Poly-Positive – Polygamy as a Christian Doctrine

Poly-Positive is a term that refers to an attitude that having more than one wife is not inherently wrong.

As such it is a term that is particularly appropriate to describe the worldview contained in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Many of the articles on this site defend this view from institutional criticism of it. This article seeks to build the positive case that the Biblical texts are tolerant of plural marriage, and that intolerance of plural marriage is unscriptural.

 

See below for the Bible’s positive case for acceptance of plural marriage.

It is fairly easy to establish that the Bible does not in any way condemn polygamy. What is not widely known is that the Bible is thoroughly positive about polygamy, and so people sometimes claim that the Bible is simply silent about the morality of plural marriage. Yet according to the Bible, plural marriages are good. Much of the time polygamists and those who are actively tolerant of polygamy are on the defensive. This is natural, given that any expression of polygamist views is likely to be met with condemnation. People who are ordinarily liberal and forgiving sorts sometimes appear angry and restrictive when the topic of polygamy enters a conversation. They seem to step out of character, which is unsurprising given that the culture in which we live has spent the best part of two thousand years trying, and largely succeeding, in overturning the Biblical worldview on this subject. Hence when you begin to consider polygamy you often have to defend it against attacks from friends, family, society and indeed your own prejudices. That is why a lot of polygamist thought centers on countering the attacks of anti-polygamists. That is why much of the rest of this site has that tone.

However there are many reasons to be thoroughly POSITIVE ABOUT POLYGAMY. The Bible provides many of those reasons directly, and there are many other good things to be observed which result from the practice of this Biblical way of living. This page will examine the POLY-POSITIVE teachings of the Bible, and in particular the teachings of Christ and the Spirit in the New Testament.


Christ was Poly-Positive

It is because of the teachings of Christ that all Christians should accept the moral and lawful nature of polygamy, and should be prepared to allow people the freedom to practice plural marriage if they so wish. The teachings of Christ himself lay down the intellectual and moral basis which makes polygamy a Christian issue.


Christ and the Law

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5 vv 17-20

Jesus said he came to fulfil the law, not to destroy it. God’s law contains details of how the practice of polygamy was to be regulated by the Israelites. Christ said he had not come to destroy this law. With parts of the law he shows how the practical effects are changed, but the law itself is left untouched, including the law on polygamy. As the law allowed, organised and in some cases commanded polygamy, and as it is unchanged, it is clear that Christ provides the principles of polygamy within the law. Indeed, as will be seen later, the principles of polygamy are fulfilled in Christ.

The law, which Christ did not destroy, allowed and regulated polygamy. A wife was owed duties of food, clothing and marital rights, and this protection was still to be provided if her husband took a second wife (Exodus 21 v 10). The law prevented her husband from marrying her mother, or from marrying another of her sisters, to be a rival wife, while she was still alive. (Leviticus 20 v 14 and Leviticus 18 v 17). The law ensured that a firstborn child maintained his superior rights of inheritance, even if his father preferred another of his wives to the child’s mother (Deuteronomy 21 vv 15-17). The law limited the power of the King so that he couldn’t “multiply wives to himself” (Deuteronomy 17 v 17). As can be seen elsewhere on this site, that law allows polygamy, but prevents constitutional abuse.

In addition to allowing polygamy, the law which Christ fulfilled actually commanded it in certain circumstances. If a man died without children then his brother was obliged to marry the widow. (Deuteronomy 25 vv 7-10). There is nothing to suggest that this was limited to unmarried brothers, and it is important that it applies to those already married, for the story of the kinsman-redeemer in Ruth establishes the biblical idea of redemption. Christ can redeem a sinner’s debt, and this involves union with Christ, even though he has already redeemed someone else’s debt and been united to them.

As well as this, the Bible also provides protection to unmarried women. If a man seduced an unmarried virgin, the law forced him to marry her, and therefore to provide the food, clothes and marital rights mentioned before. And he couldn’t divorce her, so the protection was guaranteed for life. (Deuteronomy 22 vv 28-29). Again there is nothing in the Bible to indicate that there was any difference made by the man being married. So, if he was married, and he had an affair with a single woman, then the law demanded he become a polygamist. Imagine the effect this would have today – promises to marry would have to be kept, and so deceit in relationships would necessarily be reduced.


Christ and the Prophets

Christ claimed that he had come to fulfil not only the law, but also the prophets (see Matthew 5 vv 17-20 quoted above). Unsurprisingly, we also find references to polygamy in the words of the prophets. In 2 Samuel 12 vv 7-8 the prophet Nathan tells David that, when Saul died, God had given David Saul’s wives, and goes on to say that if that hadn’t been enough, God would have given him more. It is worth remembering that this is said during criticism for committing adultery with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. David had at least seven other wives, apart from Bathsheba, and here God was claiming responsibility for giving David wives. If plural wives can be a gift of God, it is clear that polygamy is not sinful and indeed that God has actively encouraged it. We learn that from the prophet Nathan, and Christ said that he came to fulfil the prophets.

