Why Don’t Christians Support Polygamy?

The question might seem to have an obvious answer, but I’m not so sure.

I was having a little Facebook discussion about homosexuality and, typically for me, pushing back against some folks’ notion of a completely inerrant, universally applicable Bible that unequivocally condemns homosexuality as we know it today. If by now you haven’t figured out I don’t think the Bible is inerrant as evangelicals use the term, nor do I think all parts of it are universally applicable (and neither does anyone else, even if they say they do), nor do I think we can so easily draw a straight line from “homosexuality” as used in the Bible and the kind practiced and debated today.

Nevertheless, over the course of the discussion, someone threw out the template argument. I would call it the third leg of the stool used to support Christian opposition to same-sex intimacy (I try to avoid using the “h-word” in this context because some Christians, after all, have moderated on scientific grounds to allow for people being gay and celibate, which means they are not opposed to homosexuality as an orientation, just acting on those same-sex attractions).

These are the three legs:

  1. Leviticus – Yes, this is still used as an argument despite its obvious weaknesses.
  2. Romans – A much stronger argument, though in my opinion the passage is heavily culturally conditioned, evidenced by Paul’s Stoic-influenced appeal to the “natural” and “unnatural” and the fact that homosexual behavior is not the sin he’s condemning but rather the consequence of the true sin of idolatry.
  3. The Template – This is the argument that the creation story of Genesis 2:4b-3 serves as a template for God’s ideal relationship. Its arguers then use Jesus’ citation of it in a completely different context to counter the notion that he never said anything about same-sex relationships.

You could add the vice lists to these arguments, but they seem to fall in the same area as No. 2, only with less detail or certainty as to what Paul is actually discussing.

Here’s the thing, though. As weak as they are regard, none of these arguments even applies to polygamy. Let’s look at those legs again:

  1. No one argues the Law does not condemn at least some form of same-sex relationship (it actually doesn’t say anything about lesbianism), whereas the Law expressly allows the taking of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10, Deut. 21:15).
  2. Whereas there are the handful of New Testament verses that condemn homosexuality in some form or fashion, there is not a single one that mentions polygamy at all.
  3. The basic template argument of Adam and Eve would still apply, but this runs into trouble because Adam and Eve aren’t the only pre-Law characters viewed as a template. Paul views Abraham as the father of both the Jews and the Gentiles because of his justification before the delivery of the Law, yet Abraham, already married to Sarah, married Hagar in order to have a son (Genesis 16). Was Abraham admonished for keeping two wives? No, he was admonished because he did not have faith in God’s promise that Sarah would have a son; the act of marrying Hagar itself is not criticized in either testament. Further, Genesis 25 notes without comment that Abraham also had concubines.

Or how about Jacob, the father of Israel? He serves as a template for the entire nation from whom the Messiah comes – his 12 sons become the 12 tribes, after all. Of course, those 12 sons came from four different mothers, two of whom were Jacob’s wives.

Likewise, David is the kingly forerunner of Jesus, and the Bible lists no fewer than six wives for him, along with numerous concubines. Solomon famously had 700 wives, and the text seems to look down on this, but is it because he was a polygamist? No, it’s because the wives were foreign, and they led him into idolatry.

And then there are simply the dozens whose polygamy is noted but left uncondemned – many of them later considered heroes of the Bible: Lamech, Esau, Gideon and numerous kings of Israel. Sometimes it seems clear that polygamy leads to infighting and jealousy, especially where children are concerned (Jacob and Rachel/Leah, Elkanah and Hannah/Peninnah), but again: Polygamy is never condemned in the Old Testament despite many, many opportunities to do so. To the extent that a template paradigm is in effect (a sketchy use of the text, at best), polygamy clearly fits into it.

Fast forward the 400 years to the New Testament, and the broader culture has largely abandoned polygamy, which is probably why we don’t see much mention of it. But it did still exist, particularly in conservative Jewish circles, yet neither Jesus nor Paul (nor anyone else, for that matter) condemns it or criticizes it or says anything about it at all.

So it seems if conservative Christians are going to continue using the same biblically based arguments to justify their opposition to otherwise moral relationships between men and women of the same sex, they should reconsider their opposition to polygamy. And if that seems untenable, then perhaps they should reconsider the way they use the Bible to approach issues of modern sexuality.

