Dr. Willis Newman, Esmeralda Newman, bible-teaching-about.com

Polygamy or Divorce


Am I a great sinner for being in polygamy marriage? Should I divorce the man to be born of Christ?

D. H., Swaziland


You bring up a question that has been around for centuries. And, it is a very difficult issue in many societies. Missionaries and theologians have given it careful thought for a long time. 

Let me give you a short and long answer. First, you can be born again in Christ no matter what your situation is. The Bible says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). 

In another place, it says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12). 

Second, you need not divorce the man. Divorce is worse than polygamy. Read on.

Now, I offer you the long answer. This becomes complicated. I must go into greater detail. Some of my explanation from the Bible are rather complex. Stay with me, please.

At the core of the problem, for you and many others, is a very real moral conflict: which is worse (or better), to continue in a sinful polygamist relationship, or get a sinful divorce to get out of a polygamist arrangement? Neither is in God’s ideal plan for human relationships. Either choice is wrong. So…for a Christian, which sin is one to choose, if they find themselves in a polygamist situation?

In some cultures, polygamy is an inherent part of life’s relationships – parts of Africa being one of those places. This is where you live. Western missionaries have done a wonderful job in bringing the gospel of Christ to that continent. The problem is that when conversions have occurred in many villages, the convert had many wives. Alternatively, maybe one of several wives was converted. 

Sometimes, for example, the husband would deny having several wives, hide them from the church, or divorce all or some until he had only one wife. That way he was in favor with the church, but much ridicule came from the unconverted neighbors who saw through the sham. 

Furthermore, the abandoned, divorced wife or wives would be forced into traumatic poverty, prostitution, thievery, or other ungodly lifestyles in order to support themselves and their children. The children would not experience a family environment, being fatherless. If the woman remarried, the new husband probably would not want the children – or else treat them badly. Chaos would develop from the abrupt disruption of the networks of family, kinship networks, and community support systems. 

In order to answer this moral dilemma, I want to base several principles solidly on the Bible. Sometimes we construct our thinking and behavior on our emotions such as compassion and mercy. Compassion and mercy are great virtues, but if they are not biblical, they can lead to worse conditions. Even in the face of cultural or family disruptions, conflict, or turmoil, the Bible must be our source for truth. People can make application to their own unique situation. 

Come with me as we walk slowly and carefully through the relevant principles so that we can have clear understanding. Here are the principles that we can use to resolve all our moral conflicts, not just the one on polygamy.

1.  God has set down absolute holy laws that govern our relationships; 

2.  We live in a fallen world where sin reigns and permeates society; 

3.  In such a world, moral conflicts are inevitable; 

4.  Some sins and moral choices are worse than others; 

5.  When real moral conflicts exist, one must choose the better or higher moral choice.  

6.  Divorce is wrong; 

7.  Polygamy is wrong;

8.  In such a moral conflict, polygamy is the better moral choice;

9.  The ultimate solution is gradual cultural adjustments wherever possible;

10. Forgiveness is available.

Okay, let me start with principle one.

1. God has established absolute, unchanging laws that govern the physical, psychological, social and spiritual world. These supreme and fixed laws are good and perfect and are grounded in the very nature of God Himself. James told us, “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow” (James 1:17).

Jesus told us, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48; cf. Leviticus 19:2; Isaiah 6:3; 57:15; Revelation 4:8; Psalm 99:9).

Since God is perfect in His holy character and being, then the laws or information He has given to humanity is also perfect. For example, the writer of Hebrews states, “in which it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). The reason God cannot lie is because of His holy, perfect character. Scripture attests to the perfection of the truth as revealed in the Bible.

We read, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple…The precepts of the Lord are right…the commandment of the Lord is pure…The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether” (selected from Psalm 19:7-9).

In sum, God is infinitely perfect in His holiness and truth, and has established unchanging, absolute, perfect laws based in His nature, and by which the physical, psychological, spiritual, and relational universe is to operate.

So far, this story gets very scary, but it gets better in the end. Now for point two.

2. We live in a fallen world where sin reigns and permeates society. This is so true. Paul states it well, “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:20, 23). 

Society is made up of fallen, sinful men and women who are sinners by nature. That is a result of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It follows, then, that since society is built by sinful humanity, then the structures and institutions are also infected with corruption and sin. 

On top of this, there is the demonic aspect. John states, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:18; 1:15-17; Ephesians 6:10-12). This brings us to point three.

3. In a fallen world, moral conflicts are inevitable. We just cannot help it. It is what it is. John nailed it: we are of God, but we live in a world ruled by sinful people and the Devil. 

There are some great biblical examples to illustrate this predicament. These examples we can also use as we walk through the following principles. 

The first example is of the Hebrew midwives at the time of the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt. It was at a time when the Hebrews began to over populate Egypt. This put fear in the heart of Pharaoh, because he was getting out numbered. 

Here is what happened, “Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives…and he said, ‘When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” (Exodus 1:15, 16).

This put the midwives into a terrible moral conflict: shall they obey God and preserve life, or commit murder at the command of the Pharaoh? 

