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?

 

Simple Methodism

In our ministry in the church, I know that our task is not to recreate what has come before. The Holy Spirit is not a cookie cutter, stamping out identical churches in every place and every time. But it is either my gift or my handicap that I am drawn to look at the root of things to discern what should be our central and animating principles today. So today, in the opening days of my ministry among a people new to me, I find myself looking again over John Wesley’s “Plain Account of a People Called Methodist.”

In that letter written in 1748, Wesley lists the four particulars about true Christianity that he and his brother Charles wished to persuade any who would hear them preach.

First, that the end of religion is that we become holy, happy, peaceful, and righteous people. It is about deep transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, that repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are the only way to that end.

Third, that Christ forgives, pardons, and frees from the power of sin and death all who have faith in him.

Fourth, that the fruits of this faith are not stored away to enjoy in heaven after we die, but are tasted even now in this moment and in this life.

What I take to be Wesley’s great target in this message is a kind of dead, formal, and cold religion that provides little comfort and little power. It was a religion that put a great emphasis on having the correct knowledge in your head about various theological topics, on being blameless in our outward conduct, and in doing all manner of good and pious things.

There is nothing wrong with orthodoxy. There is nothing bad about being good and pious people who show up to church every Sunday and the food pantry on Wednesday. Wesley did not disparage any of that, but he did not want people to confuse the means of religion with the end or purpose of it.

The purpose of it all is to restore to people the joy and peace that God intended for them from the Creation.

It seems to me, looking out over the church in America today, that we might benefit from this old idea if we can learn how to preach and teach it in a way that can be heard today.

What is the church?

As I prepare to move to a new church and leave behind two that I have served for the last few years, I find myself contemplating what it means to be the church.

Here is a starting thought. What I am looking for here is not an abstract definition of the church, but a practical one — one that might challenge and shape what we actually do as the church and in the name of the church. As I say, here is starting thought:

The church is a people called together by God to live in such a way as to not cause a scandal when the way they live is compared to what they say when they pray the Lord’s Prayer.

My first thought was to end that with the phrase “when they claim that Jesus Christ is Lord.” That might be stronger, but it takes a lot more explication, which is not necessarily a bad thing but can give us lots of ways to wriggle off the hook.

My definition, of course, leads to questions about the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer and what it would mean to live our lives in ways that do not make the prayer a scandal. I suppose I find myself really enjoying the thought of doing that work with a congregation.