Decriminalizing Polygamy

When the United States Supreme Court invalidated sections of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on June 26, 2013, the Court upheld that the State has the right to declare what constitutes a marriage.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority wrote that when the state grants individuals the right to marry, the state is dealing with an important human right and is recognizing the dignity of individuals to enter a legal lawful status: “This status is a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages.”

Applying the principles outlined in the United States v. Windsor, several Federal courts have invalidated state laws restricting same-sex marriages by declaring them to be unconstitutional. Now, a Federal court has gone one step further. A Federal Court in Utah has invalidated a polygamy law by declaring the law to be unconstitutional since it violates the family’s freedom of religion:

Below is an excerpt of a news report dealing with the Court’s decision:

A federal judge has struck down part of Utah’s anti-polygamy law, following a lawsuit brought by the family featured in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.”

The ruling effectively decriminalizes polygamy in the state, while maintaining bigamy as an offense.

U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups’ ruling follows a similar order that he handed down last year. The final ruling on that case was delayed due to procedural matters.

The ruling strikes down a provision of Utah’s anti-bigamy statute, that can be applied when someone “cohabits with another person” to whom they are not legally married. Utah law made such a union a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The judge found that the statute violated the family’s freedom of religion.

I am not an expert on constitutional law, but I do not believe that the Constitution grants judges and the courts the power to decriminalize polygamy. One may defend polygamy by citing examples from the Bible, but such a defense stands on weak grounds.

It is true that polygamy was widely practiced in the Ancient Near East, including Israel. Several individuals in the Old Testament lived in a polygamous household. The biblical writers do not openly condemn polygamy, but the way they present the problems of polygamous families may reflect their disapproval of polygamy.

Abraham came from a polygamous society, but he only acquired a second wife at the insistence of Sarah because of her barrenness. Abraham did not marry again until after Sarah died.

Jacob entered into a polygamous relationship because of the deceit of his father-in-law. When Jacob left the house of his father, Isaac told him: “Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:2). Jacob’s intent was to marry “one of the daughters of Laban.” His intent was to have only one wife, but in the end he was forced to have four.

Most of the people who were in a polygamous relationship in the Old Testament were rich people, people in government, and people in positions of power. Polygamy was a status symbol, one way to show one’s wealth, power, and prestige.

When it comes to marriage, the Old Testament presents monogamy as the ideal for society. When talking about a happy marriage, the psalmist talks about “your wife” (Psalm 128:3). The wise man talks about “the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18). There is no mention of wives, as if many wives were the norm in Israelite society. Whenever there was a violation of a monogamous marriage, it was always because of adultery.

Polygamy existed in Israelite society until the time before the exile. After Israel returned from their exile in Babylon there is no reference to polygamy in the Old Testament. Polygamy did not cease to exist in many societies during the New Testament times. According to Josephus, Herod the Great had nine wives.

Jesus does not mention polygamy in any of the gospels, probably because polygamy was rare in Israel during his days. Whenever a married man in presented in the gospels, he is said to have only one wife.

One situation in Jesus’ ministry comes close to defining his view on marriage. When the Pharisees asked Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3).

Jesus replied: “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 they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:5-6).

By saying that a man joins his wife, Jesus was presenting God’s original intent for marriage. Jesus’ words condemn polygamy and affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman. The principle of “one flesh” is God’s ideal for marriage. Polygamy existed in antiquity, but it was never God’s ideal for his creation.

When the Pharisees also asked about divorce, Jesus said: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8 NIV).

The expression “because your hearts were hard” is what Christians call sin. Because of sin, people violate God’s original intent for his creation. The early Christians had to deal with the problem of polygamy since many of the people who came to faith were not Jews. Roman and Greek citizens who came to faith in Christ brought into the church some of the practices that were foreign to the teachings of the gospel. However, there is no evidence that the early church baptized people who were living in polygamous marriages.

When it comes to marriage, 1 Corinthians 7:2 reflects the teaching of the early church: “Let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”

God’s intention for his creation is that a man should join with one woman, thus beginning a family. If God intended for the man to have more than one wife, then he would had given Adam multiple wives so that he and his many wives could populate the earth. Or he would had provided multiple wives for Noah and his sons so that they could repopulate the empty land after the flood.

