Thursday, July 2, 2015

Note to Evangelicals: Polygamy IS the Most "Traditional" Form of Marriage

First, let me get this out of the way: I do not support polygamy. I’ll explain why later in the post.

One of the most puzzling arguments made by the right - particularly the religious right - when it comes to the issue of civil same-sex marriage, is the “slippery slope to polygamy.”

The irony here is a bit thick, considering that the most “traditional” form of marriage is in fact polygamy (polygyny, to be specific), it was recognized in most cultures throughout the history of human civilization, many of the heroes of our faith were polygynists, and those seeking recognition of polygynous marriages at this time are all ultra-fundamentalist religious groups.


It is the ultra-fundamentalist religious groups who are seeking recognition of polygyny. 

This is what polygyny looks like in modern America.
A view of women that leads to forced underage marriage.

But better to blame the gays, right?

This is puzzling on a number of levels, but I think it illustrates why even a number of Christians, like myself, find that the religious right to completely lack credibility on ethical issues right now. It seems as if they can’t even even grasp reality - historical and present - enough to have an actual discussion.

There are a few problems that I think contribute to this. First is that there is a lot of denialism about the facts of history. The parts that do not align with their view of reality are just ignored. You can see this in their blaming the Nazis on atheism, for example, while never mentioning the role Martin Luther played. You can also see it in the way that their discussion of polygamy ignores, well, the entire history of humanity.

The second problem is that, thanks to the poisonous influence of Cornelius Van Til and others, morality and ethics for the religious right are only possible by obedience to divine command. In other words, one cannot have a coherent system of ethics if one does not accept their interpretation of the Bible God’s commands. Thus, if one does not accept their view of sexuality on any one point, then the only alternative is “anything goes,” which, I’m sorry, is pretty ludicrous on its face. Is the only thing keeping them from raping, for example, the fact that they believe God forbids it? If they stopped believing in God, would they then go on a rampage? (On a related note, this is why the religious right can’t seem to get rape or domestic violence right. The idea of consent is dismissed out of hand, because it doesn’t fit the “divine command” theory of ethics.)

The third problem is related to the second, which is the tendency to see everything as a result of individual sins, with no acknowledgement of the way that cultural beliefs and economic structures influence individual - and collective - behavior. Thus, assuming polygamy is undesirable, it is a sin. Thus, people want to be polygamists, and would be, except for the divine command against it. And therefore, the only thing holding polygamy back is a belief in the divine command.

The fourth problem flows from the others: the only question to be asked about morals and ethics is whether God permits or prohibits it. Depending on how far down the Theonomy rabbit hole you go, this can get bizarre.

The conclusion, therefore, seems to be the following:
  1. God declared polygamy to be a sin
  2. Without that divine command, there is no reason to prohibit polygamy
  3. If you reject divine command in one area, then you have no basis for making rules or ethical decisions.
  4. Thus, because same-sex marriage is legal, there remains no reason to outlaw polygamy.

I might also add in a fifth conclusion that is at least implied: polygamy is the pinnacle of perversion. Because it sure seems to be the favorite bogeyman in this discussion. (My theory on why is below.)

In fact, when you look at it, each and every one of these conclusions are at best questionable, and in some cases, obviously wrong.

So, let me tackle this in a few parts.

  1. The history of polygamy

I would have thought this was obvious, but apparently historical ignorance is the rule these days, rather than the exception, or this whole discussion would have been laughed out of town by the religious right.

First, when we talk of “polygamy,” what we really mean (most of the time) is polygyny, or a man marrying and/or having sex with multiple women.

As far back as we have records, polygyny has been a part of human society. In fact, even in our “modern” times, a significant number of human societies still practice polygyny. A very few have or do practice polyandry, but this is uncommon. The pattern is polygyny - and that is not an accident. There are specific cultural beliefs, economic structures, and demographic realities that lead to polygyny.

Actually, one could go even further back. Using modern DNA analysis, it has been determined that 8000 or so years ago, only one male passed his genes on for every 17 females who did so.  I won’t recount the way the DNA analysis works, but it is highly fascinating. (You can read a bit about it in The Violinist’s Thumb, reviewed here.

This is pretty clearly the very definition of polygyny. A select group of males got to reproduce, and had multiple females.

(To the evolutionist, this is unsurprising, as our closest primate relatives also do this.)

