Polygamy in Christianity

Polygamy in Christianity

Polygamy in Christianity is a not a form of marriage that is generally accepted within Christianity. There are numerous examples of polygamy in Old Testament. Whether the New Testament allows or forbids polygamy is an active debate with no clarity, but whatever debate there is is in relation to polygyny (one man having more than one wife) and not about polyandry (one woman having more than one husband).


Old Testament polygamy

The Vision of Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob

The Old Testament mentions plural marriage as an acceptable variation for the Hebrews, and many of the Abrahamic prophets and patriarchs had multiple wives, including Lamech, Abraham , Jacob, Esau, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Elkanah, Ashur, Abijah and Jehoiada. Some interpretations also suggest Moses had a second wife in Tharbis.

Lamech's 2 wives were Adah and Zillah (Gen 4:19). Abraham's 3+ wives were Sarah, Hagar (Gen 16:3, 21:1-13), Keturah (Gen 25:1), and concubines (which are also referred to as "wives" in other parts of the Bible) (Gen 25:6). Jacob's 4 wives are Leah and Rachel (Gen 29:28) and despite an oath with their father Laban to not take any additional wives in Gen 31:48-54, Jacob took Bilhah (Gen 30:4) and Zilpah (Gen 30:9). Moses' 2 wives Zipporah (Ex 2:21, Ex 18:1-6) and an Ethiopian Woman (Num 12:1), which Moses was permitted to marry by God, despite ALL the rest of his people being forbidden to take a foreign wife. Interestingly enough, Aaron and Miriam were punished for disapproving of Moses' forbidden marriage. Gideon (also named Jerub-Baal) "had many wives" (Judges 8:29-32). Elkanah, Samuel the priest's father, had 2 wives: Hannah and Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:1-2). Often, people studying King David, get confused between his "wives" and "concubines" because the Bible calls 10 of his concubines "wives" in several places. An accurate list of David's wives would include at least 4 named wives: 1) Michal (1 Sam 18:27, 19:11-18, 25:44; 2 Sam 3:13-14, 6:20-23), 2) Abigail of Carmel (1 Sam 25:39, 1 Chr 3), 3) Ahinoam of Jezreel (1 Sam 25:43, 1 Chr 3), 4) Eglah (2 Sam 3:4-5, 1 Chr 3), and 5) Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:24). David also took "more wives and concubines" in 2 Sam 5:13, 12:7-8, 1 Chr 14:3, bringing the total women to a minimum of 5 + 2+ additional wives + 2+ additional concubines = 9+ women. Three additional women are mentioned, but we are not told if they are wives or concubines: 1) Maacah (2 Sam 3:3, 1 Chr 3), 2) Abital (2 Sam 3:3-4, 1 Chr 3), and 3) Haggith (2 Sam 3:3, 1 Chr 3). The new total is 12+ women for King David. And lastly, there are the 10 concubines, or "wives" as they are also referred to as, in 2 Sam 5:13, 15:16, 16:21-23, 1 Chr 14:3), bringing David's total women to at least 22+ "wives/concubines". David's son, Solomon, chose 700 wives and 300 concubines, totaling 1,000 women in 1 Kings 11:3.

Seemingly in support of polygamy, in addition to the many examples of plural marriage, the Pentateuch also lists guidelines and rules concerning the taking of multiple wives; noting that "If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights, [Ex 21:10] and making it an obligation for men whose brothers have left a widow to marry her and support her family.[Deut 25:5–10] These verses encourage or promote polygamy and there are no verses in the law or Old Testament Bible that clearly forbid this practice.

