Tipping Sacred Cows – Christians and Polygamy

Tipping Sacred Cows refers to the practice of upturning those cultural beliefs and doctrines which have often been presented as a religious or biblical view despite no real scriptural root.  As Christianity reaches out to other cultures, we must be careful to separate our cultural views and values so as not to corrupt our messages of spiritual views and values.  As our faith transforms the individual, so will it transform the culture in which the individual lives.

“I cannot in good conscience prohibit polygamy, as the Bible itself does not” – Martin Luther

One man, one woman.  We hear this phrase spouted by so many Christian groups.  But is that the only marital form that the Bible will support?

As one reads the Bible, it becomes clear that the Bible does place an emphasis on traditional hetero monogamy.  But it is equally apparent that one man, many women is also supported.

We’ll start with the Old Testament.  Too many Christians are quick to dismiss this half of the Bible as being irrelevant.  This is not the case.  The entire New Testament rests on the current validity of the Old Testament.  Not one thing in the New Testament invalidates the Old Testament.  Christ himself said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.”(Matthew5:17 NKJV).  The Law of course refers to the laws of the Old Testament.  According to Romans7:7, the Old Testament lays out what is sin and why humanity needs a savior.  The New Testament tells of the forgiveness from sin and the savior who freed us.

Many point out that the first marriage was between Adam and Eve.  Mere precedent is not enough.  We need more.

Marriage would presumably be outlined in some sort of rule or law.  Oh wait, the Old Testament has a whole section of books on law.  Any form of marriage permitted or prohibited will be listed there.

Before the Israelites were given the Mosaic laws, people just talked to God.  Given the absence of law during these times, we don’t see any rules until Exodus.  Leviticus 18 specifically lists laws of sexual morality.  Sex is a major part of marriage.  Verses 6-18 define and prohibit incest.  19 prohibits sex during a period. 10 prohibits adultery.  Adultery was sleeping with someone else’s wife, so sleeping with one or more of your own wives would not count as adultery.  Marital laws and those prohibiting adultery could be considered early fluid-bonding.

Verses 22 and 23 prove most interesting.  In every translation I can find, the law regarding homosexuality only lists men and the law regarding bestiality specifically lists men and women.  I do not think that this is a mistake of any kind.  Apparently homosexuality between men is prohibited, lesbianism is permitted, and bestiality is prohibited.  This makes some sense.  Procreation seems to be the goal of sex, pleasure the reward.  If lesbianism is permitted, it allows for more scenarios by which to induce pregnancy as the male may be mating with more than one female simultaneously.  One man can impregnate multiple women in a short time, but one woman can only be impregnated by one man at a time.  Remember, God was building Israel into a nation.

Chapter 20 backs this.  Verse 10 reinforces the no adultery.  11, 12, 14, 17, and 19-21 reinforce the prohibitions against incest.  13 restates that male homosexuality is forbidden, while 15 and 16 confirm that bestiality is wrong regardless of gender.  18 confirms the whole period issue.  Consistency proves that only male homosexuality is condemned.

We can skip the laws of Numbers 6.  These only apply to people who have taken a Nazirite vow.
Deuteronomy 17:17 is for kings.

Ah, Deuteronomy 25:5-10 outlines what is known as levirate marriage.  These laws sometimes required polygamy.  I have heard a pastor confess from his pulpit that he didn’t understand why these laws existed.  Why God allowed polygamy in the Old Testament, but not the new.  They were to preserve family lines.  I have yet to see where polygamy has been banned in the New Testament.  Mind you, levirate marriage has been rendered unnecessary by gender equality and current global population.  But unnecessary does not equal banned.

For those unfamiliar with levirate marriage, let us give an example.  Take two brothers.  One is married, but dies before producing any sons.  His widow would then be married to the brother of his late husband and they would copulate until a male heir was produced.  This male heir would not be counted as the son of his biological father, but of his dead uncle.  If the deceased’s brother was already married, it made no difference.  He would still marry his brother’s widow and attempt to produce a male heir.

