Polygamy in Christianity
Polygamy is "the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time." Polygamy has been practiced by many cultures throughout history.:3 There are numerous examples of polygamy among close followers, devotees, and the faithful to God in the Old Testament, but it is generally not accepted by contemporary Christians. Some Christians actively debate whether the New Testament or Christian ethics allows or forbids polygamy and there are several Christian views on the Old Covenant. This debate focuses almost exclusively on polygyny (one man having more than one wife) and not polyandry (one woman having more than one husband).
- 1 Jewish background
- 2 New Testament
- 3 Early Church period
- 4 Middle Ages
- 5 Reformation period
- 6 Modern period
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Polygyny is explicitly not forbidden in the Old Testament. The Torah includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygyny,:79 such as Exodus 21:10 "If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights". Deut 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 Deut 17:17 states that the king shall not have many wives. The king's behavior is condemned by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 1:8. Over 40 important figures had more than one wife, such as Esau[Genesis 26:34][28:6–9], Elkanah[1 Samuel 1:1–8], and Solomon[1 Kings 11:1–3]. Moses had three wives; Zipporah[Exodus 2: 21], the daughter of Hobab[Numbers 10: 291] and the "Cushite" woman,[Numbers 12: 1] [a]
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]
Polyandry was explicitly forbidden. If a man slept with a woman married to another man, both were to be put to death for adultery.[Deuteronomy 22:22] Under this law, if two men were married to one woman, all three would be subject to the death penalty. It is for this reason that all examples of polygamy in scripture involve polygyny, not polyandry, and in most Christian discussion the words "polygamy" and "polygyny" can be considered synonymous.
Polygamy was a rare exception in post-exilic Israel. The practice began to be criticized and declined during the intertestamental period:59–62 but there is some extant evidence of polygamy being practiced in the New Testament period.:365 The Dead Sea Scrolls show that several smaller Jewish sects forbade polygamy before and during the time of Jesus.:76:4, 100–101 The Temple Scroll (11QT LVII 17–18) seems to prohibit polygamy.
According to Rabbi Naftali Silberberg, in Jewish thought polygamy is not and never was the ideal state and that the Talmud or Midrash never mentions a polygamous family is completely clear that polygamy was never the norm. He also states that almost all polygamous relationships in the Bible are for specific reasons such as the wife was barren (Sarah, Leah, etc), monarchs marrying to cement relationships between tribes, and Laban tricking Jacob into marrying Leah.
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 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." In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul the Apostle states that a man is to have one wife and a woman is to have one husband. "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control."[1Corinthians 7]
Henry 2006, Ch7 comments on 1 Corinthians 7: He (Paul the Apostle) informs them that marriage, and the comforts and satisfactions of that state, are by divine wisdom prescribed for preventing fornication (v. 2), Porneias —Fornications, all sorts of lawless lust. To avoid these, Let every man, says he, have his own wife, and every woman her own husband; that is, marry, and confine themselves to their own mates. And, when they are married, let each render the other due benevolence (v. 3), consider the disposition and exigency of each other, and render conjugal duty, which is owing to each other. For, as the apostle argues (v. 4), in the married state neither person has power over his own body, but has delivered it into the power of the other, the wife hers into the power of the husband, the husband his into the power of the wife. Note, Polygamy, or the marriage of more persons than one, as well as adultery, must be a breach of marriage-covenants, and a violation of the partner’s rights.
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."[ESV][ESV] 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.[ESV]
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. Further, if a man is married, he and his wife are "one flesh." To add another wife would mean that the new wife becomes "one flesh" with the man and his current 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.[ESV][ESV] Hermeneutically, the Greek phrase mias gunaikos andra is an unusual Greek construction, capable of being translated in multiple ways, including (but not limited to): 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). Other interpretations include: Being faithful in relationships or restrained from chasing many women, so as to be characterized as a one-woman man; having been married only once (even if morally and legally released from the marriage bond by the death of the spouse). Some argue that definition 1 above implies acceptance of polygamy in the larger Christian culture, explaining Paul's explicit rejection of polygamy for elders. However, the qualifications for elders almost exclusively mirror the expectations for all Christians, including restrictions on drunkenness and instructions to manage one's household well.