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7 comments on “Why Don’t Christians Support Polygamy?

  1. Joshua says:

    1. Moses gave the Israelites allowances in regards to marriage (among other things) because of the “hardness of their hearts” (gospel) but as Jesus says, “in the beginning it was not so.” Jesus goes on to describe the relationship with man and woman as being the model for which marriage is based. Therefore, anything that goes contrary to that can be clearly said to not represent Christ’s teaching.

    2. Just because the Bible records certain things as happening, doesn’t mean that God Himself condones them or commands them (polygamy, intermarriage with pagan nations, David and Bathsheba, etc…). The Bible records them as happening because they happened; the great patriarchs were sinners too. That’s the point – God’s work continues and flourishes in spite of human weakness and sin.

    3. Finally, if it is true that polygamy had basically died out by the time of Christ, then what would be the need for Him to address it? People still had questions about marriage and divorce (2,000 years later and somehow we still do), and so Jesus addressed it; but if it wasn’t an issue, then why address it?

    No mainstream theologian or politician seems to feel the need to address the issue of women’s voting rights because we live in a culture that doesn’t see it as an issue. An argument from silence does not necessarily mean that it was not condemned.

    Not to mention the fact, as a Catholic, I clearly don’t believe that the Bible is an exhaustive list of the teachings of Christ and His Apostles (John 21:25), and He very well could have addressed it. But, if our Gospel writers are writing to their respective audiences and their audiences didn’t need to be taught that polygamy was wrong, why should the gospel authors include it?

    • Paul says:

      Hi again, Joshua. Thanks for the response!

      The reference to Matthew 19 is out of context. Jesus does cite Genesis 2:24, but he does not focus on the gender or number of those involved, he focuses on the inseparability of the partners once they are joined. Trying to make this a Christ-endorsed template for the way all relationships should be is going beyond what Christ himself was saying.

      I agree that allowing something in the Law is not the same as approving of it. But it is also not the same as condemning it. And Jesus spoke specifically about divorce, not polygamy. This line of argument is actually a good reason why we should stop using the Law altogether, as it assumes plenty of horrible things we have no reason to be supporting today, as well as prohibiting some innocuous things we have no reason to oppose today. My point on this subject is not to defend polygamy according to the Law, but to show how we should not be using the Law to oppose same-sex relationships: We should not be using the Law to oppose same-sex relationships unless we’re using it to allow polygamy, condemn sleeping with your wife on her period, oppose eating shellfish, etc.

      As for polygamy in New Testament times, it was practiced by Jews during the time of Jesus and Paul – up to the second century, as a matter of fact. Paul probably saw little reason to address it because he was speaking to pagan converts who would not have come from a polygamous culture (but who did come from a culture in which violating established gender norms was a serious problem; if culture is a good reason to write off the non-condemnation of polygamy, we must be cognizant of its role in shaping Paul’s beliefs about homosexuality), but Jesus spoke to conservative pharisaical Jews a lot, some of whom were likely polygamists, and never thought it important enough to mention (or, to your point, his sayings on the matter were so unremarkable they were not preserved through either oral or written tradition). An argument from silence is necessarily not a strong argument, but sometimes it’s the strongest one available – certainly stronger than suggesting Jesus condemned a centuries-old Jewish tradition without anyone taking note of it, as they did his overturning of Sabbath, food and divorce laws, among others.

      But again, I would caution that I’m not really arguing for the rightness of polygamy (although I do support it among consensual, non-abusive adults in a purely political church-state separation sense). I’m simply saying that the same hermeneutical moves made to condemn homosexuality provide quite a lot of support for something that many Christians actually think is the next step down the slippery slope. Perhaps it’s actually the next step up!

      • Joshua says:

        On purely scholarly grounds, I actually might concede that you have a point. A good one? Not in my opinion, but a foothold nonetheless. Is it plausible? Sure. But I’m not looking for plausible.

        While I do think that the Bible alone is enough to condemn homosexual activity, I also believe that the living Tradition and Magisterium of the Catholic Church puts the seal on the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and it’s quite clear where they stand on this issue. As a general rule, it is simply not up to the individual interpreter to decide for themselves what they believe Scripture to mean (2 Peter), hence the reason we have thousands of denominations of Christians all claiming that their interpretation of scripture is the correct one, based on the massive error of sola scriptura.