Here is what happened, “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live. So the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said to them, ‘Why have you done this thing, and let the boys live?’ And the midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous, and they give birth before the midwife can get to them’” (Exodus 1:18, 19).

Look at this conflict! Not only did disobey the state law (Pharaoh) and refuse to murder the babies, but they lied about it to Pharaoh!  They lied! And lies are sin too! Since they sinned twice, one would think that God would punish them severely. 

Here is what God actually did to the midwives, “So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. And it came about because the midwives feared God, that He established households for them” (Exodus 1:20, 21).

This story goes on, but I will summarize the next part for you. Baby Moses was one of those boys to be killed. However, his mother put him in a basket in the reeds at the riverside. When the daughter of Pharaoh came to bathe in the river, she saw baby Moses. His mother had planted Moses’ sister, Miriam, nearby. Her role was to convince Pharaoh’s daughter to find a Hebrew woman to nurse and care for Moses. Conveniently, Miriam brought the mother of Moses to be the nurse (cf. Exodus 2:1-10)! 

Deliberate, premeditated, deception! Another sin!

The other examples are the stories of Rahab, and the Apostles. You remember that Rahab was a prostitute that lied to the leaders of Jericho to save the lives of the Jewish spies, and that of her immediate family. Her clandestine plot to help the spies escape was traitorous to her nation, and she lied to the authorities; yet, she is listed in the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11:31 (see Joshua 2:1ff). It is interesting that the Jewish spies went to a brothel in Jericho to hide and gain information.

Wow! Again, we have the sins of lying, treason, and deception – and maybe we could imply that illicit sex was involved. Yet, God did not punish Rahab! In fact, in another gesture of the mercy and grace of God, Rahab became a direct ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5).

The other moral conflict was when Peter and the other Apostles continued preaching the gospel in Jerusalem. The opposing authorities brought Peter and John before them and, “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). 

Here is the moral dilemma as explained by the Apostles, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19, 20). 

The obstinate authorities again arrested the Apostles for evangelizing – which makes the moral conflict clear. Luke wrote, “And when they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered and said, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 27-29).

Civil disobedience is the sin committed by the Apostles. They broke a specific law.

From these examples, we can see that there are genuine moral conflicts that exist in this world in which we live. They are inevitable. We cannot avoid them. Now we come to principle four.

4. Some sins and moral choices are worse than others. There is a definite hierarchy in sins. Not all sins are equal. Take, for example, when the Roman authority, Pilate interrogated Jesus. He said to Pilate, “for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). He was referring, of course, to the high priest, Caiaphas.

Jesus, in another place, in speaking of the Law, remarked, “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments” (Matthew 5:19). Least means that some laws are ranked as more important than lesser important laws. 

Again, Jesus honestly answered this question to an antagonistic lawyer, who asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36).  Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment” (Matthew 22:37). If one command is “foremost,” then other commands are lesser.”

If we go back to our examples, in point three, we see the high moral value of choosing  life, faith, and obedience to God over lying, treason, deception, and civil disobedience to the ungodly forces of this world. Now, I go to the next point.

5. When real moral choices exist, we choose the better or higher moral choice. To demonstrate this, I refer you back to the biblical illustrations mentioned above. The one about the Hebrew midwives could be the best. They were forced to choose between direct orders from the civil government (Pharaoh), and with great punishment should they refuse, and saving the lives of the Hebrew male children. 

On top of this, they had the double conflict of lying to the civil government as over against the killing of innocent babies. They disobeyed civil government, lied, and deceived the Egyptians in order to save the lives of the children. And, the mother and sister of the great Moses did the same thing!

The higher moral choice, in this case, was saving the lives of the Hebrew male children. However, you say, did God punish the midwives for their lies and deception? Did they incur guilt? Let me repeat what God actually did, “So God was good to the midwives…And it came about because the midwives feared God, that He established households for them” (Exodus 1:20, 21). 

Just to add one more illustration, remember Rahab? She was guilty of treason, deception, and lying to the legal civil authorities of Jericho. She did this to save the lives of the Hebrew spies and her own clan. Did God punish her? No. She chose the higher moral choice, and ended up in the Faith Hall of Fame, and being an ancestor of Jesus Christ, our Lord! 

I must also point out; however, Rahab (as with the midwives) was not rewarded for her lying and deception, but for her choosing the higher, more important moral choice - life. God does not condone deception and lying. Consequently, she was guiltless for the lesser sins – as was the Hebrew midwives.

6. Divorce is wrong. There are generally three views in the Christian world on the issue of justified divorce. One, it is never justified; two, divorce is justified in the case of adultery and/or desertion; and three, divorce is justified in several situations.

In Jesus’ view, marriage is between one man and one woman for life. God’s perfect design and ideal is for monogamous, lifetime marriage. 

Paul taught us, “let each man (singular) have his own wife, and let each woman (singular) woman have her own husband. As to duration, Jesus said, “Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6). A last example is that Adam was married to Eve: one man and one woman. 

Now, it is easy to observe that many Old Testament saints had more than one wife. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Abraham and David had multiple wives. It is important to note that the heroine, Esther, was part of the harem of King Ahasuerus. 

