Gender Complementarity and Polygamy

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.


7 thoughts on “Gender Complementarity and Polygamy

  1. Jim, I completely agree that the “one flesh” idea does not entail the idea of gender complementarity. But I’m not yet convinced that in its original context it is obviously incompatible with polygamy. At least, that logic was not obvious in the context of Genesis, which doesn’t suggest any connection between the problems, say, of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel and some violation of the “one flesh” principle. I think that the moral logic by which Judaism and Christianity moved toward normative monogamy was more than just saying, “Whoops, we just noticed Genesis 2:24. Better reject polygamy.” On the other hand, I would argue that once the preference for monogamous marriage was established, the “one flesh” motif could take on new significance for the understanding of marriage. This may be analogous to the “Messianic” passsages of the Hebrew Scriptures, whose full Christological significance can only emerge retrospectively, “after the fact” of Jesus.

  2. Jim, thanks for taking the time to post this reflection. It raised a number of thoughts for me, but I thought I’d briefly hit on two:
    a) I don’t believe anyone who has a “traditional” read on Genesis 2 would want to deny the valid observations you make about the “kinship bond.” The question I posed was not intended to negate those observations, but to test whether the nature of that “kinship bond” (the moral “why” of Genesis 2) could be defined apart from the gender and number of the parties involved in it (the narrative/declarative “what” of Genesis 2). As I said in the question, my focus was not on establishing a “slippery slope” argument. It was on testing the explanatory limits of your understanding of the kinship bond. You have adopted a position that excludes one part of the “narrative what” (male-female) from the essence of the kinship bond. My question was meant to probe on what basis you could retain the other part of that “narrative what” (monogamy). I still think your decision to retain monogamy (“what”) as an essential feature in the kinship bond (“why”) seems arbitrary.

    b) I also wonder whether your explanations are sensitive to issues faced by the church outside a Western context. In recent years, I’ve developed friendships with several African pastors. Many of them come from families that include polygamous relationships. They have shared that this continues to be a live issue in their context. The concern shouldn’t be treated as irrelevant if we are seeking to partner with our brothers and sisters in other contexts. They too will be wrestling with these texts, approaching them with different questions. If your efforts to understand the underlying moral logic of the text can really be reduced to a “kinship bond” that does not view the genders of Adam and Eve as normative, then I think many who face different cultural concerns than we do might easily decide the monogamous aspect of the narrative is not normative either.

    In the end, though, the question was not as much a “slippery slope” assertion as it was an attempt to understand the logic behind including some things and not others in the “kinship bond” concept.

    • I’ve tried to make it clear that the “one flesh” kinship bond of marriage is not simply to be equated with any other kinship bond. In no other kinship bond, for example, does Scripture ever contemplate the birth of children. In scriptural terms, the marriage bond is the bond from which all other kinship ties flow. But I still remain unconvinced that it is gender complementarity that factors in, in any way, to the Bible’s discussion of polygamy. Show me the texts where you see this!

      And as for polygamy in other cultures is concerned, I agree that this is a pastoral issue that requires nuance, sensitivity, and healthy prioritization. But I’m not ready to abandon the bulk of the Christian tradition, or, what I think is the teaching of Jesus, on this one.

  3. I think it is helpful and important to remember that just because a relationship is described in scripture as normal does not mean it is to be considered normative. I found that a helpful distinction in your book, Dr. Brownson, and I think it is helpful in this context as well. Just because Jacob had more than one wife, and just because his offspring were part of God’s promise and covenant, does not mean that having more than one wife was ever intended to be normative. These relationships are described, not prescribed.

    I find it quite interesting how many of the polygamous marriage situations in Scripture are fraught with difficulty. The relationship between Leah and Rachel was hardly sterling, and Jacob was somewhat forced and tricked into polygamy. The woman he loved was held out like a carrot at the end of a stick. He worked for her, and desired her. I can’t say I blame him for not being content with Leah when his heart was after Rachel. Or, what about Esau? Not only were his wives foreign and a vexation to his parents, they were the mothers of a people group that was at odds with Israel. These were hardly esteemed marriages.

    As far as African polygamous societies go, I think we have to let the Bible meet them where they are. They are in polygamous situations. Those are their reality. We don’t come in with Bibles and make them divorce all their wives. I don’t think Paul would call for that either. But, the hope and prayer is that as these societies embrace the gospel, their children may enter into monogamous relationships.

  4. As a classicist there is no way to buy your argument that the ancients didn’t conceive of natural-born homosexuality. Here’s one such example from Plato’s Symposium, 191e-192b:

    “Each of us, then, is but a tally1 of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him. All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, whence likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses. All the women who are sections of the woman have no great fancy for men: they are inclined rather to women, and of this stock are the Lesbians. Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting to lie with them and to be clasped in men’s embraces; these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature. Some say they are shameless creatures, but falsely: for their behavior is due not to shamelessness but to daring, manliness, and virility, since they are quick to welcome their like. Sure evidence of this is the fact that on reaching maturity these alone prove in a public career to be men. So when they come to man’s estate they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children, but only do these things under stress of custom; they are quite contented to live together unwedded all their days. A man of this sort is at any rate born to be a lover of boys or the willing mate of a man, eagerly greeting his own kind.”

    • I don’t know exactly where you are getting this from my post; I assume that you are responding more directly to my book–probably page 155f. In that section, I tried to speak a bit more precisely than you suggest, arguing that we don’t have contemporary documents with Paul that argue for same-sex orientation. Certainly we see this in Plato–I would agree wholeheartedly. But there are no Jewish or Christian sources which take this perspective at all, and not even Greco-Roman sources–at least of which I am aware–from within a couple centuries of Paul But I’m particularly interested in Jewish and Christian sources, because that is the focus of my work. All the extant Jewish and Christian sources reject the whole notion of same-sex orientation, and regard same-sex behavior as expressive of excessive and unnatural lust that is not content with those of the opposite sex, but is driven to ever-more-exotic forms of stimulation. Given this, we must wrestle with the fact that such a characterization doesn’t seem to accurately describe many long-term committed same-sex relationships today.

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