t legitimate, then isn’t that implying that they would be committing adultery if they marry someone else if they are not divorced? Bible scholar Craig Keener said it well:
“The school of Shammai…did not permit divorce except for the wife’s unfaithfulness (whether successful or attempted), but they did not consider remarriage afterward adulterous. Jesus is more consistent: if one divorces one’s spouse without valid grounds (unfaithfulness or analogous sins; cf. 1 Cor 7:10-13), the marriage is not truly dissolved and subsequent marriage is adulterous.”
“The saying is ‘hyperbolic-that is, it has exaggerated, intensified force: because God does not accept divorce as valid, any man who divorces his wife is not really divorced, and if he marries someone else, he commits adultery. No one else in antiquity spoke of divorce in such strong terms. (Because most Jewish teachers allowed polygamy, they would not have seen marrying a second wife as adultery, even if they had agreed that the man was still married to the first wife. But Jesus eliminates the double standard; a man consorting with two women is as adulterous as a woman consorting with two men.”
However, William Luck, a defender of polygamy (in the polygyny form), has said, “But such an appeal is in vain. Jesus’ quote of this passage is not attempting to affirm monogamy in Matthew 19:5 f. He is insisting that no covenanted person is free to walk away from the partner. The context makes this clear…Yet we contend that neither Jesus nor his hearers understood those words as implying the moral impropriety of polygyny. We offer instead that Jesus means only to reaffirm the older Testament’s condemnation of a man who would divorce his wife in order to marry another woman (Mal. 2).”
I find some difficulties with this. As Keener noted, Jesus takes the concept of divorce and adultery beyond what any of his hearers would have taken it. He takes it to its logical and consistent conclusion: a person was to be with only one person in marriage, even in divorce (unless for marital unfaithfulness as Matthew points out). Divorcing a wife simply to marry someone else makes no sense of what Jesus is saying. As Keener noted many Jewish leaders would never have seen divorcing someone and marrying someone else as adultery. Jesus, however, did.
Those who support Christian polygamy have some objections against this. First, wasn’t adultery punishable by death according to Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22-23? If polygamy is adultery according to the interpretation above then why weren’t all the polygamists in the Old Testament put to death for having polygamous marriages? I believe that this is a good question, but I think that it is easily refuted. There are many cases in Scripture where people commit a sin that requires death but are never put to death.
For example, Deuteronomy 17:2-7 says that if anyone is found in Israel worshipping other gods than they must be put to death. However, throughout Israel’s history most of the Israelites worshiped idols. All one has to do is read the books of 1 and 2 Kings and discover that many people were never put to death by stoning (which is what the Deuteronomy passage above requires) even during the reign of righteous kings (see for example 2 Kings 14:3-4; 15:3-4, 34-35). It should also be noted that one of Israel’s judges, Gideon, made a golden ephod in which some of the Israelites worshiped (Judges 8:27). Why weren’t they stoned to death?
Also, it must be remembered that many Jews simply did not think polygamy was adultery. However, as we saw earlier, Jesus disagreed and did view it as adultery. That should settle the matter for Christians.
The Teachings of Paul
This brings us to the Apostle Paul. There has been considerable debate concerning what Paul taught in 1Timothy and Titus. 1 Timothy 3:2 says, “Now the overseer must be above approach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…” Titus 1:6 also says that an elder must be “the husband of but one wife.” Do these passages teach against polygamy or not?
The meaning of “a husband of but one wife” (literally “one-woman man”) has been interpreted in different ways. It has been suggested that the phrase means that an overseer (or elder): 1) must be married, 2) have only one wife his entire life (i.e., never remarry after a divorce or death of a spouse), 3) be monogamous, or 4) be faithful to his wife.
Numbers 1 and 2 above are doubtful considering that Paul was single and wished that every Christian would be like him (1 Cor. 7:7, 32ff) and also taught that Christians can remarry after becoming a widow (1 Cor. 7:39). Scripture even allows for remarriage after a divorce under certain circumstances (Matthew 19). If it was Paul’s intent to exclude men who had divorced there would have been a much clearer way to say it – “not divorced.”
When it comes to polygamy (# 3 above) a few things must be noted. Although polygamy was practiced by Jews during the first-century it was not practiced among the Greeks and Romans. As a result, the pro-polygamy side argues that Paul would not have told Timothy and Titus (who were in Ephesus and Crete respectively) to ban something that didn’t even exist in those locations?