Isaiah the prophet spoke the words of God in predicting an end time when seven women would want to marry one man, with no indication that such a marriage would be bad. (Isaiah 4 v1). This is perhaps explained by reference to the words of another prophet in Ezekiel 23 where there are two interesting points of note. Firstly God portrays himself as the polygamous husband of both Jerusalem and Samaria (represented as different wives). If God can portray himself as a polygamist and God is sinless, can polygamy be wrong? Would this portrayal of polygamy be compounded, as it is by the prophet Jeremiah,in Jeremiah 3 vv 6-10 and 31 vv 31-32? Secondly, God divides the one Israel that had been represented as his wife into plural marriage partners. This is important later, as it is an example of Christ and the Church. Christ is one with the Church as a body, but he is also one with each individual member, as 1 Corinthians 6 vv 15-17 talks of the “members” of Christ being one Spirit with him. Hence Christians are One in the Church which is one with Christ, and they are also individually united to him. In this way, Christ really does fulfil the prophets with respect to polygamy.


Christ and the Pharisees

There is a lot to be learned in Matthew 23 vv 1-33 about Christ and the Pharisees. For the purpose of polygamy a few things are especially relevant.

Christ is only too clear in saying what it is that he doesn’t like about the Pharisees. He tells the people in verse 3 to follow what they say but not what they do. He then calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites seven times (in verses 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27 & 29). Sometimes we hear Christians criticised today for being “legalistic like the Pharisees”, but the Bible is clear that the Pharisees were not being criticised for encouraging people to follow the law, but were being condemned because they said one thing and did another. In Christ’s words in verses 23 and 24 ” Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

The Pharisees were taking a cavalier attitude to God’s Word. Some parts they liked, so they followed them and added their own laws to them. Other parts they didn’t like and ignored. And guess what – the parts they ignored were the more important bits, and the ideas they had to swallow to work their minds around this fact were as “camels” to the small “gnats” which they would spend endless time debating.

All this means that it is unfair to criticise Christians for emphasing the whole Bible and expecting us to take notice of it and obey it. That is what the Pharisees should have been doing. Instead, they were like the Christians who ignore the parts they don’t like, the more important parts, and who have to swallow wild theories in order to justify this.

You may wonder how all this is related to the subject of polygamy. The answer is that those who prach against polygamy are acting like the Pharisees, and it is the people who are Poly-Positive who are doing what Christ asked. It is important that you understand that this does not mean that the great bulk of monogamous Christianity are Pharisees. This description is limted to those who have examined this subject in detail and who actively propogate the idea that polygamy is a sin, despite being aware that the Bible never calls it this. These people persecute Christian polygamists and even refuse to fellowship with those who teach that polygamy is permissible. Most Christians are not like this at all, and just have not spent a great deal of time examining the subject, and so rely on off-the-cuff explanations given to them by others, or simply don’t form any firm opinions about it.

The modern-day Pharisees ignore the many instances of polygamy throughout the Bible, and the important things that it teaches us about marriage and society. Hence they ignore the God-given rights of wives and children. They ignore the protection provided by God to unmarried women, and they ignore God’s constitutional restrictions on the power of Kings and the state. Hence, like the Pharisees, they ignore God’s guidance on matters of “law, judgement, mercy and faith”.

They ignore the law of God, which allowed polygamy, in favour of a law of man, which refuses to register polygamous marriages. If you want to know the size of the “camel” you have to swallow to do this, then pick up any textbook on Private International Law and see the law squirm as it prosecutes its own citizens for bigamy, yet attempts to recognise polygamous marriages contracted in other states. They ignore judgements by ignoring God’s ruling in 1 Corinthians 5, which requires churches to handle disputes between Christians, and break it by going to divorce courts to accept the judgements of unbelieving judges. They ignore the mercy of God, when they refuse marriage to an unmarried woman who has committed fornication with a married man. And they ignore faith by basing their beliefs in the world and its society rather than in God and his Son.

Put simply, the assertion that the Bible teaches monogamy, and that polygamy is sinful for a Christian, is unreasonable and unfounded in the Bible. It is a direct contradiction of what the Bible teaches, and although it may be a popular theory within Christendom, it falls into the same category of formerly popular theories like the sale of indulgences and the attitude that sex was always sinful.