The interesting part is that there is no corresponding evidence of mass die offs of males, so it seems that the reason for this is cultural - an implication which is important when we consider polygamy.

By the time of the Old Testament, polygyny was a common arrangement. Examination of the other Ancient Near East legal codes (Hammurabi is the best known) shows that the legal system provided both for multiple wives and for the taking of female slaves as concubines. The codes sought to protect the parties, and provide for an orderly management of these relationships. The Old Testament itself also provides for polygyny (but not polyandry), and regulates aspects of the relationships.

Furthermore, the Old Testament describes many cases of polygyny from hundreds of years before Moses to hundreds of years after. It was a regular part of the culture, not much commented on, and certainly not condemned in any unequivocal manner.

For example, Abraham had a number of named wives, plus at least one concubine. His grandson Jacob had two wives plus two concubines. Later, kings David and Solomon would have a number of wives and concubines.

Tellingly, in none of these cases was the man condemned for committing adultery for taking an additional wife or concubine. (The sole exception was David and Bathsheba - because she was already someone else’s wife. Thus, it was adultery. The prophet who confronted David even noted that he could have had any number of additional women.)

In any case, it takes a highly creative reading of the Old Testament to come to the conclusion that polygyny was viewed as a huge perversion. At worst, it was pragmatically tolerated. At best, one could argue it was treated as a perfectly acceptable social institution.

In any case, let me be clear, as one who has read the Bible multiple times:

There is no moment where God clearly forbids polygamy, thus causing the shift to single marriages.

(Again, I am opposed to polygamy - for reasons I will state later.)

By the time we get to the New Testament, however, society has changed. For the Romans, at least, one wife is all you get. Something shifted in society at that time, and it didn’t come about as a religious revelation. While the causes are not simple, it appears that there was an evolving belief that only one wife could produce legitimate offspring. This may have been driven in part by the shift away from a purely agrarian society, so inheritances would be diluted by too many legitimate heirs.

Now, don’t think for a minute that that meant that men were expected to be monogamous. The shift was in the societal recognition of relationships. As Demosthenes pithily put it in the 4th Century BCE:

We have mistresses for our enjoyment,
concubines to serve our person, and wives for
the bearing of legitimate offspring.

Actually, to put a fine point on it, the double standard is alive and well in “modern” times. It wasn’t even until about 150 years ago that a woman could divorce her husband for having sex with other women.  Only the man could do that. (Hey, just like in Old Testament times! Adultery in practical belief was only when a man messed with another man’s property wife.)

I also want to add that polygyny is alive and well in our modern, Western, world, but it isn’t in the form of polygynous marriage, but in either the form of concubinage (such as in the Antebellum South), or in serial marriage of ever-younger women by powerful men. (See Trump, Donald) Women as disposable status symbols and depreciating asset. Like a Lamborghini, but softer.

2. The moral treatment of polygyny in the Bible

I think it is vital to note the way the Old Testament treats polygyny when we discuss this issue. If in fact, the “one man, one woman” view of marriage is indeed a universal truth, and any departure therefrom is rank perversion and sin, and if polygamy is the horrific end result, shouldn’t it have been soundly condemned in unequivocal terms in the Old Testament?

This is particularly true if one believes the Bible was literally dictated word for word by God himself. If it mattered that much to God, and was a truth for all times and places, don’t you think He might have said so?

Instead, what we see is this: the institution is provided for in the law, and regulated in a way to (in the eyes of the writers) prevent injustice. It is accepted, although perhaps not specifically encouraged.

Thus, it appears to me that the best way to view polygyny from the viewpoint of the Bible is that it was tolerated, much like divorce. Perhaps neither is morally desirable, but they might, under the right circumstances, be acceptable, or better than the alternative. (Most Christians treat divorce this way. We don’t think it is necessarily good, but a divorce is better than staying in an abusive marriage, for example.) So, one might say that morally, in the society that existed, polygyny was viewed as better in some circumstances than the alternative. (I’ll discuss a few of those circumstances later.)

In any case, the claim that the sky is falling and polygamy is this horrid, awful perversion that will cause the end of life as we know it, seems a bit disingenuous on the part of the religious right. Because our own holy book seems remarkably cavalier about the whole thing. The Old Testament accepts the institution, assuming it to be the normal state of affairs.

