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How Should Christians Think About Polygamy in the Bible?

One of the things that I love to do every week on the podcast is to answer your questions and address your concerns. I just recently heard from a person who was concerned and wanted to ask about the issue of polygamy. This wasn’t a very general concern about polygamy. It was a very specific concern about polygamy. It came from a woman who is very happily married, and she said that it is a struggle for her to believe the Bible. She struggles to believe the Bible because of all of the portrayals of polygamy in the Bible. She mentioned, in particular, somebody like Abraham, who had multiple wives. There are, of course, other examples. The question is, when these immoral men when these immoral people are multiplying their wives, how is it that I can trust a religion? How is it that I can trust a Bible written by and so influenced by men like this? It’s a fascinating question. It’s a fascinating issue. I have several responses to that.

The Bible Does Not Teach Polygamy

The first response is to actually make clear that the Bible does not teach polygamy. As I say that to you, I realize I need to make a very important distinction, a distinction between what the Bible describes and what the Bible prescribes. There are all sorts of stuff that the Bible describes that it does not endorse. The Bible describes murder. The Bible describes rape. The Bible describes other kinds of abuse and mistreatment. One of the things that the Bible does is describes that many famous people in the Bible, like Abraham and like David and many others, it describes that they took multiple wives. That is absolutely true. There’s no hiding from it. But what the Bible describes is very different than what the Bible prescribes. When we talk about what the Bible prescribes, we’re talking about what the Bible commands. What God orders the universe, that God shapes by his moral decrees. And with regard to marriage, what the Bible prescribes, is what we would call an exclusive union between one man and one woman, for this young lady that I heard from who is having trouble trusting the Bible because it portrays polygamy. One of the things that I would want to say is that God had the idea about exclusive marital union before any of us did. In Genesis 2:22-25 we read about the very first marriage ceremony, “The rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman, and he brought her to the man and the man said this, that last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man, therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife are both naked and were not ashamed.”

In God’s design, in God’s creation, by divine decree, marriage is an exclusive union between one man and one woman. That one man and that one woman come together in a one-flesh relationship. And it admits by divine decree, no additional parties. The exclusive union of one man and one woman in marriage was God’s idea, not any human being’s idea. And then, as that idea is further shaped over the course of Scripture, we get to places like Proverbs 5, and we’re told to rejoice in the wife of our youth. You get to places in the New Testament like Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, where he says that from the beginning, God made it to be the case that we are to have one man and one woman together in marriage. You get to places in the pastoral epistles, like in 1 Timothy 3:2, where we’re told that spiritual leadership in the New Testament Church requires that you be the husband of one wife. So again, and again throughout the Old and the New Testament, what is prescribed by God’s law is that one man come together with one woman to create a one-flesh relationship in biblical marriage.

Of course, the Bible describes that there are aberrations to this and not just with polygamy, but with adultery and fornication and with divorce and all of the rest. There are all sorts of descriptions of sinful aberrations from what the Bible prescribes, but what the Bible prescribes is one man and one woman. I want to draw you back to the concern of the woman who raised this issue. Her question wasn’t just about polygamy. She doesn’t believe polygamy is right. Her concern was because I know polygamy is not right, it makes it hard for me to be to believe a Bible that portrays polygamy. What I want to say is rightly understood, this issue of polygamy in the Bible gives you two reasons to believe in the Scriptures and not one reason to disbelieve the Scriptures.

Two Reasons to Believe the Scriptures

Here’s the first reason to believe the Scriptures. The Bible prescribes the kind of morality that is wonderful and beautiful, that I think in their heart of hearts, in their deepest soul, every human being wants. This idea that I, as a man, would grow old together with the wife of my youth, the one woman that the Lord has given me. Her name is Lauren, that we would grow old together that we would have an exclusive relationship that is not shared by anybody. That one day, we would sit in rocking chairs with liver-spotted hands intertwined, laughing and enjoying our life together, and ultimately, entering into the sunset of our life. That beautiful picture of morality is not just a good desire; it is shaped by divine design. And we read about that in the Bible, which gives us a reason to believe the Bible. But there’s a second reason to believe the Bible on this issue of polygamy in the Scriptures. And that is that the Bible tells us the truth. The God who loves and creates the moral universe, the God who loves and creates the exclusive union of marriage. He tells the truth about the men and the women in his kingdom who fail to live up to that standard. He tells the truth about sexual immorality and about polygamy and about divorce and abuse, and pain. So you can believe the Bible, the Bible that shapes our morality is the same Bible that will tell you the truth about the world you’re living in, and even about the people God uses to expand his kingdom, even when that truth is ugly.