Polygamy lurks in the shadows of theology. We know it’s there but don’t talk much about it. Christians consider polygamy heretical and immoral. But what do we do with Abraham, Jacob, or David? All of them had multiple spouses without one rebuke from God. And why would God say anything? Polygamy is nowhere condemned in the law or prophets.
Monogamy seems to be expected in the New Testament. The only explicit instructions about monogamy are given to church leaders (1 Tim. 3:2, 12). Still, other passages about marriage clearly address monogamous relationships (i.e. Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Peter 3:1-7). Polygamy, it would seem, wasn’t even an option among Christians.
Why the change?
Some non-Christians say it’s because the Bible contradicts itself and can’t be trusted. This is an appealing but lazy solution that requires no thought. Is the shift from polygamy to monogamy a matter of cultural evolution? Possibly. But when has the Lord ever taken His cues from human culture or asked His people to?
Perhaps we need another approach entirely. The apostles viewed the Old Testament as a gallery featuring pictures of Jesus (Luke 24:44-46; John 5:39-40). Viewed this way, polygamous relationships in the Old Testament portray Christ (one Husband) joined to all who believe (many wives).
Scripture says the Old Testament contains shadows of things in Christ (Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1). Shadows communicate only a rough outline; they lack color, detail, and substance. Polygamy evidently embodied spiritual reality well enough for God to allow it as a shadow. The New Testament shows the coming of those realities foreshadowed in the Old—Christ in a new covenant with one bride, the church. What the shadow didn’t show for lack of detail was this: though there are many Christians, they are not many brides; they are members of one body and one bride, the wife of the Lamb (Rev. 21:9). Polygamy is no longer sacramentally true; it must pass away with other old covenant shadows such as animal sacrifice, temple worship, and Sabbath observances.
A few hundred words flung into cyberspace may not settle every mind on this issue. A few hundred words can (hopefully) provoke thought and discussion. If you have any thoughts to discuss, please comment 🙂