The Pentateuch also gives a list of laws that applies to the person of Judean kings. One of the laws regarding kingship states: "The king must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, "You are not to go back that way again." He must not take many wives, or his heart will be lead astray." (Deuteronomy 17:16-17, New International Version (NIV) Bible translation). The New Living Translation (NLT) also gives an accurate translation of these verses: "The king must not build up a large stable of horses for himself or send his people to Egypt to buy horses, for the Lord has told you, ‘You must never return to Egypt.’ The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the Lord. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself." Other versions substitute "multiply" instead of "take many", but this is more of a confusing translation because it alludes inaccurately that "more than one" may not be permitted. However, if you look at Deut 17:16, the same word "multipy" or "take many" is used with regard to horses, and clearly a king will need more than one horse. So these verses are referring to not amassing a great number of horses and wives.

The prophet Nathan speaking for God confronting David with the murder of Uriah the Hittite said that he (God) would have given David more wives if he had wanted them.[2Samuel 12:8]

Intertestamental period

Polygamy was an exception (though not rare) with respect to the common marital practicies in post-exilic Israel.[1] The practice also began to be criticized and declined during the intertestamental period.[2] By the New Testament period, there is some extant evidence of polygamy being practiced.[2][3] The Dead Sea Scrolls (DDS) show that several smaller sects within Judaism forbade polygamy before and during the time of Christ.[4][5][6] However, polygamy was not an uncommon practice in Jewish society during the intertestamental period.

The Temple Scroll (11QT LVII 17–18), within the DDS library, also seems to prohibit polygamy.[5][7]

New Testament perspectives

Jesus taught the Parable of the Ten Virgins which is about a bridegroom and ten virgins.[Matt 25:1–13] This has been interpreted by some Christian sects as a plural marriage. Indeed, copyists of the New Testament manuscripts added "and bride" to a number of manuscripts at the end of Matthew 25:1, presumably because they were disturbed by the implications.[8] However, knowing that women in Antiquity often carried out public functions as a group, it is possible that the virgins are the bridesmaids.[citation needed] Even so, no single bride is mentioned in the story and the group of ten virgins are acting in reference to a single groom and not to a single bride.

Three passages in the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy 3:2 and 3:12 and Titus 1:6 have been interpreted that church leaders should be the "husband of but one wife." This has been read by some Christian sects as a prohibition of polygamy, though others argue it may simply refer to marital unfaithfulness,[9] since "no Christian, whether an overseer or not, would have been allowed to practice polygamy.".[10]

Interviewed by Time magazine about his book, Michael Coogan said that according to Sola Scriptura, the Mormons were right about polygamy.[11]

Early church period

The church father Justin Martyr mentions that in his time Jewish men were permitted to have four or five wives,[12] and Babatha was a Jewish woman who was a second wife.

Jewish polygamy clashed with Roman monogamy at the time of the early church:

When the Christian Church came into being, polygamy was still practiced by the Jews. It is true that we find no references to it in the New Testament; and from this some have inferred that it must have fallen into disuse, and that at the time of our Lord the Jewish people had become monogamous. But the conclusion appears to be unwarranted. Josephus in two places speaks of polygamy as a recognized institution: and Justin Martyr makes it a matter of reproach to Trypho that the Jewish teachers permitted a man to have several wives. Indeed when in 212 A.D. the lex Antoniana de civitate gave the rights of Roman Citizenship to great numbers of Jews, it was found necessary to tolerate polygamy among them, even when though it was against Roman law for a citizen to have more than one wife. In 285 A.D. a constitution of Diocletian and Maximian interdicted polygamy to all subjects of the empire without exception. But with the Jews, at least, the enactment failed of its effect; and in 393 A.D. a special law was issued by Theodosius to compel the Jews to relinquish this national custom. Even so they were not induced to conform.[13]

Polygamy was not banned in the Jewish community until about 1000 A.D. by Rabbi Gershom.

