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‘Love Times Three’—or Divided by Three?

One family is doing its best to normalize “plural marriage,” but nowhere in Jesus’ words is there even a hint that polygamy is part of God’s plan

I watch the Dr. Phil show when I can. I have great respect for Phil McGraw and what he does, and the guests on his show struggle with some serious, even debilitating, issues. Despite the fact that his show is glamorized, edited for broadcast, and subject to behind-the-scenes variables that may cause each person’s situation to be portrayed in an incomplete but ready-for-viewing manner, the show nonetheless consistently reminds me of how deeply wounded human nature is. Hence, on some level it always brings to mind God’s immense goodness in redeeming us and restoring us to fellowship with him because of how badly we need it and how utterly incapable we are of making that happen on our own.

I happened to catch an episode in August 2020 titled “Love Times Three,” which was about a Mormon man and his three wives Since the subject matter was outside the show’s normal range of substance abuse, family feuds, destructive lifestyles, and the like, and because it showcased a defining practice of another belief system—fundamentalist Mormonism—I was particularly intrigued.

So I watched the episode not only from the standpoint of human interest but also because the study of “fringe” belief systems has been an interest of mine for at least three decades. (I have an undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology and a graduate degree in pastoral ministry [theology], and I have been involved in Church ministry for forty-two years.)

Triple trouble

Let’s establish the framework of this episode. The husband, Joe Darger, is married to twin sisters, Vicki and Valerie, and their cousin, Alina. Joe, Alina, and Vicki got married about thirty years ago—yes, all three on the same day. Valerie was added to the mix ten years later. They have twenty-five children among them, and they live in an eleven-bedroom house in a suburb of Salt Lake City. (In case you don’t know, Salt Lake City is to Mormons basically what Rome is to Catholics.)

As “Independent, Fundamentalist Mormons” (according to the amazon.com blurb for their 2011 book, Love Times Three) they believe in polygamy, although in this case they referred to their situation as “plural marriage.” (More on this later.) They came on the show to tell their story, to dispel what they feel are misconceptions about their lifestyle, and to show that they are a “regular” family that practices their faith, buys groceries and clothes, and has a daily routine like everyone else.

But they are most certainly not like everyone else, and their living situation is irregular, to say the least. How many friends or acquaintances do you have with multiple spouses and two dozen children? Unless you’re a Mormon too, I imagine the answer is none. Since they claim to be practicing believers, and since their lifestyle is being presented as an alternative to the traditional family structure, I wanted to look at their lifestyle in light of what Scripture says and what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage and family.

The Bible on love and marriage

Before any discussion of marriage, we have to begin with a discussion of love, the very binding force in marriage and in fact in any relationship. Here Scripture tell us that God is love (cf. 1 John 4:8); that is, it is his very being and essence. When humans engage in love relationships, especially marriage, they are imitating the inner life of the Trinity, three Persons who exist in an eternal exchange and communion of love.

The traditional theological definition of love is “to will the good of another” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1766). This stands in contrast to a cultural or personal definition, which usually centers on things such as mutual affection, strong feelings, and devotion. While these things are certainly part of our common human experience of love, they don’t quite fully capture love, because love proceeds primarily from the will, not the emotions. Love also involves “the good,” which can be determined only by God. So, let’s look at this Mormon lifestyle with these considerations in mind.

In many places throughout the Bible, we learn about God’s infinite and unconditional love for us. More specifically, we see that God loves us freely, fully, faithfully, and fruitfully. For each category, I will briefly describe what it entails and cite a few Bible verses to support it.

Freely: God first chose us, and he did so without any constraints, conditions, or compulsions but rather out of his perfect goodness in order to share that goodness with us. He did not in any way need to create us (see John 15:16, Rom. 5:8, Titus 3:4-5).

Fully: God holds nothing back and gives us his all. In fact, Jesus declared that the greatest love one can have for another is to lay down one’s life for that person (John 15:13). Since you cannot give more than your very existence, Jesus’ words make perfect sense and demonstrate how “full” love can be (see John 3:16; Rom. 5:5, 8:31-32; Eph. 2:4-7; 1 John 4:9-10).

Faithfully: God can never break his promises to us, and he always maintains his side of our relationship with him, even when we fail to do so (see Num. 23:19, Deut. 7:9, Psalms 57:10, 1 Thess. 5:24, 2 Tim. 2:13).

Fruitfully: God’s love is life-giving, both figuratively and literally. In any morally good relationship, God’s grace brings forth life and growth, but in a unique way marriage allows that fruitfulness to be expressed biologically as well. In a sublime reflection of God’s own nature, married couples become co-creators with God (see Gen. 1:28, Psalms 128:3, John 15:16, Gal. 2:20, Col. 1:10).

