Christian Plural Marriage (or Christian Polygyny) is an evangelical approach to the Scriptural concept of polygyny. It is largely rejected by mainstream Christianity, and differentiated from the traditional Mormon idea of polygyny. It also distinguishes itself from the idea of polygamy in general, as that may also include polyandry, polyamory, and other plural marriage forms considered sinful by most Christians.
Those who hold to the concept of Christian Plural Marriage use the Bible
as a guide to the concept of marriage. The Bible
gives numerous examples of marriage
, including monogamous and polygynous relationships. The Bible also lists a number of guidelines regarding the maintaining of such relationships, with a special emphasis on the protection of wives and children, for example in
If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights.
In certain cases, known as Levirate marriage, polygyny was commanded by God, as under God's law a brother has to marry his deceased brother's wife if the brother died childless in order to raise up an heir for his deceased brother, regardless if he already has another wife.
Scriptural Faith and Practice
Those individuals and families who practice or maintain fellowship with this concept are most often classified as evangelicals as it relates to traditional Christian doctrine. There are a number of denominations and spiritual backgrounds reflected in those who follow the practice. Running parallel with this movement are a number of adherents who practice Biblical Patriarchy, although not all subscribe to both concepts. A more general audience of those who are open to the concept and to its discussion can be found on the ChristianPolygamy2 Yahoo group.
Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius of Caesarea
(c 263 – 339?), the Bishop of Caesarea Palaestina, known as the Father of Church History because of his work in recording the history of the early Christian church, wrote "On the Numerous Progeny of the Ancients". Evidently, this lost treatise, which he mentions in Praeparatio Ev. vii. 8. 29 and referred to by St. Basil
(de Spir. Sanct. 29, Op. iii. p. 61) was an apologetic work about plural marriage being reconciled with the ascetic life. It should be noted, however, that St. Basil wrote of plural marriage that "such a state is no longer called marriage but polygamy or, indeed, a moderate fornication." He ordered that those who are engaged in it should be excommunicated for up to five years, and "only after they have shown some fruitful repentance" were they to be allowed back into the church. Moreover, he stated that that the teachings against plural marriage are "accepted as our usual practice, not from the canons but in conformity with our predecessors."
The fact that the Roman Emperor Valentinian I
, in the fourth century, authorized Christians to take two wives supports the fact that Christians were still practicing plural marriage.
considered Christian plural marriage something that should not be practiced, he never condemned the practice as sin. He discouraged the practice based upon pragmatism and Roman custom. He said that plural marriage "was lawful among the ancient fathers: whether it be lawful now also, I would not hastily pronounce. For there is not now necessity of begetting children, as there then was, when, even when wives bear children, it was allowed, in order to a more numerous posterity, to marry other wives in addition, which now is certainly not lawful. He also said that "in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife, so as to have more than one wife living.
, the eighth century King of the Franks, a "devout Catholic who maintained a close relationship with the papacy throughout his life", practiced plural marriage, having at least six wives.
, or Bernard Rothmann, an early 16th century Anabaptist Reformer of the city of Münster (modern Germany), initially opposed the idea of plural marriage introduced by John of Leiden
. However, he later wrote a theological defense of plural marriage, where he wrote "God has restored the true practice of holy matrimony amongst us." It is reported that he took nine wives.
In 1563, an Italian Capuchin Monk, Bernardino Ochino
who embraced the Protestant Reformation, wrote the "Thirty Dialogues
". Dialog XXI was considered a defense of plural marriage. Evidently, he borrowed some of his strongest arguments from a Lutheran
dialogue written in 1541 in favor of plural marriage which was written under the fictitious name "Huldericus Necobulus
," in the interest of justifying Philip of Hesse
. His motive seemed to be theological, not personal, for not only was the testimony of his life unblemished, he was also seventy-seven years old at the time.
(December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674) was an English poet, prose polemicist and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England. Best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost. He expressed support for polygamy in his De Doctrina Christiana
[on Christian doctrine].
