Problem of Polygamy in Christian Missions Practice

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.

Sociological Issue

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.

Bigamy and Missions

I have fallen out of the habit of getting involved in discussion boards. I guess part of the reason is that over the decades they attract trolls. But even when they don’t they often draw people in based on their ability to type rather than their ability to discuss or think.

Recently, I saw a discussion thread put up by a person I know somewhat who was asking what one does if a missionary leads a man to Christ who has two wives, each wife having children.

A wide variety of answers started flowing in. The answers that I saw fell inuseto three overlapping categories.

  1.  Verse-drop answers. This is where one takes a single verse or passage and suggests that it provides the full answer. Some may  take I Timothy 3:2 or a statement that one of the OT patriarchs had more than one wife, as an answer to the issue. Verse drop answers push people to the extremes. Some used a passage to justify that “Hey, bigamy is no problem,” while it pushed others to the opposite extreme, “the family must be destroyed at all costs.” My problem here is that using just one verse misuses Scripture, and then describes that misuse as the “Biblical answer.”
  2. Feelings answers. Some of the answers appeared to be based on how the person felt about it. If they found bigamy distateful, it must crushed. If there is empathy for the wives and children (to say nothing of the husband/father) there was more of an accommodationist approach.  Feelings are important, but frankly, the feelings of the discussion members are the LEAST relevant of the interested parties. The feelings of the participants are the ones that should be honored. <I live in a region where people eat dog. Feelings may be relevant to the discussion on whether one should eat dog. But it is the feelings of the people who live in places where people eat dog that is relevant, not people far removed from the situation.>
  3. Simple. In this sense, I mean that there did not seem to be much soul-searching as far as struggling with the issue. If bigamy is a problem, one must find a quick answer to deal with it— divorce one, or maintain a chaste relationship with one or both wives. A boss of mine described these as Al Yagoda solutions. Who is Al Yagoda? He is the guy who knows the correct answer without fully knowing the situation.  “Al Yagoda (“All you got to”) do is ______________________.” The problem beyond ignorance is that it is dualistic. Christian morality is never dualistic. There are things that are good and commendable. There are things acceptable but undesirable. There things that are neutral.

The issue brought up is very real world. In many parts of the world, bigamy is practiced. In some cases it is a sociological necessity almost. What is the cost of following Christ. Does it include destruction of the family? In some parts of Africa, Muslim missionaries are expressing Islam as an attractive alternative to Christianity because polygyny is not condemned. Also, in many cultures, to have the father reject a wife and her children would have severe consequences on the entire family. Obviously, one does not come up with answers because it is practical to do so. But arm-chair answers don’t really help. Our family had a family living with us. She was a second wife of a Muslim Imam. She followed Christ, and she decided that to do this, she must take her children with her and leave the broader family. Did she do the right thing. I have no idea… and probably you don’t either. The children became devout Christians, but they wanted to maintain connections with their father, over the objections of their mother. Was that good or bad?

I would suggest a different set of considerations.