The Poly-Positive attitude involves the reverse of these things. It involves recognising that God instituted marriage and never handed the definition of marriage over to the government – so we should recognise marriages contracted between Christians, even when they are not recognised by the state. It involves accepting the judgements of God in resolving disputes between Christians, and accepting that if one party runs to secular courts for assistance, abandoning the requirements of their faith, then any consequent suffering by the innocent party is an act of faith and is to be recognised as such. It involves an earnest attempt to show the mercy implicit in God’s law, and in applying that in our lives, and finally it involves faith in deriving our belief from the Bible, rather than attempting to twist it to the requirements of the world in which we live.

Christ’s message to the Pharisees, condemning their hypocrisy and mental gymnastics in ignoring the important and obvious things in God’s Word, is a Poly-Positive message. It endorses the frame of mind and method of approaching scripture and life which allows polygamy. It gives due place to polygamy within the history of Israel and the Law of Moses, and it seeks to use this understanding in our life today. In the arguments about polygamy, who are the Pharisees, if not those who would value the law of men more than the Word of God?


Christ and Freedom

Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free… If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.

John 8 vv 31-32, 36

..until the law, sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” Romans 5v13

Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

2 Corinthians 3 v17

These passages tell us how we should approach the Bible in its application to our lives. Firstly, we need to realise that the truth makes us truly free. Secondly, that where there is no law, there is no sin. Thirdly, that the Spirit of the Lord brings liberty. The laws of the Old Testament are, as we have seen, useful for our instruction, and they help us to see where sin appears. However, sin makes us less free. The truth and the Spirit liberate us. We have seen there is no law of God to forbid polygamy, and therefore no sin inherent in its practice. We are therefore in an area of freedom given by God. We can practice polygamy if we wish but we do not have to do it, and we do not have to avoid it. Knowing the truth has set us free. Let us then consider the following…

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” 1 Timothy 4 vv 1-3

Sometimes the freedom given by God is attacked by man. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, prophesies as to methods of how this will be done, and one of these methods is “forbidding to marry”. This contrasts with Paul’s clear statement in 1 Corinthians 7 that each and every man and woman was to be allowed to marry so that sin could be avoided. It is a simple point of fact that men are outnumbered by women. According to the British Government’s official report “Social Trends”, in 1994 there were over 1,500,000 more women than men of a marriageable age in the United Kingdom. It is believed that this pattern is repeated around the world, and in many countries the imbalance is even more severe. It is also believed that within the churches the imbalances are further exaggerated. One anti-polygamist pastor in Malaysia wrote in an email, “There is a preponderance of women in the charismatic churches when compared to men (however this is no excuse for polygamy to be justified). I know of more than one christian lady who found non christian mates and abandoned their church (?faith).” It is true that the imbalance, in and of itself, does not justify polygamy, but it does run contrary to God’s rule that everyone should be allowed to marry, for in a monogamous system there is a massive surplus of women who want to marry but cannot. This is put right in a polygamous system, which allows marriage.

When these things are taken together, and Christ’s words on freedom are applied to marriage, it is clear that opposition to polygamy is at least one form of “forbidding marriage”. Opposition to polygamy is therefore contrary to the apostle’s teaching. It is an unjustified man-made restriction on the freedom and liberty given to mankind by God. Only a Poly-Positive system, which allows polygamy to be practiced, can claim to allow marriage in the way that Scripture intended. Because of this, it is fair to claim that the New Testament endorses polygamy as a scriptural option and therefore confirms the teachings of the Law and the Prophets.


In Conclusion

The acceptance of polygamy is a Christian doctrine. It is anti-christian to ban it or to teach against it. It is a requirement of Christian teaching that polygamy, monogamy and celibacy are all allowed and accepted as good. God requires polygamy in certain circumstances in both the Old and New Testaments, and in granting liberty shows that it can be practised when it is not required.

The teachings of Christ are Poly-Positive because…

  • They do not destroy the law, which required and regulated polygamy.
  • They fulfil the prophets, who portrayed God as polygamous and as actively encouraging polygamy.
  • They criticise the actions of those who behave like the Pharisees, who only practiced part of the Word of God, while ignoring the obvious important points, and attempting to read their own views into Scripure. This is exactly what is required of someone who attempts to ignore the polygamy that exists throughout the Bible, and who seeks to abandon the actual meaning of Scripture in favour of a more convenient interpretation.
  • They emphasize freedom. This freedom allows polygamy unless there is anything to the contrary – and there is nothing to the contrary.
  • They echo the union of many individual believers with one Lord.
  • They require polygamy to be allowed if the freedom for everyone to marry is to be put into practice.
  • They show that forbidding marriage which is allowed by God, such as polygamy, comes from false teaching, and therefore that forbidding polygamy is unchristian. 
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