Is polygamy wrong? If it is, why did so many godly men do it in the Old Testament? If it isn’t, why do Christians insist on one man and one woman as the paradigm for marriage? There are several arguments against polygamy being ideal, but it is also clear in Scripture that polygamy is not equal to other sexual sins, such as homosexuality. When we dig into Scripture here is what we find.
First, the paradigm the Lord set from the beginning is Adam and Eve, one man and one woman. That is the way the world is supposed to function. Any deviation from that pattern is wrong. Polygamy is a sin because it contradicts Genesis 1-2 on marriage. Jesus’ use of this passage to support his teaching on divorce (Matthew 19:3-9) indicates its priority in setting standards for marriage. Polygamy is not presented in Scripture as the ideal or normative pattern.
While polygamy is not expressly forbidden in the Old Testament, there are a couple of passages that indicate it is not the goal. Deuteronomy 17:17 says that kings should not multiply wives. Malachi 2:14-15 points to one man and one woman as the norm as well.
Second, Jesus has one wife the Church and he is faithful to her. This is an illustration from typology and backs up the ideal given in Genesis 1-2. Ephesians 5:22-33 shows that the ideal for humans is one man faithfully married to one woman. I Timothy 3:2, 12, 5:9, and Titus 1:6 also indicate that for leaders in the church and for widows to be on the list they must have had one spouse. Paul’s main point is not polygamy, but those verses do rule out polygamy for leaders in the church.
Third, but a second marriage is a real marriage. The Bible treats second (and third) wives, as wives, not as adulterers. This is clear from how the Lord treated David when he slept with Bathsheba compared to how the Lord described David’s marriages to Abigail, Ahinoam, and his other wives (I Samuel 25:43, II Samuel 3:2-5). We also see this in Exodus 21:10-11 where a man who takes a second wife must still treat his first wife as a wife. He cannot treat her differently. He must still provide for her and sleep with her. His failure to treat her like a wife means she can leave him. Also in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 the first born son of a first wife retains inheritance rights. The husband cannot show preference to the second wife’s son. A second marriage is a real marriage.
Fourth, polygamy is a sin, but it is usually, not always, a low level sin. It is not equal to adultery or fornication because the parties are married. It is not equal to sodomy or bestiality because they are a man and woman. Also it is not equal to divorce because the marriage covenants are still intact. That is why I would not encourage a man with two wives to divorce one of them. Where does it fall on the “sin scale?” That would depend on the level of knowledge of the persons involved. A person who knows God’s ideal, one man and one woman, and rejects it would be held more accountable than one who did not.
Fifth, while polygamy is not condemned in Scripture, it does usually cause problems. The first polygamist was Lamech (Genesis 4:23). He is not a man you want to emulate. With Hagar and Sarah, Hannah and Peninnah (I Samuel 1:1-7), Rachel and Leah (though Jacob may not have wanted 2 wives), and Solomon’s many wives there was trouble. Besides this any man with one wife wonders why on earth a man would marry more than one woman. One wife is a such a great responsibility and a good man will spend a lifetime getting to know her.
Finally, does the increased revelation of Jesus Christ and His people in the New Testament make polygamy a greater sin the New Testament era than it was in the Old Testament? That is certainly a possibility. Polygamy, while common among kings in the Old Testament, has been virtually unheard of among Christians since Christ. Some modern cults do allow polygamy, but no Christian church I am aware of has advocated it.
Polygamy is not God’s ideal, not the way he designed the world. Therefore it should be avoided. It is sin. In the rare case where the gospel comes to a culture that allows many wives and a man with more than one wife is converted that man should repent of his sin of entering into second marriage, but keep his wives. He will be restricted from any office in the church.