Polygamy is the general term for a marriage that includes one spouse of one sex and multiple mates of the opposite sex. Polygamy is divided into polygyny, in which a man takes multiple wives, and polyandry, in which a woman takes multiple husbands.
Polygamy in its common usage generally refers to polygyny, but for clarity’s sake this article will use these, more restrictive, terms.
Polygamy in the Bible
Any fair reading of the bible will attest to the fact that polygyny is an acceptable form of marriage. The Old Testament sets forth rules concerning the rights and responsibilities accorded to the partners in a polygynous marriage. Although there is a passage or two that can be used to question the practice, the New Testament does not condemn polygynous marriage.
As far back as the fourth century C.E. polygynous marriages had fallen out of favor in the Christian community even though the practice was never condemned by the bible. Saint Augustine met the problem by acknowledging the practice in the Old Testament, but relying on contemporary laws and practices to condemn its continued application:
" [While it] 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…. Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife, so as to have more than one wife living"
- — The Good of Marriage (chapter 15, paragraph 17)
Polyandrous marriages, on the other hand, appear to be consistently condemned. This should come as no surprise. At best, women are treated as second class citizens in the bible. At worst they are treated as reasonably valuable property.
Polygamy in the Mormon Church
For a short time polygyny was an acceptable form of marriage among Mormons. It was revealed to Joseph Smith, Jr. as “Celestial Marriage”. By 1905 the Mormon Church was under considerable financial and political pressure to stop this practice. At this time, the Mormon leaders issued a manifesto, in fact the second of its kind, making it clear that Mormons may not practice polygamy and remain a part of the church.
Mormons no longer recognize any sect that practices polygamy as part of the body of the church. Practitioners of polygamy are routinely excommunicated.
Polygamy and apologetics
Modern biblical arguments for and against the various forms of polygamy are a study in Christian cherry picking.
Those Christians who approve of polygyny will cite a long list of polygynists in the Bible, some of whom received their wives at God’s command. King David, Abraham, and Gideon each had more than one wife and they certainly were not alone in the practice. It is clear, supporters might add, that prohibitions against adultery apply to sexual relations outside the bounds of one's own marriage, not to sexual relations with multiple, married, partners.
If they also disapprove of polyandry they might cite the many Old and New Testament prohibitions against women having sexual relations with anyone but her, one, husband.
Those Christians who disapprove of polygyny will cite the examples of Adam and Eve, God’s original marriage, Mary and Joseph, the custodial parents of Jesus, and Noah and his three sons, each of whom had one wife. They will point to the few biblical passages that can be construed as favoring monogamy as reasons to accept only monogamy as a legitimate form of marriage. Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18, all recount the same event in which Jesus condemns divorce and defines it as adultery if the divorced person marries “another”.
Those Christians who approve of polyandry must work considerably harder. There are no passages that expressly approve of this practice. However, language being what it is, some passages can be stretched to cover the marriage of multiple men to one woman. Matthew 22:23-30 makes it clear that, at the time of resurrection, a widowed woman who had remarried would be sinless even though she now had two living husbands. 1 Timothy 3:12, with a great deal of latitude, can be construed as permitting Deacons of the church to practice polyandry.
Polygamy, as with slavery, food restrictions, accumulation of wealth, and many other topics, is open to interpretation in the Christian community. By choosing just the right passages, interpreted just the right way, any Christian sect can claim that God, through the Bible, approves of their way of life.