Is it a sin for a man to be married to more than one woman?

Q. Is polygyny [a man having more than one woman] a sin? Is it adultery or lust if you marry the woman and she is not married?

Let me begin by telling a story.  When I was the pastor of a church near a university, we’d often have graduate students from Africa attending.  These were accomplished young adults from good Christian families and strong home churches.  As we got to know them, we’d ask questions like, “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”  Quite often, a student would tell us how many brothers and sisters they had “from my own mother,” and then how many more they had “from my father’s other wives.”

So a man having multiple wives didn’t seem to be a big issue for many even in the contemporary generation of African Christians.  But they were horrified, on the other hand, by the prevalence of divorce among American Christians, and our apparent easy tolerance of it.  “We’d never divorce our wives,” they insisted.  “Any of them.”

The covenant people, including their most exemplary leaders, did not shy away from polygamy, at least in Old Testament times.  Abraham had a wife and a concubine, and took another concubine after his wife died.  Jacob had two wives and two concubines.  David had six wives.  The most extreme case, by far, was Solomon, who had “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.” (Most of these wives, however, were from marriage alliances with other kingdoms.)

Polygamy is not forbidden outright in the law of Moses, as it would be if it were always a sin, in and of itself.  Instead, it is regulated to prevent abuses.  In Exodus, Moses commands that if a man marries a second wife, “he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.”  In Deuteronomy, he commands that a man must always give the customary double portion of his inheritance to his firstborn son, even if he has more than one wife and favors another wife above the mother of that son.

Lust—treating another person as an object to gratify our sexual desires, whether in thought or deed—is always a sin.  But there can be polygamy without lust, and lust without polygamy, so the two are not intrinsically connected.

Adultery—a single person having sexual relations with a person who’s married to someone else, or a married person having sexual relations with anyone other than their spouse—is always a sin.  But a man who marries more than one woman is not committing adultery, in this sense, when he has sexual relations with any of his wives.

So I think we have to conclude that polygamy is not inherently sinful, in one sense of the idea of sin.  Nevertheless, just because something isn’t sinful in that sense, this doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing we can do.  Jesus called us to live out the fullest and deepest meaning of the law, and not conform simply to its outward requirements.

I think divorce provides a good analogy.  It, too, was not forbidden outright in the law of Moses, but instead similarly regulated to prevent abuses.  A man who divorced his wife was expected to give her a certificate establishing that she was legally free to remarry, so that she would not be left destitute without the support that women had to depend on from men in that cultural context.

The Pharisees asked Jesus whether divorce should be permitted for any reason a husband might give.  He replied that it should not be allowed at all (except under strictly limited circumstances, at least according to Matthew.)  His argument was, “That was not what God originally intended.”  I’ve discussed in a recent post the exceptional circumstances that I believe regrettably but necessarily justify divorce in some cases (the safety of an abused wife and her children, when a chronic abuser shows no signs of changing).  Apart from such circumstances, however, I believe that God’s intentions are for husbands and wives to be committed to their marriages for life, and to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they become happy and thriving.

The same understanding applies to polygamy.  It is “not what God originally intended.”  At the very beginning of the Bible, God institutes marriage between the first man and the first woman and ordains that “the two be united into one.”  As the Bible continues, polygamy enters human history during the inexorable course of its drift away from God after the fall.  Polygamy starts with Lamech, a descendant of Cain.  He takes double wives as part of his overall program of arrogant self-assertion, which also includes his family forging the first weapons of iron and bronze, and his defiant boasting about killing someone who had merely injured him.

I think we should also find it significant that marriage—specifically monogamy—provides a central metaphor for God’s redemptive work throughout the Bible.  In the Old Testament, the nation of ancient Israel is often spoken of as Yahweh’s “wife” (in Hosea, for example: “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’ . . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion”).  In the New Testament, Paul says that marriage is a picture of the relationship between “Christ and the church,” and in Revelation, the new Jerusalem, where God will dwell with redeemed humanity, descends from heaven “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

So polygamy, while permitted and regulated in the Bible, and not explicitly forbidden anywhere in it, does not appear to me to express “what God originally intended.”  And in that sense, if we invite or bring another person into a polygamous relationship, we may well be sinning against them in a different sense, by keeping them from the best God has for them.

When Christian missionaries first went to Africa, they required their converts who had multiple wives to divorce all but one of them.  Later on, it was considered wiser to encourage converts to care faithfully for all of their wives instead, as Exodus commands, but not to allow believers in the future to marry more than one person.

I’m not well acquainted with the contemporary situation in Africa and I would not presume to speak to it.  But I do feel that we here in America, by practicing monogamy by consensus, have been expressing “what God originally intended” at least in that regard.  It would not surprise me, however, if our culture began to accept polygamy.  That seems to be the inevitable next step in our progression away from the ideal for marriage presented at the beginning of the Bible.  But I certainly hope, for all the reasons I’ve given here, that American Christian churches, at least Bible-believing ones, will not start performing marriages of men who already have wives to other women.

William Blake, “Lamech and His Two Wives,” 1795 (Tate Britain). In Blake’s image, Lamech seems distressed that he has killed the “young man” who injured him. The Bible portrays Lamech as arrogantly defiant instead.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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