What does the Bible say about polygamy?
God's plan for marriage
Before exploring the question of polygamy (being married to more than one person at the same time), it is important to understand God’s intention for marriage.
The biblical pattern for marriage is that it is between one man and one woman. In Matthew 19, Jesus quotes from Genesis Chapters 1-2 to see God’s intentions for marriage:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Matthew 19:4-6 (NIV)
God took two people and united them together as one in an exclusive relationship. Commitment within marriage, like commitment to God, is exclusive. God cannot have a rival for his love; he requires all of our heart to be for Him alone as we read in Deuteronomy:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (NIV)
Marriage is designed to reflect the exclusive relationship between God and his people and polygamy cannot reflect that.
So is polygamy wrong?
Polygamy violates the exclusiveness of marriage, so it is outside of God’s ideal. It is true that many of the Patriarchs and Old Testament kings took more than one wife, and they are not explicitly condemned for doing so. However, it is also true that there was often conflict and jealousy between the wives, which caused great difficulty in the family environment. When we step outside of God’s ideal, there are often serious consequences to our actions.
An exception in the Old Testament is the principle of levirate marriage, which could potentially lead to a polygamous marriage (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10) In this situation, a man was commanded by God to marry his brother’s wife if his brother died without a son and heir. This was to ensure that the family name was continued and that the widow was provided for. As a consequence of the fall, death ruins God’s ideal for family life. In addition, people weren’t fulfilling their family responsibilities and caring for those who were in need. God, in his grace, instituted this principle so that none of his people would fall into poverty and shame because of death or human selfishness.
In the New Testament, however, Paul indicates that levirate marriage is no longer applicable. In 1 Corinthians 7:39, Paul says that if a woman’s husband dies she is free to marry whoever she chooses as long as he is a believer. The responsibility for taking care of widows falls first to the family (1 Timothy 5:8), and in particular, to the women of the family (1 Timothy 5:16). If this is not possible, then the church takes on the burden.
In summary, it is likely that God allowed polygamy in the same way that he allowed divorce - because of ‘hardness of heart’ (Matthew 19:8), and in the case of levirate marriage, because of the effects of the fall in causing death; but this does not mean that polygamy should be recommended as a lifestyle choice today. Christians should not enter into marriage with more than one person.
If you are already married to more than one person?
Even though the Bible holds up marriage as being between two people only, it does not say that polygamists are excluded from God’s people. In fact, there is a hint that there were polygamists in the church of the New Testament. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he lays out his criteria for choosing church leaders:
“Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” 1 Timothy 3:2-5 (NIV) (See also 1 Tim 3:12).
This means that no-one who is married to more than one person can be involved in church leadership. This is because the leaders must set the example for the rest of the church and (as far as possible) reflect God’s intention for what the Christian family of the church should look like in their own family life at home.
But the verse also implies that there were people in the church who could be church leaders were it not for the fact that they were married to or sexually involved with more than one person. These people were allowed to be a part of the church fellowship, but were restricted from becoming church leaders.
What then should you do?
Any time that we step outside of God’s ideal, we sin. Like any sin, we must confess it to God and repent from it. However, unlike other sins (where repentance will mean leaving our old way of life behind), a response of repentance in this situation will need to take a different approach.
It may seem like a way out of this situation is to divorce the extra spouses until there is only one left. This is not the right way to deal with it! Divorce is also against God’s plan for marriage; a sinful divorce cannot correct a sinful second marriage. Rather, we should take Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7:
"Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him." 1 Corinthians 7:20 (NIV)
If you are already married to more than one person then you should stay married to all spouses and seek to live as best you can to honour God and fulfil your duties to your family. This, for example, means not showing favouritism to one spouse over another (James 2:1). It also means that you cannot recommend this way of life to another believer who is unmarried, or is only married to one person. The pattern of polygamy must stop and not be passed on to children, who might see such advice to be a contradiction. They will need to have the reasoning explained to them carefully. By doing this, you can demonstrate true repentance and be used by God to help others to make good decisions in their lives.