Does The Bible Allow Polygamy? The Complete Answer
Most people in the western world today would say that polygamy is wrong. That is mostly because of the influence of Christianity upon western societies—Christians have condemned polygamy for many centuries. Even if most western societies are no longer predominantly Christian, there are residual effects.
However, throughout the Old Testament, we see several men with multiple wives. That seems confusing. Why did God allow this? What does God think of polygamy?
What does the Bible say about polygamy? The Bible does not condone polygamy. In the Old Testament, some men had more than one wife, but this was not God’s original ideal plan for marriage. God created marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman. If polygamy were allowable, the entire picture that marriage symbolizes, the relationship between Christ and the church as his bride, would fall apart.
In this article, we’ll examine what the Bible says about polygamy, showing why the Bible does not endorse polygamy and why polygamy violates God’s original design for the marriage relationship.
What is Polygamy?
The word polygamy means literally “many spouses.” This word describes the marriage of a man who has multiple wives or a woman who has multiple husbands. Another word that describes someone that is married but goes through a marriage ceremony with another person is bigamy.
When we hear the word polygamy we may think of ancient or tribal cultures. But there are people in the world today who still believe that it’s okay to have multiple spouses or sexual relationships at the same time.
Polyamory is more common within our culture, which accepts having open sexual relationships. This, however, goes against the structure and order of marriage given by God since the very beginning of the world.
What Does the Bible Say About Polygamy?
Some contemporary people have assumed that the Bible may condone polygamy for two reasons:
- Polygamy is never clearly condemned in the Bible
- Several Old Testament heroes practiced polygamy
On face value these objections may seem valid. But upon further review, we realize that these are not good reasons to embrace or endorse polygamy. We’ll tackle both objections in this article.
God’s Design: Monogamy Woven Into Creation
First, the Bible may not ever explicitly condemn polygamy. That’s true. However, by examining various themes and patterns we see in Scripture, we can clearly see that polygamy is outside of God’s ideal design.
Monogamy is rooted in complementary. What is complementary? Complementary is the idea that men and women are different but they enhance or emphasize each other’s qualities. Complementary asserts that men are generally strong in areas where women are weak, and women are generally strong in areas where men are weak. In other words, Complementary says that men and women go along with each other, they fit together, and they have the ability to complete one another.
Complementary is woven into the Biblical story line from the very beginning of creation in the book of Genesis. During the creation account of Genesis, we see distinct yet complementary pairs at every stage. We see heaven and earth, and then sea and dry lands, and also light and darkness. The pattern is complementary pairs.
Even the sequence of the days of creation in Genesis offer a complementary pair: During days one through three God is forming heaven and earth, and then during days four through six God is filling heaven and earth.
The complementarity within creation ultimately culminates when God creates those who bear his own image, two distinct persons, ontologically equal yet different in design: one man and one woman.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” —Genesis 1:27-28
One Suitable Helpmate
When God saw Adam was alone in the garden, he declared that it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). God determined to make a suitable mate for Adam—this mate is referred to as a “helper” who is “fit” for Adam.
Contemporary Bible scholars have written plenty about the definitions of the Hebrew words for “helper” and “fit” used in this passage. For the purposes of this article, the most important aspect to note is that helper is singular, not plural.
God only creates one helpmate for Adam, and she completes him. She is strong where he is weak. There’s only one ever meant to come along side Adam to help him.
God created Eve from Adam’s side. Then the Scripture sets the pattern for marriage by telling us that a man shall leave his family and cling to his wife, thus becoming one flesh. This is a union between only one man and one woman, as “one flesh” does not describe having multiple husbands or wives.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man He made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. —Genesis 2:18, 21-24
Jesus Affirmed Monogamy
Jesus affirms that marriage ought to be between one man and one woman. There’s a moment recorded in the gospel of Matthew when the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask about the legality of divorce. Jesus cites the book of Genesis:
He answered, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” —Matthew 19:3-6
Jesus says that “a man” (singular) will join “his wife” (singular and particular). It is clear that Jesus understand the original design as being one man joining to one particular woman. Jesus affirms that one man “shall hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh.”
Paul Affirmed Monogamy
Elsewhere in the New Testament we see the same singular tense (and particular sense) used as marriage is discussed. In Ephesians and Colossians, we see the apostle Paul using the terms “husband” and “wife” in their singular forms:
However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. —Ephesians 5:33
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. —Colossians 3:18-19
Each husband ought to love his wife (singular and particular). Each wife is to respect her husband (singular and particular). This affirms God’s design and intent for marriage to be between one man and one woman.