And, unsurprisingly, we find that the writers of the New Testament write assuming the then-current societal arrangements. Just like the writers of the Old Testament did. (Saint Paul and Saint Peter quote - and remix - the three hierarchies of Aristotle’s household codes.)

3. Why polygyny?

So why did humans choose polygyny?

I think that the way we answer this question says something about us. It is the simplistic, unthoughtful response to just say that males want to have sex, the more women the better, because we are sinners.

True, males (and females) have an innate drive to reproduce, and sex is the means of that, but that doesn’t explain plural marriage, or why polygyny was the choice rather than promiscuity.

There are a number of factors which play into this, social and economic, which are generally recognized as being integral to the institution of plural marriage. Until we acknowledge these factors, and what they really mean, we cannot coherently discuss this.

First of all, a basic acknowledgement of the uncontroversial views of Darwin. Whether or not you believe in biological evolution, it is pretty indisputable that all living things have a drive to reproduce. To pass their genes on to another generation.

For many animals - particularly mammals - this drive manifests itself in gendered ways. A male can (theoretically) impregnate an infinite number of females, thus increasing the chance his genes will survive. A female, however, must gestate for a period, and then must nourish the young. She thus has a limited ability to reproduce (compared to a male), and a long period of vulnerability before and after giving birth. In addition, particularly in humans, a long period of investment in offspring is necessary for their survival.

Thus, a male has Darwinian incentive to impregnate as many females as he can - but also to try to ensure that the offspring will receive care. A female, on the other hand, has a Darwinian incentive to pick good genes for the child, but even more, to acquire as much help in raising the child as possible.

Since, in primate species, males are larger and stronger (and therefore can control women and lesser males by force), the strongest male gets the females. And he has incentive to control them, so that he doesn’t end up wasting his time raising another male’s offspring.

Turning to culture, it shouldn’t even be debatable that in the Ancient Near East (and many other cultures), women were considered property. Throughout the Mosaic Law (and the other ANE legal codes), women are treated as property for the most part, with a few counterexamples allowing self determination in a few instances. But never in opposition to their fathers or their husbands.

It is not by accident that the 10th Commandment places a wife between the house and the slaves.

"You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Exodus 20:17, NASB)

Likewise, King Solomon is said to have accumulated vast wealth: horses, chariots, houses...and wives and concubines.

I believe, thus, that a key factor in polygyny is the reality in a particular culture that women are property - and a source of wealth.

How might this be? Well, in the case of agrarian cultures, a wife - and the children that result - mean more labor and more ability to control and use abundant land. More sons mean more economic and military power. And, because of the close social unit, more loyalty than with an illegitimate child.

One could look, in fact, at the entire “patriarchal” unit as an economic one. The patriarch, his wives, concubines, sons, and slaves. It all belonged to him, and, in that economic system, meant power, wealth, and status. (This is why polygyny appears to be associated with slavery wherever it is found.)

A second factor for this is that the social, economic, and political power be in the hands of males. Again, this should be indisputable for anyone who is a student of history. In a world where a woman is utterly dependent on her connections to males for her sustenance, she must marry or risk starvation. In such a world, her children must also be attached to a male or they too will starve.

And that leads us to the third factor. Polygyny depends on an unequal distribution of wealth. If all males had a (roughly) equal ability to support a wife (and her offspring), then each would want his own. For polygyny to survive, some males must dominate the resources and power - and women - while the others would be relegated to subordinate status. This was clearly the case 8000 years ago. A few got to reproduce, while the others did not.

The fourth factor is that there be no social safety net for women. In the ANE culture, a woman might well outlive her husband. Who would provide for her then? Well, if she didn’t have a son, then she would be thrown on the mercy of other family members. It is in this context that one must understand the stories of Elijah and the widow’s son and of Hannah and Samuel. The desperation isn’t just because of a desire to have children (or grief at losing one). There was a legitimate terror that the woman would be left to starve. Thus, a woman must marry if possible, and have sons if possible, so that she would be supported in old age.

An interesting corollary to this is that it might indeed have been the compassionate thing to do to marry a widow as a plural wife. (And in fact, some historians have commented on this as a likely benefit of polygyny.)