Many use the story of Onan to condemn masturbation.  In reality, it was not masturbation that resulted in the death of Onan, it was pulling out.  Onan was not enjoying himself in the story, it involves levirate marriage.  Instead of simply refusing to lay with his late brother’s widow, he enjoyed all the benefits of sex with her while refusing to impregnate her.  All of the reward, none of the responsibility.  He essentially flipped God the bird in defiance.

By this point, many agree that the Old Testament allowed for multiple wives.  Yet most will assert that this isn’t the case anymore.  We shall see.

The New Testament only seems to uphold the Old Testament.  Romans 1:26-27 prohibits homosexuality.  Women are mentioned as having given themselves to that which was “against nature”, leaving the door open for any number of possibilities.  Not only is the same mentioned for men, but the act of male homosexuality is also mentioned specifically.  One could use these verses to eliminate homosexuality altogether, but neither homosexuality nor bisexuality are required for a poly marriage.

Many are quick to use 1 Timothy 3:12.  Let us look at the whole context.  It is toward the end of a section listing the requirements for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  If this were to be leveled at the whole congregation, why would Paul specify deacons when writing Timothy on matters of the church?  Or if the believers of the early church weren’t polygamous, why would he even bring up the one wife issue?  He wouldn’t.  Not on either count.  Deacons acted as leaders and stewards of the church.  Given the responsibilities of deacons, they needed to have kept up their first ministry, the leadership of their families, as well as their current employment and the responsibilities of office.  Extra spouses would’ve made this balancing act all but impossible.  If a man were divorced, it was concluded that he had failed in his first ministry and was therefore unqualified to perform the duties of a deacon.  I would also submit that single men may have been disqualified by this passage on the account that they may have been either unaware of the needs of families or else more easily led astray by a pretty face.  These are more likely to have been the issues Paul was trying to avoid by establishing these standards to a church office that was a far more massive responsibility then than it is now.

There are things God requires, things he forbids, and things he simply allows.  As God is the creator of all things, he is above government.  Many are familiar with the “render unto Caesar” speech, but both Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 tell us to follow the governments of man.  What God condemns, governments cannot require of us.  What God requires, governments cannot  forbid us.  But what he allows, the governments of man may allow and forbid at their whim.  Polygamy is merely allowed by God, not required.  Therefore, for as long as all 50 states prohibit polygamy, Christians in the US must remain monogamous.  However, missionaries in countries which permit polygamy must not break up these marital groups.  The marriages are not sinful.  Breaking them up is.

I would also submit that 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 would prohibit missionaries and churches from breaking up any marriages.  Merely allow the unbelieving members to decide whether or not they will remain in the marriage.  Many Christians try to force our moral principles upon the unbelieving public via legislation.  This is not right.  Yes, we should vote our consciences, but we cannot require unbelievers to behave as we do.  We preach so that the unbeliever can become believer.  We do not save by requiring works, we minister by living example and words only.

Should polygamy be allowed in the US?  Let governments permit what marriages they may.  These governmental permissions do not mean that a Christian can or must practice any of those arrangements.  So long as traditional hetero monogamy is permitted, there is no extra burden upon us.

If the US were to permit polygamy, then how should the Christian proceed?  The Christian should continue to seek their first spouse as if they will be the only spouse, for this may well become the case.  Once a couple is five or six years in and the marriage is on steady ground, then the question of additional wives may be addressed.  I say wives as biblical polygamy only allows for one man and multiple women.  If two or more women wish to marry the same man, and he is unable to decide between them, then a marriage may begin polygamous.  Be warned, such an arrangement will be exponentially more difficult per spouse in the arrangement than traditional monogamy.