Catholic marriage

Since we are made in the divine image, we are called to love as God loves. While any relationship can manifest these four categories to a greater or lesser extent (e.g., parent/child, best friends, relatives) the Church teaches that in the sacrament of marriage all four of them find their fullest expression.

Freely: In a Catholic marriage, the freedom to choose one’s spouse is an integral requirement for the sacrament, and the freely given consent of the two parties is the main element of the sacrament. In fact, if any form of coercion or fear is involved, the marriage is invalid (cf. Code of Canon Law 1103, CCC 1628).

Fully: In marriage, pledging to remain together for life is a constitutive element of the wedding vows, and it must be explicitly stated in them. Couples promise to intertwine their existence on multiple levels. You can’t give of yourself more fully than that.

Faithfully: Exclusivity is also a constitutive element of the wedding vows, and those vows must contain an explicit reference to this component as well. Once someone says “I do,” he or she is eliminating every other person on the planet as a possible intimate life partner.

Fruitfully: Catholic couples promise that they will be open to the possibility of new life (children)—nothing more, but nothing less. Their marriage is also the vehicle by which they will help each other grow in holiness so as to one day attain heaven. In this regard, their union is biologically and spiritually life-producing.

The matrimonial covenant [faith-fully], by which a man and a woman establish between themselves [freely] a partnership of the whole of life [fully], is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring [fruitfully]; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament (CCC 1601, the four love components added).

The most frequently used image in the Bible of God’s love for his people is the marriage covenant. For instance, the Bible opens with the story of the first husband and wife, Adam and Eve, and it closes with the story of the marriage of the Lamb and his bride, the Church. Everywhere in between you can find examples of marital love as the standard by which relationships are measured, especially where God is concerned.

Israel’s infidelity to God, for instance, is often spoken of in terms of marital unfaithfulness. An entire Old Testament book, Hosea, is a story of unfaithfulness and forgiveness and reconciliation. Another Old Testament book, Song of Songs, by contrast is a story of romantic love and the burning desire of the heart for one mate. It’s powerful stuff, and if we are to get marriage right and experience it the way it was intended to be, we must follow the Creator’s instructions on it.

Applying the standards

So, how does all of this apply to the Dargers’s “love times three” situation?

Freely: I’m sure that the four of them chose their situation, but, given that they all come from practicing Mormon backgrounds, it’s debatable that they all acted “freely” in that there were, no doubt, strong cultural and religious pressures or influences to which they were subjected growing up.

Joe is one of seventeen children from his father’s four wives. Alina is one of thirty-two children from her father’s two wives. Vicki and Valerie are two of forty children from their father’s three wives. Were the four of them “free” in the true sense of the word, or are they the products of a particular upbringing and religious environment that resulted in certain expectations about married life, even though those expectations deviated significantly from what is the norm? The “freely” component, I submit, is a little fuzzy.

Fully: This goes out the window for this group. When I was growing up, my father used to tell me, “Marriage is hard work.” I never entirely grasped his meaning until I got married and realized from my firsthand experience that the “hard work” is the lifelong process by which two people learn to be other-centered rather than self-centered; learn to overcome habits and tendencies that are detrimental to the marriage; learn the meaning of sacrifice; learn to cooperate; learn to make decisions mutually; and so on and so on. This process involves determination, commitment, grace, selflessness, vulnerability, courage, and focus.

Because of our fallen nature, this process is hard enough to achieve when your energies and efforts are directed to one person. When they are directed to three women simultaneously, as in Joe’s case, there is no possible way he can give fully to each one. Out of necessity, his energies and efforts are divided among three women, and he cannot love fully if he is splitting his time, affection, energy, and focus.

Faithfully: This element was never even a contender from the start. In a rather flagrant display of denial, Joe actually said, “It’s three, separate, monogamous relationships. I’m monogamous in every sense of the word to each person. It’s just three different relationships.” Clearly, by definition, Joe is not monogamous in any sense of the word.

Although his three “wives”—and I put the word in quotes because by the biblical definition of marriage there is only one husband and one wife—may have consented to the arrangement, it doesn’t change the fact that monogamy means being married to one person, not three. Joe is a polygamist, plain and simple—and he is unfaithful to each of his three “wives.”

He also said, “This isn’t about sex or some kind of Playboy mansion. It’s not what the stereotype is: it’s a harem, and they all just come to my bedroom whenever I want. If I wanted sex, it’d be easier to go get mistresses.”

Though he seems to be attempting to soften any negative feelings or thoughts people may have about the sexual side of his situation, the bottom line is that it is simply not possible to be “faithful” if you are being sexually intimate with three women simultaneously.

Furthermore, his disavowal of running a harem sounds hollow as evidenced by his own words: “All we do on the night rotation is Alina, then Vicki, then Valerie. Alina, Vicki, Valerie. We just rotate every three nights.”

