Does the Bible clearly forbid a man to have more than one wife?

Q. I just want to know where it is categorically written in the Bible that men should not marry more than one wife because the way things are going with the Christian ladies is terrible for us.

I believe you’re saying that there aren’t enough godly Christian men out there to provide husbands for all of the Christian women who desire to be married, and so it would help if men (specifically, godly Christian men) could marry more than one woman. Before I offer any reflections about that from the Bible itself, let me say first that I am very sympathetic to your concern. In response, I’d like to challenge all the men who read this who might be hovering around the edges of the faith to step up and commit to following Christ and becoming godly so that they could be a suitable husband, if that turns out to be God’s will for them, to one of the many wonderful Christian women who have this desire. And I wish the comfort and companionship of God for those women as they wait for their longing to be fulfilled. I do appreciate how difficult that can be.

It is important, however, to seek to understand God’s ideals for human life as they are disclosed in the Bible, and not come to conclusions based on the needs and constraints of our present situations. And so, to pursue the biblical teaching on the subject you’re asking about, let me say that I believe it is actually not embodied in a categorical statement. That is, I’m not aware of any biblical commandment along the lines of, “Thou shalt not marry more than one wife.” Rather, the clearest teaching on the subject is found by analogy to an answer that Jesus gave to a different question about marriage.

According to the gospel of Matthew, some Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him whether men could divorce their wives for any reason they wished. Jesus answered, quoting from Genesis, “Haven’t you read 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.”

The Pharisees responded, “Then why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” They were referring to a law in Deuteronomy that actually says that if a man divorces his wife and gives her a certificate of divorce, he can’t take her back again if she marries someone else and that second husband subsequently divorces her as well. So it isn’t actually the case that Moses commanded men to give their wives certificates so they could divorce them. Nevertheless, the Law of Moses does regulate the situation of divorce (the certificate would have proved that the woman was legally free to remarry, which was important for her protection and provision), and thus the Law tacitly recognizes that situation.

Jesus explained this distinction in his reply to the Pharisees. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives”—he didn’t command this—”because your hearts were hard. But it was not that way from the beginning.” Jesus added that therefore if a man divorced his wife for a reason other than marital unfaithfulness and then married another woman, he would be committing adultery.

I think there is a clear analogy here to the issue you’re asking about. Suppose the Pharisees had instead asked Jesus whether a man could marry more than one wife. He would likely have answered the same way at first, by quoting from the Genesis creation account. And the Pharisees would likely have responded in the same way, by appealing to the law of Moses, which regulates various situations that might arise from a man having more than one wife and so tacitly recognizes that situation as well.

For example, a law in Exodus says that if a man marries one of his female slaves (so that she becomes his concubine, both his slave and his wife) and he then marries another woman, “He must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing, and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” And another law in Deuteronomy says that if a man has two wives and the less-preferred wife bears his firstborn son, he can’t deny that son the double share of his inheritance that’s the “right of the firstborn” and give it instead to a son of the more-preferred wife.

But even though the Law of Moses regulates and thus recognizes the situation of a man having more than one wife, I believe that Jesus would have said the same thing about this situation that he did about divorce: “It was not that way from the beginning.” So while we must acknowledge that the practice of men marrying more than one wife has been followed in many different times and places (indeed, Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Jacob, and David followed it themselves), and that this practice in fact continues in some places today, if we are looking for God’s ideal for human life as disclosed in the Bible, we find it embodied in the answer that Jesus gave to the question he was asked about divorce: As it was at the beginning, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Just the two of them.

Once again, let me say that I am very sympathetic to the concern that leads you to ask about this. But I would encourage you to resolve to pursue God’s ideal, and nothing else, in this area and in all others, so that no matter what happens, whether a desire to be married is ultimately fulfilled or not, you will be drawing closer and closer to God over the course of your whole life.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. 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 New International Version (NIV) 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 was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. 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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