Chapter 1. Polygamy, A Biblical Custom
In discussing any topic, it is always best to see what God says about it in the Scriptures. Some things God is definitely for in both the Old and the New Testaments. He is for loving God with all one’s spirit, soul, mind, and strength. He is for living by the Word of God. Other things He is definitely against in both the Old and the New Testaments. He is against adultery. He is against murder. He is against covetousness.
Then there are things that were allowed under the Old Covenant but it is not quite as clear whether they are or are not allowed under the New Covenant. The plural wife situation is such an issue. Often times people read into the Scripture what their tradition says or what they think the Scriptures should say rather than what it actually says. Lamech had two wives before Noah’s time. Abraham had two wives. Esau had three wives. Jacob had four wives. David had several wives, including Eglah, Michal, Abigail, and Ahinohem. Of course Bathsheba was not rightfully his. But God says through the prophet Nathan that He gave him his master’s wives. See II Samuel 12:7.
In the New Testament most references are to one wife and yet there is no place where this is a clearly universal command. When the apostles and elders came together in Acts 15 to determine what laws the Gentiles should follow, they said to:
They didn’t say abstain from having more than one wife.
- 1. Abstain from meats offered to idols.
- 2. Abstain from fornication.
- 3. Abstain from things strangled.
- 4. Abstain from blood.
In I Timothy 3:1-2 it says “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife . . .”
There are some who believe this means the husband of at least one wife because the additional requirement is that he knows how to rule a household and he learns that through experience. With no wife he would have no such experience. However, even if it doesn’t mean that but instead means only one wife is the requirement for an elder or a deacon, then the implication is left that there are some who have more than one. Notice these are never condemned. According to this viewpoint they merely do not qualify to be elders or deacons.
Let’s take a theoretical church for a moment and consider some things. Let’s assume there are fifty sets of one husband one wife couples in this congregation. Five men die, leaving five widows under the age of sixty. What does the apostle Paul say they should do?
Read I Timothy 5:1-16. Verse 14 says, “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” If there are no single men, to whom are these women to be married? In Deuteronomy 25:4-10 we read:
Notice that it is a shame for him not to take her to be his wife. She is told to spit in his face in front of the elders.
"Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn. If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.
"And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother.
"Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her; Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed."
It is our traditions and taboos in the United States that say it is wrong to have more than one wife, not the Scriptures. Let’s go back to the passage in Timothy, the last part of verse 14: “ . . . give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” Reproach means shame. The adversary is the devil. What is shameful to God is not always shameful to us, although it should be.
I Corinthians 11:5-6 says “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.” The passage indicates that the woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. The natural covering was a symbol that she was under the authority of her husband. Verse 10 goes on to say “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” The woman needs to be under the authority of a husband as a protection against fallen angels.
In Isaiah 4:1 we read: “And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach.” Why would they say they would eat their own bread and wear their own apparel? Because the provision for having a second wife or more was not to diminish the provision of the first. Men who could not afford to do this could only have one wife. Exodus 21:10 says “If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.”
Why are these women willing to work and not require the man to provide for them even though they want his name (to marry him)? It says to take away their reproach (shame). Why would marrying a husband take away this reproach? Because it is a shame for a woman not to be under a covering. See I Corinthians 11.
The husband is a spiritual covering for his wife or wives. How does this work? The Scripture says that woman is a weaker vessel. See I Peter 3:7. If we represent the soul’s power or strength in terms of light, then man’s would normally be bigger or greater in intensity than the woman’s.
When one understands the mystery of the two becoming one (see Ephesians 5:31-32) then the husband’s power is over the woman, thus providing a shield, a covering, a protection.
Matthew 13:31-32 says “Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” Psalms 11:1 refers to the soul as a bird. Some men will have sufficient growth of the kingdom within that their branches will protect more than one bird (soul).
Some would say that if the culture or law of a land allows this then maybe it would be O.K., but we must obey the law of the land. However, in Acts 5:29 Peter and the other Apostles answered and said, “We must obey God rather than men.” If providing spiritual covering and protection for Christian women through marriage is important from God’s perspective, one would be remiss in his duty to succumb to man’s restrictions.
A Christian brother with good intentions wrote in a booklet that “Polygamy” (plural wives) was the “spirit of sexual immorality in disguise.” The problem with that statement is that there is no statement in the entire Bible that says it is immoral to have more than one wife.
Adultery (a married woman who has sexual relations with a man other than her husband, or a man having sexual relations with a woman who is married to someone else) is sin. Fornication (sexual relations between two unmarried people) is sin. However nowhere does God say in His Word that sexual relations between a husband and any of his legitimate wives is sin.
Now could “lust” (sexual desire) cause a man to want more than one wife? Yes, of course. However, sexual desire could also cause a man to want to have one wife, and I Corinthians 7:8-9 says “I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”
Let’s discuss other reasons for plural wives. There are three types of love:
We’ve already said that some may desire more than one wife based on eros (romantic or sexual attraction). I am not condoning this, I’m just recognizing that it is possible.
- Agape -- God’s type of love
- Phileo -- Brotherly love or family type love
- Eros -- Erotic love (romantic love)
Scripturally, in the Old Testament there was a phileo (family love) obligation for a man to marry the wife of a dead brother. If he failed to do this she was to spit in his face in front of the priests and elders. The New Testament says “He that provideth not for his own house is worse than an infidel and hath denied the faith.” (1 Timothy 5:8). Then there are those who have the love of God sufficiently developed within them to obey God and spread that covering over those God chooses.
Jesus said he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). That which is fulfilled is no longer in effect (see Hebrews 7:12 and 8:13). However there are three types of law in the Old Testament.
The moral law is still in effect
- 1. The ceremonial law -- this deals with the tabernacle, the priest garments, the feast days  etc.
