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MORMONISM: Joseph Smith & polygamy — a teachable moment

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP) — Does it make any difference that Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, married as many as 40 women, some of whom already were married and one who was only 14?

Smith’s marital history has been the subject of much debate, but until the Mormon Church acknowledged the founding prophet’s multiple wives in a recent essay, it had maintained that Smith was happily married to one woman.

The essay explains that Smith was a reluctant polygamist, agreeing to multiple marriages only after an angel threatened him with a sword. Further, the essay notes that Smith was restoring the “ancient principles” of biblical prophets like Abraham, who took secondary wives.

The church disavowed plural marriages in 1890 under pressure from the U.S. government, although some LDS sects continue to practice it.

As some Mormon bloggers have commented, it’s good for the church to acknowledge as factual what any person capable of a Google search can discover. But a more important point is that the church attempts to appeal to Scripture in admitting the inconvenient truth of Smith’s polygamy.

This is precisely where we have an opportunity to urge our Mormon friends to revisit the Bible, which LDS theology and practice relegate to a back seat behind the Book of Mormon and other church documents.

And for evangelical Christians, who see the gay marriage debate sliding down the slippery slope toward the redefinition of marriage, which includes multiple marriages, we should ask ourselves whether the Bible truly endorses the taking of more than one spouse.

To be sure: It does not.

Consider three biblical perspectives: 1) God’s creative intent; 2) His divine accommodation; and 3) His warning against polygamy.

Divine creation

Let’s begin with God’s design for men and women created in His image. In Genesis 2:18, the Lord says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is like him.” Adam acknowledges Eve as a perfect complement for him — “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” The Scripture then says, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

When the Pharisees pressed Jesus about the legitimacy of divorce on any grounds, He took them back to this passage to emphasize God’s creative intent. “So they are no longer two, but one flesh,” Jesus said. “Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:6).

When they asked why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus replied that it was due to the hardness of people’s hearts, but “it was not like that from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).

It is clear that God’s ideal is a monogamous, lifelong marriage between a man and a woman.

Divine accommodation

Throughout the Old Testament, the Mosaic Law deals with such realities as divorce, which God hates, and polygamy, which He warns against. The Law is a great improvement over the pagan practices of Israel’s neighbors while making allowances for the fallen state of God’s people. It’s what some scholars call “divine accommodation.”

In his book “Is God a Moral Monster?” Paul Copan writes that the Law of Moses is “a gracious gift temporarily given to national Israel that bridged God’s ideals and the realities of ancient Near Eastern life and human hard-heartedness. Some of the troubling, harsh, and seemingly arbitrary Old Testament laws — though inferior and less than morally optimal — are often an improvement on what we see in the rest of an ancient Near East…. Much in the Old Testament visibly reminds us of God’s abundant grace despite human sin and fall-damaged social structures.”

While Scripture nowhere instructs God’s people to engage in polygamy, the Law provides protection for women involved in polygamous relationships.

Warning against polygamy

In addition to God’s clear intention for monogamous marriage, and His divine accommodation to protect the victims of sinful behavior like divorce and polygamy, several passages of Scripture tell us of the danger of taking multiple wives. Here’s a brief sampling:

From Lamech, the first recorded polygamist in Scripture (Genesis 4:19, 23-24) to Abraham, Esau, Jacob, David and Solomon, wherever we see God’s ideal of monogamy ignored, the result is bickering, strife and often idolatry.

Leviticus 18:18 is a strong teaching against polygamy: “You are not to marry a woman as a rival to her sister and have sexual intercourse with her during her sister’s lifetime.”

In Deuteronomy 17:17, God prohibits Israel’s king from acquiring many wives for himself “so that his heart won’t go astray.” Solomon, of course, took 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), often from foreign nations for political reasons. The result: They turned his heart away from God.

Finally, God models faithfulness in His relationship with His chosen people, loving them even when they depart and “marry” other gods.

Proverbs 5:15-18 offers wise counsel — a man should find delight and sexual satisfaction with his wife in a monogamous marriage: “Drink water from your own cistern … and take pleasure in the wife of your youth.”

It also should be noted that just because Old Testament characters like David and Solomon took multiple wives does not mean God endorses the practice. We need to draw a distinction between what the Bible records and what it commands.

Those who point to the Bible to endorse their polygamous practices, or to ridicule Scripture’s “outdated” and “archaic” teachings, need to study the passages in context and against the historical backdrop of the times in which they are given.

God’s creative intent remains the same: One man and one woman, becoming one flesh through marriage, until death. This is a teachable moment for all of us, including our Mormon friends.

    About the Author

  • Rob Phillips