In the 17th century a Lutheran Pastor named Johann Lyser
strongly defended plural marriage in a work entitled "Polygamia Triumphatrix". He payed the price for his view on plural marriage by being imprisoned, beaten, exiled, and forced to wander from Italy to Holland. His book was so despised that it was burned by the public executioner. He never married nor desired wedlock.
Samuel Friedrich Willenberg
Samuel Friedrich Willenberg, a doctor of law of the famous University of Cracow, inspired hatred of the Poles by the writing of pro plural marriage book De finibus polygamiae licitae
. In 1715, his book was ordered to be burned. Friedrich escaped with his life, but was fined one hundred thousand gold pieces.
John William Colenso
John Colenso was the Anglican bishop of Natal, South Africa, in 1853. He was the first to write down the Zulu language. He championed the Zulu way of life, to include plural marriage.
Although references for Christian Plural Marriage exist throughout the church age, the modern development of the concept as a movement is fairly new.
The Harrist Church
The Harrist Church is an African Instituted church. It was started by William Wade Harris in the years 1913 to 1915. This church allows new converts to remain in their plural marriage relationships and has a membership of over 100,000 in 702 parishes.
The Celestial Church of Christ
The Celestial Church of Christ was established in Nigeria by Pastor Oshoffa, a Methodist layman, in 1947. The church does not allow those new members who practice plural marriage to divorce their wives. Clergy can also keep their wives. The church estimates its membership at five to six million in 1800 parishes, 500 outside the country.
Lutheran Church of Liberia
This denomination began admitting those who practice plural marriage into communion in the 1970s.
Because of the insistence of the East African bishops, the Anglican church made a decision at the Lambeth Conference of 1988, to admit those who practiced plural marriage into the church under certain circumstances.
The internet has provided the opportunity for open networking and fellowship based upon common beliefs. This has allowed many independent believers to associate and share thoughts about the concept of Christian Plural Marriage. Several of these sites are listed below.
Published works on topic
- In the 17th century, Johann Peter Theodore Lyserus (Lyser), a Lutheran pastor, before he was exiled, strongly defended plural marriage in a work entitled "Polygamia Triumphatrix" or the triumphant defense of polygamy
- One of the more notable published works regarding the modern concept of Christian Plural Marriage actually comes from the 18th century. The book "Thelyphthora was written by Martin Madan, a significant writer of hymns and a comtemporary of John Wesley and Charles Wesley. Though Madan was an adherent only of polygyny in a Christian context, this particular volume set the foundation of what is considered the modern Christian Plural Marriage movement.
The History and Philosphy of Marriage
- Another significant work, published in 1869 by James Campbell (psuedonym) entitled "The History and Philosphy of Marriage (or Polygamy and Monogamy Compared)", establishes a thorough development of the sourcing behind the modern movement of Christian Plural Marriage.
After Polygamy Was Made A Sin
- An out-of-print volume by John Caincross, "After Polygamy Was Made A Sin", provides considerable research on the advocacy, and prohibition of polygamy within Christendom. The book is unique in that it was not written as a defense or condemnation of Christian Plural Marriage, but simply outlines its development. A thorough, chapter by chapter review of Caincross' book is available. The title itself is not meant to imply that polygamy itself was a sin, but is a reference from the poet John Dryden in "Absalom and Ahithophel" stating "In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin, Before Polygamy was made a sin".
Man and Woman In Biblical Law
- In 2001, author Tom Shipley compiled "Man and Woman In Biblical Law". It is subtitled "A Patriarchal Manifesto", and details a thorough history, defense, and association of Christian Plural Marriage. This volume is considered by many in the movement as the current modern reference for the concept of Christian Plural Marriage.
Other Notable Publications
- The International Patriarchal Alliance has a number of limited articles on the subject of Christian Plural Marriage. Included on the site are several fictional accounts of scenarios involving plural marriage and the Christian faith.
- Blaine Robison elucidates a compelling case for Christian Plural Marriage from an evangelical perspective in his online article. While not advocating the practice, he nonetheless sets the case for acceptance of those who are adherents to the Church as a whole.