But polygamy was never God’s intent for the marriage relationship. There were few polygamous marriages in the Old Testament and none of those marriages can serve as an example of a happy marriage.

It is tragic that one judge can decriminalize polygamy and declare that polygamous marriages are acceptable in our society today. His decision is clear evidence of how our society has departed from the moral and spiritual values that have been the foundation of Western civilization.

His decision also represents a sad reality: that in the secular society in which we live, the church has lost it moral voice to speak with authority about the principles established by God for his creation.

But, how can the church proclaim a message of transformation when society rejects the basis for the church’s authority? And how can the church present God’s intent for his creation when some of those who represent God are on the other side?

In his poem “Paradise Lost,” the English poet John Milton almost made Satan to be the hero of the poem. This was the reason William Blake, another English poet, criticized Milton by saying that “Milton was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.”

It is possible that many people who are destroying the moral foundations of our society may have good intentions. However, they are on the other side of the issue “without knowing it.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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22 Responses to Decriminalizing Polygamy

  1. Brother Claude…I never tire of reading you…thanks for a great article.


  2. Lamed-Vavnik says:

    Professor Mariottini – On a humorous note, I tend to think that polygamists deserve their fate. As Oscar Wilde said, “the only cure for love is marriage.” What strikes me most in the biblical discussions of marriage is the position of the sexes. There is an overwhelming emphasis on the objective role of the husband, with ‘the wife’ as subject. Of course this reflects ancient patriarchal structures, but in reading the texts in the here and now it presents us with a number of problems.


    • Lamed-Vavnik,

      There is no doubt that there is a patriarchal culture behind the stories in the Bible. However, the issue of polygamy in the 21st century transcends that. Polygamy is part of the patriarchal culture.

      Maybe Oscar Wilde was being humorous, but true love proves him wrong all the time.

      Claude Mariottini


    • infowarrior1 says:

      ”What strikes me most in the biblical discussions of marriage is the position of the sexes. There is an overwhelming emphasis on the objective role of the husband, with ‘the wife’ as subject. ”

      There is a false assumption that patriarchy is inherently oppressive on women. And the fact that patriarchy is not commanded in the new testament.


      • Infowarrior,

        Whenever in a marriage the woman is the subject of the husband, that marriage departs from the biblical ideal. Patriarchy can be highly oppressive to women as we see in some societies today. The New Testament does not reach patriarchy, but mutual submission.

        Thank you for your comment.

        Claude Mariottini


  3. I pray that we are not fighting in vain either, Claude…but at least it is being brought to the public’s attention…thank you for that!


  4. I’m not sure I quite understand the argument. The US has a separation of church and state clause, so it cannot use the Bible as the rationale for its lawmaking (without demonstrated backing of a secular sort).

    In terms of morality, it seems that that ought to be an individual decision. As far as the secular government is concerned, you cannot marry without consent – so everyone participating in the marriage must be an adult, must be deemed mentally capable of making the decision (which applies both to long term disability and short term inebriation), and must be agreeing without coercion to the terms of the contract.

    Within that framework, which provides the minimum standards, individuals are free to use their own moral reasoning. If a Christian reads the Bible and determines that God intends for monogamy to be the proper way, then they are free to marry only monogamously (a couple that believes that divorce is a sin is perfectly able to choose not to divorce – having the option does not mean that it is required!). Similarly, if someone from a different religious or cultural standpoint believes that polygamy is best for them, then they should be able to pursue that life (provided that all the legal requirements regarding consent are met).

    That way, we can all live together happily and get on with things. When we seek to impose personal morality on others (even when we believe that our morality has the backing of God), we run into some very dangerous territory, particularly in victimless issues like the private sex lives and relationships of our neighbours.

    Consider, for example, living in a country where Christianity is a non-majority. Would you like laws to be made with secular reasoning in order to establish minimum standards by which consent can be ensured, and to then have the freedom to live out your own moral code within that framework? Or would you support the majority right to impose their particular moral reasoning through law (particularly where such might conflict with your own moral views as a Christian)?

