Before I begin, for added clarity, I would point out that when I refer to ‘polygamy’ and ‘plural marriage’ in this post I am speaking solely about the practice of polygyny, one man having multiple wives.
To start, I would like to look a brief history of polygamy in the United States. There isn’t a lot of reliable data for the practice of plural marriage in the U.S. before the 18th century. There are some accounts of European immigrants practicing polygamy, as well as it being practiced in the southern states after the civil war. The best known instances of plural marriage being practiced stems from, you guessed it, the Mormons. Initially the practice was kept secret, but around the mid 19th century the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced publicly their practice of condoning a man having multiple wives. This was met with much opposition by the U.S. government, and before the end of the 19th century, the practice was officially abandoned by the church. (Yay, government!)
After the LDS church officially opposed polygamy, the church split. Those who stayed with the LDS church no longer practiced polygamy, and those who left became known as Mormon fundamentalists, and continued the practice. Some Mormon fundamentalists stayed in the U.S., others fled to Canada and Mexico because of continued threat of legal persecution. (Again, yay government.)
So, why does polygamy have such a negative connotation in the United States? Well, when most people talk about Mormonism or polygamy the first thing they think of is Warren Jeffs. There has been a lot of abuse against young girls within Mormon groups, so many people associate all polygamist with that. In my opinion this is an unfair bias used against Mormonism, and polygamy. Would it be fair to judge all Christians based on the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, or the KKK? Still, the connotation exists. Also, there is a generational contempt towards Mormonism. If polygamy is associated with Mormons, and Mormons are seen as anti-Christian(debatable), then polygamy must be bad. Right?
Most people only interact with Mormons when they knock on your door, or you see them riding their bicycles. To outsiders, a lot of Mormonism is a mystery. Also, the majority of people don’t know anyone who practices, or has had family that practices polygamy. One of the major problems, in my opinion is lack of exposure. Couple that with the fact that most Christians actively try to condemn polygamy in their own way, and there’s little room for people to grow in their understanding.
Over the years I’ve come across a number of arguments against the practice of plural marriage, some I would say hold more weight than others. I’ll address the most prominent ones I’ve come across below. There are likely others, these are just the ones I’m most familiar with.
Argument: Polygamy is a sin.
Objection: The bible nowhere clearly states that polygamy isn’t allowed.
Argument: The bible doesn’t allow polygamy.
Objection: Again, the bible nowhere clearly states that polygamy isn’t allowed.
Argument: The bible may not say it isn’t allowed expictly, but it’s implied.
Argument: Just because God allowed a sin for a time, doesn’t mean he’s okay with it.
Objection: God doesn’t allow sin. Period.
Argument: The bible may not say polygamy is a sin, but I know my wife wouldn’t like it.
Objection: Cool. What book of the bible did your wife author?
Argument: Polygamy is not part of God original plan. He made Adam and Eve. Not Adam, Eve, and Lilly.
Objection: Technically God made Adam, then Eve to be a companion to Adam. There is no way of knowing what would have happened if Adam and Eve hadn’t been expelled from the garden.
Argument: Jesus said a man shall leave his father and mothers house, cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. TWO, not three, four, or five.
Objection: I would argue that ‘two becoming one flesh’ isn’t as much a spiritual union, as it is a physical act… Paul also admonished men for becoming one flesh with prostitutes, and he wasn’t talking about marriage…
Argument: Polygamy is never mentioned in a positive light, obviously it’s a bad idea.
Objection: Most of the negative stories involving polygamy are about kings, or patriarchs. Their lives weren’t easy, and saying their lives were hard just because they had multiple wives is a bit of a stretch. Polygamy is mentioned in passing, in the book of genesis for instance, with no negative connotation. Most lay-people’s lives weren’t recorded in history, so it’s hard to say how having multiple wives fared for those who weren’t of high status.
Argument: Deuteronomy 17:17 Says you shouldn’t have multiple wives.
Objection: That’s a law for the kings of Israel. It also says a man shall not gather many horses for himself, or store up gold and silver. That section is telling the kings not to abuse their position for personal gain. Keep reading through verse 20. Also, if you read Exodus Chapter 21, verse 10 says that if a man takes another wife he is not to diminish her food, clothing, or marriage rights.
Argument: In 1 Kings 11:1-8 it shows that Solomon’s heart was turned away by his many wives, see what having many wives can do?
Objection: His heart was turned away because he had wives who worshiped pagan gods, and lead him to do the same. What if you had many wives who walked in the footsteps of Christ? Verse 6 says Solomon didn’t wholly follow the Lord as David did. David had multiple wives.
In 1 Timothy 3:2&12, and Titus 1:6 Paul says that an overseer should be the husband of one wife. These verses are still debated today. Some say it means only overseers should have one wife. Others say it means everyone should have only one one. More say it means overseers shouldn’t be divorced, while even others say it means overseers shouldn’t actively chase after women. Due to the variance in translation, manuscripts, and understanding of context, the debate on how to interpret these verses is beyond the scope of what I feel comfortable addressing. As with most things, I would say you have to decide what is right for yourself.
People also argue that since the New Testament is silent on the issue of polygamy, then it wasn’t meant to be practiced. I would point out that the New Testament isn’t silent on polygamy, Jesus spoke about it, once. Most people skim past the section and don’t think of it being about polygamy. I listened to a pastor reference it recently, telling everyone to be ready for the return of Jesus.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Matthew 25 1-13
If polygamy is the unforgivable sin people make it out to be, why would Jesus have made this parable? Why would he want his name associated with something so “bad.” Aren’t there better comparisons he could have made? Personally, I would say so. If nothing else, this passage at least demonstrates that polygamy was practiced, and Jesus was aware of it.
I would argue that the disapproval of polygamy we see today stems mostly from an ingrained socio-political bias that people try to use the bible to support, not the other way around. I can easily see that plural marriage isn’t a practice suitable for everyone, but I don’t think it’s a fair assertion to say that it isn’t suitable for anyone.
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