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Was it Christianity’s insistence on monogamy that led to successful societies?

God ordained one man, one wife. Photo: Jose Carlos Castro/Flickr/Creative Commons

God ordained one man, one wife. Photo: Jose Carlos Castro/Flickr/Creative Commons

In a recent article in the National Post, Barbara Kay discussed a book, Marriage and Civilization, written by William Tucker. In it, Tucker argues that what made certain civilizations more successful than others was their insistence on monogamous marriage — one husband and one wife.

He does not suggest that nations pushing monogamous marriage were perfect, but they tended to be more successful than those that practiced polygamy.

He attributes Christianity for being the major reason for the acceptance of monogamy. Despite having a secular view, he described Christianity as “the most powerful force for implementing monogamy in Western Civilization.”

Tucker states one of the hallmarks of a polygamous society is that it is often in conflict. He says “everywhere polygamy is practiced it creates conflict” which hindered the culture’s development.

And there is a very good reason for this because “there is always a shortage of women” in a polygamous society. As a result, men would raid other groups in search of women for marriage.

A second thing also happened. Due to the lack of mature women, men increasingly took younger girls as wives.

Tucker added it was not uncommon for societies to take advantage of the volatility among the men of lower status who were unable buy a wife. The Ottoman empire where harems were the norm would use these unattached men as assassins and even terrorists for holy wars.

He points to polygamy as being one of the problems inherent in Islam. He says “Islam, as a civilization, has proven itself incapable of living at peace with itself, or with others.” He attributes that to its acceptance of polygamy.

We may even be seeing this shortage of women playing out today in Muslim societies in various ways:

So how did Christianity start pushing monogamy? As we read the Old Testament we find several great men of God, such as King David, involved in polygamous marriages.

We also see the conflict polygamy created. While David and his army were fighting with the Philistines, their base in Ziklag was raided and all the women and children were hauled off into captivity. Undoubtedly, the Amalekites intended many of the women to become wives (1 Samuel 30:1-6).

But polygamy was not the pattern God first established. He permitted polygamy much in the same way He permitted divorce. In the Law, God set out the rules regarding divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), while stating He hated it (Malachi 2:16). People were going to do it, so rules were needed to protect everyone’s interest.

Similarly God gave rules for multiple wives, many intended to protect the first wife as the men often took younger women as their second and third wives who typically became the favorites (Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

God specifically forbade Kings from taking multiple wives and acquiring riches (Deuteronomy 17:17), but even the good kings broke those commandments.

But at the beginning when God created Adam and Eve, it was intended to be one husband and one wife.

24 For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24 NASV)

The joining of one man and one wife resulted in one flesh not multiple fleshes.

And for the most part up to the flood, this is what we happened. Noah had one wife as did each of his sons (Genesis 7:13) and Noah and his family were called righteous (Genesis 6:9).

The only known instance of polygamy before the flood involved Lamech (Genesis 4:19-24). And keeping to the tendency noted by Tucker, there was violence associated with this polygamous marriage as Lamech brags of killing a man.

After the flood, polygamy started to dominate society including the Jewish culture as men with wealth were able to buy wives.

However, as we move into the New Testament, Jesus brought the Jews back to what God intended from the beginning.

In  a major discussion on marriage with the pharisees Jesus made some interesting points with the Jewish teachers who for the most part accepted multiple wives:

And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”They *said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He *said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:4-9 NASV)

Notice the wording clearly showing a man leaving his father’s house to be joined to his wife, “so they are no longer two, but one flesh.” This is the pattern God intended.

But oddly it was Jesus teaching on divorce that clinched it. Jesus said except in the case of adultery, re-marriage was not allowed. In fact, if a man remarried for any other reason he was committing adultery.

For the Jews this was a radical teaching. If a man could have multiple wives in a marriage, what sense did it make to prevent marriage after a divorce for whatever reason.

By saying that a man could only remarry if adultery had been committed Jesus was not only clarifying the proper grounds for divorce, just as importantly He was also redefining marriage as one husband and one wife.

When Jesus said God permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, it is not a giant leap to suggest polygamy was allowed for much the same reason.

In the early church this push to monogamy continued.  Paul told Timothy and Titus that the leaders in the early church could only have “one wife” — literally one-woman-man (1 Timothy 3:2).

When he wrote these letters, Paul was addressing largely gentile congregations. Though Jews had multiple wives, the Greek and Roman men typically had one wife, along with several concubines.

Curiously this prohibition disqualified the rich and politically connected from a role of leadership in the early church if they had multiple concubine-wives, which they typically did.

As we move out the first century, monogamy was the accepted norm in the church and as its influence spread it became the accepted practice for many societies and for those that embraced it, according to Tucker they thrived.


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