Is polygamy a sin? A consideration of polygamy and the Bible

Conservative Christians in the Anglican Communion—especially those in Africa—have fought a long, hard battle against the acceptance and blessing of homosexual activity. Now, some Western Anglicans are charging the Africans with hypocrisy for arguing against one sexual deviancy whilst accepting another—polygamy.

Recent developments in the Anglican communion with regard to human sexuality have drawn extraordinary statements from some quarters. In particular, conservative Christians—who believe that the teaching of the Bible is against any endorsement of homosexual relationships—have been accused of being inconsistent, given their attitudes towards polygamy. In particular, it is often claimed that the acceptance of polygamy by African clergy not only indicates nonalignment with traditional Christian teaching, but is also an example of how out of touch the African churches are from the Western world.1

However, the reality is that Anglican churches in Africa do not endorse polygamy as a legitimate lifestyle for the Christian. On the contrary, they teach that Christian men should not marry more than one wife, and they do not bless polygamous marriages. As for being out of step with the Western world, our African brothers and sisters are much more concerned to be in step with the teaching of Scripture than to follow the faddishness of liberal theology so prevalent in the Western Protestant tradition.

Nevertheless, there are necessarily complications for those who come to Christ out of a polygamous non-Christian culture. And this is the situation our brothers and sisters in Africa have had to grapple with. The focus of this article is to consider what the Bible teaches about polygamy. We know that it was clearly practised in Old Testament times, apparently without the attendant disapproval of God. Indeed, The Book of Common Prayer can only cite Isaac and Rebekah as a model of marriage among the patriarchs, for only they expressed their covenant of marriage in the faithfulness of an exclusive and permanent union between a husband and a wife. Even in the New Testament the absence of references to polygamy, apart from the requirement for elders and deacons to be the husband of one wife, is surprising. Is this a requirement for church officers only? What about other members of the congregation? To answer these questions we must turn to the Bible’s teaching on marriage as a whole.

Marriage—the bond between one man and one woman

The creation of Adam and Eve was not an accident of design but a deliberative model of the Creator to establish humankind in the context of family. The creation of Eve was for Adam, a helper suitable for him, so that together they might exercise the dominion accorded them as imagebearers of God. While their physical union would be blessed with the fruit of children, it is noteworthy that the reflection in Genesis 2:24 on the nature of marriage is complete, despite the absence of children. A man leaves his father and mother, cleaves to his wife and the two become one flesh. Moreover, it is an exclusive union. Only two people can enter into a marriage designed by God. In Jesus’ words, they are no longer two but one (Matt 19:6; Mark 10:8).

The first recorded deviation from this model is the person of Lamech, who took two wives, Adah and Zillah (Gen 4:19). The context suggests that his bigamous activity was coordinate with the other vices evident in Lamech’s song, including murder, arrogance, vindictiveness and further murderous intent (Gen 4:23-24). Indeed, the unfolding of the history of humankind evidences a strong connection between violence and oppression when there is a departure from monogamy.

The early chapters of Genesis suggest the original intention of marriage was one man and one woman. In the New Testament, this understanding is reiterated by Jesus and Paul. In the context of a discussion about divorce, Jesus reaffirms the divine intention that marriage is between two people, where the two become one (Matt 19:4-6; Mark 10:2-9). Similarly, Paul endorses the union of one man and one woman (Eph 5:31). In the extended discourse concerning marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, the presumption is both explicit and implicit: each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband (v. 2).2 Thus, when Paul comes to outline the requirements for a bishop/elder or a deacon, he indicates that the bishop/elder or deacon must be the husband of one wife (1 Tim 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). This, like the other ethical characteristics of church leaders, is not a restriction limited to elders and deacons alone, but rightly defines the characteristic of all Christians. In other words, Paul is not invoking a new ethic for the leaders of God’s people, but is reinforcing the creation ordinance for all people, as depicted in Genesis 2 and reaffirmed by Jesus in the Gospels.

In this respect it is interesting to note that while monogamy appears the norm in first century Judaism (cf. Luke 1:5; Acts 5:1), polygamy was not unknown among the Jews.3 Moreover, the lex Antoniana de civitae, which made monogamy the law for Roman citizens in 212 AD, also made an exception for Jews. Quite possibly it was knowledge of this defection from the Creator’s intention for monogamous marriage that prompted Paul to make explicit, in relation to the appointment of elders and deacons, what God required of his people.4

