Polygamy in Christianity
Polygamy is a marriage which includes more than two partners. There are numerous examples of polygamy in the Old Testament, but it is generally not accepted by modern Christianity. Some Christians actively debate whether the New Testament or Christian ethics allows or forbids polygamy. This debate focuses almost exclusively on polygyny (one man having more than one wife) and not polyandry (one woman having more than one husband).
The Torah includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygamy, such as Exodus 21:10: "If he take another wife for himself; her food, her clothing, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish". Deuteronomy 21:15–17, states that a man must award the inheritance due to a first-born son to the son who was actually born first, even if he hates that son's mother and likes another wife more; and Deuteronomy 17:17 states that the king shall not have too many wives. The king's behavior is condemned by Prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8. (The understanding of the Jewish perspective on co-wives may also be derived from the Hebrew word for co-wife found in the Tanakh, "צרה" [Tza'rah], which forms the same root as the Yiddush word, "צרות" [Tzoo'rus], meaning "trouble".) It is important to note, as explained by Israeli lexicographer Vadim Cherny, that the Torah carefully distinguishes concubines and "sub-standard" wives with prefix "to" (lit. "took to wives"). Despite these nuances to the biblical perspective on polygamy, many important figures had more than one wife, such as in the instances of Esau (Gen 26:34; 28:6-9), Moses (Ex 2:21;Num 12:1), Jacob (Gen 29:15-28), Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1-8), David (1 Samuel 25:39-44; 2 Samuel 3:2-5; 5:13-16), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3).
Multiple marriage was considered a realistic alternative in the case of famine, widowhood, or female infertility. The practice of levirate marriage obligated a man whose brother has left a widow without heir to marry her.[Deut 25:5–10]
Polygamy was an exception (although not rare) in post-exilic Israel. The practice began to be criticized and declined during the intertestamental period but there is some extant evidence of polygamy being practiced in the New Testament period. The Dead Sea Scrolls show that several smaller Jewish sects forbade polygamy before and during the time of Jesus. The Temple Scroll (11QT LVII 17–18) seems to prohibit polygamy.
Three passages in the pastoral epistles (1Timothy 3:2, 1Timothy 3:12 and Titus 1:6) state that church leaders should be the "husband of but one wife." This has been read by some Christian sects as a prohibition of polygamy, others argue that polygamy is allowed, but not for church leaders, still others argue that the passage refers only to church leaders not divorcing their first wives. Walter Lock in his 1990 book argues it may simply refer to marital unfaithfulness since "no Christian, whether an overseer or not, would have been allowed to practice polygamy."
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." 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.'" Supporters of polygamy claim this indicates that the term refers to a physical, rather than spiritual, union.
Cleave to wife
Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Polygamists do not dispute that in marriage "two shall be one flesh", they only disagree with the idea that a married man can only be "one flesh" with one woman. Assuming the man is married, the fact that a man can even be "one flesh" with a harlot apparently does not negate his being "one flesh" with his wife.
Husband of one wife
Many critics of polygamy also point to the Pauline epistles that state that church officials should be respectable, above reproach, and the husband of a single wife. 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 divorcés from ordination). 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.). 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 older 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 Roman law 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.
Early Church period
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 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."
"We do not indeed forbid the union of man and woman, blest by God as the seminary of the human race, and devised for the replenishment of the earth and the furnishing of the world and therefore permitted, yet singly. For Adam was the one husband of Eve, and Eve his one wife, one woman, one rib."
The 3rd century Eusebius of Caesarea wrote the lost work "On the Numerous Progeny of the Ancients". Eusebius references this twice, in the "Præparatio Evangelica", VII, 8, and in the "Demonstratio Evangelica". Although his work has been given as an example of plural marriage being reconciled with the ascetic life, 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.
Basil of Caesarea wrote in the 4th century of plural marriage that "such a state is no longer called marriage but polygamy or, indeed, a moderate fornication." 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" 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."
Augustine wrote in the second half of the 4th century that
"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."
and "The Sacrament of marriage of our time has been so reduced to one man and one wife, as that it is not lawful to ordain any as a steward of the Church, save the husband of one wife."
Socrates of Constantinople wrote in the 5th century that the Roman Emperor Valentinian I took two wives and authorized his subjects to take two wives, supporting that Christians were then practicing plural marriage. 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.
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.) According to chapter XVI of De Monogamia, Hermogenes thought it was allowed for a man to take several wives. Tertullian also made a direct attack on the polygamous practice of some cults in his work Adversus Hermogenem. This is the same Hermogenes mentioned above. Tertullian writes that he was a sect leader, who mixed Stoic, Gnostic and Christian views to create a new religion.
The Church held a synod in Hertford, England, in 673 that was supervised by Archbishop Theodore. Chapter 10 issued by the synod declared that marriage is allowed between one man and one woman, and separation (but not divorce) is only granted in the case of adultery, but even then remarriage is not allowed.
