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“Marriage & Sexuality, part 7: Polygamy”Categories: Bible, marriage & family, Midweek FR articles
This series of articles has covered most of the basics of Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. In fairness to the Bible’s overall teaching, let’s consider this one final discussion in the series: the matter of polygamy (or polygyny), which is the practice of being married to multiple spouses at the same time. This practice hardly needs to be warned against in the cultural moment of twenty-first-century America, first because it’s illegal in all 50 states, and second because the practice seems almost inhumane to us. America’s sensibilities are trained by a Judeo-Christian thought heritage in which the thought of marriage usually carries the idea of exclusivity with it, and we are so accustomed to that thought that we even struggle within the Bible to make sense of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and other men who had multiple wives at the same time.
I don’t want to over-explain something which seems obvious to so many, but it bears saying out loud: Genesis 2:24 says, "Therefore a man [singular] shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife [singular], and they shall become one flesh" (clarifications added). From that statement and plenty more, Biblically speaking, it’s wrong for more than two people to be married to each other, and that’s all that needs to be said in direct address of the matter. But let me make three quick and relevant observations that are slightly more indirectly related to this practice.
First: As mentioned above, we struggle to make sense of the many examples of polygamous unions throughout the Bible, especially by men who are held up as great examples of faith in God. A couple of realizations can help us reconcile this. First, we should pay careful attention to how the stories are written and what those men are actually commended for, because we will search the Bible in vain to find a place where their polygamy is commended. Second, we should keep in mind that those Bible characters are not held up as examples of perfection, but of faith in crucial moments. And that helps us to see that they were imperfect like we are, which makes us all look to the one example of human perfection: Christ. The Old Testament narratives are often not telling the stories of what should have happened, but rather what did happen. They show us the human players in God’s grand drama with honesty; not as morally whitewashed men who did all things right.
Second: You may occasionally hear the term ‘polyamory’ bandied about in the cultural conversation about modern sexual ethics. You should know that this term does not refer to polygamous marriage, but rather to multiple unmarried sexual partners. Obviously, in a world where many are calling evil good and putting bitter for sweet (cf. Isa. 5:20), we expect this behavior from the world and yet we see it for the sin that it is.
Third: There is a lingering thought among many religious people that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints endorses the practice of polygyny. According to official teaching from the church, this is no longer true. It was accepted by that religious organization over a century ago, but it is strongly condemned in their official teachings today, and it has been for a long time. I point that out here for the benefit of any of us who get into conversations about the Gospel with a Mormon friend: we would do well not to criticize their religious beliefs regarding this matter, because while their church once taught that it was okay, the person that you’re talking to probably has a strong belief in one-man-one-woman marriage.
Again, it’s easy to see that polygamy/polygyny is a sinful practice. It appears to have been one of the many things in “the time of ignorance [which] God overlooked” (Ac. 17:30), but it was never given divine approval. And so we are thankful that this sinful practice is largely out of fashion in our time and place, and we pray that our culture will be reformed to see all other sexual and marital sins with the same sort of repulsion with which this one is generally viewed.
- Dan Lankford, minister
PS – I had thought that this article would hardly be meaningful in our cultural context, but then the matters of monogamy, polyamory, and sexual infidelity came up in this article from USA Today on Monday of this week, which just reminded me that these matters of right and wrong are always relevant.