There are moments in the New Testament when Paul uses the words “husbands” and “wives” in their plural form, but in those instances he’s clearly exhorting the whole local congregation. In Ephesians 5:22 he says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” But he’s clearly addressing all the wives in Ephesus, but he’s telling them to submit to their “own” particular husband (singular). He’s not telling the married women to submit to every married man in the church, and he’s not telling them to submit to multiple husbands.
Likewise, in Ephesians 5:25, Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives.” This is an exhortation to the entire local church in Ephesus, and every husband therein. Each husband is to love his own wife, in a particular fashion. The vernacular of this passage continually implies that each husband ought to have a singular wife.
Best Role Model: Husband of One Wife
As stated earlier, we may not see a clear command prohibiting polygamy, like some might want to see, but we do clearly see God’s ideal design. We see God’s inclinations and preferences unfolding throughout Scripture. One place we see this is when the apostle Paul outline the qualifications for pastoral leadership.
The apostle Paul wrote multiple letters to his proteges (Timothy and Titus). That’s where Paul clearly gives the qualifications for pastoral leadership. One of the qualifications is that any man seeking to be a pastor ought to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:6). Paul gives the same expectation for deacons (1 Tim. 3:12).
The literal Greek vernacular Paul uses can be translated one-woman man. In other words, the pastor is the type of guy that is only with one woman at a time. He’s not the guy who has eyes for more than one woman.
The pastor is the type of guy who only flirts with one woman and only intimate with one woman. The pastor is not the type of guy who is always playing the field.
The pastors are leaders in God’s church, taking on various tasks. But more than doing tasks, they also serve as role models for the congregation. They certainly aren’t perfect, no one is, but they are to be good examples for the Christians.
The pastors are to be committed to holiness and deeply committed to a pure Christian lifestyle. So much so that they’ll be worthy of emulation. Pastors are the examples for Christians. However, if a particular man isn’t a good example, then that guy should not be a pastor. Any man man that isn’t a good role model is disqualified from being a pastor. And apparently, polygamous men aren’t suitable role models for the church.
The universal consensus amongst all Bible scholars is that the apostle Paul is disqualifying polygamous men from pastoral leadership. Isn’t it interesting that polygamy would eliminate someone from being a pastor?
It is interesting, and very important to note, that God says that any man who happens to have multiple wives is the kind of man that is not to be emulated.
God says the polygamous man is not a good example for the church. He’s not the role model that the Christians ought to follow or imitate. The best and most logical conclusion is that God doesn’t want the church’s role models and leaders to be engaged in polygamy, because God doesn’t want his people engaging in polygamy.
Warning Against Polygamy
The first account of polygamy we see the Scriptures is in Genesis 4 when we read about Lamech taking two wives. We see no evidence that God endorsed his action. However, late in the Old Testament, in the book of Deuteronomy, God gives a command for the kings to be monogamous.
“And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.” —Deuteronomy 17:17
God foresaw that taking multiple wives could lead a man astray from goldy wisdom. Well, that’s exactly what we see with Solomon. Solomon took many wives and ultimately it led him to turn away from God and led to Solomon’s own destruction.
King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. —1 Kings 11:1-4
Purpose of Marriage
One of the primary purposes of marriage is the picture that the institution of marriages gives us of the relationship between Christ and the church. We ought to pattern marriage in light of this reality.
The apostle Paul exhorts each husband to love his own bride in the same way Jesus loved his bride (Eph. 5:25). And each wife As a husband, I ought to be seeking to love my wife, Malaina, the same way Jesus loves the church. When the bride of Christ is mentioned here in this passage, the apostle Paul uses the singular form.
Christ does not have multiple brides, he has only one bride: the church. The church is singular. Like the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) declared, the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
Side Note: We do realize that the church finds its being expressed in various congregations throughout the globe and history. Local church congregations are local expressions of the universal church. Christ is not married to many churches. Christ is married to only one church—the church that believes in the one true gospel.
Christ does not have multiple brides, therefore we ought not have multiple wives either. If the Bible condoned polygamy, then the entire picture that the apostle Paul is giving us here in Ephesians would fall apart. Polygamy undermines one of the primary sentiments being implied and depicted in the book of Ephesians. Obviously, Paul doesn’t condone polygamy. If he did, his use of this imagery and metaphor makes no sense.
Why Did God Allow Polygamy in the Old Testament?
The second objection sometimes given when polygamy is discussed sounds something like this: “If God is against polygamy, then why did he allow so many great men in the Bible to take multiple wives? Why didn’t he stop them? Why didn’t he command them to stop?” That’s a great question.
