Teaching Cultural Anthropology as well as Interreligious Dialogue in a seminary in Southeast Asia means that several times a year the question of polygamy comes up. It comes up in terms of how to address polygamy as a Christian minister. Usually, it is in the context of dealing with Muslim families where polygamy is sometimes practiced. Of course, polygamy is pretty common here among Filipino Christians as well (Amazing how many Filipino men I have known or know of who have more than one family simultaneously). Often the concern is what to do where a man who has more than one wife comes to Christ. <Note: unless saying otherwise, when I refer to polygamy, I am referring to polygyny— one man multiple wives… since that is the most common form of polygamous families. I won’t address other versions here.>
Bibilical/Ethical Look at Polygamy
One of the challenges is that popular Christianity tends to set up an overly simple ethics. There is a tendency of seeing things as either JPW (Just plain wrong) or GAR (Good and righteous). But the Bible doesn’t really support such a simple taxonomy. A lot of behavior is in the vast expanse between these two extremes. Much of Wisdom literature in the Bible supports a far more nuanced understanding of appropriate behavior. The same can be said of the Book of James, as well as the Pauline and Johannine Epistles… and the teachings of Jesus. Life choices are not simply based on a set of Don’ts… and that if one avoids the Don’ts than you have done everything right.There is a lot of middle ground.
Polygamy appears to be in that strange middle ground. It is pretty clear that God’s ideal is monogamy. That ideal can be supported a number of ways:
- God created the ideal family in an ideal world in terms of one man and one woman.(I am not suggesting that the nuclear family is ideal while the extended family is not. Presumably, the ideal nuclear family would have developed into the ideal extended family in time.)
- God created the sexes to be born in approximately equal numbers (approximately 50/50).
- In the New Testament, church leaders were supposed to be “one woman men.” It is pretty amazing how often people try to apply this guideline to divorce… but it is really more about character and fidelity. However, I don’t believe there is any way of avoiding the prohibition of an actively polygamous church leader. (I am completely avoiding the question of divorce here. A divorcee is not actively polygamous. That is a topic for a different day.) And since, church leaders were to be examples to their members, it is likely that church members were ideally not in polygamous families.
- Polygamous families described in the Old Testament are shown in a fairly negative light… and the negative aspects are often tied directly to tensions caused by the polygamous relationships. Feel free to look that up yourself.
I suppose one more thing could be added. Marriage is used as a metaphor, both in the Old and New Testament for revealing God’s ideal and faithful relationship with us. A polygamous relationship kind of messes up the metaphor, in my opinion. I had a friend (actually he worked for me), who had a wife in Arkansas and a girlfriend in Virginia. One day, we were drinking cappuccino on a beach in the South of France. He looked at me and said, “You know sir, it is hard to be faithful to two women.” I think he was joking… he could be pretty funny. But it is true. Being faithful to two women is to be unfaithful to both. The founder of Islam said that a man can have more than one wife as long as he treated them equally. Some have suggested that this was his way of saying that one can only have one wife… since it is impossible to treat two wives equally. I am not sure the statement suggests such a subtle logic. But for me, the logic is pretty clear— since it is IMPOSSIBLE to treat two or more wives equally, problems are bound to happen, and so it is problematic at best, and dangerous at worst to have multiple wives.
On the other hand, there are arguments that could be made that polygamous families are allowed, or even supported in the Bible.
- The Bible does not directly and unambiguously prohibit all polygamous families.While I believe the claim of the founders of Mormonism that God ordained, and even commanded, polygamy is clearly untrue, I will say that the Bible does recognize the legitimacy of a polygamous family.
- A number of the patriarchs in the Old Testament were polgyamists.
- At least in one case (Levirate marriage, Deuteronomy 25:5-10) a polygamous family appears to be directly allowed… perhaps even encouraged.
Bringing these together, it could be said that Polygamy is not absolutely forbidden… a sin that must be stopped at all cost, but rather as an undesirable social institution.
