Augustine: On polygamy

I’ve been reading Augustine’s little work “On Christian Teaching,” recently. In it, I came upon his interesting discussion of polygamy in the Old Testament.

Augustine uses the topic of Old Testament polygamy to make a point about the necessity of reading and interpreting Scripture with an understanding that it offers different instructions and teaching to different people depending on their need.

When interpreting the examples of virtuous polygamy in the Old Testament, Augustine writes that God wants us to see that human practices that we condemn can be used for good purposes and practices that we praise can be used for  damnable ends.

In the times and conditions of the Old Testament, therefore, a man could have several wives for the purposes of producing many children and remain chaste if his sexual relations with them were aimed at this good purpose of reproduction. In contrast, Augustine writes, a fifth century Christian could be faithfully married to one woman but be consumed by lust in his sexual relations, using her body only as a means to satisfy his appetites. In the conditions of the Old Testament, he writes, polygamy was a duty for the good of the people as a whole, but one that was practiced justly only with an absence of lust. By the fifth century, however, the conditions no longer required such arrangements, and so polygamy is condemned outright.

I share this without really knowing what to make of it or how to incorporate it into my own understanding of sexual holiness and theology. Here are a few reactions I have.

  1. Augustine assumes that sex has a purpose – procreation. He also takes as given that lust is bad. This makes him incomprehensible to contemporary American culture.
  2. His point about sex within marriage being liable to sin drives home how little we hear such things in today’s church. In many evangelical churches, indeed, it almost sounds as if marriage is being sold as great because it gives a green light to lust.
  3. His emphasis on purposes and intention highlights for me how much of our talk is about formalities. Augustine reminds me that marriage is necessary for holy sexual practices but it is not sufficient. Sex that honors God’s intention for human sexuality requires more than a wedding ring.
  4. I am struck by Augustine’s trust in the harmony of Scripture and the revelation of God. When confronted by the contradiction between Old Testament polygamy and New Testament condemnation of the practice, he does not declare part of Scripture as inconsistent with the nature of God or declare the Bible unreliable. Instead, he starts from the affirmation that God is good, just, and self-consistent and seeks to understand the witness of Scripture from that starting point. This approach would not serve him well in many contemporary seminary classrooms.

Like I wrote above, these are not very organized thoughts. I wonder what any of this stirs up for you?


Sex and the single Christian

This is a bit personal. If you don’t come here for that, please turn away. (If my mother reads this, she may want to stop now.)

I am divorced. If I never remarry — which the United Methodist Church allows but Jesus seems a bit more restrictive about — I will not have sex again in my life, or if I do, I’ll be violating both my vows as a provisional and (someday) ordained elder and my understanding of God’s will for human sexual behavior.

Does that mean I — as some people seem to argue — am consigned by United Methodist teaching on sexuality to being less that fully human?

In our church wars over sexuality, we throw around words fairly loosely. One thing that gets said from time-to-time is that the church teaching that sexual relations are only condoned within the bond of monogamous, heterosexual marriage somehow does violence to people who wish to have other forms of sexual relationship and denies their full humanity.

These arguments are usually made in advancement of a point comparing same-sex and traditional marriage, but I wonder how often the people who make such arguments consider Christians who are single. Do we really think they are subhuman?

And let’s be clear, Christian single people do not refrain from sex because they are not interested in it. By choice or by circumstance, they do not marry. But that does not mean they have no sexual feelings or desires. It means they — we — are called upon to discipline those feelings and desires in obedience to God, just as we are called to discipline other desires that are contrary to God’s intention for human beings.

It is unfortunate that our church provides so little support for single Christians in this challenging and deeply counter-cultural stance. I will confess that it did not impinge much on my mind before my divorce. But I’ve had readers who have raised it and circumstances have given me cause to wrestle with these questions.

Are single people fully human, even if they never have sex?

Where do you even begin?

On the campus of Indiana University this week, a fraternity was closed down after a video surfaced featuring about half the members of the house cheering on and engaging in sexual immorality with a pair of women paid for their participation.

This might not be news outside of my neck of the woods. I bring up here because of the interesting history of the fraternity. Alpha Tau Omega bills itself as a fraternity founded on explicitly Christian — as opposed to Greek — ideals. The name of the fraternity itself is a reference to Scripture.

It is not really news that fraternities are hives of immorality. I know that. But reading the story did get me wondering how many of those young men had been raised in Christian families. How many of them ever give a second of thought to the Alpha and Omega after whom their organization is named?

There has been outrage over this incident. There have also been a fair number of defenders of the frat arguing that the morality police should keep their nose out of good, clean, consensual fun. This happens everywhere, they say. What’s the big deal?

It all has me wondering how the Church engages with the culture that forms young people who will do such things, make videos of them, and release them into the Internet. So much talk these days is about being contextual and meeting people where they are. If this is seen as normal by large numbers of people, where is the ground on which we might meet these young people?