I’m willing to concede that the Bible doesn’t give us a specific reason as to why God didn’t stop them from doing what they did. Some men practiced polygamy and they seemed to “get away” with it. However, there’s a few things I’d say in response to this:
First, God actually did tell them refrain from polygamy, when he wove monogamy into creation (as previous outlined herein), but the Old Testament characters simply chose to disobey. Like many people, in many different situations, sometimes people disobey.
Second, we actually don’t know that God never directly commanded them to stop. It’s entirely possible that God did directly command them to stop, but they disobeyed. Humans often disobey God’s commands.
Third, they may not have actually “gotten away with it” in their lifetime, as it may seem. In fact, we see some evidence that God allowed them to experience the pain of their own foolish choices. Two great examples of this come from the stories of the lives of Abraham and Jacob.
Abraham was married to Sarah, but foolishly chose to have a child with Hagar. This caused strife between Sarah an Hagar, and eventually strife between the descendants of Isaac (Sarah’s son) and Ishmael (Hagar’s son). Abraham’s grandson Jacob also had two wives, Leah and Rachel. We see that their relationships and lives are often plagued by rivalry, bitterness, and jealousy, inspired by Jacob’s having multiple spouses.
Fourth, we know for certain that no one ever “gets away with sin” in the long-term. It may seem that some sin has gone unpunished. However, eventually, every sin is dealt with righteously. The Bible says that “very transgression” will indeed receive its “just retribution” (Hebrews 2:2).
God Uses Sinful People
When we consider the Old Testament saints and their sinful behavior, it’s essential to pause and remember that God still uses sinful and foolish people. God works through broken vessels. The Bible has dozens of example of this. And we see many more examples of this throughout church history too. Sin does not necessarily stop God from using people for his purposes.
Just because God is using someone to do good things or do ministry, that does not mean that we ought to assume God endorsed all of their behavior. Just because the Old Testament heroes behaved in a certain way does not necessarily mean that everything they did was good or righteous.
Just because polygamy is recorded in the historical record of the Scriptures does not automatically mean that God endorses that practices. We also see men in the Old Testament committing other forms of sexual sin too. We don’t just assume that God is cool with those actions, right?
Furthermore, while the New Testament certainly highlights some Old Testament saints as being people we can imitate, the New Testament gives no indication that those Old Testament saints are worthy of being emulated because they have a perfect track record of righteous behaviors. In fact, quote the opposite is true.
Every Old Testament saint highlighted in the New Testament had some sin in their life that we most certainly would not want to emulate. In fact, primary thing that is most often highlighted with Old Testament saints is the fact that they had faith in God, despite their own flaws and inadequacies (Hebrews 11).
Third, while the Bible may not seem to specifically tell us why God seems to have allowed polygamy (or it seems, to us, that he allowed some people to “get away” with polygamy), some Biblical scholars have speculated that the reason God allowed this in the early history of the Old Testament was because of its practical help for destitute women.
- Single women living in a patriarchal society were not able to provide for themselves on their own and needed a provider. Thus, a man could marry several women and provide for them.
- Unmarried women or widowed women could have been subject to prostitution or slavery if not cared for by their fathers or brothers.
Side Note: I’m not sure that I endorse the idea that God permitted polygamy because it somehow helped women in ancient cultures. However, I mention this only because this has been advocated by some commentators.
Why is Traditional Marriage Attacked
The traditional Biblical view of marriage is attacked because Satan, who hates both God and humans, seeks to inspire people to attack marriage; Satan’s hatred of God causes him to want to handicap the image of marriage that points to God and Satan’s hatred of humans causes him to want to handicap human flourishing.
Because marriage is a picture of Christ and the church as his bride, Satan wants to keep us and the world from seeing the beauty God has created in a covenant marriage relationship between one man and one woman.
The covenant relationship in marriage also helps us look forward to the coming return of Jesus Christ when we, the Bride of Christ, shall be taken to be with Him forever and dine with Him at the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— For the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” —Revelation 19:6-9
What a joyous day that will be! This is what covenant marriage between one man and one woman is all about. It is to point us to Jesus and help us understand His unconditional love for us.
Kenneth E. Ortiz (M.Div.) is a professor and recruiter at Bethlehem College and a pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul, MN. He has 15+ years of vocational ministry experience. He’s also a podcaster, author, and Ph.D. student. Kenneth lives in Bloomington, MN with his wife Malaina, they have one daughter.