  1.  Theological. Rather than verse-dropping, find what the whole of Scripture says about a topic. For polygyny, the Scripture has a lot to say. In the Old Testament, many of the the patriarchs had more than one wife. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, grabbed that fact and suggested that God approves of polygyny… or even mandates it. However in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Levirite marriages, polygynous relationships are spoken of negatively. Almost all stories of polygynous marriages have problems and the problems almost always relate to the polygynous aspect of the family.  On the other hand, bigamy, having two legal wives does not seem to viewed as fornication or adultery, so it is doubtful that one could apply verses rejecting adultery to the situation. In the New Testament, a church leaders should be a “one woman man.” This short phrase has been abused immensely I know a pastor who married a divorcee. He was told he could not serve as a pastor because of I Timothy 3:2. I am at a loss to see he violated the “one woman man” principle here. Regardless of what that phrase means in different circumstance (clearly suggests not being a flirt or unfaithful, but does it mean must be married, and does it reject the possibility of a pastor being a “one man woman”?), certainly the phrase appears incompatible with a polygynous marriage. A proper theological view on bigamy would look at all of this… but much much more. Simply verse-dropping is an abuse, not use, of Scripture.
  2. Sociological. Why does bigamy exist? Is it because of infidelity? Yes, in some cases. Here in the Philippines there is a surprising number of men who have a family in one town and a different family in another town. In some cases, both families have legal status (even if only because of paperwork error). In other cases, a man or woman works overseas and has a second family there. In these situations, loneliness may drive the activity, while in others the reasons are hard to ascertain. (To me, to maintain to separate families just seems like a form of self-abuse.) In other cultures the reasons can be different. In many family or clan-based cultures, there are very important reasons for bigamy. Where property and status is maintained by clan name, it is important to have an heir. The levirate marraige is part of this. Also, where there is a lot of warfare or other forms of killings, a society may have a shortage of men, so bigamy puts a salve on one aspect of a sociological blight. On the other hand, where the number of men and women are equal, polygynous marriages result in a large number of young men with a shortage of women. This creates its own catastrophic results. For some Christians, it seems irrelevant to consider sociological issues. But we must consider them, since God does. The Semitic culture of the Old Testament had polygynous marriages because of the clan system and a shortage of men. It is understandable then that bigamy was permitted but also discouraged. In the New Testament, sexual infidelity was rampant, but formal polygynous families were rare. The social drive for such families was not present generally, and there was no mention of accommodation for bigamy. God’s attitude did not change, but the context did. That leads to the third aspect.
  3. Contextual. Morality in the Bible is deontological (based on law), teleological (based on expected results), and contextual (based on the cultural setting). The Bible says “Do not murder.” This is a basis for deonotological ethics. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not really deontological, since it is far too broad to be legally instructive. This is teleological, if you think about it. Do acts that your neighbor would be expected to find beneficial. “Dress modestly” is a contextual guideline. It is not legally instructive since it is not clear what would qualifies as modest. Rather, modest dressing depends on one’s culture. I live in the Philippines, and Filipinos dress much more modestly than many other groups. I was in Coron recently on a tour, and there were many Filipinos, Chinese and Europeans, as well as a few Muslims. The female Muslims were covered to a degree that would make it difficult to enjoy the sweltering weather, it seems to me. The male Muslims dressed  more in line with the Filipino or Chinese men. The Filipinos dressed fairly modestly, keeping most of their skin covered (this is as much driven by a desire to avoid being tanned by the sun as it is modesty). The Europeans often dressed in ways that would be deemed scandalous by the other groups. The Chinese were in between the Filipinos and Europeans. “Modesty” is complicated in a multi-cultural setting. However, it definitely varies in different cultures.

So what about Bigamy. Should a man with two wives and children with each wife, be required to dump one wife and children? I can’t see that. The Bible doesn’t require that, but does require a man to take care of his wife (wives?) and children. One should not ask a person to explicitly sin to avoid a doubtful sin. One must figure out the sociological dynamics going on. Christianity is meant to be transformative. In the Cordilleras here in the Philippines, Christianity has done much to end “headhunting”– honor killings, violent rites of passage, and clan warfare. This transformation has reduced the sociological need for polygynous families. Such transformation does not change the past, but should work towards a better future. Polygynous families (regardless of deontological constraints) is damaging where the number of eligible men and women are equal. Since God made men and women in approximately equal numbers, where war is low, polygynous families have little justification– moral or otherwise. One must look at the context.

The Bible clearly attacks moral infidelity and fornication. These can be challenged supraculturally. But polygynous families are not so clearly addressed. Joanne Shetler speaks of her time with the Balangao people. When asked that she condemn the chewing of betel nut, her response was that the Bible does not clearly condemn betel nut. On the other hand it clearly rejects gossiping. So for now, she will focus on what is clearly condemned and withhold judgement on the other matter.

In a missiological setting, it is possible to avoid the extremes of wholehearted rejection and full acceptance. It can be seen as undesirable but acceptable. It can also be seen as transitional. That is, polygynous families may be seen as a relic of a time of war and misery… something that will fade as the culture transforms.