Same-sex marriage and the dangers of polygamy
This is a section of the Cross Purposes article that I cut out before submitting it, because I didn’t think it added anything to my argument. It is an attempt to answer the concern that approving same-sex marriages will lead to the approval of polygamous relationships.
If marriage is based on primarily or only on procreation then, as the stories of Israel’s patriarchs remind us, polygamy is a sensible way of increasing the number of offspring. However, in the debate about same-sex marriage any historical or cultural link between procreation and polygamy is severed, and instead concerns are raised that it is the acceptance of supposedly non-procreative same-sex relationships that will lead to the acceptance of polygamy. Self-described ‘marriage nut’ David Blankenhorn, the founder and director of the Institute for American Values; the British ‘Keep Marriage Special’ campaign; and the Australian Christian Lobby have all made this link.
The only problem with their argument is that polygamy is part of Christian history and is already widespread in exactly those cultures that are most opposed to homosexuality.
Polygamy was a problem for early Christian theorists of marriage because the stories of Israel’s patriarchs described an obviously polygamous society. Augustine, with more integrity that some of today’s combatants, recognised that the patriarchs were polygamous but pointed out that times had changed: ‘now, he does better who does not marry even one wife, unless he cannot control himself; then, however, they had without fault several wives’. Celibacy and, if necessary monogamy, theoretically replaced polygamy for Christians, but all these many centuries later some African Christians still turn to those Biblical patriarchs to justify it. Their argument is that polygamy in itself does not violate God’s law, or else Christians could not celebrate David, Solomon and other ancient kings, prophets and patriarchs. Polygamy, they argue, can thus be accepted in some social situations; unlike homosexuality which is always and everywhere sinful.
This argument is not theoretical; for many societies across Africa, polygamy continues. Traditionally the practice of rich men with the land and money to support a large family, polygamy is apparently now also practiced in some countries by middle-class and poor men. Christian churches have long had to make compromises on the issue. While the so-called ‘mission churches’ demanded Christians give up all but one wife, the independent congregations, the African-Initiated Churches, allowed and continue to allow polygamy on the basis of custom and the multiple examples supplied by the Old Testament.
Even elements of the ‘mission churches’ have reconsidered. In 1975 a Catholic missionary who had worked in sub-Saharan Africa for eighteen years argued that the church’s attitude to polygamy should be reconsidered, since forcing a man to divorce all but one wife and send the others away from family support was pastorally worse than allowing the polygamous marriage to stand. The Catholic Church did not take this up, but Anglican churches today do treat plural marriage as a pastoral difficulty rather than sin. Under policies approved in 1988, polygamous believers can be baptized and confirmed without abandoning their marital arrangements, although the church restricts their ability to serve in leadership positions.
For global churches like the Anglicans and the Lutherans the sexuality debate occasionally involves African Christians condemning homosexuality while Western Christians simultaneously condemn polygamy. It is probably no coincidence that when a Tanzanian Lutheran bishop told the Lutheran World Federation that the question of homosexuality is ‘not even discussable;’ the president of the LWF, Mark Hanson mentioned that on his visit to the bishops in Tanzania and East Africa he had listened to Tanzanian bishops ‘grapple with the lingering issue of polygamy in their communities and how to allow people in polygamous families to share in the sacraments’.
Polygamy throughout history has usually been polygyny, one husband with two or more wives. With the exception of some breakaway Mormons in the United States, it usually exists in societies where women are subordinate to men and have no economic options apart from marriage. As women are educated and provided with alternatives, rates of polygyny drop. For those in Australia, the lesson is that polygamy is probably not best tackled through an opposition to same-sex marriage. Advocating for gender equality within marriages would be much more productive.
Books and articles consulted:
Boffey, David, ‘Argument for gay marriage would also legalise incest and polygamy, claim bishops and MPs’, The Guardian, 23 June 2012,
Brabin, Loretta, ‘Polygyny: An indication of Nutritional Stress in African Agricultural Societies?’ Africa 54, 1984, pp. 31-45.
Hillman, Eugene, C.S.SP., Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriages and the Christian Churches (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1975).
Howlett, David J., ‘Modern Polygamy in the United States: Historical, Cultural and Legal Issues. Edited by Cardell K. Jacobson and Lara Burton,’ Church History 81 (2012),pp. 492-4.
Jenkins, Philip, ‘One man, one woman?’ Christian Century, January 26, 2010, p. 45
Lapkin, Ted, ‘Too much to bear’, Sunday Age (Melbourne), August 28, 2011.
Miller-McLemore, Bonnie J., ‘Marriage Debate’ Christian Century, September 23, 2008, p. 34.
‘Tanzania bishop tells Lutheran World Federation gay relations unacceptable,’ Christian Century, July 29, 2008, p. 16.
Wunderink, Susan, ‘What to do about polygamy?’ Christianity Today, July 2009, p. 17.
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