The 3rd century Eusebius of Caesarea wrote the lost work "On the Numerous Progeny of the Ancients". This has been given as an example of plural marriage being reconciled with the ascetic life.[14] But it is likely that the problem dealt with was the contrast presented by the desire of the Patriarchs for a numerous offspring and the honour in which continence was held by Christians.[15]

Socrates Scholasticus wrote in the 5th century, that the Roman Emperor Valentinian I, in the fourth century, took two wives and authorized his subjects to take two wives supporting that Christians were then practicing plural marriage.[16] There is no trace of such an edict in any of the extant Roman Laws. Valentinian I divorced his first wife according to John Malalas, the Chronicon Paschale and John of Nikiu, before marrying his mistress, which was viewed as bigamy by Socrates, since the Church did not accept divorce.

Augustine wrote:That the good purpose of marriage, however, is better promoted by one husband with one wife, than by a husband with several wives, is shown plainly enough by the very first union of a married pair, which was made by the Divine Being Himself.[17]

Basil of Caesarea wrote of plural marriage that "such a state is no longer called marriage but polygamy or, indeed, a moderate fornication."[18] He ordered that those who are engaged in it should be excommunicated for up to five years, and "only after they have shown some fruitful repentance"[18] were they to be allowed back into the church. Moreover, he stated that the teachings against plural marriage are "accepted as our usual practice, not from the canons but in conformity with our predecessors."[18]

Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian all spoke against polygamy, condemning it. Tertullian explicitly tackled the objection that polygamy was allowed for the patriarchs. He wrote:"each pronouncement and arrangement is (the act) of one and the same God; who did then indeed, in the beginning, send forth a sowing of the race by an indulgent laxity granted to the reins of connubial alliances, until the world should be replenished, until the material of the new discipline should attain to forwardness: now, however, at the extreme boundaries of the times, has checked (the command) which He had sent out, and recalled the indulgence which He had granted" (De Monogamia chapt. VI.) Tertullian also made a direct attack on the polygamous practice of some Christian cults in his work Adversus Hermogenem. According to chapter XVI of De Monogamia, Hermogenes thought it was allowed for a man to take several wives. It is also revealed in this text, that Hermogenes mixed elements of Stoicism with Christianity, and essentially created a kind of sect.[19]

Reformation period

In the 16th century, there was a Christian re-examination of plural marriages. The founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther wrote: "I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter."[20]

The theologian Philipp Melanchthon likewise counseled that Henry VIII need not risk schism by dissolving his union with the established churches to grant himself divorces in order to replace his barren wives, but could instead look to polygamy as a suitable alternative.

Anabaptist leader Bernhard Rothmann initially opposed the idea of plural marriage. However, he later wrote a theological defense of plural marriage, and took 9 wives himself, saying "God has restored the true practice of holy matrimony amongst us."[21][22] Franz von Waldeck and the other enemies of Anabaptist leader John of Leiden accused him of keeping 16 wives, and publicly beheading one when she disobeyed him. This was used as the basis for their conquest of Münster in 1535.[23]

The 16th century Italian Capuchin Monk, Bernardino Ochino, 77 years old and never married, wrote the "Thirty Dialogues", wherein Dialog XXI was considered a defense of plural marriage. Evidently, he borrowed some of his strongest arguments from a Lutheran dialogue written in 1541 in favor of plural marriage which was written under the fictitious name Huldericus Necobulus in the interest of justifying Philip of Hesse.[24]

The polemicist John Milton expressed support for polygamy in his De doctrina christiana.[25]

The Lutheran pastor Johann Lyser strongly defended plural marriage in a work entitled "Polygamia Triumphatrix".[26][27] As a result, he was imprisoned, beaten and exiled from Italy to Holland. His book was burned by the public executioner.[28] He never married nor desired wedlock.[28] Samuel Friedrich Willenberg, a doctor of law at the University of Cracow, incurred the hatred of the Poles[clarification needed] by writing the pro-plural marriage book De finibus polygamiae licitae. In 1715, his book was ordered to be burned. Friedrich escaped with his life, but was fined one hundred thousand gold pieces.[28]

One of the more notable published works regarding the modern concept of Christian Plural Marriage dates from the 18th century. The book "Thelyphthora"[29] was written by Martin Madan, a significant writer of hymns and a contemporary of John Wesley and Charles Wesley. Though Madan was an adherent only of polygyny in a Christian context, this particular volume set the foundation of what is considered the modern Christian Plural Marriage movement.

