The question of polygamy is interesting in that most people today view polygamy as immoral while the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns it. The first instance of polygamy/bigamy in the Bible is that of Lamech in Genesis 4:19: “Lamech married two women.” Several prominent men in the Old Testament were polygamists. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and others all had multiple wives. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (essentially wives of a lower status), according to 1 Kings 11:3. What are we to make of these instances of polygamy in the Old Testament? There are three questions that need to be answered: 1) Why did God allow polygamy in the Old Testament? 2) How does God view polygamy today? 3) Why did it change?
1) Why did God allow polygamy in the Old Testament? The Bible does not specifically say why God allowed polygamy, and we must remember that allowance is not the same as approval. As we speculate about God’s permissive silence, there is at least one key factor to consider. In patriarchal societies, it was nearly impossible for an unmarried woman to provide for herself. Women were often uneducated and untrained. Women relied on their fathers, brothers, and husbands for provision and protection. Unmarried women were often subjected to prostitution and slavery.
So, God may have allowed polygamy to protect and provide for the women who otherwise may have been left destitute. A man would take multiple wives and serve as the provider and protector of all of them. While definitely not ideal, living in a polygamist household was far better than the alternative of prostitution, slavery, or starvation. In addition to the protection/provision factor, polygamy enabled a much faster expansion of humanity, fulfilling God’s command to “be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth” (Genesis 9:7).
2) How does God view polygamy today? Even while recording cases of polygamy, the Bible presents monogamy as the plan that conforms most closely to God’s ideal for marriage. The Bible says that God’s original intention was for one man to be married to only one woman: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife [not wives], and they will become one flesh [not fleshes]” (Genesis 2:24). The consistent use of the singular in this verse should be noted. Later, in Deuteronomy 17:14–20, God says that the kings were not to multiply wives (or horses or gold). While this cannot be interpreted as a command that kings must be monogamous, it does indicate that having multiple wives causes problems. Such problems can be clearly seen in the life of Solomon (1 Kings 11:3–4).
In the New Testament, 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6 list being “the husband of one wife” as a qualification for spiritual leadership in the church. The phrase could literally be translated “a one-woman man.” However broadly or narrowly that qualification should be applied, in no sense can a polygamist be considered a “one-woman man.” Is the prohibition of polygamy only for elders and deacons, the “example-setters”? No, the standard of monogamy should apply to all Christians.
Ephesians 5:22–33 speaks of the relationship between husbands and wives. When referring to a husband (singular), the passage always also refers to a wife (singular). “For the husband is the head of the wife [singular]. . . . He who loves his wife [singular] loves himself. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife [singular], and the two will become one flesh. . . . Each one of you also must love his wife [singular] as he loves himself, and the wife [singular] must respect her husband [singular].” Further, if polygamy were allowable, the illustration of Christ’s relationship with His Body (the Church) falls apart (Ephesians 5:32). In Colossians 3:18–19, Paul refers to husbands and wives in the plural, but in that passage it is clear that he is addressing all the husbands and wives among the Colossian believers.
3) Why did it change? It is not so much that God disallowed something He had previously allowed as it is that God restored marriage to His original plan. As seen in Genesis 2, polygamy was not God’s original intent. God seems to have allowed polygamy to solve a problem, but that solution was not the ideal. In most modern societies, there is absolutely no need for polygamy. In most cultures today, women are able to provide for and protect themselves—removing the only “positive” aspect of polygamy. Further, most modern nations outlaw polygamy. According to Romans 13:1–7, we are to obey the laws the government establishes, including laws prohibiting polygamy.
Are there some instances in which the allowance for polygamy would still apply today? Perhaps, but it is unfathomable that there would be no other solution. Due to the “one flesh” aspect of marriage, the need for oneness and harmony in marriage, and the lack of any real need for polygamy, it is our firm belief that polygamy does not honor God and is not His design for marriage.