        However, what I think is missing from the discussion is not what the Bible does or does not teach specifically about homosexuality, but what it does teach about marriage, sexuality, children and what it means to be human.

        When you view marriage as a Sacrament meant for the procreation of children and the betterment of the spouses, can you put homosexual unions on par with Marriage? When you view sexuality as only expressed appropriately within the marital covenant, it is impossible to view any other form of sexual expression as legitimate. Any form of sexuality outside of marriage distorts what it sexuality is meant for. Sexuality is the total gift of self to another in a covenant bond. Which is, incidentally, why we are against contraception (though I’m not sure that’s a discussion we want to get into here!)

        Sexuality isn’t good, and it isn’t great. It’s holy. And that’s why we believe that it belongs to the marital covenant.

        John Paul II’s catechesis on human sexuality, what it means to be truly human (and much more), is a wonderful treatise on much of what would be relevant to this discussion. It is quite a massive work however, and I confess that I have only just begun to make a dent in it, so I know nothing well enough to attempt to present it here.

        Finally, I don’t believe that Jesus came to do away with the Law, and I don’t even believe that He came to merely uphold it. I believe, and I think that it’s exegetically clear, that Jesus came to perfect and fulfill the Law, and bring us to an even higher standard.

  2. Joshua says:

    Dang! Forgot my first reference there – Matthew 19

    • Paul says:

      Replying to your post at 10:42 a.m. (it wouldn’t let me reply within that thread):

      You might not be looking for plausible, but I am! 🙂

      My position in this issue has been to argue for making homosexuality an agree-to-disagree issue. I’m not trying to convince anyone that homosexuality is blessed by God (I have carefully avoided saying one way or the other, though one of these days, I’m sure that will change), simply to introduce enough doubt into the traditional teachings to help those who, like me, grew up in conservative settings understand that it is possible to be Christian and affirm gay relationships. And if that is possible, then perhaps we need to ratchet down the rhetoric on the issue and allow for grace to exist. I would love for assemblies to house openly gay congregants and congregants who feel same-sex relationships are wrong, with both sides agreeing to disagree on this particular issue.

      Regarding the tradition of the church, let me preface by saying I feel it has weight, moreso than probably a lot of other people who grew up in a free-church movement. The church is a tertiary witness to God’s truth, and as such, its positions should be given weight and overturned only in rare or exceptional circumstances. But the church tradition has gotten plenty of things wrong – slavery, treatment of heretics, liberating Jerusalem from the Muslims, selling indulgences, etc. These are all things that found support in scripture and were carried forward through the teachings of the church. Had it not been for individuals interpreting scripture for themselves and beginning the process of changing hearts and minds toward a better interpretation, how would these repulsive practices have changed? That’s where I diverge from Catholic doctrine on this. I have a great respect for the church and its traditions, and I wish my own church incorporated more of them, but in the end, the church can get off track, or it can dogmatize issues that have their roots in purely cultural perceptions of the world. In the end, you may criticize the proliferation of thousands of denominations, but how are they any different than the Catholic Church? In the end, everyone is claiming 1. faithfulness to scripture, and 2. guidance from the Holy Spirit. Catholicism has many virtues to its credit; pretending to be above the noise of denominationalism is not one of them.

      Regarding marriage as a sacrament, I don’t understand how the gender of the participants changes its holiness. The reasoning is a little circular, I think: It’s only a problem if you believe God rejects same-sex relationships. For those who don’t believe that, their marriage is just as sacramental as mine to my wife. The notion of marriage as a primarily procreative union is fraught with problems that I hope are too obvious to detail here, so I’ll just say that based on the two reasons for marriage you cited – procreation and betterment of the spouses – there is no difference between two gay men being married and an elderly man marrying an elderly woman, except the gay men are more likely to adopt and raise a family, thus bettering the life of a child who otherwise might have no parents.

      We are agreed about sexuality outside of marriage, but that’s just the point: Who is denying gay men and women the ability to experience their sexuality within the bounds of marriage? By and large, it’s the church. Which seems kind of ironic to me.

      Love the discussion, Josh. Thanks!

