By Alan Branch
Christians around our country have been deeply disturbed by the recent events in Eldorado, Texas. On April 4, law enforcement officials raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch outside Eldorado and removed women and children from the polygamist compound. Yearning for Zion Ranch is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), a Mormon splinter-group founded in 1935 near Short Creek, Ariz., a town now known as Colorado City. This group claims that the main LDS church is apostate because it abandoned its public advocacy of polygamy in 1890 in order to facilitate statehood for Utah.
The head of the church, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced in November 2007, to two consecutive five-year sentences in Utah after being convicted of charges related to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who wed her cousin in an arranged marriage in 2001. The raid at the compound in Eldorado was prompted by an anonymous phone call from a 16-year-old girl who claimed she had been forced into an arranged marriage with a 50-year-old man and had given birth to a baby when she was 15.
Numerous groups have advocated polygamy, or more specifically, polygyny-marriage with two or more women. Islam allows for a man to have up to four wives, though the Prophet Muhammad had a special dispensation from Allah for more than four. In some tribal cultures polygamy is expected and the practice has posed real challenges for Christian missionaries. In the United States, the most famous advocates of polygamy have been Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The evil leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, also claimed the right to have plural wives, many of them young girls.
It is not uncommon for advocates for polygamy to claim the Bible does not prohibit plural marriages. They also claim that the examples of polygamous marriages by Old Testament patriarchs, like Abraham and Joseph, or Israelite kings, like David and Solomon, are examples of tacit approval by God of polygamy. How should Bible-believing Christians respond to these claims? I want to assert that the Bible is not vague, but quite explicit in its advocacy of heterosexual and monogamous marriage as God’s standard.
The foundational passage pertaining to marriage in Scripture is Gen. 2:24-25: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” The ideal of oneness which God expects in marriage can only be found in a monogamous marriage. Jesus Christ himself reaffirmed this as God’s ideal in Matthew 19:4-6. Other passages in the Old Testament assume monogamy and not polygamy as God’s standard. The strong condemnation of adultery in Proverbs 5 only makes sense when understood from the perspective of monogamy. Psalm 128:3 says, “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine.” Notice the text refers to the wife (singular) and not to wives (plural). Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser also insists that Lev. 18:18 is a prohibition against polygamy. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul insists that each man “should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2). The entire context of marital instructions in Eph. 5:22-6:4 and Colossians 3:18-19 only makes sense when understood from the perspective of monogamy. I would also add that no major tradition of the Christian Church has ever endorsed polygamy. Groups that do endorse polygamy invariably do so because a so-called prophet has gotten a new word from God to justify his own sinful indulgences.
What are we to do with the examples of the Patriarchs? To begin, let us clearly state that sometimes the major characters of the Old Testament are bad examples! There is no case of a happy description of a polygamous relationship in the Old Testament. Instead, one finds jealousy (1 Samuel 1), family conflict (Rachel and Leah), and religious apostasy (Solomon) all directly connected to polygamy. Most advances of polygamy make a major hermeneutical mistake by failing to differentiate normative didactic passages in Scripture from passages that are merely historically descriptive. Passages of Scripture which are clearly didactic all presuppose heterosexual, monogamous marriage as the expected standard.
The tragic example of Eldorado also demonstrates that polygamy, especially as practiced today, is almost universally a tool used to exploit women. What many of these modern groups call polygamy could more accurately be described as lewd behavior and adultery practiced under the guise of religion. Pre-arranged marriages between very young girls and much older men are very common in these groups, a practice which should be called what it is-child abuse. Most polygamous groups are also manipulative in that a prophet or spokesman for God will tell women and young girls that “God says this is what you must do.” In this sense, polygamy often entails blasphemy in that God’s name is invoked to justify a man’s own sensual lusts.
With the growth of the Muslim population in the United States, the issue of polygamy will only become a more common debate. Christians must think carefully and clearly so as not to be confused about the acceptability of polygamy simply because various patriarchs engaged in the practice. The Bible often records events which did not have the approval of God. Good hermeneutics and diligent study of the entire corpus of Scripture has led the Christian Church to the universal opinion that God has ordained heterosexual, monogamous marriage as the appropriate arena for sexual expression.
This article is reprinted from the April 22, 2008, issue of The Pathway, the newspaper of the Missouri Baptist Convention. The author, Dr. Alan Branch, is vice president for student development and assistant professor of Christian ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.