19th century views

John Colenso was the Anglican bishop of Natal, South Africa, in 1853. He was the first to write down the Zulu language. He championed the Zulu way of life, to include plural marriage.[30][31]

A significant work, published in 1869 by James Campbell (pseudonym) entitled "The History and Philosophy of Marriage (or Polygamy and Monogamy Compared)",[32][unreliable source?] establishes a thorough development of the sourcing behind the modern movement of Christian Plural Marriage.

Modern views

The Nigerian Celestial Church of Christ allows clergy and laymen to keep multiple wives, and the Lutheran Church of Liberia began allowing plural marriage in the 1970s.[33][34]

Several other denominations permit those already in polygamous marriages to convert and join their church, without having to renounce their multiple marriages. These include the African Instituted Harrist Church, started in 1913.[33]

The Anglican church made a decision at the 1988 Lambeth Conference to admit those who were polygamists at the time they converted to Christianity, subject to certain restrictions.[34] Polygamy was first discussed during the Lambeth Conference of 1888:

"That it is the opinion of this Conference that persons living in polygamy be not admitted to baptism, but they may be accepted as candidates and kept under Christian instruction until such time as they shall be in a position to accept the law of Christ. That the wives of polygamists may, in the opinion of this Conference, be admitted in some cases to baptism, but that it must be left to the local authorities of the Church to decide under what circumstances they may be baptized." (Resolution 5).

A resolution dated 1958 and numbered 120 states that:

"(a) The Conference bears witness to the truth that monogamy is the divine will, testified by the teaching of Christ himself, and therefore true for every race of men,"

but adds:

"(d) The Conference, recognising that the problem of polygamy is bound up with the limitations of opportunities for women in society, urges that the Church should make every effort to advance the status of women in every possible way, especially in the sphere of education."[35]

In 1988, Resolution 26 declared:

"This Conference upholds monogamy as God's plan, and as the ideal relationship of love between husband and wife; nevertheless recommends that a polygamist who responds to the Gospel and wishes to join the Anglican Church may be baptized and confirmed with his believing wives and children on the following conditions:(1) that the polygamist shall promise not to marry again as long as any of his wives at the time of his conversion are alive;(2) that the receiving of such a polygamist has the consent of the local Anglican community;(3) that such a polygamist shall not be compelled to put away any of his wives, on account of the social deprivation they would suffer;(4) and recommends that provinces where the Churches face problems of polygamy are encouraged to share information of their pastoral approach to Christians who become polygamists so that the most appropriate way of disciplining and pastoring them can be found, and that the ACC be requested to facilitate the sharing of that information."[36]

In 2008, the 114. Resolution of the Lambeth Conference said this:

"In the case of polygamy, there is a universal standard – it is understood to be a sin, therefore polygamists are not admitted to positions of leadership including Holy Orders, nor after acceptance of the Gospel can a convert take another wife, nor, in some areas, are they admitted to Holy Communion."[37]

There are some modern Biblical scholars who believe that the Bible advocates polygamy such as Blaine Robinson. William Luck states that polygyny is not prohibited by the Bible and that it would have been required (as a secondary effect) of a married man who seduced (Ex. 22) or raped (Deut. 22) a virgin, where her father did not veto a marriage.[8][38]

Criticisms and defenses

One Flesh

Although the New Testament is largely silent on the issue, some point to Jesus' repetition of the earlier scriptures, noting that a man and a wife "shall become one flesh".[39] However, some look to Paul's writings to the Corinthians: "Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, 'The two will become one flesh.'" They claim this indicates that the term refers to a physical, rather than spiritual, union.[40]

Polygamists do not dispute that in marriage "two will become one." They only disagree with the idea that you can do this with only one person. In the Bible marriages to additional spouses are considered valid. If this is not true then there is a theological problem with the lineage of Jesus Christ which does not always go through the first wife.