      • Joel says:

        I’m a new-comer onto this website, and I would like to say. Wow! This rocks! I love how you two both articulated logical view points from the orthodox Catholic view and the Emerging “trajectory hermenutic” view of marriage. I believe that any view that can be logically supported by love, tradition, and the bible should not be considered “unorthodox,” so I have a deep respect for both views, and wouldn’t want to rebuke any of them for their content alone. I would like to try to define my view as well, because I am a lover of having a God-given voice, and honored to be a part of such a fascinating discussion and a fascinating life within Christianity today.
        .
        I think that the “friendship covenant” David has with Jonathan is stunning to say the least about it. Why? Because it has uniformly similar qualities to a loving relationship of a married couple even if they didn’t engage in anal sex (which I believe is what Leviticus is prohibiting in the old testament – because let’s agree that without sanitation it is very bacteria-ridden and “unclean” as the old testament says) and the like, but were committed as a marriage would have it as in our contemporary culture is discussing. Here are some absolutely breath-taking evidence:
        .

        Let’s review the evidence:
        • David and Jonathan loved each other so intensely that their souls were knit, and the solemnised their relationship with a covenant (1 Sam 18:1-4).
        • Jonathan loved David as he loved himself, and Jonathan’s love for David is described by the same word that Michal’s love for David is described by (1 Sam 10:20 1 Samuel 20:17).
        • Saul speaks of the relationship between Jonathan and David in terms that are possibly sexual (1 Sam 20:30).
        • When they were parted in 1 Samuel 20:41-42, their parting is more like two lovers being parted than two friends.
        • Jonathan and Saul both expected Jonathan to be second to David when David became king, a position perhaps reserved for the king’s spouse such as a queen (1 Samuel 23:16-17).
        • David spoke about Jonathan using an affectionate term that was used between spouses (2 Sam 1:25-26).
        • Jonathan’s love for David was compared with the love that exists between a man and woman. (2 Sam 1:25-26).
        .
        All I’m saying is this is interesting to say the least, right?
        .
        Now the only, the only, places in the bible in the new testament where it refers to some possible objections homosexuality are Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1 (excluding Leviticus, because it doesn’t even talk about women homosexual actions, just men which is very evident, as I said earlier that anal sex should be prohibited, and still should be cautioned today unless done in cautious and sanitary ways).
        .
        Let’s start with 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1, because these passages are “one-word wonders” so to speak, because of the translated words “arsenokoitai” and “malakoi” which literally mean “man-bed” and “soft-touch/loose actions.” “Malakoi” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 translates pretty narrowly as “male-prostitutes” or in the catholic version of the New Jerusalem Bible, “child-prostitutes.” Prostitution should be banned and would not allow people practicing this to “inherit the kingdom of heaven (1 Cor. 6:9),” but we should “inherit” this kingdom on earth through a loving, monogamous, commitment to a companion which reflects Jesus’ sacrificial, friendly relationship of love that he demonstrates daily for us. So “malakoi,” as I logically explained from scriptures, doesn’t mean all homosexuality, but just homosexual prostitution, and what the culture back then practiced – Man-to-boy homosexual sex as an addition to their wives.
        .
        Now “arsenokoitai” is a fun one, because it isn’t as narrowly defined as “malakoi.” It appears in both the 1 Corinthians 6:9 passage, and in the introduction of St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy. As I said, it is literally translated “man-bed” which translators have implied to mean “any” homosexual behavior whatsoever, but “arsenokoitai’s” close connection (literally right before) with “malakoi” in 1 Cor. 6:9 have led translators to believe that they are related. In the culture at the time, and as I mentioned before, older men tended to have an extra-marrital relation with a boy, because through Plato, Socrates, and other Greco-Roman myths, the purest form of sex was not with a man and a woman (because of it’s anti-Gnostic tendancies to strong emotion such as jealousy, and uncontrolled passions), but between men-men and women-women sexual relations (I think – because of some studies from cultural analyists). Therefore, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are not talking about “all” homosexual activity, but those which are done in men-boy prostitution or beliefs about “pure sex.”
        .
        The hardest one for reading a pro-monogamous-loving-homosexual commitment of marriage view, is the passage found in Romans 1. Here is my disortation on the passage, from an earlier writing I did on the subject:

        “A more recent interpretation of Romans 1:26-27 has also been explored as well. The context of Romans 1 is centered around Romans 1:17b, “as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’.” This establishes what Paul is talking about when he talks about “the truth” and “righteousness” which Paul is defending throughout Romans 1 – namely to have faith in God’s love and provision for each individual. So if you extend this out, the next verse says that “the wrath of God is revealed” to people who try to deny a faith in God by “suppress[ing] the truth” that He is going to help mankind. The next key verse in the new understanding is Romans 1 verse 21-22, which states, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” In other words, people did not seek to be honorable about giving thanksgiving to God for their blessing, but went so far as to claim that whatever good happened to them was because they knew how to proverbially “work the system” either by creating idols, inflicting violence to get what they wanted, people-pleasing and everything else explained in Romans 1:29-32. So, “God gave them up (Romans 1:24)” to their lust of trying to have a wise and righteous life without faith in God’s “eternal power and divine nature (Romans 1:20);” that is his eternal power by creating everything, including every single person’s life, and his divine nature, which is His resurrecting love for mankind (1 John 4:8). Now we get into the passages talking about homosexuality in second part of Romans 1. In Romans 1:26 it starts out saying, “For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women (Romans 1:26-27b).” This passage is talking about heterosexually-orientated men and women, who “gave up,” and “exchanged [their] natural [sexually-orientated] relations” just to self-satisfy, and vent their sexual pressure to the closest, and easiest people around; their own gender. So basically these heterosexually-orientated men just “gave up,” and the heterosexually-orientated women finally decided to “exchange” what seemed natural and just basically said, “Let’s have sex,” without exercising faith in a loving God who would bring them one man and one woman that they could honorably marry. “God gave them up to dishonorable passions,” because these people should have had faith in God that He would bring a wife or a husband to them so that they could “take a wife for himself in holiness and honor (1 Thessalonians 4:4, RSV).” So the righteous and honorable thing for these heterosexual men and women would be to do is to exercise faith that God would bring wives and husbands to them; but these men and women, claiming to be wise, became fools by venting their sexual frustrations on their fellow heterosexual men and women. This stream of thought goes on into Romans 2:7-8 as it says, “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but those who are self-seeking, and do not obey the truth, but unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” Let’s break these couple of verses down. First Paul says that they should be “patient” on God, then he says that they should seek to have “glory and honor” in all that they seek after; but then he rebukes those who are “self-seeking,” and those who do not obey “the truth,” which as we remember is righteousness by faith in God (Romans 1:17b). To end this interpretation of Romans 1 on homosexuality, we should note Paul’s second thesis after righteousness by faith, which is found in Romans 2:4. Romans 2:4 says, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” This basically is saying, although we aren’t patient with God, God continues to be patient with us so that we may seek to have a righteous faith in God for whatever he may be calling us to; either a loving monogamous heterosexual partner or a loving monogamous homosexual partner. All is to be done in faith for each person’s individual calling on a god who’s divine nature is love.”
        .
        Just to add a side-note, the context is idolatry, therefore all the sin in this passage is done not out of “love for God, and love for one’s neighbor,” but for love of objects (one’s sexual features and idols), and for ‘self-seeking’ and self-serving. Pride for one’s pleasure and status is what got Satan in trouble and is what is the sin that stems all other sins; but what about a naturally-orientation “eros” love for one’s neighbor cultivating into a “friendship covenant” which could be defined as marriage.
        .
        Yes God did institute marriage, but as the Pharisees made the law of sabbath perverted – sabbath was not made for man, but man for the sabbath – so the law of marriage should not be exclusive for heterosexuals. We should have the attitude that marriage was not made for man, but man for marriage. Let’s have marriage serve commitment for everyone, rather than force the sexual-anomalies away from this gift of God.

      • Paul says:

        Hi Joel, Welcome aboard!

        Thanks for the response. I enjoyed reading it. One thing I might say about your look at Romans 1 is that I’ve seen a couple of different ways people have tried to structurally and exegetically analyze the chapter to argue that Paul is saying something different than what he seems to have said on the surface. I’m leery of those arguments mostly because simpler is better, and it makes more sense to simply say Paul indeed thought homosexuality was unnatural and the result of idolatry, but that this was a dominant cultural assumption of his day, and we now know there are significant genetic components to homosexuality that disprove the premodern notion of it as unnatural or a choice. Since the Bible is not a science textbook, it shouldn’t surprise us when its authors turn out not to be 2,000 years ahead of the curve on genetics and biology – which means we should probably look to other principles upon which to base our ideas about homosexuality.

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