    On this particular matter, I am monogamous and have no interest in the alternatives. But the way I see it, we already have laws in place to prevent child marriages and abuse, and forbidding lawful marriage between three or more people doesn’t stop these from happening, it only introduces a barrier between people who may be victimized and legal protection. It drives polygamy underground and hides it from the checks and balances that address abuse in legal marriages and common law relationships. I would much rather work on preventing abuse and coercion, and letting individuals sort out the moral guidance for their own lives.


    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You have made good and important points in your comment. I cannot respond to all of the points you have made. Let me simply explain my argument.

      A society where every individual decides what is morally right and morally wrong is a society in the brink of extinction. If a society is going to justify polygamy on the basis of religious freedom, that society then must approve many other barbaric religious practices that were common in antiquity.

      Polygamy was practiced in many ancient societies. It is still practiced in a few societies today which live by primitive codes of morality. Monogamy has been the norm in modern society and I believe should be the norm in the 21st century. One person, one judge should not have the right to impose his views on society in general.

      Claude Mariottini


      • To be clear, I am not arguing that polygamy should be allowed on the basis of religious freedom. That would, indeed, be a slippery slope.

        Rather, I am arguing that the secular laws by which we all must abide should be as narrow in focus as possible, intended to prevent specific harm. Child marriages cause demonstrable harm, in that they deny agency and the choice of consent to one party. The same goes for obligated arranged marriages. Consent is the key issue.

        Outside of that, behaviour and life choices that are not predatory, that do not victimize people, ought to be free choices. So let’s let gay consenting adults to marry each other, and let’s let consent adults of different ethnicities marry each other, and let’s let three consenting adults marry each other. Let’s let the law prevent and protect victims, and leave lifestyle choices up to the individuals.


      • I appreciate your comment. I agree that the law should protect individuals and that society should protect minorities. However, there must be a standard of moral for our society. Otherwise, we will face many problems when each individual decides what is right and what is wrong and what is moral and what is immoral. This is an invitation to chaos.

        Claude Mariottini


  5. infowarrior1 says:

    The problems of polygamy is demonstrated is the shortage of wives for the excess of men that is inevitably produced.


    • I agree. There would not be enough wives for all the men if all the men practiced polygamy.

      Claude Mariottini


      • infowarrior1 says:

        This is the biblical ideal:

        Ephesians 5:22-24
        Wives, asubmit to your own husbands, bas to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is ehimself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit fin everything to their husbands.

        1 Peter 3:3-6
        3 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

        As for mutual submission. It cannot be done. Especially when there is disagreement on a decision at which point one spouse makes the decision final. Its going to be either the husband or the wife.

        Anyway here is actually a paper on patriarchy you might like it:


      • Infowarrior,

        You forgot Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is the biblical ideals for husbands and wives. You cannot separate Ephesians 5:21 from Ephesians 5:22-24.

        In Christ there is a mutuality that allows husbands and wives to make decisions together. When there is disagreement on an issue, husband and wife seek Christ’s mind on the issue and the two agree on which decision is better for both of them. This is where mutual submission comes in.

        When husbands and wives submit themselves to Christ, mutual submission occurs and a decision is made.

        Thank you for the link. I will read the article.

        Claude Mariottini


      • infowarrior1 says:

        In regards to mutual submission it is a bad argument:


      • On this issue, we must agree to disagree. I have forty-seven years of marriage to prove that it works.

        Claude Mariottini


      • infowarrior1 says:

        I am interested in your feedback on the article on patriarchy. Would you do a review?


      • I will read the article and let you know what I think of it.

        Thank you for the link.

        Claude Mariottini


      • infowarrior1 says:

        And consequently such a society may turn violent as men who are without wives and ties to community either lash out or become idle.

        Polygamy may only be a stopgap measure to compensate for the shortage of men from the dangers of life in the ancient world but it is never a good long term solution.


      • I agree.

        Claude Mariottini


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