Is Polygamy Justified Given the Old Testament Practice?
In the Western world, this question is usually viewed as irrelevant, but across the rest of the world, believers occasionally face situations where this is a crucial issue. Should polygamy be preached against? Should converts be encouraged to give up their polygamous family structures? In light of these sensitive situations, let us carefully approach the Bible concerning polygamy itself and broader marital teachings.
The Genesis creation narrative depicts an ideal world. Following God’s intricate and extensive creative process, the first human, Adam, was left in a state of loneliness (Genesis 2:18). To remedy this predicament, God fashioned the first woman, Eve, as a companion (Genesis 2:19-22). In verse 24, these events are explained as the reason why marriage occurs between one man and one woman. This creation construct demonstrates the way the world should be. But the world fell into sin.
After the deception of Satan and the transgression of mankind, God’s good creation has become increasingly depraved and warped. Cain’s murder of Abel is the first expression of this growing evil (Genesis 4:1-16). Further down in chapter 4, Lamech, a descendant of Cain, is indicated as the first person to enter into a polygamous relationship (Genesis 4:19). To a Western reader’s surprise, the Genesis text does not overtly condemn this behavior. Considering the frequent wars and subsequent deaths of males described throughout the history of early humanity, perhaps God’s silence was a form of provision for women, granting an additional opportunity for marriage rather than destitution. We can only guess.
As we continue to read through the Old Testament, a pattern emerges. In the polygamous relationships recorded in the Scriptures, Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon all had significant complications due to their marital situations (Genesis 16; Genesis 29-30; 1 Chronicles 11:3-4). In no case did God command them to marry multiple wives, and they faced extensive problems for pursuing them. At first glance, David might be considered an exception, but his children were a handful! Also, his wealth of wives did not keep him from engaging in adultery with Bathsheba.
Entering the New Testament context, polygamy is not described as a common cultural or Christian behavior. Among passages on Christian leadership, it is mentioned but never allowed for the eldership (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). The Scriptures remain silent concerning those who are not in leadership, but we can easily ascertain the ideal conveyed through Paul’s leadership criteria.
After considering these truths, we should see polygamous relationships as unwise and less than ideal. Missionaries must have wisdom as they counsel those in other countries who come to faith in Christ. Thus, understanding and grace should be exemplified by believers toward polygamous families. Let us seek to love, even when the situation may prove uncomfortable and different.