This is a key question in the modern era with the advent of feminism and changing roles of women in society. Is there any clear guidance as to whether polyandry is acceptable within Christianity, and is there an explanation for the approach taken in the Bible?
Unlike the situation with polygamy there are clear scriptural proscriptions on polyandry and clear reasons which lie behind them.
Material elsewhere on this site shows that the Bible allows men to have more than one wife. It does not allow a woman to have more than one husband at the same time. This is seen in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
“The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbours wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.“
Leviticus 20 v 10
“If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman, so you shall put away the evil person from Israel.“
Deuteronomy 22 v 22
“So then if, while her husband is living she marries another man, she shall be called an adulteress, but if her husband has died, she is free from that law, so that she is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.“
Romans Chapter 7 v 3
These verses stop women from having more than one husband living at any one time. They do not stop men from having more than one wife because firstly, they quite simply don’t say it, and secondly, it is clearly not a general principle which applies regardless of sex. That can be seen in the way the Old Testament repeats and rewrites laws that apply to men where they apply to women, and in the immediate context of the passage in Romans. The reason the Bible gives is that a woman is under the law of her husband until he dies. While the Bible does talk of marriage partners having authority over each other’s bodies, it never talks of a man being under the law of his wife. In fact, it numerous places the Bible indicates that that would be intolerable, such as 1 Timothy 2 v 12 “I do not allow a woman to teach or to usurp authority over the man“.
In fact, Romans 7 makes this clear. The passage is comparing the woman to the individual believer, being dead to the law of Moses so that they can be married to Christ and be under his law. It would be inappropriate to say that Christ was under the law of the believer, and in the same way it is inappropriate to say that a husband is under the law of his wife. And because of that it is clear that the restriction in Romans 7 of a woman to one husband cannot be transformed into a restriction of a man to only one wife.
This highlights another principle which rules out polyandry through God’s system of leadership. 1 Corinthians 11 shows that this is:-
- God is the head of Christ
- Christ is the head of man
- Man is the head of woman.
This would be defined by our society as sexist, but the Bible clearly treats men and women differently – so does God – otherwise men would be able to have babies too! The order does not signify inequality. The Bible teaches that Christ is God just as much as the Father. They are co-equal but have different roles. Obviously, man is not equal to Christ – so the passage does allow for inequality. When we return to man and woman we can see that they can be equal, perhaps in the same way that the Father and Christ are equal, but equality does not mean they are exactly the same or have the same rights and responsibilities.
Hence the man is the head of woman – he takes the lead. The Scriptures show that the man must love his wives and obviously this will affect his decisions.
In case you think we are now considering a different subject, here is the punchline – “no man can serve two masters“.
Christian teaching is that you cannot follow different leaders – you will hate one and love another. So it is in marriage. A woman cannot have two husbands because she cannot follow two leaders. A man can have two wives because it is perfectly possible to lead more than one person.
This can be seen in the phrase in 1 Corinthians 7 v 2 which is sometimes quoted out of context in an attempt to suggest the Bible limits polygamy- “Let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”
The words for “his own” and “her own” in this verse are different, and it is not simply a gender difference. This is what we would expect if the way in which they belong to the other differs according to gender. If you check the word for “her own” and look up Romans 14, you will see it is the same word used there of a servant and “his own master”.
This shows that, if he had believed in monogamy, Paul could have used the same word for both sexes in 1 Corinthians 7. But he didn’t.
Take a moment to check out other relevant material, such as our examinations of common objections expressed by Christians towards polygamy. See below for examples of these as short video presentations.
1 – The ‘Adam and Eve Defence’. Here are the links for YouTube and the HD version on Vimeo. If you like them, don’t forget to tell your friends/social networks.
Here is the Vimeo HD version embedded:-