The toleration of polygamy in the Old Testament

However, one does have some sympathy for the view that polygamy ought not to receive any rebuke under the new covenant, as it was clearly practised in the Old Testament. Furthermore, whereas adultery received the death penalty under Mosaic Law, polygamy attracted no such sanction. For it is not only the ungodly Lamech and unbelieving Esau (Gen 36:2) who fail to subscribe to monogamy, but also Jacob (Gen 29:21-30), Gideon (Judg 8:30), Elkanah (1 Sam 1:1-2), David and Solomon, who had many wives (notwithstanding the explicit warning of Deuteronomy 17:17). While Adam, Noah, Lot, Isaac and Moses and many others were monogamous, the instances of polygamy, though few in number, are conspicuous deviations from the ideal of Genesis 1-2.5

While it is true that legislation existed under Mosaic Law to regulate polygamy (Exod 21:10-11), such legislation did not thereby legitimize polygamy. Rather, it is a sufferance exercised by God, a divine permission, which best explains the accounts of polygamy in the Old Testament. The parallel with respect to divorce legislation has often been put forth as an explanatory model of such divine toleration. In the instance of divorce, the regulations in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 are interpreted by Jesus as permissive legislation because of Israel’s hardness of heart (Matt 19:8; Mark 10:5). Yet from the beginning this was not so. In other words, Jesus indicates that the existence of sin among the people of God requires regulations so as to prevent sin from wreaking further havoc among God’s people.6 Thus, on the one hand, God can say that he hates divorce (Mal 2:16), while on the other hand, he can provide guidelines for its regulation both under the old covenant (Deut 24:1-4) and under the new covenant (Matt 19:1-9; 1 Cor 7:15). Sin is always complicating. Once sin erupts in the midst of relationships it has a habit of multiplying and worsening the situation. The Bible therefore regularly seeks to limit the effects of sin, wherever possible. Two further examples from the marriage bond helpfully illustrate this principle.

In 1 Corinthians 7:10 Paul exhorts believers not to separate from their spouses. However, he then goes on to say, concerning the separating wife, “but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor 7:11). Her ‘sin’ of separation must not be confounded by a further sin of remarriage. The same is true for the separating husband. Thus Paul regulates the effects of sin, so as not to complicate the situation further. The reason for this counsel is that Paul wants the original marriage to be restored, and in accordance with the principles of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, a second marriage would preclude all possibility of restoring the first marriage, even if the second husband died.

A second example is the Bible’s prohibition of a Christian marrying a non-Christian. Despite this prohibition, if a believer chooses to marry an unbeliever and then regrets the decision, the believer has no grounds for divorce. On the contrary, if the unbeliever wishes to stay in the marriage the believer is bound to do so (1 Cor 7:13).7 In other words, the wrongful act of marrying an unbeliever is not righted by ‘undoing’ the marriage. Rather, the wrongful act is tolerated, and in the providence of God may even be turned to good in the conversion of the unbelieving spouse (1 Cor 7:16).

Repentance from sin does not always free us from the consequences of sin. Nor, thankfully, does such sin and its consequences bar one from the fellowship of the saints. Polygamy, while falling short of the ideal that God intends for his people, is not an unforgivable sin, even though it is contrary to God’s intentions for marriage.8 Once it is understood how God’s toleration of polygamy is still compatible with his revealed law on the nature of marriage, it is possible to understand the way in which the African Churches have come to terms with the admission of converted polygamists into the body of Christ.

African Anglicans and polygamy

While it is true that Western civilization has largely legislated against any form of polygamy, in many parts of the world the culture of polygamy still predominates.9 The continent of Africa, not only among Muslim communities but also tribal communities, is a case in point. Western Christians have not always understood the kinds of difficulties that African churches encounter in the evangelization of polygamous communities. Such a lack of understanding is interestingly expressed in a resolution of the 1888 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, which was the prevailing view among most Christians in the nineteenth century:10

That it is the opinion of this Conference that persons living in polygamy be not admitted to baptism, but they may be accepted as candidates and kept under Christian instruction until such time as they shall be in a position to accept the law of Christ. That the wives of polygamists may, in the opinion of this Conference, be admitted in some cases to baptism, but that it must be left to the local authorities of the Church to decide under what circumstances they may be baptized.

Resolution 5/1888

However, by the 1968 Lambeth Conference, the mood was more open to a different point of view.

The Conference recognizes that polygamy poses one of the sharpest conflicts between the faith and particular cultures. The Church seeks to proclaim the will of God in setting out the clear implications of our Lord’s teaching about marriage. Hence it bears witness to monogamous life-long marriage as God’s will for mankind. The Conference believes that such marriage alone bears adequate witness to the equal sanctity of all human beings, which lies at the heart of the Christian revelation; yet recognizes that in every place many problems concerning marriage confront the Church. The conference therefore asks each province to re-examine its discipline in such problems in full consideration with other provinces in a similar situation.

