Is monogamy over? This is the question TIME Magazine recently posed to its readers. What is monogamy, and is it over?
Monogamy (from Gr. monos, “one,” and gamos, “marriage”) refers to marriage to one marriage partner. Monogamy is firmly embedded in the Old Testament teaching regarding God’s plan for marriage. According to Gen. 2:24, “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This clearly stipulates a heterosexual, monogamous relationship as the norm for God’s people across both covenant periods.
After the Fall, it took only six generations until monogamy began to be compromised. Barely after Adam had died, Lamech “took two wives” (Gen. 4:19). During the course of Old Testament history, prominent men such as Abraham (Gen. 16:3), Esau (Gen. 26:34; 28:9), Jacob (Gen. 29:30), Gideon (Judg. 8:30), David (2 Sam. 3:2–5; 5:13), Solomon (1 Kgs. 11:3), and others practiced polygamy. Nevertheless, the Old Testament never approves of polygamy.
In the New Testament, both Jesus and Paul upheld the biblical ideal of monogamy. When asked about the permissibility of divorce, Jesus reiterated God’s original plan for marriage as stated in Gen. 2:24 (Matt. 19:4–6 pars.). Paul, likewise, assumed monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the norm, even relating it to Christ’s relationship with the Church (Eph. 5:21–33; cf. Col. 3:18–19). Peter did likewise (1 Pet. 3:1–7; cf. 1 Cor. 9:5).
Scripture proscribes any form of extramarital sexual intercourse, calling it sexual immorality (porneia), whether adultery, incest, or other forms of illicit sexual relationships (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Thess. 4:3–6). Jesus even taught that adultery is committed in a person’s heart (Matt. 5:32; cf. Heb. 13:4). In the Greco-Roman world, too, marriage was viewed as monogamous and lifelong (Modestinus, Digesta 23.2.1), though divorce often disrupted the marital bond.
God’s design for man and woman clearly stipulates monogamy, that is, the lifelong union of one man and one woman. If the Creator designed humanity as intrinsically monogamous (and he did), then monogamy can never be “over.” While it is possible that a critical mass of humanity rebels against God’s creation design, God’s design continues to provide the norm and standard for God-honoring, biblical relationships between men and women.
Campbell, Ken M., ed. Marriage and Family in the Biblical World. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003.
Hawthorne, Gerald F. “Marriage and Divorce, Adultery and Incest.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 594–601.
Keener, Craig S. “Marriage, Divorce and Adultery.” In Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments (ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 712–17.
Köstenberger, Andreas J. with David W. Jones. God, Marriage and Family. 2d ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.
Köstenberger, Andreas J. and Margaret E. God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. See also the online course co-created by Biblical Foundations and BibleMesh available at www.biblemesh.com.
Note: This blog is adapted from an entry originally written for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, 4 vols., ed. G. Kurian (Blackwell).