24 October 2014
What is wrong with polygamy?
Until recently the answer to this question seemed universally obvious despite perhaps a few complicating cultural missional contexts. However, as Don Horrocks, the Alliance's head of public affairs, explains, today the answer for many may well be – 'not a lot'!
Until recently, most people knew instinctively that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. In legal terms this is no longer the case in much of the West. Many, including Christians, are uncertain about what marriage is and why it matters. Before we can even consider polygamy, we first have to define what marriage is. This is no longer straightforward. In fact, during a recent parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage, one government minister said that "marriage is what you want it to be".
If parliament can suddenly decide after thousands of years of human history that marriage is no longer between a man and a woman, then where is the logic in insisting that it must remain between two people?
For evangelical Christians the pattern for marriage is authoritatively laid down in scripture. Although the Bible never commands, encourages or condones polygamy, it may be a surprise to discover that neither does it explicitly forbid it. Lamech was the first of many polygamists in the Old Testament, including patriarchs and kings who enjoyed divine favour (see Genesis 4:19; 29:21-30; 1 Samuel 27:3, for example). But the absence of explicit biblical prohibition should never be equated with divine approval. The Bible often uses stories as warnings to convey the mind and purposes of God. In Lamech's case, his practice of polygamy is understood to be typical of the wicked, whose willful pride and lust for power seeks to be satisfied by the multiplication of wives or other symbols of status and self-indulgence. Plural marriage has never been biblical marriage and when polygamy occurred it usually had disastrous outcomes for families, including David (2 Samuel 11-13). Blessed with wisdom and divine favour, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. However, consistent with divine warnings about the dangers of polygamy in Deuteronomy 17:17, scripture is clear that "they turned his heart away from the Lord … to follow other gods… Solomon did what was evil in the Lord's sight." (1 Kings 11:3-6).
We may not fully understand why scripture doesn't record God denouncing the behaviour of Abraham, Jacob and David when they flouted God's pattern for marriage. It may involve similar considerations to the question of divorce addressed by Jesus in Matthew 19:8, when he stated: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning." There is no condemnation of polygamy in the Bible like the condemnation of divorce in Malachi 2:10-16 and Matthew 19:9. However, the Old Testament does circumscribe polygamy by regulations,which acknowledge that multiple wives pose a potential threat to social stability and may often involve family complications (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Today, it's observed that societies that admit polygamy often involve abuse of power and oppression of women. Most Old Testament references to polygamy assume that a man's first wife could not have children or that having plural wives was a means of developing strategic relationships and alliances. The practice of polygamy seemed to be associated with ensuring that no woman remained childless and no man need look outside his family for sexual relationship. It was therefore a practical solution to experienced need. But it was always understood to be the exception rather than the rule.
The inaugural account of male and female relationship of Adam and Eve in Genesis1-2 is undoubtedly meant to represent the programmatic biblical pattern for human relationships. In Genesis 2:24 God set out his clear intention for marriage, which is unambiguously heterosexual and monogamous. The emphasis on their becoming "one flesh" presupposes a monogamous relationship, and this creation ordinance is strongly reinforced by Jesus and the whole New Testament in reference to husbands and wives. Indeed, being the husband of one wife is a prerequisite for leadership in the Church and is a requirement often found highlighted, for example, in African churches today (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus1:6).
Christians usually define marriage in terms of the biological complementarity of one man and one woman in conjugal relationship as father and mother to any children their union produces. If by redefining marriage its uniqueness and normativity in terms of gender complementarity disappears, then children are decoupled from marriage and adultery and consummation are marginalised. So then what remains of marriage is little more than an adult-centred, committed, intense emotional relationship. On the basis of such logic, why should exclusivity in marriage be insisted on? Why should recent demands by polygamy and open marriage activists for full civil rights be resisted? Indeed, there may be a feeling of déjà vu in the recent remarkable number of attempts to demonstrate that polygamy is actually biblically acceptable today and that the idea of multiple sexual partners is by no means prohibited by scripture.
But for Bible-believing Christians the injunction of Paul against polygamy remains unambiguous: "Each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband" (1 Corinthians 7:2).