Does the Bible prohibit polygamy? This question has recently become topical again in Africa. In Nigeria, a popular actor recently took a second wife and commentators jumped quickly to his defence, even offering biblical support. In April, a Congolese pastor married four wives on the same day! Not to be outdone, a Kenyan man recently shared his plans to tie the knot with identical triplet sisters.
Many Christians believe that polygamy has biblical support.
But polygamy isn’t only gaining popular support. Many Christians believe that polygamy has biblical support too. They typically make two arguments:
- Nowhere in the Bible is there a clear commandment forbidding polygamy,
- Many Old Testament heroes, such as Abraham and David, were polygamous.
What should we make of these arguments? Does the absence of a clear prohibition against polygamy mean it’s permitted today? What about the various examples of polygamy in the Old Testament? Below I tackle these questions, arguing that a proper reading of the Bible shows the Bible doesn’t permit New Testament believers to be polygamous.
Jesus: “The Two Shall Become One Flesh”
In Matthew 19 the Pharisees ask Jesus about adultery. Responding to them, he points to God’s original intent for marriage at creation. Jesus says, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
God gave marriage so that a man (singular) would hold fast to a woman (singular).
Jesus’s point is clear. At creation God gave marriage so that a man (singular) would hold fast to a woman (singular). Furthermore, something mysterious happens when they come together. They become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Jesus expects married Christians to prioritise their spouse over every other relationship. This is why most traditional wedding vows include the line: ‘forsaking all others.’ Polygamy destroys this imagery.
Paul: “The Husband Of One Wife”
Now for the second argument: Old Testament heroes (such as David, Abraham, Israel, Judah, Gideon, Samson and Solomon) took multiple wives. We must insist that New Testament believers are held to a higher ethical standard. We might illustrate this by considering Paul’s requirements for eldership in 1 Timothy 3. Paul describes the mature believer.
Christian maturity includes a commitment to monogamy.
One of the attributes that defines mature men is they are the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2). Though not every Christian will become an elder or a deacon, every Christian must strive to become mature. Maturity, according to Paul, includes a commitment to monogamy. Of course, not every Christian man must marry. Single men can become elders in the church. But those who do marry must be the husband of one wife.
Marriage Pictures Christ And His Church
The ultimate argument against polygamy, as far as I’m concerned, is that it distorts what Christian marriage represents. As Paul writes: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:25, 29-32).
Polygamy distorts what Christian marriage represents.
In other words, marriage imperfectly and faintly represents the union between Christ and his church. Husbands must aspire to the kind of love that Christ has for his church. Since Christ nourishes and cherishes his church, a husband must do likewise for his wife. The church has entered a one flesh union with Christ and Christ would take no other bride. Christians must strive to imitate Christ in marriage through loving, lifelong monogamy.
In their wonderful book on marriage Tim and Kathy Keller write: “The Bible begins with a wedding (of Adam and Eve) and ends in the book of Revelation with a wedding (of Christ and the church). Marriage is God’s idea.” Marriage is indeed God’s idea. God overlooked the times of ignorance in the Old Testament. As the New Testament church we have greater clarity on this matter. It is our privilege to proclaim the wisdom of God’s original design: the one flesh union of marriage.