Many people around the world practice polygamy, and it is even legal in some countries. But what is God’s view of polygamy? Is polygamy a sin?
Most Christians would say, “Yes, it is!” And they would be right.
Polygamy is not endorsed or promoted in the Bible. In fact, God specifically forbids it in both the Old and New Testaments. We will look at this later.
First, you might wonder, Why is polygamy practiced by many, including some who identify as Christians?
What exactly is polygamy?
According to Merriam-Webster.com, polygamy is defined as “marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time.” Most commonly, it is marriage between one man and two or more women, which is technically polygyny. Marriage between one woman and two or more men is called polyandry.
In total, polygamy is practiced in some form in 80 countries around the world.
The vast majority of nations and territories deem it illegal and unacceptable. Why is there such disparity? Religion is a factor, but not definitively so.
Where is polygamy practiced?
Stephanie Kramer of Pew Research explains:
“Polygamy is most often found in sub-Saharan Africa, where 11% of the population lives in arrangements that include more than one spouse. Polygamy is widespread in a cluster of countries in West and Central Africa, including Burkina Faso, (36%), Mali (34%) and Nigeria (28%).”
She continues: “In these countries, polygamy is legal, at least to some extent. Muslims in Africa are more likely than Christians to live in this type of arrangement (25% vs. 3%), but in some countries, the practice also is widespread among adherents of folk religions and people who do not identify with a religion.
For example, in Burkina Faso, 45% of people who practice folk religions, 40% of Muslims and 24% of Christians live in polygamous households. Chad is the only country in this analysis where Christians (21%) are more likely than Muslims (10%) to live in this type of arrangement.”
Public opinion about polygamy
Western culture is drifting away from its Judeo-Christian roots, relying more and more upon “community standards” when determining the definition of marriage.
American public opinion isn’t settled against polygamy. As of this writing, it is still illegal in all 50 U.S. states. But state laws against it are not always vigorously enforced. In Utah, a polygamous marriage is not defined as a felony. Since May 2020, it has been treated as an infraction on a par with a traffic violation.
Western culture is drifting away from its Judeo-Christian roots, relying more and more upon “community standards” when determining the definition of marriage. Would—could—polygamy ever be viewed as “morally acceptable” in the United States? Consider this: In May 2003, only 7 percent of Americans said that it should be. In 2017, 17 percent said polygamy was morally acceptable. As of May 2023, that percentage has jumped to 23 percent (news.gallup.com).
The trend is clear. American public opinion is moving toward accepting the practice of polygamy. But whether it is morally right cannot be determined by “public opinion.”
No one can deny that public opinion of what is right and wrong has changed about many things. We should stop to consider who has the ultimate authority to declare what is morally acceptable and what is sin.
Human beings are taking to themselves decisions that are not theirs to make!
Why humankind tries to determine right and wrong
The origin of human beings taking to themselves the authority to determine right and wrong goes back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Look at the Creator’s pointed instruction to the couple: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
God reserved for Himself the authority to define what is good and what is evil—what is moral and what is immoral. What was it about that tree that required such a warning?
Eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolized human beings choosing for themselves what is good and evil, instead of looking to God for His direction.
God granted humans much freedom to make decisions in managing their lives. But He reserved for Himself the authority to define what is good and what is evil—what is moral and what is immoral. (To learn more, read “Why ‘Good Without God’ Isn’t Good Enough” and “Wrong Choice.”)
When it comes to polygamy, guidance cannot be found in the legal arguments of any human legislature or court ruling—or in the personal opinions of people. Rather than look at public opinion in America or any other country, let’s consider what God says.
Polygamy forbidden in both Old and New Testaments
I wrote at the outset that God forbids polygamy in both the Old and New Testaments. Let’s read a few of those references.
In delineating behavior acceptable for a king of Israel, God inspired Moses to write, “Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away” (Deuteronomy 17:17). Kings and rulers throughout history have infamously pursued their pleasures as they pleased. They married whomever and however many they chose.
But that clearly was not God’s intent for the kings of His people!
God’s tolerance of a certain wrong behavior for a time is a testimony to God’s mercy and patience for human weakness, not a sign of God’s blessing.
Israel’s kings were not to be self-serving despots, acting on their every desire. They were to live an exemplary life—to be role models for the nation’s citizens. They were to be servants, not tyrants.
That takes us to the New Testament.
Similarly, an elder in the Church of God must be a role model for all, not someone held to a different standard. The apostle Paul leaves no doubt about how this applies to polygamy when writing of the qualifications for pastors: “Here’s another statement you may trust: if anyone is seeking a position as overseer in the church, he desires an honorable and important work. Here are the qualifications to look for in an overseer: a spotless reputation, the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:1-2, The Voice, emphasis added throughout).
In Greek, the phrase “husband of one wife” literally means “a one-woman kind of man,” indicating an exemplary devotion to his wife (NKJV Study Bible, note on 1 Timothy 3:2).
This is the same guidance that Paul wrote to another supervisory pastor when considering who should be ordained an elder: “If a man is blameless, the husband of one wife” (Titus 1:6).
Two—not several—become one in marriage
And again, when writing of how a human marriage symbolizes the relationship between Jesus and His Church, Paul said: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).
A monogamous human marriage pictures the spiritual relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church of God.
(To learn more about God’s purpose for the marriage relationship, read “What Is Marriage?”)
“The two shall become one flesh” is unmistakably plain. God’s intent for Christian marriage excludes polygamy in any form.
Jesus Himself said as much, as recorded by both Matthew and Mark. “And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning “made them male and female,” and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Mark’s account is similar: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Mark 10:7-8).
What was Christ referring to by “in the beginning”?
The creation account tells of God spectacularly handcrafting a mate for the first man, revealing both the purpose and the design of marriage: “It is not good for the man to be alone, so I will create a companion for him, a perfectly suited partner” (Genesis 2:18, Voice).
God made one companion, one partner, not many. Then, God concluded, “Now this is the reason a man leaves his father and his mother, and is united with his wife; and the two become one flesh” (verse 24, Voice).
God’s intent and design was for marriage to be a union between one husband and one wife. That relationship was to be at the center of the human family. He then built three laws into the 10 Commandments to safeguard and protect that relationship (Exodus 20:12, 14, 17).
The Fifth Commandment instructs children to honor “your father and your mother” (Notice: one father, one mother). The Seventh Commandment prohibits adultery, but in a more general sense forbids all sexual relationships outside of the union of a husband and wife. The 10th Commandment forbids coveting any romantic relationship outside of the relationship with a spouse.
Sin is defined as breaking the law of God (1 John 3:4).
Polygamy is a sin
God’s Word clearly defines a polygamous marriage as wrong—immoral, a sin. He commands people to “flee [as if running from danger] sexual immorality” of all types (1 Corinthians 6:18). That includes polygamy. It is not a matter to be decided by human opinion.
Even if many people on earth view it as acceptable—even if all participants in a polygamous marriage agree to the arrangement—ultimately, it is only God’s view that matters.
According to God and His Word, polygamy is a sin.