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In the case of polygamy, has there really been a change in the definition of marriage?

While I could see someone today wanting to define marriage as one-man-and-multiple-women, I don’t think that’s how people viewed it in the past. That is, they didn’t see their situation as one big marriage where everybody was married to everybody else. Rather, marriage was still simply one man and one woman. It’s just that the man was allowed to have more than one marriage.

Marriage was defined, even in the days of polygamy, as one-man-one-woman. A man didn’t marry all the wives at the same time in a single transaction. Each marriage was its own transaction between husband and wife. When a husband divorced one wife, he didn’t divorce all of his wives. Their marriages remained intact, only the one woman’s marriage was dissolved.

We haven’t changed the definition of marriage, we’ve only limited the number of concurrent marriages a person can have. If polygamy operates under the same definition of marriage as we have today, then what’s wrong with polygamy?

Initial post by Amy Hall, adapted with responses.
Stand to Reason Blog

Harry Ironside was approached by a young man on one occasion who came to confess a fault. He told the preacher that he felt he was loving his wife too much. “In fact, I’ve put her on such a high plane, I fear it’s sinful,” lamented the young husband.

“Do you think you love your wife more than Christ loved the church?” inquired Ironside. He didn’t dare say he did. “Well, that’s the limit to which we must go,” he continued.

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25).

Harry Ironside (1876-1951)
Cited in An Appeal To Husbands, by Don Currin
The Awakener (Vol. 9, No. 1)

The Jews were polygamist like many other Oriental peoples. Men of wealth and nobility married several wives and this custom was also followed by men of the poorer classes. In some cases the Jewish law made it mandatory. For instance, if a brother should die before leaving a wife and no posterity, his brother must mate her and bring a child to his deceased brother. Thus, even those who were content with one wife were often forced by circumstances to take another.

The family unity of Easterners is centered in the father. The mother’s side is unimportant. In a family there is only one father, many mothers and the children of all the mothers. In every case, in biblical genealogies, the name of the mother in polygamous families is given with that of her son. This fact explains why the name of the mother is often mentioned in connection with the kings of Israel and Judah. Even today in many Eastern countries where polygamy is still practiced, whenever a son is mentioned, reference is made to his mother as the one who gave birth to him, to distinguish her from other mothers of the family.

There is no doubt that Joseph had other wives. Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to Joseph. The reference to Mary is to show that Jesus was born of her and not one of the other wives of Joseph. The brothers and sisters of Jesus who are mentioned in the Gospels were not Mary’s children, but children of Joseph by other wives. If they had been the children of Mary, Jesus being the eldest son would have asked them to take care of her. Instead, Jesus placed His mother in the care of John.

George M. Lamsa,
Ethnologist, Aramaic Language Expert
Gospel Light: Comments on the Teachings of Jesus
(compiled and adapted from pages 5, 6, 97, 98, 129)
A.J. Holman, Bible Publishers, 1939

I think condemnation of polygamy is mostly the work of the Christian extremists needing to claim their moral high ground. Reading the Bible shows that your all-star prophets of God were immensely polygamists. The only reason why Christianity tries to say it’s so wrong is to work as they do in claiming they’re more righteous than Mormons or Muslims, or the rest of the world … I think they’re being a bunch of jerks, many of whom are hypocrites with close intimate mistresses.

As for the law, decriminalize it: the laws against polygamy prohibit cohabitation, something that is a little backward according to American/Western morals nowadays. If all that it takes to punish a cohabitating couple is the fact that they claim a marriage, that’s ridiculous logic. It only makes sense to criminalize polygamy when you are trying to criminalize all people who go without a marriage license, or all people who have plural mistresses, or who cheat on their spouses, because otherwise, it becomes a picking and choosing game of figuring out who is thought a criminal (a.k.a. polygamist) when plenty of people do equal things …

Concerning the specific practice of Polygamy, it’s not as uncommon as folks like to believe it is. We know of several couples that have an exclusive relationship with another woman … The average polygamist family are just like the rest of us, they just have a greater capacity for love and openness. The rejects from the shallow end of the gene pool that use woman like cattle are just as disgusting to them as to you, but don’t toss them all in the same bucket. It’s … just NOT the same thing.

Yahooh Answers
Society & Culture

… Out of 1170 societies recorded in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, polygyny (the practice of men having more than one wife) is prevalent in 850. Even our own culture, which has an astoundingly high divorce and remarriage rate, practices a form of “serial polygamy.”