I do agree with Luck that the phrase Paul uses, “a one-woman man,” was focusing more on being faithful to one’s wife (number 4 above). In fact, many commentators on this passage agree with that. This would be supported by 1 Timothy 5:9 which says concerning a widow that she must be “a one-man woman.” Since polyandry (a woman marrying more than one husband) was not practiced by the Jews or Romans the phrase is probably referring to being faithful to her husband. Luck also compares 1 Timothy to 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 which say that a man should have his own wife while a woman should have her own husband.
However, I do believe, for the reasons below that if we follow this phrase to its logical conclusion, similar to what Jesus did concerning divorce and adultery, then it would also condemn polygamy. In fact, many commentators believe that although the phrase is more about being faithful than anything else, it would still ban polygamy by implication:
- How can anyone be a “one-woman man” if he is polygamous? How can a man have more than one wife when he is commanded to be a “one-woman man?” Even if polyandry didn’t exist during that time period, it would be impossible for any woman to try to argue that she could have one than one husband based on the phrase “one-man woman.”
- If Paul meant the same thing in 1 Timothy and Titus as he meant in 1 Corinthians (that a person needs to be faithful) why didn’t he word the former the same way as the latter? Paul seems to be making a specific point here. He “positively affirms sexual fidelity couched in monogamous martial terminology.” He easily could have simply said that a person should be faithful to his spouse, but he deliberately says it in monogamous terms.
- Andreas Kostenberger and David Jones, in their book, God, Family, and Marriage, have noted, “Considerably more likely is the possibility that the phrase [“one-woman man”] is geared toward barring men from holding church office who had one or several concubines, a widespread practice at that time. Apparently, neither the Greeks nor the Romans regarded these practices as adulterous or polygamous. For Paul, however, concubinage was essentially equivalent to polygamy, since sexual union results in a ‘one-flesh’ relationship (cf. 1 Cor. 6:16).”
- Paul’s phrase and this interpretation fit well with what was said about Jesus’ teaching above.
(As a side note here I want to make a quick comment: Scholar D.A. Carson disagrees with the idea that absolutely no Romans practiced polygamy. He told me, in a personal correspondence, that although it was not practiced by the commoners it was practiced by the aristocracy. Thus, the whole point that Paul would have been banning something that didn’t exist would be incorrect and it would be very easy to see this as a straightforward condemnation of polygamy. I am currently looking into this and if I come to agree with this I will update this article to reflect that belief.)
One of the most common counterarguments is that the Greek word translated as “one” in the phrase a “one-woman man” (mia) does not mean “one” but “first.” The phrase then should read as “first-woman man.” This allows, in their view, that a man can have more than one wife. However, there are some serious problems with this interpretation:
1. The word mia is the feminine word for the numerical heis, which is the common Greek word translated for “one.” The normal Greek word for “first” is protos. Out of the over 300 occurrences of the Greek heis, it is only translated as “first” only eight times and almost all of these have to deal with calendar time. Although this shows that the word mia (along with heis) could be translated as “first,” it is the context that the word appears in that needs to studied in order to determine the word’s meaning.
2. Glenn Miller, of the website Christian Think Tank, says, “It is difficult to make [heis] even mean ‘first’ in most cases. Consider some of these, substituting ‘first’ for the words in bold:
“These men who were hired last worked only one hour.” (Mt 20.12)
“‘He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'” (Mk 2.7)
“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all” (Mr 12.6)
“On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues” (Lk 13.10)
“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors” (Lk 16.5)
“since there is only one God, who will justify…” (Rom 3.30)”
3. The point that I am making is not that the word mia (or heis) can be interpreted as “first,” but that the word(s) often have the meaning of “one.” The context must be examined carefully. This is where the true problem lies. A serious question needs to be asked, “What would a ‘first-woman man’ even mean?” The translation of mia to “first” in this passage makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Does this mean that a “first-woman man” must only be a loving husband towards his “first” wife?
The issue with 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and 27-28
The last thing to look at concerning the New Testament on this issue is these verses in 1 Corinthians. 7:10-11 says, “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”
Verses 27-28 in the same chapter say, “Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned.”
The belief here is that verses 10-11 are only teaching that a woman must not remarry. Since this is the case (at least according to the polygamist argument), a man may remarry and if his first wife comes back to him then he must not put away his second wife. Thus, he becomes polygamous and this is ok and even commanded by God. Biblicalpolygamy.com (BP.com) envisions this by the following scenario:
“A believer WIFE departs from her believer HUSBAND. She is commanded of God to remain unmarried, per verses 10-11. Her HUSBAND, however, then subsequently marries another wife (who is not another man’s wife). The HUSBAND and the new wife have not sinned, per verses 27-28. The departed WIFE then seeks to be reconciled back to her HUSBAND.”