Husband of One Wife

Many critics of polygamy also point to the epistles of Paul that state that church officials should be respectable, above reproach, and the husband of a single wife.[41] Hermeneutically, the Greek phrase mias gunaikos andra, is an unusual Greek construction, and capable of being translated in three possible ways: 1) "one wife man," (prohibiting plural marriage) or 2) "a wife man" (requiring elders to be married) or 3) "first wife man" (prohibiting divorcees from ordination).[42] Some claim that if these verses refer directly to polygamy (definition 1 above) it supports the acceptance of polygamy because if polygamy were outlawed there would be no need to have laws prohibiting leaders from being polygamists. One would only need a law prohibiting polygamy by leaders if polygamy was accepted among lay persons. (Definition possibilities 2 and 3 above are, of course, already polygamy friendly.)

In the time around Jesus' birth, polygamy (also called bigamy or digamy in texts) was understood to have had several spouses consecutively, as evidenced for example by Tertullian's work De Exhortatione Castitatis (chapt. VII.).[43] Saint Paul answered this problem by allowing widows to remarry (1 Cor. vii. 39. and 1 Tim 5:11–16). Paul says that only one man women elder than 60 years can make the list of Christian widows, but that younger widows should remarry to hinder sin. By demanding that leaders of the Church be a one woman man, Saint Paul excluded remarried widowers from having influence. This was a more strict understanding of monogamy than what the Roman laws codified, and it was new and unusual that the demand was made on men. "One man women" or mias andros güne was the name for widows who had only had one husband in their lives. This expression is the mirror of mias günaikos andra and highlights how that expression is to be understood.

On this subject William Luck writes:

Thus it is most probable that the qualifications list sees the “husband of one wife” as a condemnation of porneia—sex with an unmarried woman, though doubtless the clause also prohibited adultery—sex with someone else’s wife, polygyny was out of sight and mind. The issue is not the number of covenant relations the man had—he would only have had one at a time, since the empire was monogamous—but his womanizing. This of course does not eliminate the grievous sin of marrying and divorcing in order to have sexual relations with a number of women. But that too is not the issue in polygyny.[38]

