Question: Why can’t men have multiple wives today when God seemed to permit it in the days of Abraham and David and Solomon?
Answer: Jesus, in Matthew 19, uses the Genesis 2 account as a template or pattern for marriage. That is, one marriage, no divorce. But there are other patterns evident in the garden, such as, one wife, one husband, and male/female as opposed to same sex.
Whenever we see multiple spouses (wives) depicted in the Scriptures it always is shown in a negative light. Lamech, Genesis 4:19-24, is an arrogant man, Abraham’s situation results in feuding wives and fear and jealousy about the children (Genesis 16, 21), Elkanah (1 Samuel 1) loves one wife, Hannah, but puts up with another, Peninnah, because she can give him children, and on and on it goes. Solomon’s wives led him into idolatry (1 Kings 11).
In the New Testament, though there is no prohibition given against polygamy per se, elders are not allowed to be elders if they have more than one wife (1 Timothy 3:2) and this suggests and models the principle of monogamy for all. Since then, cultures that have been influenced by Christianity have prohibited polygamy. When the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) sought to make Utah a state, there was a refusal if they permitted polygamy, so they also now prohibit it.
When missionaries have gone to other cultures where polygamy is permitted they have struggled with finding leaders who don’t participate in polygamous marriages. They have had to wrestle with the fact that many of their converts might be polygamous. Some have realized that they cannot make the husbands divorce their wives without creating a great deal of suffering, so have opted for an educational process that changes the next generation. As it becomes more accepted in the United States, churches may have to deal with similar questions. Of course, as long as it is on our books as illegal, we will have to counsel polygamist families in ways of becoming conformed to the laws of our land.
Why didn’t God tell David or Solomon or Abraham or others that it was wrong to have multiple wives? Why did He permit them to hold positions of leadership in their communities when they were not observing the ideal He established in the Garden? It seems that this might have been too big a cultural shift for them to make given the acceptance of polygamy in their cultures. Had they asked God whether they should marry more than one wife we may suppose He would have told them, “No.” We may suppose that there are cultural allowances for things in our own nation today that were we to ask God if we should engage in them He might say, “No,” but we don’t ask.
Polygamy is often cited as a deterrent to other less desirable ways men might be tempted to seek multiple partners (affairs, prostitution). The better answer is to help marriages be successful according to God’s instructions. But whether a marriage is satisfying or not, we must still obey God’s laws and for current United States couples the state restrictions against polygamy become our obligation as well (Romans 13:1-7).
- Don’t Do Polygamy – On the Polygamy of the Patriarchs and the Problems it Produces (adw.org)
- Polygamy just doesn’t make sense (stoppolygamyincanada.wordpress.com)
- Just the two of us? Polygamy in the UK (politicsontoast.com)
- Poll: Young in Malaysia, Indonesia oppose polygamy (seattletimes.nwsource.com)