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?

 

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Mods and progs … help me understand

I live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. Soon, I will live in a country where that is the case. As a pastor, the question for me is not what is legal by civil code, but what is righteous in the eyes of God. And so, I have been a part of my denomination’s conversations, debates, prayers, and wrestling with these questions.

If you asked me to define what marriage is, I would go to Genesis 2. I’ve always found this foundation solid. Yes, the Old Testament has many examples of marriage other than the monogamous union of a man and a woman, but I find Jesus’ quotation of the Genesis formula a good basis for concluding that God’s blessing falls upon lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

When questions about other forms of relationship and marriage arise, my reference is back to the first question: What is marriage? Well, the Bible and tradition tell me it is this. If something does not fit that description it might be similar to marriage or like marriage, but it is not marriage.

This is why when people in my denomination suggest we change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, I start asking about polygamy. I don’t do it to engage in a slippery-slope argument. I do it because in discounting what Jesus says and the words of Genesis, you take out the entire basis I have for answering the question: What is marriage? There is no longer any definition to distinguish between marriage and other social arrangements. So, I raise questions about polygamy because I can’t see how to declare it invalid in a theological world in which Genesis and Jesus do not settle the question.

I am in the position that if I accept your argument about same-sex marriage, then I don’t see any way for me to argue biblically against polygamy. Indeed, once you knock out Genesis 2 and Jesus, there is a lot of evidence in support of polygamy. Obviously, people who advocate for same-sex marriage do not have such problems, although I’ve struggled to get them to articulate their theological (as opposed to American Constitutional) reasons for distinguishing the two.

So, I end with a request to my colleagues who advocate for same-sex marriage not as a civil right but as an arrangement blessed by God. What is your definition of marriage? How do you ground it in the Bible? How does it allow you to distinguish between forms of relationship that God blesses and those that God does not?

Let no one separate

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital and postmarital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved and are concerned about high divorce rates.

— UMC Social Principles

I never noticed how sterile the language in this paragraph sounded until I was in the midst of this kind of crisis.

My marriage has been struggling for some time. Earlier this week, my wife gave me copies of the papers her lawyer has filed with the court. Today, the summons to the first court hearing arrived. By this time next week, I may be legally separated, although it is not my choice or wish to be in such a circumstance.

I’ve talked with family. I’ve talked with my boss. I’ve talked to my DS and the leadership of the local congregations I serve. I’ve talked quite a bit with God. In the days ahead, I’m sure I’ll talk with lawyers and therapists.

As I have shared my story, one of the weirdest parts of this is the way people suddenly find themselves being careful in your presence. They watch what they say and apologize for saying things that require no apology. “I’m sorry I talked about how great it is to have a wife to go home to, John. I hope that did not upset you.” No. But thank you for caring.

At least right now, the hardest part is looking back over 26 years at all the decisions you made because this was a union meant to last for a lifetime.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that we only discover we have faith when we are obedient to the point that all we have to rely upon is faith. In the last few weeks, I’ve discovered that trusting in God can feel like falling into a dark tunnel that does not appear to end. You trust because the only other choice is to fall.

I don’t know what shape my blogging will take in the days and weeks ahead. This has never been a blog about my personal life. I don’t want it to become a self-indulgent cry for digital pity. Perhaps I am entering a season of less public writing. Perhaps the writing will be a calm in the midst of a storm. Perhaps I will write about what it is like to go through this process.

I’m not sure. For the moment, I simply trust that God is working in the midst of my mess. In the belly of the fish, trust is all you have.