See also


  1. ^ "Polygamy". Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=425&letter=P. Retrieved 2010-03-04. 
  2. ^ a b Instone-Brewer, David (2002). Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 59–62. ISBN 0802849431. 
  3. ^ Strong, James (2009). Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 8. Crane House Books. p. 365. 
  4. ^ Vermes, Geza (1975). Post Biblical Jewish Studies. Brill Academic Pub. p. 76. ISBN 9004041605. 
  5. ^ a b Brooke, George (2005). Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Fortress Press. pp. 4, 100–101. ISBN 0800637240. 
  6. ^ Murphy, Catherine (2002). Wealth in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Qumran Community. Brill Academic Publishers. p. 380. ISBN 9004119345. 
  7. ^ Loader, William (2009). The Dead Sea Scrolls on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Sectarian and Related Literature at Qumran. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 45. ISBN 0802863914. 
  8. ^ a b Polygamy ~ Blaine Robison, M.A. Blainerobison.com. Retrieved on 2011-01-23.
  9. ^ Walter Lock, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: (I & II Timothy and Titus), Continuum, 1999, ISBN 0567050335, p. 37.
  10. ^ Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, 2nd ed, Eerdmans, 1990, ISBN 0802804829, p. 92.
  11. ^ Alexandra Silver What the Bible Has to Say About Sex Time.com
  12. ^ Justin Martyr (110–165), Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, §134
  13. ^ Joyce, George (1933). Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study. Sheed and Ward. p. 560. 
  14. ^ Eusebius of Caesarea, as it appeared in the 1911 Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century.
  15. ^ The Catholic Encyclopedia
  16. ^ Matilda Joslyn Gage Women, Church and State. Ch VII.
  17. ^ On Marriage and Concupiscence,I,10
  18. ^ a b c Mark P. Shea (September 1996). "When Evangelicals treat Catholic tradition like revelation". New Oxford Review. http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/evantrea.htm.  Reprinted by EWTN.
  19. ^ The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325: ANTE-NICENE FATHERS VOLUME 4.Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Chronologically arranged, with brief notes and prefaces, by A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D. T&T CLARK, EDINBURGH WM. B. EERDMANS PUBLISHING COMPANY, GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN
  20. ^ Luter, Martin. De Wette II, 459, ibid., pp. 329–330.
  21. ^ Lindberg, Carter. "The European Reformations Sourcebook", p. 141
  22. ^ Rothmann, Bernhard (ca. 1495- ca. 1535) — GAMEO
  23. ^ Kautsky, Karl. Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation
  24. ^ For complete story scroll to Section 129. Bernardino Ochino. 1487–1565
  25. ^ John Milton, The Christian Doctrine in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Hughes (Hackett: Indianapolis, 2003), pp. 994–1000; Leo Miller, John Milton among the Polygamophiles (New York: Loewenthal Press, 1974)
  26. ^ Chapter VII. Polygamy, pp. 398 ff
  27. ^ An original copy of the book at vialibri.net
  28. ^ a b c Ditchfield, P.H. (1894). Books Fatal to Their Authors. http://www.djmcadam.com/fanatics.html. 
  29. ^ Martin Madan (1780). Thelyphthora: or, A treatise on female ruin, in its causes, effects, consequences, prevention, and remedy: considered on the basis of the divine law under the following heads, viz. marriage, whoredom, and fornication, adultery, polygamy, divorce: with many other incidental matters, particularly including an examination of the principles and tendency of Stat. 26 Geo. II. c. 33, commonly called The marriage act. Printed for J. Dodsley. http://books.google.com/books?id=frLUfEa4YXsC. Retrieved 23 January 2011. 
  30. ^ Colenso, John William – Hutchinson encyclopedia article about Colenso, John William
  31. ^ John William Colenso – LoveToKnow 1911
  32. ^ Online edition of the book available: http://biblicalfamilies.org/doc/HistoryOfMarriage-1869.pdf
  33. ^ a b Stephen Brown (5 December 1998). "WCC delays decision on membership for church with polygamous clergy". Ecumenical News International (a publication of the World Council of Churches). http://www.eni.ch/assembly/0553.html. 
  34. ^ a b Ian D. Ritchie (25 May 2001). "African Theology and the Status of Women in Africa". http://www3.sympatico.ca/ian.ritchie/AFRWOMEN.html. 
  35. ^ Lambeth Conference Resolutions Archive. (PDF) . Retrieved on 2011-01-23.
  36. ^ Lambeth Conference Archives – 1988 – Resolutions. Lambethconference.org. Retrieved on 2011-01-23.
  37. ^ Lambeth Conference Archives – 2008 – Reflections. Lambethconference.org. Retrieved on 2011-01-23.
  38. ^ a b William Luck. "On the Morality of Biblical Polygyny". bible.com. http://bible.org/article/morality-biblical-polygyny. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  39. ^ Genesis 2:26, Matthew 19:3–6
  40. ^ Corinthians&verse=6:16&src=ESV 1 Corinthians 6:16
  41. ^ 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1
  42. ^ Tom Shipley Man & Woman in Biblical Law, Part 1, THE INSTITUTE FOR CHRISTIAN PATRIARCHY, pp. 146, 197–200, 205
  43. ^ The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 ANTE-NICENE FATHERS VOLUME 4. Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Chronologically arranged, with brief notes and prefaces, by A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D. T&T CLARK, EDINBURGH, WM. B. EERDMANS PUBLISHING COMPANY, GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN

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