I spoke with a group last night about my book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, and got a rather long and complicated question toward the end of the Q&A session. There was one piece of the question that I didn’t respond to at the time, but I ended up pondering that issue a bit as I woke up this morning, so I thought I would take this chance to offer some thoughts.
The question came from someone clearly worried about one of my book’s conclusions—in particular, my claim in the book that Scripture does not teach a divinely intended and normative gender complementarity. He fears that this conclusion of mine will lead to other unhappy social consequences. In this case, the “slippery slope” might lead, according to this questioner, to a call for society to approve all sorts of polygamous arrangements: not just one man and multiple wives, but perhaps even a free-for-all with multiple participants of a variety of genders and/or sexual orientations. Without a doctrine of divinely intended gender complementarity, isn’t this fall into polygamy an inevitable consequence, or at least an unavoidable and dangerous possibility?
Answering this question is complicated, of course, by the fact that Scripture itself contains multiple examples of polygamous marriages, including many of the great heroes and leaders of Israel in the Old Testament: Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc. This fact underscores one of the other central theses of my book, that we have to explore the “moral logic” underlying the biblical witness—why the text says what it does, and what is the larger witness of Scripture as a whole—before simply quoting individual texts as the “last word.”
In the case of polygamy, the church has clearly taught that this is an issue where divine revelation unfolded and became clearer over time. Scripture itself devotes considerable attention to the problems created by polygamous relationships in the Old Testament. But the heart of the reason why almost all Christians reject the practice of polygamy stems from the words of Jesus found in Mark 10 (cf. also the parallel text in Matthew 19). Here Jesus cites Genesis 2:24 “the two shall become one flesh” as the ground for forbidding a man to divorce his wife and to marry another. (Matthew 19:9, of course, allows for an exception to this prohibition in the case of sexual immorality, but that’s another topic for another day.) So the conclusion is fairly clear: if it is a violation of “the two shall become one flesh” for a man to divorce one wife and to marry another, how much more of a violation would it be for a man to marry another without divorcing the first wife? Jesus’ words seem clearly to assume monogamy as a divinely intended norm.
But Jesus’ teaching is based, not on a notion of gender complementarity, but rather on the kinship obligations implicit in the words “the two shall become one flesh.” It is not because male and female exist in some normative sort of complementary relationship that divorce is forbidden, but rather that sexual union creates a “one flesh” kinship bond established by God, which must not be set aside merely by human will. Divorce is not the negation of complementarity; it is the negation of kinship obligations. The “one flesh” kinship obligation established by marriage is clearly assumed by Jesus to be an exclusive, monogamous relationship.
Of course, this text also speaks of the marriage of “male and female,” which raises questions about whether marriage laws should be extended to gay and lesbian partners. But that is another topic for another day, and I don’t speak directly to those legal issues in my book. But my point here is a simple one: The moral logic used by Jesus in forbidding divorce (and therefore forbidding polygamy of any sort) is not based on a notion of gender complementarity, but rather on the exclusivity of the “one flesh” kinship bond. Hence the question of gender complementarity is not the moral logic underlying most Christians’ objection to polygamy. That concern lies elsewhere, with the link between the “one flesh” marriage bond and exclusive kinship obligations.
So there may be some grounds by which some people want to call into question my thesis that Scripture does not teach a normative gender complementarity, but I don’t think that the “slippery slope” argument, that this will open the way to polygamy, should be a relevant worry.