There are many problems with this interpretation:
1. To believe that only a woman may never remarry, but a man may remarry after a divorce completely ignores what Jesus taught: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). Neither one was to marry someone else and they were both expected to return to each other.
2. Verse 28 (“if you do marry”) is referring to the person in verse 27 that is not looking for a wife. It is not referring to the person who is married. BP.com is simply assuming polygamy in order to get polygamy.
The issue of polygamy is a sensitive one. In my opinion, however, Jesus’ statement makes little sense if polygamy is allowed and Paul condemned the practice for Christian leaders (“these leaders are told to be examples to the flock, and the believers are told to follow the example of the apostles, disciples, and leaders. [Phil 3.17; 4.9; 1 Thess 1.6,7; 2 Thess 3.7,9; 1 Tim 4.12; Tit 2.7; 1 Pet 5.3; 1 Cor 4.6; 1 Cor 11.1] So this would mean that Paul’s teaching would apply to all Christians). These are, of course, not the only passages used in Scripture to support Christian polygamy. In the next articles in this series, I will examine the Old Testament Law and the fact that there are heroes of faith that were polygamists.
 Gleason L. Archer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.) 122. Ronald A. G. du Preez. Polygamy in the Bible. Ph.D Dissertation (Barrien Springs: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1993). 250. Jonathan Sarfati. “One Man, One Woman.” http://creation.com/monogamy-bible-one-man-woman. Roger Patterson. “What about Polygamy in the Bible?” https://answersingenesis.org/family/marriage/what-about-polygamy-in-the-bible/. Hank Hanegraaff. “Does the Bible Promote Polygamy?” http://www.equip.org/article/does-the-bible-promote-polygamy/.
 Anthony. Also see http://www.biblicalpolygamy.com/exegesis/one-flesh/.
 Craig S. Keener. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Kindle Locations 1515-1516). Kindle Edition.
 Ibid. Kindle Locations 2768-2771. Emphasis mine.
 William Luck. “On the Morality of Biblical Polygyny.” https://bible.org/article/morality-biblical-polygyny.
 Donald Guthrie. “1 Timothy.” in New Bible Commentary 4th Ed. ed. D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A Motyer, & G.J. Wenham (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994). 1298.
 George W. Knight. The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992). 157-158. William D. Mounce. Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) . 171, 173. Andreas Kostenberger and David Jones. God, Marriage, and Family (Second Edition): Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Crossway. Kindle Edition). 239-240.
 Knight, 158-159; Mounce, 170-172; Philip H. Towner. The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006). 250-251. Kostenberger and Jones, 241.
 Mounce, 170-172; Knight, 158-159; Towner,250-251; Kostenberger and Jones, 241.
 Knight, 158.
Kostenberger and Jones, 241.
 Luck has also argued that this phrase comes in a qualification list. These lists are not the place to find new moral teachings. They are, instead, lists that summarize previous teachings. “Thus if we cannot find a prohibition of polygyny up to this point in the teachings of the inspired text, we are in trouble (hermeneutically speaking) finding it here.” In all the sources that I consulted (Mounce, Knight, Kostenberger, Towner, and the book Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles (edited by Kostenberger and Terry Wilder)) none of them mention this. I am not saying that this automatically makes Luck wrong, but I would like to see a source for this interpretation and whether or not a qualification list has to always be seen in this way. If any of my sources did mention it (and I overlooked it) please let me know. In any case, this was not the first time that polygamy is condemned as Jesus did so.
 Anthony makes an argument the following way: “Again, the purpose for these qualifications is stated in 1 Timothy 3:5, “(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the assembly of God)?” And if an elder or a bishop was divorced from his first wife, he would be violating God’s Law regulating polygamy, which states, “If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish” (Exodus 21:10). In other words, if an elder or a bishop was not still married to his first wife because of divorce, but married to other women, then he would be diminishing his first wife’s food, raiment, and her duty of marriage, and therefore evidences that he does not know how to rule his own house, and therefore cannot rule the assembly of God.” There is a problem here: Nothing in the text implies that the elder or overseer is divorced, and if they were, and were married to other women, they would be committing adultery as Jesus taught. See part 3 of this series for more on Exodus 21.
 Craig Blomberg. 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994). 154.