Groucho Marx once said: “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go in the other room and read a book.”
When it comes to polygamy, I resonate with Marx. Every time someone talks about this matter, it forces me to dig into books, namely my Bible.
Phil Hunt is a friend and fellow missionary church planter up in Zambia. Recently he forwarded me a doctoral dissertation by Honoré Afolabi on polygamy. Having written a similar paper on the subject, I was anxious to read Afolabi’s work. I was not disappointed. The paper was excellent.
Afolabi took the majority of his time to show that polygamy is sinful and contrary to God’s plan. With this I wholeheartedly agree. We differ, however, on two basic questions: (1) Is polygamy adultery and (2) should active, converted polygamists be barred from church membership? Afolabi denies both; I affirm both. Here, I would like to address only the former.
Those who deny that polygamy is adultery usually couch their arguments into three categories.
A HUSBAND CANNOT COMMIT ADULTERY WITH HIS WIFE.
As the argument goes, when Kojo (who is married to Maria) decides to take Sophia as a second wife—however wrong it may be to take additional wives—it cannot be adultery because Kojo and Sophia are actually married. But suppose Kojo sleeps with his neighbor’s wife? Then it would be adultery, but the truth remains that adultery cannot take place between spouses.
But consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9.
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.
Jesus’ situation is thus. Bob finds a peccadillo in his first wife Susan, so he divorces her and marries Sally. By commencing the second marriage—which is a marriage, but an unlawful one—Bob and Sally commit adultery. That is, although they are married to each other, they still commit the act of adultery because Bob is having intercourse with someone other than the woman who should have remained his wife.
Here, then, is an example from Jesus where actual spouses can commit adultery with one another.
This is not splitting hairs. If we can establish that polygamy is adultery, then this will help us later when determining if divorce is a viable, biblical option. If not adultery, divorce would then be impossible.
POLYGAMY IS CONSENSUAL SEX.
Polygamy should not be equated with adultery. In a polygamous relationship sexual intercourse is consensual since in the cultural practices, the husband is legally married to his wives thus there is no violation of any moral code of law. (94)
It is difficult to see how the consensual nature of sexual intimacy negates its immorality. The virtue of an act does not necessarily depend on the willingness of the participants.
Further, it is difficult to conclude that adultery is avoided if a man simply keeps the original wife but marries another. It seems shallow to argue that if Bob is on a tryst with Sally, it is adultery, but if he stops at the justice of the peace on the way to the hotel, all fornication has vanished.
God forbid. Jesus says Bob and Kojo have committed adultery because they are being intimate with someone other than the one who should have remained his only wife.
POLYGAMY DOES NOT RECEIVE THE DEATH PENALTY IN SCRIPTURE.
Again, Afolabi writes:
The transgression of adultery carries death sentence; and yet the men who practiced polygamy were not punished by death. Consequently, polygamy cannot be seen as equivalent to adultery. (95)
It is true that in the OT, many forms of adultery received the death sentence. But there are exceptions. Deuteronomy 24 gives us an example of a woman who committed adultery in her second marriage and was not killed, even though Moses legislated the death penalty just two chapters earlier (Dt. 22:22).
But if her second marriage defiled her in a way tantamount to adultery, why was she not subject to the death penalty? Scripture implies that it is because the husband was primarily guilty by forcing her into the situation. In Ethics for a Brave New World, Feinberg observes:
While she is made an adulteress, she winds up in that condition in ignorance of what she is doing and thus becomes an adulteress unintentionally. Moreover, she was forced into that situation by the actions of her first husband (and thus presumably against her will). But, then, it should be clear why it would be improper to execute her. Under Mosaic Law sins committed unintentionally were treated with greater leniency than sins done with premeditation. (32)
Thus, in the same way, it is reasonable to conclude that God was showing special mercy by not applying the death penalty toward Old Testament, post-Mosaic polygamy.
Is polygamy adultery? Yes it is, and the church would be wise to take this into account when counseling male and female polygamists who have been converted and want to join the church. Still, because of the sensitivity of this issue, church leaders ought to approach this matter with great humility, gentleness and prayer.