Advocates for same-sex marriage often refer to polls showing the social acceptance of homosexual relationships as a justification for expanding the definition of marriage. From this we can adduce, a fortiori, that since polygamy has an even stronger claim to historical and cultural acceptance, it should be included in the new expansion of marriage “rights.” …

The social acceptance of polygamy is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed throughout society. At least, not yet.

Joe Carter
On the Square
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator.

Matt Barber [of Liberty Counsel] says this:

There’s actually a stronger historical and biblical case to be made for polygamy than there is for same-sex marriage.

While the Liberty Counsel personality intends this to be condemnatory of gay equality and its supposed “slippery slope,” I actually welcome his words. Because what Matt is really doing here is making our side’s case. … Matt is helping us connect those dots, showing that polygamy’s possibility predates anything having to do with the civil same-sex marriage conversation.

Matt also highlights the fact that polygamy has biblical roots. So again: Matt is bearing us out on the “slippery slope” thing. If there is a slick slope in terms of polygamy, then the Bible is a very big reason why that hill is damp!

Jeremy Hooper
Good As You

Foes of marriage equality use the slogan “one man, one woman,” often citing this type of marriage as biblical.

But as a viewer of Pat Robertson’s “Bring It On” program on the Christian Broadcasting Network pointed out, the Bible is full of examples of polygamy which God apparently approved. “Throughout the Bible, we see many figures who had several wives. When did it become one man, one woman?” asked “Rambo.”

Robertson was hard-pressed to come up with an answer that would satisfy today’s moral outcry against polygamy.

I don’t know … polygamy was certainly accepted among the wealthier people, certainly the kings. Maybe that was a sign of the fact that they were kings. They made alliances and marriage was less of a romantic thing.

It was — I was reading about Solomon. It said he married the daughter of Pharaoh. Well, that was an alliance between Israel and Pharaoh.

Robertson said that Noah had only one wife, but David the king had a number of wives and children.

Robertson asked his co-host what she thought.  “I don’t know. I only have jokes in my head,” she responded.

God Discussion Reporter

When it comes to sexual relationships and cohabitation among consenting adults, Utah takes a permissive approach. If a guy wants to shack up with a lady, that’s fine. If he wants to shack up with several, no problem. He can father children by different roommates, with no fear of the law.

But if he marries one woman and represents three others as his “spiritual wives,” like Kody Brown? Then he’s committed a felony. Not because of the stuff that goes on behind closed doors. It’s the public act of claiming to be part of a lifelong “plural marriage” that raises the specter of jail.

This came as a surprise to Brown, a “fundamentalist Mormon” whose sect, unlike the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, practices polygamy. Despite the legal ban, prosecutions for polygamy are extremely rare.

Before appearing in a TV reality show called “Sister Wives,” Brown was told by authorities he was in no danger of prosecution as long as he wasn’t doing anything else illegal, such as consorting with underage girls. But when the show hit the air, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation.

So Brown went to court claiming that his constitutional rights have been violated in various ways. Though it may come as a surprise to hear, he’s got a perfectly reasonable argument.

Brown and his lawyer, George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley, don’t say the state must sanction such arrangements in law. Nor did Brown try to get multiple marriage licenses, in defiance of the state ban on polygamy.

His case is about freedom, not state recognition. Unlike gay couples who say they should be allowed to legally wed, Brown isn’t asking the state to officially accommodate his chosen form of matrimony. He’s just asking to be let the hell alone.

Other people, after all, are exempt from such control. Turley says Brown and his women “would not be prosecuted if they claimed no religious obligation and merely had casual or purely sexual associations.”

He notes, “Monogamists are allowed an infinite number of sexual partners, and consequently have the right to bear children with multiple partners, so long as they do not claim to be committed to such partners in a union or family.”

The law doesn’t prevent any man from living with several women, having sex with them and siring their offspring. This behavior is a problem only when a man claims to be permanently wedded to the women – only, that is, when he behaves more responsibly than a tomcat.

Utah may limit legal marriage to one man and one woman (or, if it chose, two people of the same sex). It also has the right to punish the abuses that may accompany polygamy, such as rape, incest and welfare fraud. But it’s hard to see where it gets the authority to dictate what words individuals may use for their relationships.

If Fred and I want to say we’re cousins – assuming we’re not trying to defraud someone – no prosecutor will bother us. If I refer to Sally as my aunt, despite the lack of family ties, the law is majestically indifferent. When Brown and his boos present themselves as husband and wives, though, he’s applying for a prison cell.