I have to admit that for me, I see having more than one wife as a form of self-abuse. Here in the Philippines, many men who travel will maintain separate families. The juggling of responsibilities— and the economic drain— seems exhausting to me. Having these families in the same household seems likely to reduce some of the economic burden and secrecy burden, but greatly increase other problems from relational dynamics. Why create the extra drama?
And it is not just the men who can suffer. I have known some women who had been second wives in a polygamous family. The tensions in that setting eventually drove them away from that setting, as well as the religion that allowed or even encouraged that system.
But if it served no sociological needs, it would die out. Actually, in many parts of the world it has died out as a formal institution.There does, however, appear to be sociological reasons for its perpetuity.
With the problems with polygamy found in the Old Testament as well as today, why would it ever be done? First, Polygamy can be seen as a measure of status (for the man, and potentially as well for the first wife). I have known Muslim men express sadness that they lacked the economic position to afford to have a second wife. I wish I had asked them clarification on this. Did they want to have more money so as to have a second wife, or have the status that is associated with having a second wife? However, when biology ensures that there are approximately equal numbers of men and women, there is a true sense of “zero sum” game, where men gain status through taking away eligible women from men lacking status. This causes problems in many places (the FLDS is an excellent case study in this).
A second possibility is to compensate for a shortage of men. In some settings there is a larger number of women than men due to fighting… so polygamous families compensates for this. During the time of the OT Patriarchs, the common governance was associated with bands, clans, and tribes. In these settings, laws are more informal… blood feuds, and warring clashes are more common. In such a setting, polygamy may meet a genuine social need.
A third possibility is where clan structure and relationships are considered important enough to maintain. The Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy, seeking to ensure the maintaining of a family name and inheritance, or Sororate marriages in some other cultures. are examples of this.
A fourth argument I have heard is one I heard from a Muslim scholar. He stated that multiple marriages are better than prostitution or adultery. In other words, guys are going to commit adultery, so one may as well legitimize such relationships. (I will not address the Shiite “4-hour” marriages.) I struggle with that logic. If something is a bad idea, pointing out something that MIGHT be worse is weak at best. Further, that logic could also be used to justify polyandrous families— something that Islam rejects, I believe.
Bringing These Together
So is polygamy inherently a sin? I think the answer is NO. Does it mean that it is okay? I think the answer is NO. I think polygamy is a SYMPTOM of sin. It can be a societal sin like clan warfare. It can be a cultural sin like dubious basis for status (much like having a vacation home and 3SUVs may be a poor basis for status in some other cultures). It can be a personal sin, like trying to legitimize lust.
I believe that looking at polygamy as a symptom of a problem, rather than inherently a sin, puts things in a better light to address it in the mission field.
The solution to a problem should not be worse than the problem itself. On an individual basis, if a man (or woman) who is part of a polygamous family comes to Christ, I don’t believe the church should seek to break up the family. I don’t believe the church should reject the family members. Breaking up a family is a serious thing. In all but the most extreme cases, it should be avoided. Not allowing Christians to join a church is also a pretty serious thing as well.
The husband, who is now a Christian needs to be a righteous man with regards to his wives and children. To drive one wife from the home with (or without) her children is certainly unrighteous. Some have suggested that fidelity is achieved by being sexually faithful to one wife, and sexually distanced from the other(s). Ultimately, that is just a different form of infidelity, Obviously, things do get complicated depending on the setting. Here in the Philippines, Christian men, as noted before, may have two separate families who don’t know each other. Only one has legal status. The man needs to find a way to be righteous and responsible with both families… but how to do that may be challenging. Complete rejection of one family should not be encouraged by the church.
The local church should accept that this is part of their past, that still holds relevance today (much like embarrassing body art from a wild past will endure in a Christian today). The church should spend less time trying to break up the family (which is a sin), and spend more time on fighting the actual sins (societal, cultural, and personal) that undergird the symptom of polygamy.