Resolution 23/1968

It took a further twenty years of discussion before the Bishops of the Anglican Communion were able to espouse a more biblical approach to the contentious issue of the admission of polygamists into the church.

This conference upholds monogamy as God’s plan, and as the ideal relationship of love between husband and wife; nevertheless recommends that a polygamist who responds to the Gospel and wishes to join the Anglican Church may be baptized and confirmed with his believing wives and children on the following conditions:

  1. that the polygamist shall promise not to marry again as long as any of his wives at the time of his conversion are alive;
  2. that the receiving of such a polygamist has the consent of the local Anglican community;
  3. that such a polygamist shall not be compelled to put away any of his wives, on account of the social deprivation they would suffer;
  4. and recommends that provinces where the churches face problems of polygamy are encouraged to share information of their pastoral approach to Christians who become polygamists so that the most appropriate way of disciplining and pastoring them can be found, and that the ACC be requested to facilitate the sharing of that information.

Resolution 26/1988

Today there are two prevailing views in Africa as to how to handle the vexed question of baptizing and admitting to communion those who are converted polygamists. Broadly speaking there is the Nigerian view and the Kenyan view. Both views reflect a commitment to the ideal of monogamy for all Christians. Both views uphold the ideal of monogamy. Both views disallow any polygamist from being an ordained clergyman. However, the Nigerian view reflects the teaching of the 1988 Lambeth Resolution 26, whereas the Kenyan view is less sympathetic to any Christian having more than one wife, regardless of their marital status before conversion.

The Nigerian view argues that a polygamist who is converted ought to be baptized and admitted to communion, along with as many of his wives who are believers. However, he is not to marry any more wives. To do so would be to come under the discipline of the church. It is argued that what has happened cannot be undone and that for the sake of the wives (many of whom would be destitute without the support of the husband) the families should remain intact. In other words, polygamy should be tolerated in such circumstances.11

The Kenyan view is a little stricter in that it argues for a realization of the ideal of monogamy. Polygamists, therefore, should cleave to one wife only (their first wife), and provision should be made for the other wives in a separate house. By this measure, the Anglican Church of Kenya (along with the Tanzanian Church) seeks to maintain the ideal in reality as much as is humanly possible. Contrary to many ill-informed accusations, African churches do not condone polygamy among their members as an expression of the ideal of marriage. Certainly, no Christian minister is allowed to have more than one wife, in conformity with 1 Timothy 3:2 and 3:12. Rather, in the case of a converted polygamist on the Nigerian viewpoint, he is allowed to keep his wives out of a sense of duty to protect those who have come under his household. Such an attitude, in this writer’s opinion, is in harmony with the love of Christ and the Bible’s teaching on the sufferance of sin as an ethic of redemption.


1 The comments of journalist Tony Jones in an interview on ABC’s Lateline, 23 June 2003, are indicative of the common assumption that African churches endorse polygamy. For a transcript of the interview, visit:

2 While the context of 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 may not be directly applicable to all situations—dealing as it does with the “temptation to sexual immorality”—there is no indication that Paul contemplated any other state than that of celibacy or monogamy.

3 For a discussion of the evidence see G. W. Knight III, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 158.

4 “[P]olygamy was certainly very prevalent among the Jews and it was very much to the point for Paul to insist that a bishop must be free of this stain.” J. Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, ET, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1964, p. 224.

5 For the view that Leviticus 18:18 also relates to a prohibition of bigamy, see J. Murray, Principles of Conduct, Tyndale, London, 1957, pp. 250-256. For an alternative view, see G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1979, p. 258.

6 “It was the sufferance of forbearance, not the sufferance of approval or sanction.” Murray, Principles of Conduct, p. 19.

7 The situation contemplated by Paul is most likely one where a person is converted after their marriage and their spouse remains unconverted. However, the principle still applies to those who knowingly marry an unbeliever, contrary to Paul’s instruction later in the chapter (v. 39; cf. 2 Cor 6:14-16).

8 According to R. J. Rushdoony, “The reason for this toleration was the fact that the polygamous family was still a family, a lower form of family, but a tolerable one … Biblical law thus protects the family and does not tolerate adultery, which threatens and destroys the family.” The Institutes of Biblical Law, Craig Press, Philadelphia, 1973, p. 364.

9 According to I. Gaskiyane, “Over three quarters of the world’s societies permit polygamy and only 16% prescribe monogamy.” Polygamy: A Cultural and Biblical Perspective, Piquant, Carlisle, 2001, p. 7, n. 1.

10 Compare Charles Hodge’s similar conclusions in his Systematic Theology, III.387-391.

11 As argued by Gaskiyane, Polygamy, pp. 46-50.

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