Questions of Faith
The practice of marrying multiple spouses – also known as polygamy – is a hot topic at the moment. Not completely dissimilar to an open relationship where a couple agrees to having sexual relations with other people, polygamy takes this a step further and enshrines the relationship in marriage. There are three types of polygamy:
- Polygyny is when a man has multiple wives.
- Polyandry is when a woman has multiple husbands.
- Group marriage consists of a mixture of spouses from both sexes.
While western culture has become acclimatised to monogamous relationships, there is a growing movement calling for the acceptance of relationships with more than one partner. Catholics would baulk at the idea, but some supporters of polygamy can point to the Bible to justify their actions. Throughout the Old Testament, key figures had multiple wives like Jacob or Solomon. If they can have more than one partner, why shouldn’t people today also be afforded this?
It’s true that the Bible does permit polygamy as evident in Genesis 16:1-4 where Abram’s wife Sarai advises him to conceive with her maidservant Hagar.
While the practice was authorised during this particular point in history, most scholars hold that it was not the ideal, as reaffirmed by Jesus in the New Testament who condemned it.
“He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and will stick to his wife, and the two will be one flesh.” (Mt 19:4-5)
During the period between the Old and New Testament, there is evidence that polygamy was denounced and that Jewish sects refrained from the practice.
Given that the New Testament is critical of polygamy, why was it even permitted in the first place? Are there any similar teachings which follow this pattern? The obvious one is the Bible’s attitude towards divorce. While it was allowed prior to Jesus’ coming, he teaches that the practice was not originally intended by God.
Throughout the Old Testament, key figures had multiple wives like Jacob or Solomon”
“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning’” (Mt 19:8).
It seems that Mosaic Law made particular concessions to satiate the weaknesses of human nature. By gradually revealing God’s true intent of marriage, the Jewish people could slowly adjust to this vision. This means that God never approved of polygamy, but did allow it in a specific context for a specific people.
If we scan the New Testament, there are numerous references outlining the need for a monogamous marriage.
“Let each man have his own wife and each woman have her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:2)
So while it’s true that polygamy is found in the Bible, it doesn’t mean that the book or the Church supports it.