Is Polygamy Wrong? (No. 1)

Ray Ferris
Racine, Wisconsin

We have all read and heard many words showing God's disapproval of divorce and remarriage when the divorce was obtained for most any excuse that could be devised. This results in at least two people living in adultery. However, most of us have failed to make very much of a study of what God's will would be concerning the practice of polygamy. Polygamy is, according to Webster the "State or fact of having a plurality of wives or (rarely) of husbands, at the same time." Most of us have always thought of such a situation as sin but have failed to study the problem to know just why we think of it as a sin.

No doubt our failure to study this problem much in recent years is due to the fact that we live in a land where polygamy is against the law of our land, and thus we have little contact with it. When we do hear of it, the law of the land usually steps in and corrects the situation immediately. Thus, since polygamy is not a practice here it can not very logically become a problem among the Lord's people here. Since it is no problem, we have a tendency to ignore it to a very great extent. We make a thorough study of those problems with which we become personally associated, and only a cursory examination of others, and maybe no study at all.

It is sad, but true, that there are places where polygamy is a grave problem among the Lord's people. In any nation where such has been the practice of the people of the land prior to their contact with the gospel, it will become a problem with which the bearer of "glad tidings" must cope. The man who has "married" two or more wives and then obeys the gospel will be brought face to face with the question of what to do with the last one, or ones. The woman who is but one wife of many for the same man, then hears the truth of God and obeys it, will be faced with the question of what she must do in order to please her God. This polygamous condition prevails in a number of places in the world, and in some where the church of the Lord has made great strides in reaching great numbers of these people with the gospel.

Polygamy And Adultery

Now just what is wrong with polygamy? What answer would vou give if faced with the question by an earnest, sincere individual who is living in that condition, wants to do what is right, but is terribly concerned about those who are his responsibility because of multiple marriages? Perhaps you are ready to answer that anyone ought to know that to have sexual relations with more than one woman involves a man in adultery, and that God condemns adultery. However, notice the definitions that are given of adultery. Webster says it means "Voluntary sexual intercourse by a married man with another than his wife or by a married woman with another than her husband." Thayer says the Greek word moichao means "to have unlawful intercourse with another's wife, to commit adultery with . . ." Notice that these definitions make it necessary to prove that it is unlawful to have more than one wife or husband before we can condemn polygamy per se as adultery.

Here is where we begin to encounter some difficulty in our efforts to show polygamy to be wrong, or anti-scriptural. It is a well known fact that polygamy is recorded as being quite common among some of God's chosen people in days of the Old Testament! In Gen. 4:19, we read of the first record of a polygamist as Lamech took two wives. There is no voice of criticism of that act in the record. Abraham took a second wife in the person of Sarai's handmaid (Gen. 16:3) and perhaps a third all at the same time in the person of Keturah (Gen. 25:6 and I Chron. 1:32). Once again there is no real criticism of the act as such in the record. Such outstanding characters as Jacob (Gen. 29:31-30: 24), Elkanah (I Sam. 1:1-2), David (I Sam. 18:27 and 25:39-43), and Solomon (I Kings 11:1-3) were guilty of polygamy with no real censure from the scripture record regarding the polygamy itself. In fact, Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon are all outstanding men in the Old Testament record and are commended by the scriptures. To some this would seem to mean the approval of polygamy by the Lord, for they deem it unthinkable that these men would have been violating the will of the Lord in the matter. Of this much we can be sure - either the Lord approved this polygamous relationship, or else these men were guilty of sin in their sexual relationship with these women!

Problem Clearly Stated

As we study this problem we must strive to determine what is God's will in the matter. Our efforts ought not to be expended in trying to prove that outstanding men always did what God wanted men to do, but rather to prove what God wanted done and recognize that all men fell short of God's desire until Jesus came to live on earth. There was no perfect example prior to His coming and there has been none since. Thus, regardless of what our estimation of the character of those described in the scriptures or of those we may know and appreciate in our own personal contacts, we must not let their practices persuade us to attempt to alter or compromise God's will on any subject.

For example, Abraham was guilty of dishonestv and deceitfulness in pretending that his wife was only his sister, and was on the verge of giving his wife to another man to save himself from all imaginary danger. Read Gen. 12:10-20 and 20:1-16. Jacob was guilty of very distinct respect of persons and partiality among his children that led to jealous and envious brothers selling Joseph for a slave. Read the story in Gen. 37 and subsequent chapters. David was guilty of taking another man's wife, getting the husband drunk and finally having the husband murdered in order to cover his sin, and then continuing with the murdered man's wife as his own. Read 2 Sam. 11:2-27. These men, remember, are men who are highly commended in the scriptures, but this does not change the fact that God condermis dishonesty and deceit, drunkenness, murder, respect of persons and partiality, and unlawful sexual relations. It would be just as logical to endorse and approve these things in the life of an individual because these outstanding men practiced them as to endorse and approve polygamy in an individual's life because they practiced it. If we discover that polygamy is condemned in the word of God it would be tragic to endorse and approve that which God has condemned.

As we think on this problem these questions are involved: Is it lawful in God's sight for a man to have more than one wife? Is sexual relationship with a second companion unlawful only when another's companion is taken? Does a marriage ceremony make sexual relationship lawful with any and all unmarried persons that might be persuaded to go through such a ceremony? If there is no civil law to demand a "marriage ceremony" is the attitude of mind (just have no intention to live under the same roof and be called husband and wife) the only thing wrong with sexual relationship between a man and a number of unmarried women? Can a man continue in sexual relationships with two women and both relationships be lawful? If these questions can be answered affirmatively then polygamy can very logically be lawful in the sight of God. Our laws would then be in contradiction with that which God will approve, and could thus be disregarded when one is beyond their jurisdiction. If any one, or all, of these questions must be answered in the negative then polygamy must be against the will of God, or at least there is a good probability that such answer would make polygamy questionable.

Polygamy and Fornication

Someone may be ready to say that all we need to condemn polygamy is to show that the Lord condemns fornication; that it is a much broader term than adultery, and would thus include polygamy. Webster defines fornication as, "I. Illicit sexual intercourse on the part of an unmarried person. cf. ADULTERY. 2. Figuratively, esp. in Scripture, idolatry." Thayer says of porneia, "fornication." and again, "a. prop. of illicit sexual intercourse in general . . . b. In accordance with a form of speech common in the O.T. and among the Jews which represents the close relationship existing between Jehovah and his people under the figure of a marriage porneia is used metaphorically of the worship of idols." Now, as Thayer points out, fornication covers illicit sexual intercourse in general, and God surely condemns fornication. Read I Cor. 5 :1-13 ; 6:9-11; 6:15-18. Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5 :3-6; Col. 3 :5-7; and I Thess. 3 :3-5 : However, to answer thusly is to beg the question. It still assumes that which must be proved. We must yet prove from the scriptures that polygamy involves an illicit or unlawful intercourse. When we can do this we will have fully answered the question of our title "Is polygamy wrong?" This would mean it is fornication, and therefore sinful.

In the remainder of this study we shall endeavor to prove beyond any, shadow of doubt that God's word not only does not authorize polygamy, but expressly forbids it.

Truth Magazine IV:2, pp. 11-13
November 1959