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Did God have double standards on polygamy?

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Did God have double standards on polygamy?
Posted on August 31, 2021  - By Dr. Scott Shiffer

Why did so many great biblical figures have multiple wives and concubines without consequence if God’s design for marriage was monogamy? Yet, in Genesis 20, God appears to Abimelech in a dream to tell him he’s a dead man on account of Sarah because she was married. Is that not a double standard?

This is, no doubt, a very good and important question. Christians typically claim that, as per Scripture, monogamy is God’s design for marriage. And so, the first part of your question deserves a great deal of attention. 

The second one can be answered more easily. Abimelech would have committed adultery if he had been with Sarah while she was married to Abraham. Polygamy was not considered adultery, in general, because those involved were still parties in a marital covenant. This does not, however, make it an appropriate practice.

Polygamy in the OT

Polygamy is the practice of a husband taking multiple wives — and many Bible characters are recorded as having done this.

The Bible forbids a man from marrying the sister of one of his wives because of jealousy (Leviticus 18:18). And while the Law — technically — allowed polygamy, it did have standards that accompanied it. This is important because we see Jacob do this very thing with Leah and Rachel. Notice that in their Scriptural stories, there is much jealousy and strife.

The Bible does not explicitly forbid practising polygamy, but it does not condone it either. The first example of polygamy in Scripture comes from Genesis 4:19. One of Cain’s descendants took two wives and bragged to them about being more wicked than Cain.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find several kings taking multiple wives. These stories are often accompanied by details about how the numerous wives caused problems within the royal family. Solomon’s wives (many of whom worshipped the gods of other countries) turned his heart away from the Lord.

When we read of leaders taking multiple wives, the text is bringing to light that the king is not following the Law

David’s multiple wives also caused him to lose the respect of his children as a father. His marriages caused concern in his life and his leadership abilities. Throughout Scripture, when people are said to have multiple wives, the text tends to show us how such a lifestyle can prove burdensome and difficult.

Deuteronomy 17:17 also states that the kings were not to take many wives. When we read of leaders taking multiple wives, the text is bringing to light that the king is not following the Law.

The NT and beyond

While the Law allowed for polygamy, the New Testament explicitly states that pastors should not have more than one wife (1 Timothy 2). The more wives one has, the more one’s time is torn between them. A pastor with more than one wife would find his time even more divided between church and family.

We know that, in the year AD 285, polygamy was banned in Rome. But that edict failed and another law banning the practice came into play in AD 393. This, too, did not stop the practice. Jews continued to practise polygamy until the 11th century. In many cultures, the practice continues to be embraced today.

In church history, polygamy has often been condemned for Christians. The Lutheran church has made exceptions where polygamists were allowed to join the church, but forbidden from taking additional wives after joining.

Today, there are groups of Christians who believe that polygamy is ordained by God (nearly 3,000 Christian polygamists reside in the United States).

Biblical designs

Some have argued that the biblical view of marriage is strictly between one man and one woman. This view finds support in Genesis 2, where God states that, in marriage, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. There is also no evidence that Adam ever took multiple wives.

But the issue is not as explicitly discussed as one might like it to be. For instance, David, who practiced polygamy, is referred to as a man after God’s own heart. 

This author believes that Scripture speaks of polygamy as a reality, but never promotes it as a proper form of marriage. 

The biblical design for marriage is between one man and one woman. If anyone who comes to faith is already in a polygamous marriage, they should be allowed to remain together. After all, God hates divorce. 

Only monogamy embraces all that God had in mind when He designed marriage

All relationships take hard work, commitment, communication, and grace. But polygamy comes with its own set of problems. Couples in these relationships will have to deal with issues of anxiety, jealousy, time spent apart, and legal issues that come from only being allowed one legal wife in many countries.

Furthermore, those who practise polygamy should not be allowed to become ministers. Paul’s instruction to Timothy makes this clear enough.

To get back to your initial question, those in the Bible with multiple wives and concubines did have to deal with consequences. Their personal lives are frequently in shambles. They had significant issues with their children, and in some cases, their hearts were even turned away from the Lord. In the lives of characters with only one wife, we still see turmoil, but the challenges typically come from outside the home.

God designed marriage as a necessary part of the human experience. He designed us to marry to have communion, to fill the earth, and to be helpmates to one another. We understand the Trinity better by seeing how two people become one in the marriage covenant. Scripture may give examples of multiple kinds of marriages, but only monogamy embraces all that God had in mind when He designed marriage.

Dr. Scott Shiffer

About Dr. Scott Shiffer

Dr. Scott Shiffer has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and has been teaching religion classes since 2006. He leads Faith and Culture Now, an organization to help believers think biblically about culture in America. Scott has given numerous presentations, including one at Oxford. He has spoken at church retreats, youth retreats, conferences, and has taught discipleship classes for many years. Scott is married and has four children. He has a heart for helping believers draw closer to God and for aiding them as they are faced with new challenges every day.



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