Criticisms and defenses
The vast majority of Christians in the United States believe that polygyny is wrong.
One of the most common arguments against Christian plural marriage is that Adam only had one wife, and since life in the garden of Eden reflects God's original plan, plural marriage must have been an invention of man after the fall. There is, however, an inconsistency in the argument since usually, none of the other attributes of living in the garden of Eden, such as being childless and nude vegetarians, is upheld as part of God's original plan. There is also no Scriptural evidence of the fact that God had an original plan that was altered by man.
Another common argument is that Genesis speaks of marriage as "becoming one flesh":
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Since, critics hold, a person can only become one flesh with one other person, plural marriage cannot be appropriate for Christians. This interpretation of "becoming one flesh" adds spiritual value to the concept and holds that "becoming one flesh" is far more than just a physical union.
Jesus refers to this Old Testament passage, which is often taken as New Testament Biblical evidence against plural marriage: (ESV):
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."
Those that support Christian Plural Marriage believe that this criticism is wrong because:
1. In Paul quotes the same passage Jesus refers to, saying:
Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two will become one flesh."
The idea of "becoming one flesh", therefore, is to be understood on a physical level first and foremost, hence has no bearing on the appropriateness of Christian plural marriage.
2. In , Jesus answers to a question about divorce, not marriage, so the stress is not on how many wives a man has, but on the fact that, once having become one flesh, man should not separate again what God has joined together, especially not for any odd reason. Jesus gives the one reason for lawful divorce ("sexual immorality" on the part of the wife) in .
Therefore, if a man "becomes one flesh" with more than one woman, he is to take care of all of them as his wives if he wants to follow God's Law.
One argument suggests that the New Testament bans plural marriage for bishops and deacons. This contention comes from Apostle Paul's list of qualifications for elders/ overseers and deacons in and . Those that hold this view contend that this restriction on the number of wives ensures that leaders do not have too many children that might turn out to be turn out to be unruly, thus proving that their fathers do not have the ability to lead well after all.
Hermeneutically, this argument has some problems.
1. The Greek phrase mias gunaikos andra, which is an unusual Greek construction, is capable of being translated in three possible ways: 1) "one wife man," (prohibiting plural marriage) or 2) "a wife man" (requiring elders to be married) or 3) "first wife man" (prohibiting divorcees from ordination) "first/one/a wife").
2. Since leaders are viewed as examples to be emulated, this view, in essence, would suggest that plural marriage is a sin, contrary to the evidence. Hence, making a doctrine from one verse.
As further New Testament evidence against the unchanging validity of plural marriage as a tool of dominion, critics of Christian plural marriage point to where the relationship between Christ and the church is likened to the relationship between husband and wife. As there is only one church Christ gave His life for, there also should only be one wife a husband should love and present unblemished.
People who hold to this argument, however, usually fail to identify the "church" Paul mentions. As there is no denomination that can claim this title without other denominations renouncing it, the argument does not have a solid foundation to stand on. Rather, as there are so many denominations in modern day Christianity, modern logic would indicate a plurality of wives rather than only one, which is what modern Christianity would label sinful.
Looking at the biblical blueprint for marriage though, the argument fails on a different level: Scripture gives plenty of practical advice on how a marriage relationship should be organized and what the roles of the different family members are. is an example of how Paul teaches new Christians their new roles. By claiming that a marriage should resemble Christ's relationship to the church and rejecting the practical aspects that include plural marriage, the concept of marriage is spiritualized. Scripture on the other hand does not present marriage as a spiritual union in the first place, but as a practical tool to take dominion over the earth.
We find Jesus using similar language for God's relationship with His people and the marriage covenant when He calls idolatrous people "adulterous", as in or . Thus it becomes clear that comparing Christ and the church to the married couple would first and foremost point towards the faithfulness that Christ shows to His church and that the church is supposed to show to Him. The same faithfulness is expected of the married couple, and that has little or nothing to do with how many wives a man has, as long as he is faithful to them all, and they to him, for life.