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?

 

If they ask for bread

This post by Ellen Martin at Seedbed has some links to other good resources regarding healthy sexuality and talking about it in the church.

The post also includes some of Martin’s experiences when she was seeking guidance, correction, and support from the church during a time of bondage to sexual sin.

Six years later when I came to the church to be a part of the body of Christ, I lived in sexual bondage.  I sought guidance and understanding about my sexual temptations and sins.  I wanted to know the voice of Christ.  I asked a young adult ministry leader.  I was told it wasn’t one of the top 10 sins and to not be so hard on myself.  I never went back. I did find a wonderful congregation, but I wandered for weeks and months alone in bondage and shame as I worshipped with no help from the church.  I quit asking because it seemed clear that this was not a conversation the church wanted to have.  It seemed I would have to go at this part of discipleship alone with Jesus.  The world celebrated and offered every opportunity for me to embrace my sexual desires.  The church either condemned my sin, abstained their voice, or belittled my bondage.

 

Sex we accept, sex we don’t

http://christianthought.hbu.edu/2013/06/28/homosexual-behavior-and-fornication-intimate-bedfellows/

From the above linked post comparing fornication with homosexual sex.

“So here is the main point at which I am driving. Christians have no chance whatever of challenging homosexual behavior with integrity unless they start with the sexual sins of heterosexuals. We cannot take a morally credible stand against the sexual sins of the small minority of the population if we condone the sexual sins favored by over 90% percent of the population. If fornication is okay, if casual divorce is no big deal, then it rings utterly hollow to try to take a loud (or even a quiet) stand on homosexual behavior.”