In the medieval period, multiple wives were often obtained through kidnapping. It is with this in view that we must interpret the following laws: The Frankish Laws of 818-9 strictly forbade kidnapping of women. The XXVII. law issued by King Stephen I of Hungary (1000–1030) declares that the kidnapper must return the woman to her parents even if he has had sexual intercourse with her, and must pay a penalty to the parents. According to the Hungarian law, the kidnapped girl was then free to marry whomever.
The Roman councils of 1052 and 1063 suspended from communion those laymen who had a wife and a concubine at the same time. Divorce was also forbidden, and remarriage after a divorce counted as polygamy. Nicholas the Great (858-67) forbade Lothair II of Lotharingia to divorce his barren wife Teutberga and marry his concubine Waldrada, with whom he had several children. After a council of the Lotharingian bishops, as well as the archbishop of Köln and Trier had annulled his marriage to Theutberga, the pope voided this decision, and made him take his wife back.
In Scandinavia, the word for an official concubine was "frille". Norwegian Bishop Øystein Erlendsson (ca. 1120-1188) declared that concubines were not allowed to accept the sacraments unless they married, and men were forced to promise marriage to women they had lain with outside of wedlock. In 1280, the Norwegian king Eirik Magnusson (1280–99) declared that men were exempted from having to promise marriage to the frille if they went to confession and did penance. The Church answered by making several declarations in the 14th century, urging men to marry their concubines. In 1305, King Håkon V (1299–1319) issued a law that declared marriage to be the only lawful way of cohabitation, and declared that only women in wedlock were allowed to dress as they pleased, while the dress of concubines was restricted.
While monogamy was the norm among Christians, 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."
However, the context was a situation in which the sickness of a wife prevented matrimonial intercourse, and when asked for an opinion on polygamy in 1526, Luther wrote, "It is my earnest warning and counsel that Christians especially shall have no more than one wife, not only because it is a scandal, which a Christian should avoid most diligently, but also because there is no word of God here to show that God approves it in Christians.... I must oppose it, especially in Christians, unless there be need, as for instance if the wife be a leper, or be taken away from the husband in some other way."
Arthur Cushman McGiffert also states,
"Some of the radical Anabaptists undertook to introduce polygamy, appealing to the patriarchal order of society in justification of their position. Even among Luther's followers and associates there was no little uncertainty about the matter, as was not altogether surprising when the old order of things was undergoing revision at so many points, including the marriage of monks, priests, and near relatives. But Luther himself was unalterably opposed to any such revolution. Monogamy he considered, under ordinary circumstances, alone tolerable in a Christian community, and held that no Christian ruler has any moral right to legalize polygamy. At the same time, finding no explicit prohibition in the Bible, he believed exceptions might be allowed in certain extreme cases such as are now generally recognized in Protestant countries as justifying divorce."
Lutheran theologians approved of Philip of Hesse's polygamous marriages to Christine of Saxony and Margarethe von der Saale for this purpose, as well as initial disapproval of divorce and adultery. As well as Phillip, there was much experimentation with marital duration within early German Lutheranism amongst clergy and their erstwhile wives
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 reluctantly, and with remorse afterward, consented that polygamy was an allowable 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." 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.
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.
A different position was taken by the Council of Trent in 1563, which was opposed to polygyny and concubinage, If anyone says that it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time, and that it is not forbidden by any divine law (Matt. 19:4f): let him be anathema". The polemicist John Milton expressed support for polygamy in his De doctrina christiana.
The Lutheran pastor Johann Lyser strongly defended plural marriage in a work entitled "Polygamia Triumphatrix". As a result, he was imprisoned, beaten and exiled from Italy to Holland. His book was burned by the public executioner. He never married nor desired wedlock. Samuel Friedrich Willenberg, a doctor of law at the University of Cracow wrote 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.
One of the more notable published works regarding the modern concept of Christian Plural Marriage dates from the 18th century. The book Thelyphthora was written by Martin Madan, a significant writer of hymns and a contemporary of John Wesley and Charles Wesley. Although 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.
Polygamy (called "plural marriage" by Mormons in the 19th century or "the Principle" by modern fundamentalist practitioners) was taught by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) for more than half of the 19th century, and practiced publicly from 1852 to 1890 by a minority of Latter-day Saint families (between 20 percent and 30 percent).
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.
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. 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,"
- "(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."
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."
In 2008, the 114. Resolution of the Lambeth Conference said:
- "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."
William Luck states that polygyny is not prohibited by the Bible and that it would have been required of a married man who seduced (Ex. 22) or raped (Deut. 22) a virgin, where her father did not veto a marriage.
However, in a book-length consideration of the problem, William Blum argues that monogamy was always God's ideal. He points out that in every Old Testament example where polygynous families were described in any detail, family strife involving the plural wives is also described. He argues that the concept of two becoming one flesh makes polygamy a violation of God's plan for marriage.
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- What Does the Bible Say About Polygamy?, essay by a Christian pastor and radio talk show host highlighted by a debate with a leading polygamist
- Biblical Polygyny from God's Word, a thorough series on Biblical polygamy by Righteous Warriors