by Dr. Stephen Kim
“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, not for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Jesus, Matthew 19:9)
Can a Christian man marry multiple wives? Did God ever prohibit polygamy? Does the New Testament prohibit polygamy?
Many Christians I meet fall into an interesting category regarding the issue of polygamy. Most, fall into a category that merely holds a “quiet aversion” towards polygamy. While publicly condemning polygamy, they will simultaneously hold the position that the Bible does not ever prohibit it. Christians will bash Mormon and Islamic theology for supporting polygamy; but when push comes to shove, they usually concede something along the lines of popular Christian website, gotquestions.org, which believes:
How does God view polygamy today? Even while allowing polygamy, the Bible presents monogamy as the plan which conforms most closely to God’s ideal for marriage.
So according to gotquestions.org, God presently allows polygamy, and monogamy is merely the ideal. Which is simply another way of saying, “Polygamy is not the best that God has in store for you; but it’s okay, and it’s certainly not a sin.” This view is perversely wrong. It serves to highlight the mass confusion around the issue of marriage within Christendom. Just today, a reader by the name of “Josh” left me the following comment:
I believe that polygamy is not a sin. There are too many men, godly men, in the OT that had multiple wives. Deut. 25:5 required polygamy, assuming the brother-in-law was already married when his brother died. The NT requires that deacons and preachers only have one wife. If this was unacceptable for all, then they would have broadened this scope to include everyone.
“Josh” sort of summarizes the modern “Christian” view aptly. The assumptions and logic go something like this: Godly men such as Abraham, Jacob, and King David all had more than one wife. God never condemned them for having multiple marriages. Furthermore, the New Testament only instructs pastors and elders to have monogamous marriages. Therefore, polygamy must be okay for the modern-day Christian.
With the Supreme Court’s ruling last year on “gay marriage,” Christians desperately need to get this issue right. The legalization of both incestual and polygamous marriages loom in the horizon and unless we have a firm biblical base for opposing polygamy, churches will crumble under societal pressures and logic.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
THE OLD TESTAMENT
God certainly intended monogamy in the beginning: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife (not wives), and they shall become one flesh (not fleshes)” (Gen 2:24). The first recorded case of polygamy in the Bible was committed by wicked Cain’s descendant, Lamech, who took for himself two wives–Adah and Zillah (Gen 4:19). Thereafter, the Old Testament has several recorded cases of men (both godly and ungodly) taking multiple wives. The Bible acknowledges the women as real, legitimate wives of the men. This therefore, permits one to correctly conclude that God did allow polygamy in the Old Testament (e.g., 2 Samuel 12:8 records God saying to King David: “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms”).
THE NEW TESTAMENT
However, by the time we get to the teachings of the New Testament, we find that what God once allowed is now strictly prohibited. Just as remarriage after a divorce was once allowed in the Old Testament (Deut 24:1), polygamy was also once allowed in the Old Testament (2 Sam 12:8). Yet, in the New Testament era, Christians are now prohibited from both. Let’s examine a few key texts:
Key Text # 1: Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife. (1 Tim 3:2)
While objections are made that the prohibition is made only for men striving to become clergy members, upon closer examination, one discovers that all the qualities desired in an elder are also expected in the common Christian. Hence, God expects all Christian men to be the husbands of only “one wife.”
Key Text #2: But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1 Cor 7:2)
The text was written to all Christians (not just clergy members) in Corinth. Polygamy prohibits the faithful execution of 1 Corinthians 7:2. A man who has multiple wives prohibits any one of his wives from having her “own” husband. Polygamy always forces the sharing of one’s spouse. This is sin.
WHAT JESUS SAID ABOUT POLYGAMY
Key Text # 3: And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, not for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matt 19:9)
The clearest text of all (Matt 19:9) comes from the mouth of our Lord Jesus himself. Yes, the text immediately bans divorce and remarriage; however, it also bans polygamy. Let me explain.
If you read carefully, you will see that the reason why a divorce and remarriage is considered as adultery in the eyes of God is because God considers the first marriage still to be in full force and in effect. In God’s view, you are still married to your first spouse and hence, a court-sanctioned divorce and subsequent remarriage to another person is really nothing but adultery in the eyes of God (Matt 19:9). But why is that the case if Jesus uses the words, “marries another”?
Answer: Because polygamy is a sin in the eyes of God. You see, you may have legitimately married another person in court, but God does not allow you to have multiple wives. In God’s view, the first marriage is undissolvable, and thus, a remarriage after a divorce is really the sin of bigamy. The first wife is the true wife (for God honors that marital bond) and the second wife is considered an adulterous relationship by the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not even a real marriage in the eyes of God. Instead, God identifies it as sin.
If the first marriage is still valid (Jesus says that it is in Matt 19:9, Matt 5:32, Luke 16:18, and Mark 10:11), and–let’s erroneously assume–that the second marriage is also valid (as per our judicial system and many contemporary Christian leaders); then the person essentially has two marriages. Hence, by calling for divorced and remarried couples to remain in their second marriages, many church leaders unwittingly advocate polygamy! Thankfully, Jesus unilaterally struck down remarriages after all divorces. In doing so, both remarriage and polygamy were effectively made sins of adultery by the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, those who instruct remarried couples to remain in their remarriages are instructing them to continue in the sins of adultery and polygamy.
CURRENT NEW YORK STATE LAW
Presently, New York State prohibits and annuls polygamous marriages. If a person is married and subsequently marries another, then the second marriage is considered void and is annulled by New York State Penal Law (an annulment is a court ruling that the marriage was never valid in the first place):
S 255.15 Bigamy. A person is guilty of bigamy when he contracts or purports to contract a marriage with another person at a time when he has a living spouse, or the other person has a living spouse. Bigamy is a class E felony.
Interestingly, adultery is also still a crime under New York State Law (notice the virtually parallel descriptions between bigamy and adultery):
S 255.17 Adultery. A person is guilty of adultery when he engages in sexual intercourse with another person at a time when he has a living spouse, or the other person has a living spouse. Adultery is a class B misdemeanor.
Unwittingly, New York State is simply backing up the teaching of Christ: Polygamy is the same sin as adulterous remarriage, and they’re both not real marriages. If a person is really and truly married to a person, the second marriage is an invalid marriage that ought to be annulled. Bigamy is a crime in New York. According to New York State code, Dom. Rel. §5-7, 24, 140; an undissolved first marriage is grounds for annulment of the second marriage anytime during the lifetimes of parties. Of course, in the eyes of God, the first marriage is never ever truly dissolved (Matt 19:9) and therefore, all second marriages are both adulterous and invalid. Thus, this certainly means that God considers polygamy as sin.
In the eyes of God, polygamy is adultery. It is indisputable that God views polygamy as sin. Any marriage, that is in addition to and concurrent to the first, is viewed as the sin of adultery by God (cf. Matt 19:9, Matt 5:32, Lk 16:18, Mk 10:11; and also see the above photo of page 348 of Introduction to Biblical Interpretation). Lastly, if one does not call for the dissolution of a remarriage, then he also does not have any biblical justification for banning polygamy.