- 2. The civil law -- this has to do with how the government of Israel was to handle questions like what to do if someone’s ox is gored by someone else’s ox, what to do with a rapist or a thief, etc.
- 3. The moral law -- this has to do with right and wrong. At least nine of the Ten Commandments are moral laws.
We should notice that the moral law is still in effect and where there is a change there is Scripture that clearly shows the change. Notice that the Sabbath was one day a week on the seventh day under the Old Covenant. Under the New Covenant it is a continual rest as we cease from our own works.
- 1. There is one God and we are to seek Him first. Compare Exodus 20:3 with Mark 12:30-31.
- 2. We are not to have idols. Compare Exodus 20:4 with Acts 15:20.
- 3. We are not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Compare Exodus 20:7 with James 1:26
- 4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Compare Exodus 20:8-9 with Hebrews 4:1-9
- 5. Honor thy father and mother. Compare Exodus 20:12 with Ephesians 6:1-3
- 6. Thou shalt not kill (commit murder). Compare Exodus 20:13 with 1 John 4:14-15
- 7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Compare Exodus 20:14 with Galatians 5:19
- 8. Thou shalt not steal. Compare Exodus 20:15 with Ephesians 4:28
- 9. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Compare Exodus 20:16 with Ephesians 4:25
- 10. Thou shalt not covet. Compare Exodus 20:17 with Ephesians 5:5
In Deuteronomy 21:15-17 the Scriptures tell us how a man with two wives and sons from both wives should deal with them concerning inheritance. Is that a ceremonial law, civil law, or moral law?
In Exodus 21:7-10 it tells how a man must deal with his first wife if he takes a second wife. Is that a ceremonial law, civil law, or moral law?
Verse 10 says specifically “If he take him another wife: her food, her raiment and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.” It would be morally wrong to reduce the provision of the first wife in order to take a second. It would seem, then, that this is a moral law.
Since we see that the moral law does not change from the Old Testament to the New Testament without clear Scripture that shows the change, and there is no clear Scripture showing a change, then this moral law must still apply. Does this mean that those having more than one wife are morally correct as long as they do not diminish the food, raiment or duty of marriage to the first wife? Clearly the taking of more than one wife is assumed to be a common practice.
As we have noted in other places (such as Deut.25:5-10 and II Samuel 12:7) there were circumstances in which a man was supposed to take more than one wife. And as we have also noted, nowhere in the Bible is the practice condemned. On the contrary it is assumed to be a very common practice, with statutes regulating how it is properly done as in Exodus 21:7-10. A practice that God explicitly permits and nowhere condemns cannot be morally wrong.
Opinions one way or another do not determine God’s truth. However, it is interesting that some Christian women admit that they would be one of several wives in a plural wife marriage, if it were socially acceptable. Apparently, some women with no husband think having a man part of the time even if not exclusively is better than none at all. In addition, some wives feel that another wife for their husband would relieve them of some sexual duties, provide help with household chores and give a woman another woman to talk to and relate to in ways that are difficult for men.
In conclusion, whereas it may not be for you or me to be involved with a plural wife marriage, we must not condemn what God has not condemned. Therefore those in other countries or this one who do so should be left to their own consciences and to God.
Monogamy was a Greco-Roman practice, although the Romans were tolerant of the Jews under their jurisdiction who practiced plural wives marriages. In the sixteenth century the Catholic Church at the council of Trent issued an encyclical saying that monogamy was the only acceptable form of marriage for Christians. The Anabaptists -- who were persecuted by the Catholics for other reasons -- also opposed this edict. The other Protestants continued in the Catholic tradition of monogamy as the only acceptable form of marriage for Christians.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act which outlawed polygamy in the United States. Although polygamy was not universally illegal in the States before that, those who practiced it were persecuted. The Mormons practiced plural wives marriages in Illinois. After being persecuted there, they moved West and in 1847 settled in a region they named Deseret (now called Utah) where plural wives marriages were practiced and accepted. The Mormons officially rescinded that position in 1890 in order for Utah to be accepted as a State of the Union, which finally occurred in 1896.
There were plural wives marriages practiced among the so called American Indian tribes as well as people in South America, Africa and the Middle East. Many of these places still continue the practice.
According to a Dateline TV broadcast on NBC, there are presently 30,000 to 60,000 people involved in plural wives marriages in the United States.
God’s Domain or Government’s?
The Morrill Act outlawing plural wives marriages in the United States obviously usurps the first amendment’s freedom of religion clause, which states “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
If one’s religion allows plural wives marriages, then the government should not interfere. One should ask “Is marriage a God ordained institution?” If it is, then how dare the government attempt to regulate it?!
 The Sabbath command is often held to be a ceremonial law on the grounds that moral laws are always valid and cannot ever change, but the Sabbath command only went into effect with Moses and has undergone further change with the coming of Christ. We feel that while the Mosaic embodiment of the Sabbath command is ceremonial, the principles behind it (such as the duty of man to meditate upon God and the duty of man to enter into God’s rest by ceasing from his own works) are indeed moral, so for the purposes of this work we will treat the Sabbath commandment as a moral law.
 This is not the position of HEM which regards the Feast Days as being in the same category as the Sabbath and not, therefore, 'fulfilled'. How could they be? Only the spring festivals have been fulfilled in any case and according to various Scriptures, Passover and Tabernacles will be observed in the Millennium. So the annual and other festivals cannot have been done away with by the Cross. The position taken by the author is similar to that of Seventh-Day Adventism (SBSK).
First created on 27 September 2001
Updated on 20 June 2016
Copyright ©1999 Andy Nonymousman
Reproduced by permission and with thanks by HEM, 2001
Endorsement of this book by HEM does not necesserily mean
endorsement of the author's other publications or views.