A “New Sexual Frontier”?
Christianity Today recently posted a report on the shifting views of polyamory.* After explaining a situation in which a “Christian couple” was encouraged by a “Christian counselor” to engage in polyamory in their marriage, the article asks the question: How can pastors and leaders prepare to address questions related to polyamory?
Not surprisingly, the authors turn to the Bible: “Scripture does clearly connect sex, marriage, and monogamy in ways that are violated in polyamorous relationships.” So, polyamory is adultery, so it’s sinful. OK but then why shouldn’t one spouse just marry the additional person?
Most Christians would say that doing so would only change the specific sin from adultery to polygamy – but could Protestants prove polygamy is sinful?
*Polyamory is the generic term for multiple-partner sexual relationships while polygamy refers specifically to multi-spouse marriages. Polygamy can be divided into polyandry which is a woman married to multiple men and polygyny which is one man married to multiple women. For technical reasons I won’t get into, polygyny is what is really in view here but I just use the word polygamy since polygyny its most common form.
Protestant Arguments Against Polygamy
In my experience, Protestants seriously overestimate their ability to argue against polygamy using the Bible alone. In fact, the tortured exegesis required to “prove” polygamy wrong might only make the case against it seem weaker.
First, the Bible only really speaks of multiple wives in particular – not polyamory in general. Therefore, it could be argued that multiple husbands is allowable even if multiple wives are not. (This might sound silly, but such nuanced arguments are often made by sola scriptura proponents when doing so serves to support their views).
Second, in the case of polygamy, it’s actually easier to “prove” that God is (or at least was) for it rather than against it.
Biblical Arguments Against Polygamy
A popular Bible study resource known as Nave’s Topical Bible includes polygamy in its index. It gives only a few verses indicating that it is forbidden – and even these are qualified: “[Kings] Deut. 17:17; [Sister] Lev. 18:18; [Elders] 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6.” So if Nave’s is correct, the Bible seems to say that only kings, sisters, and church elders may not engage in polygamy!
A closer look at the verses marshaled against polygamy will show that the Bible really does not provide good support for the anti-polygamy position.
Anti-Polygamy Proof Texts
In Norman Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, he argues against polygamy by saying that although “men God highly praised in the Bible had multiple wives (and/or concubines) . . . the Scriptures repeatedly warn against having multiple wives (Deut. 17:17) and violating the principle of monogamy—one man for one wife (cf. 1 Cor. 7:2; 1 Tim. 2[sic]:2).” Besides dubiously citing a single verse as “repeatedly” warning, there are several problems with these proof texts.
Deuteronomy 17:17 expresses a rule for Israel’s king – not all people. So even if this verse were ruling against polygamy, it would only apply to one person on Earth. Moreover, “multiply” does not mean to merely “add” (e.g., the king could certainly have more than one horse or piece of gold (cf. Dt. 17:16). The context indicates that the term means to “greatly increase” – but it only take one additional wife to be a polygamist.
1 Corinthians 7:2 offers marriage as an antidote to lust and sexual immorality – not a warning against getting married more than once. Consider a parallel example: Because of the temptation to theft, each man should have his own car and each woman her own jewelry. While having a single vehicle or necklace might relieve the temptation to steal them for oneself, it in no way implies that one cannot have two or more of these items.
1 Timothy 3:2 is a rule for Church elders, not everyone. Further, it may very well not be referring to polygamy at all (in fact, most Protestants see it as an issue for divorce).
Elsewhere Geisler argued that the first recorded polygamist, Lamech, was a wicked man (Gen. 4:23)! This is true – but the first recorded monogamist brought death to the entire human race (Gen. 3:16-19)! If the historical record is an indication of God’s preference for marriage, then it seems monogamy might lose!
So much for arguing against Polygamy using the Bible alone to condemn polygamy. But it gets worse . . .
Biblical Arguments For Polygamy
Not only does the Bible not provide very good reasons to reject polygamy, it might be seen to argue for it!
Toleration and Instruction
Nave’s lists several verses indicating the authorization, toleration, or instructions regarding the practice of polygamy (2 Sam. 12:8; Ex. 21:10; 1 Sam. 1:2; 2 Chr. 24:3; Job 27:15). While one can argue that the Bible often records actions and events that it does not approve of, since when does God give instructions on how to properly practice sin?
Then Nave’s goes on to list some pretty impressive biblical figures who were polygamists:
- Abraham, Gen. 16
- Esau, Gen. 26:34; 28:9
- Jacob, Gen. 29:30
- Gideon, Judg. 8:30
- David, 1 Sam. 25:39–44; 2 Sam. 3:2–5; 5:13; 1 Chr. 14:3
- Solomon, 1 Kin. 11:1–8
Now the Bible records things it does not approve of – but there is more to some of these biblical story than just the fact that many important men of God happened to be polygamists:
Not only was Jacob a polygamist (like his father Abraham), but God rewarded his first wife, Leah, for helping him attain a second wife! (Gen. 30: 9, 18).
A big problem for those who want to call polygamy sin is Exodus 21:10 where God lays out the rules for polygamous marriages. Does God give moral guidelines for immoral actions?
In 2 Samuel 12:8 God lists David’s multiple wives as part of the blessings that God himself bestowed upon him. Does God encourage sin by helping out in its attainment? And let us not forget that David was a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22) and that David “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15:5).
Protestant Arguments For Polygamy
Although polygamy has never been held to be a generally acceptable practice in Protestantism, its found, Martin Luther, had this to say on the subject:
“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.” (De Wette II, 459, 329-330).
Martin Luther was not the only one who did not seem to have a problem with polygamy. The Lutheran theologian Philipp Melanchthon counseled Henry VIII to not risk schism to grant himself divorces in order to replace his barren wives, but could instead look to polygamy as a suitable alternative. Anabaptist leader Bernhard Rothmann wrote a defense of plural marriage, and took nine wives himself.
Protestantism’s marital practices also do not help the case against polygamy. The (eventual) Protestant allowance for divorce affirms something that God actually says he hates (Malachi 2:16). God never, however, said such a thing about polygamy. Further, the Protestants accept remarriage after divorce which Jesus specifically calls adultery (Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18).
Thus, while Protestants affirm things that the Bible says God hates and considers sinful, they reject something God accepted and even seemed to promote!
The Church’s Arguments Against Polygamy
Although polygamy was not banned in the Jewish community until about A.D. 1000, the Christian Church taught from ancient times that polygamy is not (or is at least no longer) God’s will.
Early Church theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus condemned polygamy. Tertullian explicitly tackled the objection that polygamy was allowed for the patriarchs in his De Monogamia. Augustine taught that polygamy of the patriarchs, tolerated by the Creator because of fertility, was a diversion from His original plan for the human marriage. Basil of Caesarea wrote of plural marriage that it was no longer called marriage but polygamy or fornication and ordered that those who are engaged in to be excommunicated.
Because the Church did not rely on biblical “proof texts” alone, but also took natural law and sacred tradition into account, it arrived at the position that the vast majority of Christians hold to today. One might say that Protestants are basically riding on the Church’s “non-biblical” traditions!
Most Protestants would agree that polygamy is wrong – even sinful. But they cannot not reach it by simply following Scripture because he Bible alone is insufficient for disproving the propriety of polygamy (certainly they may turn to their extra-biblical confessions – but are these not “traditions of men” that “add to Scripture”???). The end result is that the Protestant method actually may lend inadvertent support for polygamy. This is a case for natural law and sacred tradition – which, unfortunately, most Protestants have turned their backs on.