In challenging the law, they can cite implicit support from the Supreme Court. In a 2003 decision striking down a Texas ban on homosexual sodomy, Justice Anthony Kennedy granted a wide berth to intimate relationships.

Anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional, Kennedy said, because they interfere with “the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home,” in order “to control a personal relationship that, whether or not entitled to formal recognition in the law, is within the liberty of persons to choose without being punished as criminals.”

The same logic applies perfectly to Brown’s plural “marriage.” The state presumes to dictate how he represents his relations with consenting adult women, imposing harsh penalties if he does not comply.

If Brown wants to live with five women and call them his girlfriends, his shorties, his harem, the Seattle Storm or the 101st Airborne, it is of no earthly concern to the rest of us. And if he wants to call them his wives, the state of Utah should say, “Knock yourself out, dude.” That, or nothing.

Steve Chapman
Columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune

As reported by The New York Times and National Public Radio, I will be traveling to Salt Lake City today [July 12, 2011] to file (on Wednesday) a challenge to the Utah statute criminalizing bigamy and cohabitation. The lawsuit will be filed on behalf of my clients, the Brown family. The Browns are featured in the TLC program Sister Wives as an openly polygamous family.

The lawsuit will be filed in federal court in Salt Lake City on Wednesday and we will be available for questions at 1 p.m. outside of the courthouse.

The Plaintiffs are Kody Brown, Christine Brown, Janelle Brown, Meri Brown, and Robyn Sullivan. As in past cases, I will have to be circumspect in what I say after the filing of this action. However, we are honored to represent the Brown family in this historic challenge. We believe that this case represents the strongest factual and legal basis for a challenge to the criminalization of polygamy ever filed in the federal courts. We are not demanding the recognition of polygamous marriage. We are only challenging the right of the state to prosecute people for their private relations and demanding equal treatment with other citizens in living their lives according to their own beliefs. This action seeks to protect one of the defining principles of this country, what Justice Louis Brandeis called “the right to be left alone.” In that sense it is a challenge designed to benefit not just polygamists, but all citizens who wish to live their lives according to their own values – even if those values run counter to those of the majority in the state.

The following is the statement from Kody Brown, which will be the only statement at this time on the filing.

Statement of Kody Brown:

There are tens of thousands of plural families in Utah and other states. We are one of those families. We only wish to live our private lives according to our beliefs. While we understand that this may be a long struggle in court, it has already been a long struggle for my family and other plural families to end the stereotypes and unfair treatment given consensual polygamy. We are indebted to Professor Turley and his team for their work and dedication. Together we hope to secure equal treatment with other families in the United States.

We will post the complaint as soon as it is docketed by the Clerk of Court.

Dr. Jonathan Turley
Professor, George Washington Law School

Let me share a snippet from an article that was published on March 17, 2004, by a Christian group called “Agape Press.” The article written by Bill Fancher and Jenni Parker carried this headline:

 “Same Sex Marriage Opens Door For Polygamy. Family Experts Warn.”

This is how the article began: “Pro-family advocates are worried that legalizing homosexual marriage will lead to other perversions of the family. They feel there is concern among defenders of traditional marriage that legalizing same sex marriage could lead to a push for polygamy.”

The article then went on and shared quotes from people such as Tony Perkins and Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council who also expressed fear that homosexual marriage could lead toward the legalization of polygamy.

I want you to notice that in the previous quote the authors of the article referred to polygamy as a perversion of the family ! Put your thinking cap on for a moment and answer this question: “What would you call a person who practices perversion?” I donʼt know about you, but the label I would put on a person who practices perversion would be the word “pervert.”

If polygamy is a perversion, that would mean that David was a pervert. That would also imply that God is also a pervert since God took credit for giving David his many wives. I donʼt know about you, but I am not at all comfortable with even hinting that there is anything perverted about God.

I do, however, believe that perhaps the biblical view of marriage has become perverted. I also believe that many within the church today are far more concerned with holding on to tradition rather than biblical truth (in many areas, not just marriage).

Take a glance back at the article I quoted from “Agape Press” and you’ll find that, like James Dobson, they intentionally used the phrase “traditional marriage” rather than the phrase “biblical marriage.”

Tradition may call polygamy a perversion, but Godʼs Word never does.

B.A. Berean

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May 2023
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