Looking at 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, a married person’s body is no longer their own.  Each person’s body belongs to their spouse.  The husband’s to the wife, and vice versa.  If a man is content to remain monogamous, let him keep his silence.  If he wishes for another spouse, then he must discuss the matter with his current wife or wives.  If she or they permit him to date another, she or they hold veto power over his choices.  He should not sleep with his dates, for that is adultery.  Sex waits for marriage.  If his current wife or wives do not consent, they may deny him more wives.  In such a case the man has no room for complaint.  If the husband has more than one wife, their decision to allow expansion of the marital unit must be unanimous.  If even one disagrees, then the husband may not take on another wife.  Again, he has no room for complaint.  His body is not his own.

Some readers may be offended by the fact that I focus on Christian teaching.  To those readers, assuming that you made it thus far, I would respectfully remind you that the title of this article is “Tipping Sacred Cows – Christians and Polygamy”.  All the same, many of these principles could be applied to any gender mix within a secular marital unit.  Christianity is built upon faith, and therefore free will dictates that not all will share that faith.  Each individual is responsible for their own beliefs and the consequences of following those beliefs.  We may preach our faith, so that those who would follow know those beliefs, but we cannot force compliance.  The belief of each reader only governs their own actions.  It doesn’t matter whether those beliefs are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, atheism, ecetera, ecetera, there are too many to list.  We will have no proof as to who is right until we die.  As such, everyone must conduct themselves according to their deepest convictions.  I am unashamedly Christian, so from this perspective I write.  The teachings of God have the strongest ring of truth within my ear than anything else I have encountered.  And within these teachings are instructions to live at peace with my neighbor for so far as it is within my power and that every member of humanity is my neighbor.

Even in the one man, multiple women model, it must be remembered that woman was created to be man’s equal partner in the caretaking of this world.  If the man is the head of the household, it is not to serve himself.  It is to serve all within the household.  Whoever is the head of household must listen to the needs and views of their partner(s) and balance them against the needs and views of all, even when the best decision sacrifices the needs and views of the self.

For a relatively modern and secular model of how polygamy could work, I would submit to you the case of the Marston household in the 1940’s USA.  Psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston, who used the pseudonym of Charles Moulton, believed women weren’t merely equal to men but were superior.  His wife, Dr. Elizabeth Holloway Marston held higher esteem in her field in spite of her time.  So did their mutual lover, Olive Byrne, a columnist who often published under masculine pen-names.  Olive Byrne was also Dr. William Marston’s former lab assistant.  Dr. William Marston was involved in the creation of the polygraph, created the DISC theory of personality types, and created the comic book heroine, Wonder Woman.  It is believed that his ardent feminism came from watching the two leading women in his life get held back by the society of the time.

The three adults of the Marston family lived together under one roof in a polyfidelitous arrangement.  Due to legal limitations, only Dr. Elizabeth Marston was legally married to Dr. William Marston, but Olive functioned every bit as a common-law second wife.  Dr. William Marston fathered two children by each wife, for a total of four.  By Elizabeth: Pete and Olive Ann, and by Olive: Byrne and Donn.  Of the children whom have spoken publicly about growing up in such a household, they all concur that the only thing different they noticed between their own home lives and those of their peers was the fact that they had two mothers.  By all appearances, the Marston children grew into well-adjusted and normal adults.  After the passing of Dr. William Marston, Dr. Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne continued to cohabit for the rest of their own lives.

Many opponents would argue that children raised in a polygamous household would be more exposed prematurely to sex.  I fail to see how.  A monogamous couple has the following options to protect their children from early exposure.

  1. Wait until the children are asleep and sneak off to the bedroom.
  2. Arrange a babysitter and a location outside the home (i.e. a hotel room)
  3. Send the kids away to the home of a friend or relative for a short while.
  4. Send the kids to summer camp or other activity.
  5. Wait for the kids to go to a regular activity, such as school, and enjoy their absence.

None of the aforementioned methods are off-limits to a poly family.  In addition, not all spouses would necessarily be present for every encounter.  Every spouse has a different libido.  Therefore, the non-participant spouse could watch the children while their partners frolic with the understanding that those partners may very well be called upon to do the same for the one babysitting.  In a triad, that could mean two spouses in the bedroom while the third supervises the children outdoors.  I have yet to find an option available to monogamous couples that is unavailable to polygamous groups.

