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The Protestant’s Problem with Polyamory

Why both Scripture and tradition matter when it comes to defining marriage

Many Christians might be surprised at how difficult it is to argue against polyamory using the Bible alone, since the Bible only really speaks of polygamy (polyamory refers to multiple-partner sexual relationships and unions, polygamy only refers to having multiple wives). And if we use the Bible alone to examine polygamy, it’s easier to show that God is for it rather than against it.

A popular Bible study resource known as Nave’s Topical Bible gives only a few verses that it says forbid polygamy. Yet if Nave’s is correct, only kings (Deut. 17:17), sisters (Lev. 18:18), and church elders (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6) are prohibited from engaging in polygamy! The same resource lists several verses indicating the authorization, toleration, or practice of polygamy (2 Sam. 12:8, Ex. 21:10, 1 Sam. 1:2, 2 Chr. 24:3, Job 27:15). It goes on to list some pretty impressive biblical figures who were polygamists:

  • Abraham (Gen. 16)
  • Esau (Gen. 26:34; 28:9)
  • Jacob (Gen. 29:30)
  • Gideon (Judg. 8:30)
  • David (1 Sam. 25:39-44; 2 Sam. 3:2–5; 5:13; 1 Chr. 14:3)
  • Solomon (1 Kin. 11:1–8)

A closer look at the verses marshaled against polygamy will show that the Bible really does not endorse the anti-polygamy position. The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics says of polygamy that, “the Scriptures repeatedly warn against having multiple wives (Deut. 17:17) and violating the principle of monogamy—one man for one wife (cf. 1 Cor. 7:2; 1 Tim. 2[sic]:2).”

The first problem with this claim is that Deuteronomy 17:17 (“he shall not multiply wives for himself”) expresses a rule for kings (Dt. 17:14) – not all people. So even if this rule clearly legislated against polygamy, it would only mean that kings could not marry more than one woman. However, the phrase “multiply wives” in the verse cannot mean to merely “add wives.” In the same sentence it says the king also may not “multiply” gold and silver – yet kings were allowed to own more than one piece of gold or silver (or horses, cf. Dt. 17:16)! The context indicates that the term means to “greatly increase” wives – but it only takes one additional wife to be a polygamist.

Rather than being a “warning against having multiple wives,” 1 Corinthians 7:2 is a guideline for those who struggle with the temptation of lust (the answer being to have a spouse). It is not clearly stated as a monogamous limitation, however. When I tell my hungry children to “each get a piece of fruit,” I am not necessarily implying that they may not have more than one piece if the first does not sate their hunger.

Finally, just as Deuteronomy 17:17 is a rule specifically given to kings, 1 Timothy 3:2 is a rule for church elders. While this might reflect God’s ideal, it is not a general rule for all people. Further, it could be argued from Scripture that God’s ideal for men is that they have zero wives (1 Cor. 7:1, 7-8).

So much for arguing against Polygamy using the Bible alone. Indeed, not only does the Bible not provide very good reasons to reject polygamy, it might be seen to argue for it.

Protestants may admit that although polygamy was practiced in the Old Testament (apparently without judgment), monogamy remains God’s ideal standard for the human race. Yet, a big problem for those who want to call polygamy a sin is Exodus 21:10, wherein God lays out the rules for polygamous marriages. Does God give moral guidelines for immoral actions?

Even more difficult to explain is the fact that in 2 Samuel 12:8 God lists David’s multiple wives as part of the blessings that God himself bestowed upon him. Does God thus encourage sin? And let us not forget that David was a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22) and that David “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and did not turn aside from anything that God commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uri′ah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15:5).

Although polygamy has never been held to be a generally acceptable practice in Protestantism, Martin Luther expressed openness to the idea:

I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter (De Wette II, 459, 329-330).

Luther was not the only prominent Christian who did not seem to have a problem with polygamy. The Lutheran theologian Philipp Melanchthon counseled Henry VIII to not grant himself divorces and, thus, risk schism; he should instead look to polygamy as a suitable alternative. Anabaptist leader Bernhard Rothmann wrote a defense of plural marriage and took nine wives himself.

Protestantism’s marital practices also do not help the case against polygamy. The (eventual) Protestant allowance for divorce affirms something that God actually says he hates (Mal. 2:16). But God never said such a thing about polygamy. Further, the Protestant acceptance of remarriage after divorce actually results in “serial monogamy,” which Jesus calls adultery (Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18).

Thus, while Protestants affirm marital practices that the Bible says God hates and considers sinful, they reject one practice God accepted and even seemed to promote.

Although polygamy was not banned in Judaism until about A.D. 1000, the Christian Church taught from ancient times that polygamy is not (or is at least no longer) God’s will. Early Church theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus condemned polygamy. Tertullian explicitly tackled the objection that polygamy was allowed for the patriarchs in his De Monogamia. Augustine taught that polygamy of the patriarchs, tolerated by the Creator because of fertility, was a diversion from his original plan for marriage. Basil of Caesarea wrote of plural marriage that it was no longer to be called marriage but polygamy or fornication, and ordered that those who are engaged in it to be excommunicated.

Because the Church did not rely on biblical proof texts alone, but also considered natural law and sacred tradition, it arrived at the position that the vast majority of Christians—Protestants included—hold to this day. The Church determined that passages such as Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:3-9; and Ephesians 5:31 expressed God’s normative will despite seemingly contrary evidence found in other Scriptures.

The issue with “adulterous polyamory” cannot be biblically resolved by encouraging polygamy, as some prominent Protestants have called for in the past. Most Protestants would agree with this conclusion, but they could not reach it via their foundational principle of sola scriptura. As shown above, the Bible alone is insufficient for disproving the propriety of polygamy. The end result is that the Protestant method actually may lend inadvertent support for polygamy. This is a case for natural law and sacred tradition, which, unfortunately, most Protestants have been led to ignore.

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