The fifth factor is an uneven distribution of males and females. A moving passage in Isaiah is this:

For seven women will take hold of one man in that day, saying, "We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach!" (Isaiah 4:1, NASB)

The context is one in which the majority of males have been slaughtered in war, leaving far too few of them to marry the women. In such a case, polygyny would not only be expected, it would arguably be the compassionate thing to do. In viewing this as a factor, I believe we can also explain some modern instances of polygyny. (Such as the early Mormons. See below.)

I believe it is vital to understand these factors, and to be honest that polygyny isn’t primarily driven by the individual sin of the persons engaging in it, but by the warped cultural beliefs and economic institutions that make it the lesser of evils.

Based on these factors, we should be able to predict what sorts of societies and groups will engage in polygyny.

Guess What? We Can!

If you see a society or group where men are considered superior and are given the majority social, economic, and political power; where women are viewed as property or as primarily designed for serving men and bearing children (which is much the same thing); where the alpha males have greater power and/or wealth than the lower status males; and where women have few if any options for survival outside of marriage; and where women and children increase wealth rather than expense; you will find that they tend to engage in polygynous marriages.

And it isn’t just in ancient history, either.

In our own American history, we have the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). I believe they are an interesting case study, particularly if you look at the historical development of the religion, rather than its modern (and more mainstream) incarnation.

Mormonism wasn’t founded (as many Evangelicals appear to believe) primarily as a “new revelation” of truth, but as a “return” to the old truth that had been lost. It was a return to the “right” ways of doing things, before the corruption of the modern world. In that sense - and in others - it was a “fundamentalist” movement. (See here for my thoughts on “cultural” fundamentalism.)  And, a good part of that “return to the golden past” was a recapturing of the old school gender roles and institutions. Hence the “lost tribes of Israel” and all that.

If you then add the fact that Mormonism initially attracted more women than men, and you can easily see how polygyny would naturally become a part of the system. Since marriage and childbearing was the single important goal for a Mormon woman, and there were too few men, polygyny was inevitable.

Likewise, it isn’t an accident that the current modern polygynist society in the United States is the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, a splinter group from mainstream Mormonism.

Look at the basics of their belief system and society: an agrarian system much like the Amish, a belief in the subordination of women to men, the emphasis on childbearing, and a withdrawal from the secular safety net. Does any of this sound familiar? Oh, and guess what else we also see? The powerful old men taking on the young girls, some of them well under the age of 18. Who saw that coming?

Oh, and one more. On the fringe of the Christian Patriarchy movement, there is a group which has been soliciting Patriarchist families seeking to find matches for their aging daughters. (Tip of the hat to my blogger friend thatmom for this one. 

It’s also not an accident that these groups idolize the Antebellum South, which was America’s own polygynist society, barely 150 years ago.

The Real Problem With Polygyny

There are plenty of reasons to oppose polygyny, but I believe the strongest isn’t some idea of Divine Command.

Rather, it is an acknowledgement that polygyny is inseparable from certain harmful social structures and sexist cultural beliefs. And also that polygyny will inevitably cause certain social problems.

I already noted that the five factors tend to combine to produce an environment where polygyny will be present. The first four, in particular, can - and should - be actively fought against in our society.

First, I would like to think that the idea that women are property to be used and controlled by men has been rejected generally within our society.

There are, clearly, some exceptions. The Christian Patriarchy movement is currently undergoing a very public meltdown, and its teachings are being exposed. This is a good thing. It is my hope that greater Evangelicalism will recognize the poison of these teachings and reject them.

However, what is ironic is that those most loudly fear-mongering about polygamy are the same people who are most likely to agitate for gender hierarchy.

Second, feminism has done some astoundingly good work in the Western world. Despite being another bogeyman of the religious right, feminism has fought for the social, political, and economic equality of women. (Seriously, look up the definition of the word.) These days, women like my wife can vote, earn her own income for the work she does, and (in many circles) be taken as seriously as I am. Full equality isn’t here yet, but we are miles away from where we were even 100 years ago.

Because of this, women do not “need” to be attached to a man. They can earn their own living, pay their own bills, and function in society without being married. This doesn’t mean that most won’t marry (they will) or that they don’t wish to marry (most do), or that marriage doesn’t benefit the spouses (it does). Rather, it means that women are not economically compelled to marry. The equation of power has shifted dramatically. And thus, powerful men do not dictate the terms of marriages to powerless women.