When it is your night,” Vicki said, “then we expect a little connecting time.” While I suppose that “connecting time” could mean something nonsexual, it sure sounds like a polite way to say “have sex” in a public forum such as Dr. Phil’s show. If Joe is rotating his “wives” on a regular basis, and if “connecting time” occurs, it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that it sure does sound like a harem.

Just for reference, I searched the Web for the definition of harem, and one of the definitions is “a group of female animals sharing a single mate.” That is exactly what they are doing, isn’t? (I do not intend the word animals to be pejorative; after all, human beings are animals in the biological sense of the word.)

Dr. Phil was astute enough to see through the subterfuge and say to the women, “You cannot sit here long enough to convince me that you haven’t had jealousy among and between each of you.” Yes, of course there is jealousy among them. How could it be otherwise?

Fruitfully: This is the only case where this group seems to hit the mark. Certainly, one could say that a family with twenty-five children is fruitful. So, from a strictly biological point of view, let’s concede them this category. But even here, the concession doesn’t come without qualifications, as we will see.

The inherent dangers

I submit that for several reasons it is a dangerous thing for a group like this to be showcased on a popular national television show, because it gives them a powerful forum in which to make their case.

1) The group admits they are on the show to dispel negative perceptions about their situation and to cast it in a favorable light. What such an appearance does is to begin to change public perception of their situation from unacceptable to acceptable. However, even if we appeal long and hard enough to people’s emotions to the point where their thinking changes on an important moral issue, what God calls a violation of his law still remains a violation of his law.

2) The battle to change public perception starts with a change in the value and impact of words. Words are powerful tools, and entire movements and revolutions have been started because of them. The underlying dynamic is that once we succeed in getting people to use a “softer” or alternate way of expressing something, we begin to change their perception of that reality as well.

Some of the more egregious examples of this process were when slaves in colonial America were called “property” and when Hitler called the Jews a “problem” that needed to be solved. Once people start to think in terms of “property” and “problems” instead of “made in God’s image and likeness,” the assault on human dignity is sure to follow.

Notice that in the case of this Mormon group, they do not call what they are practicing polygamy—they call it “plural marriage.” Sounds nicer, doesn’t it? I think many people probably still associate polygamy with something offensive to the institution of marriage, but by a subtle shift in language the supporters of polygamy have introduced the word marriage into their narrative about a living arrangement that violates God’s laws. As long as we choose to use the new language, we have already begun down the slippery slope of an inevitable change in our own perception of the subject matter. Words matter.

3) The Dargers are shown practicing their faith by starting each morning with family prayer, making it appear that they are “religious” and that their situation is acceptable to God. Given what we noted above about freely, fully, faithfully, and fruitfully, it’s impossible to reconcile what they are doing with divine revelation—and in particular Jesus’ own words:

He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matt. 19:4-5).

Notice that Jesus affirms one man (singular) with his wife (also singular), and the two form a unity, not a plurality. Nowhere is there even a hint that polygamy is part of God’s plan. In fact, Scripture informs us that a consequence of it is leading someone away from God: “When Solomon was old, his wives had turned his heart to follow other gods, and his heart was not entirely with the Lord, his God, as the heart of David his father had been” (1 Kings 11:4).

4) Groups such as these represent yet another move toward redefining marriage in our culture. Two of the most important institutions in our society—marriage and family—are being subjected to a full frontal assault, and some powerful forces are at work to remake marriage into what they deem it should be. Just look at what has happened with the homosexual agenda in our country and how much acceptance it gained by softening public perception of it.

Even self-professed Christians have bought into the narrative of the “god of this world” by claiming the need for “marriage equality.” Sacramentalizing same-sex unions is not equality at all, because those unions do not do for society what marriage does, and yet their supporters want the same benefits as marriage.

More important is the fact that God —who alone gets to make the moral determination—condemns homosexual activity in Scripture. He has done likewise with polygamy. This is why the Catholic Church, in fidelity to its founder, also condemns both.

5) With twenty-five children, clearly the Dargers are fruitful. However, according to the consistent teaching of the Church, children have the right to be raised by the parents who created them, and the nuclear family is the standard by which all other forms of family are measured (cf. CCC 2202)because it is God’s original design for the family unit.

In the Dargers’s case, a polygamous, blended family is presented as the new standard, and I would imagine there must be difficult emotions and confusion to address when the children eventually realize that although they share the same living space, they don’t share the same two parents, and hence some of them are being raised by someone else’s mother. Does competition develop? Jealousy? Resentment? Will one mother be as attentive to another’s children as to her own?

It is past the time for believing Christians to reclaim their biblical roots for marriage and the family. Our society is on a reckless course that has already led to a bad place morally and spiritually. If self-professed Christians don’t resist these distortions of God’s plan, or worse still, if they actively support them, should we be surprised when God allows us to suffer the consequences of our own choices? n

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