Therefore, the problem is how to explain this difficulty: monogamous marriage is God’s ideal, but great saints had multiple wives. The answer is twofold. First, not everything recorded in the Bible is God’s will. For example, the Bible accurately records Satan’s activities and words, but God (e.g. Genesis 3:4) certainly does not condone them. The Bible records polygamy, but it is not God’s will. 

The second explanation is this. Lifelong monogamy is the ideal in God’s design and purpose for marriage, but because of sinful mankind living in a fallen world, God permitted divorce. Permitting a wrong is different than commanding it. Here is what Jesus said on the subject. 

One day some Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus in a contradiction. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” (Matthew 19:3). 

Jesus answered, after giving the illustration of Adam and Eve, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6).

Thinking they had Jesus trapped, they arrogantly retorted, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and divorce her?” (Matthew 19:7). This law is recorded in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. 

Unperturbed, Jesus confidently answered them this way, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matthew 19:8).

Of course, the hammering statement of Malachi drives home God’s view. The prophet thunders, “’For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16).

From this cursory view, divorce is wrong. It is not in God’s ideal for marriage and family. What does the Bible teach about polygamy? I turn there next.

7. Polygamy is wrong. As explained above, God permitted polygamy, but He did not prescribe, design and command polygamy as the norm for family life. There are several reasons as to why polygamy is not in God’s will.

First, God set the precedent for marriage when he established Adam to have one wife, Eve (Genesis 2:23, 24; Matthew 19:3-6). God designed marriage as monogamous.

Second, God gave the example of how the kings of Israel were not to, “multiply wives for himself” (Deuteronomy 19:17). In this case, the reason was that many wives would turn the king’s heart away from God.

Unfortunately, King David took many wives and concubines to himself (2 Samuel 5:13: 12:11). So did Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3). In Solomon’s case, misery came to his life for the consequences of many wives. The Bible records, “For it came about when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been” (1 Kings 11: 4).

Third, one observes from nature that God’s design and desire is for monogamy. The distribution of male and female is about equal throughout all populations. If God wanted polygamy, then He would have to design the human population with more women and men. Otherwise, much turmoil would occur in society because of the imbalance between men and women. 

8. In such a moral conflict, polygamy is the better moral choice. We come back, now, to your original problem: you are in a polygamous marriage, and should you divorce your husband to be with Christ? 

In my opinion, and based on the research given in this paper, staying in a polygamous marriage is the greater good over getting a divorce. In the first place, your salvation or Christianity is not at stake or even an issue. Secondly, to get a divorce seems the greater sin. God clearly states that He hates divorce, but as far as I can tell, He never speaks out so strongly against polygamy. However, remember, both are wrong. Neither is God’s ideal.

Furthermore, if you get a divorce, you carry the stigma of being a divorced woman. I don’t know your situation, but if you have children, you may have problems in supporting both yourself and your children. In turn, they will be denied the love, protection, and support of their father. If you remarry, then your new husband may treat your children badly. I don’t know your culture, but I know that in America, living the life of a single mother is very difficult. You would be subjected to scandal if you divorced.

In sum, greater difficulty would come to you (and your children) as a divorced woman, than staying in a polygamous relationship.

9. The ultimate solution is gradual cultural adjustments wherever possible. This means that for the generation that is in polygamous marriages, the best way out is for them to stay in that relationship. But, for the succeeding generations, they can enter monogamous marriages. This procedure allows for a gradual switch to the best godly pattern, and causes the least disruption, confusion and harm to existing families. This is the practice and conclusions of many scholars and missionaries. In my opinion, it is the wisest.

10. Forgiveness is available. Another popular opinion is as follows: God has absolute laws; we live in a sinful world; moral conflicts are inevitable; one must choose the lesser of two evils; forgiveness is available for taking the lesser sin. The difference between this position and the one I favor is that people become guilty of sin by choosing the lesser sin, but I believe that one is guiltless for choosing the higher moral choice. 

Consequently, if you still suffer a guilty conscience for staying in a polygamous marriage, confess your sin before God and accept His forgiveness. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteousness to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). 

God clearly realizes that we are sinners that live in a fallen world that it is impossible to live a perfect life, and that moral conflicts will happen. That is why He has permitted certain things such as divorce and polygamy.

Here is the good news: God’s grace. This means that God bestows favor on those who deserve and are eternally condemned. This includes the entire human race. His law is perfect, and those who sin stand under the eternal penalty of judgment. 

Jesus Christ, praise His name, died on the cross, went to hell, and rose again from the dead. His sacrifice paid the total penalty for our sin that we could never pay. We stand before God fully justified, and even possess the righteousness of Christ Himself. 

Furthermore, Christ rose from the dead to give us eternal life. (Cf. Romans 3:1-28; 8:11; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Anyone can obtain this pardon and forgiveness simply by faith – by personally trusting the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to save them from their sin, and give them eternal life. No human being can ever get to heaven by being good enough. Our salvation is totally based on the work of Christ. 

Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved by faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). 

I hope this rather extended analysis of your question will help you in your walk with Christ. 

All the best to you, and God bless – please tell others of our site.

Dr. Newman

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