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 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. Some conclude that by requiring leaders of the Church be one woman men, Saint Paul excluded remarried widowers from having influence. This would have been a more strict understanding of monogamy than Roman law codified, and would have been a new and unusual demand on men.
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—unlawful sex, 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.":560
"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, 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 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.:398 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.
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."
Monogamy was the norm among Christians, However,in the context of the sickness of a wife preventing matrimonial intercourse, 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."
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 nine wives himself, saying "God has restored the true practice of holy matrimony amongst us.":141 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:p194 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".:202-203 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".:398 As a result, he was imprisoned, beaten and exiled from Italy to the Netherlands. 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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
2387 The predicament of a man who, desiring to convert to the Gospel, is obliged to repudiate one or more wives with whom he has shared years of conjugal life, is understandable. However polygamy is not in accord with the moral law." [Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive." The Christian who has previously lived in polygamy has a grave duty in justice to honor the obligations contracted in regard to his former wives and his children.
2400 Adultery, divorce, polygamy, and free union are grave offenses against the dignity of marriage.
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) and practiced publicly from 1852 to 1890. On September 24, 1890, Wilford Woodruff, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at that time, issued the 1890 Manifesto, which advised church members against entering into any marriage prohibited by the law of the land, and made it possible for Utah to become a U.S. state. Nevertheless, even after the Manifesto, the church quietly continued to perform a small number of plural marriages in the United States, Mexico, and Canada,[b]> thus necessitating a Second Manifesto during U.S. congressional hearings in 1904. Although neither Manifesto dissolved existing plural marriages, plural marriage in the LDS Church gradually died by attrition during the early 1900s. The Manifesto was canonized in the LDS Church standard works as Official Declaration 1 and is considered by mainstream Mormons to have been prompted by divine revelation, in which Woodruff was shown that the church would be thrown into turmoil if they did not comply with it. Mormon fundamentalists dispute that Woodruff received any such revelation.
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."
The Twelfth Lambeth Conference held in 1988, in Resolution 26 - Church and Polygamy stated:
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:
- that the polygamist shall promise not to marry again as long as any of his wives at the time of his conversion are alive;
- that the receiving of such a polygamist has the consent of the local Anglican community;
- that such a polygamist shall not be compelled to put away any of his wives, on account of the social deprivation they would suffer;
In 2008 the Lambeth Conference noted:
- "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.
On August 29, 2017, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a manifesto on human sexuality known as the "Nashville Statement". The statement was signed by 150 evangelical leaders, and includes 14 points of belief. Among other things, it states, "We deny that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship."
Exceptions in Africa
- John Colenso, the Anglican bishop of Natal, South Africa in 1853, was the first to write down the Zulu language. He championed the Zulu way of life, including plural marriage.
- The Nigerian Celestial Church of Christ allows clergy and laymen to keep multiple wives.
- In Liberia, the Lutheran Church began allowing plural marriage in the 1970s.
- The African instituted Harrist Church, started in 1913, permit those already in polygamous marriages to convert and join their church without having to renounce their multiple marriages.
- Mswati III, the Christian king of Swaziland, has 15 wives.
- Translated as the Ethiopian woman in the Authorised Version.[Numbers 12: 1]
- The ledger of 'marriages and sealings performed outside the temple,' which is not comprehensive, lists 315 marriages performed between October 17, 1890, and September 8, 1903.36 Of the 315 marriages recorded in the ledger, research indicates that 25 (7.9%) were plural marriages and 290 were monogamous marriages (92.1%). Almost all the monogamous marriages recorded were performed in Arizona or Mexico. Of the 25 plural marriages, 18 took place in Mexico, 3 in Arizona, 2 in Utah, and 1 each in Colorado and on a boat on the Pacific Ocean.
- So the fundamentalist Mormons who insist that polygamy is biblical are right, in a sense. If you're going to be a strict literalist, there's nothing wrong with polygamy.
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