So where would it end?  We are talking about consenting adult humans in a single marital unit.  Any argument I have encountered thus far warning of polygamy leading to deplorable activities (i.e. bestiality) is pure reductio ad absurdum (see hyperbole).  It should remain that one cannot marry an already married person w/o marrying the existing spouse(s).  All spouses would need to unanimously agree to the arrangement.  In cases of divorce, the spouse(s) filing would leave the marital group and all remaining spouses would remain married.  In those areas of the world where polygamy is legal and practiced, the limit of one man and four wives seems to be the most common maximum whether by law or social custom.  It is not hard to see why.

Ask any happily married couple with more than a decade of marriage under their belts, and they will tell you that marital relationships require hard work and maintenance.  This is true in polygamous arrangements as well.  Let us look at the number of relationships juggled in the marital world.

In monogamy, there is only one relationship between the two spouses.  The relationship between spouse A and spouse B.  Pure, simple, and by far the ideal arrangement.  Add spouse C and suddenly we have the relationship between spouse A and spouse B, the relationship between spouse B and spouse C, the relationship between spouse C and spouse A, and finally the group relationship between all three spouses.  That’s a total of four relationships to maintain among three spouses.  If something causes trouble in any one of these relationships, the entire marriage suffers.  Using the same logic, add spouse D.  That gives us A and B, B and C, C and D, D and A, A and C, B and D, the subgroup ABC, ABD, BDC, ACD, and finally the entire group of four.  That’s eleven relationships to maintain among four spouses.  Can you even begin to imagine five?  That is a monumental amount of work.  Five certainly serves well as a maximum and should be rare.  The fewer members, the more common the marital relationship should be.

Many also use the argument that if one takes on a second spouse, they must love the first less.  This fallacy rests upon the notion that love is quantifiable and divisible.  Such a notion would apply to all forms of love and by that logic we should have as few friend or children as possible.  Such a concept is utter madness.  Ever hear the old song about love being like a magic penny?

I would concur with Martin Luther (the father of the protestant movement, not the civil rights leader).  It matters little whether or not polygamous arrangements are permitted.  If they aren’t, human beings certainly possess the self-control to remain monogamous.  If they are, they aren’t sinful nor would they affect those wishing to remain monogamous nor should such marriages prohibit nor interfere with a parent’s ability to teach a monogamy-only doctrine to their children.

The line between polygamy and bigamy is the same between normal sex and rape.  That line is informed consent.  Whether we are talking Christian polygamy or secular, one can only take on extra spouses if a) they make their current spouse(s) aware of the fact that they wish to date BEFORE they ask a prospective paramour out, b) their current spouse(s) agree to and approve of both the possibility of a new addition to the marital unit and the prospective additional spouse, c) they are upfront about their current marital status with the prospective significant other within the early stages of the new relationship (within the first three dates is recommended), and d) the prospect approves of and agrees to the existing arrangement and current spouse(s).  If any one of the above is missing, then it is bigamy.  All parties involved must both know about the current situation and who is in it and they must give their consent or else the dating spouse may not date.  Period.  All current spouses in a marriage will be affected by additions.  There are no exceptions.

Christian polygamy appears limited to polygyny.  I cannot find anything regarding polyandry on way or another.  One thing is clear.  If polyandry is permitted, the husbands are not allowed to have sex with one another due to the prohibitions regarding male homosexuality.

Of course, the greatest argument against polygamy is multiple mother-in-laws.  Think about it.

Offended?  Disagree?  That’s okay!  Feel free to post your counter-argument in the comments!  All I ask is that you do your research, tell me what passage and translation you are using if you pose a biblical argument, and above all be respectful and intelligent with your arguments.

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One thought on “Tipping Sacred Cows – Christians and Polygamy

  1. Pingback: Kenya legalized polygamy |

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