Because men can no longer control the labor and earnings of women, there is also less incentive to “collect” women as a source of wealth. Having a second wife is more of a luxury than a benefit for most men.

Note again, however, that those fear-mongering about polygamy are the same people who oppose feminism and advocate for a return to a world where men are socially, politically, and economically dominant.

Third, the “modern” world has shown a concern for economic inequality. This factor is one reason why I believe that the most pressing threat to monogamy in marriage isn’t same-sex marriage, but rather growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and an increasing gap between the middle class and the poor. Both factors tend to lead to the lower classes being unable to afford marriage (this could be a whole topic) - which we are seeing even now - and a temptation of the upper classes to collect women.

Once again, however, look at which people are most vocally opposed to attempts to balance inequality.

Fourth, because the Western world does in fact provide for the care of the elderly, even if they do not have children, it is not as vital for women to birth children as a retirement plan. Instead, we recognize the contributions during the working ages and provide for the elderly.

And again, look at which voices wish to abolish the safety net. To be fair, this isn’t the mainstream of either the right or Evangelicalism, but it is the fringe groups on the libertarian side - and also the Patriarchists.

The fifth factor is also somewhat preventable. The less we slaughter the male population in war, the less pressure there will be to match up the remaining women.

The irony in this is that those voices that are most worried about the return of polygyny seem to be blissfully unaware of the social structures that supported the institution - and resist the cultural changes that led would prevent its return.

Why I Am Opposed To Polygamy

First, as I noted above, I am opposed to any institution that is based on a hierarchy of men over women. Both history and modern experience indicate that polygyny requires a fundamental inequality of power to maintain its structure. So I would oppose it on those grounds alone.

However, I believe it is also easy to see why polygamy would lead to troubling social consequences. And I have found that most of those I know who support same-sex marriage agree with me on that.

First, I assume that it would generally take the form of polygyny. I suppose it is possible, that polygyny and polyandry could be equally common in theory, but it seems unlikely given the history of human civilization. This is particularly so in light of the fact that gender hierarchy seems to drive it. So, I will assume that we are really talking about polygyny. (As in, the FLDS takes over…)

What you see in this scenario is this:

A few of the most wealthy and powerful men take many of the women.

The men in the middle each get a wife - but presumably they will have slimmer pickings.

The men at the bottom don’t get to marry or mate.

It is easy to see a problem here. What do you do with all the men at the bottom? Well, various things have been done. Castrate and/or enslave them. Redirect their libido into warfare. This one is pretty common. And think about it: the soldier can then better himself, right? He gets the opportunity to plunder (economic advantage) and rape (nookie). Or, perhaps more “benignly,” he gets to kill a man somewhere else and take the woman that man would marry. Or, he may be killed himself, thus freeing “his” woman so that the man at the top can have a 15th wife.

You can see that this just leads to a real social pressure toward bloodshed. Not good.

Doesn’t single marriage (monogamy) look better all the time?

And guess what? This doesn’t require a belief in Divine Command. Western societies came to this conclusion, more or less, well before the Christian era.

So, I believe Polygamy is wrong. But not because I believe God forbids it. I believe it is wrong because it is selfish.

If anything, it is the pinnacle of animalistic Darwinian ethics. Survival and reproduction of the fittest. If you can grab it, mate with it.

I also will point out that it is also a very materialistic/capitalistic view of marriage. And this is another area in which I find it painful to listen to the religious right. In the last generation, the tilt toward Libertarianism has brought with it a worship of the ideas of Ayn Rand (who seems to me to have been opposed to any truly Christian ethic). It comes out in how we talk about the poor, who we really don’t think should be allowed to reproduce. (I wince every time I hear “jokes” about spaying and neutering them.) Just saying.

So, in conclusion, it should be obvious that the call for polygamy is NOT coming from the proponents of same-sex marriage. Rather, it is coming from ultra-fundamentalist religious groups whose views of women, men, and society resemble those held when polygyny was the status quo.

Because the most “traditional” form of marriage is in fact polygyny.

And the way to prevent polygamy isn’t to blame the gays. It’s to fight against the poisonous cultural views of gender and the oppressive economic structures that made polygyny a viable institution in the first place.

Why is Polygamy the Bogeyman?

My theory is that it originated with the longstanding wars between “Christian” Europe and Islam. Polygyny became associated with Islam - the enemy - and thus with a lack of civilization.

And then, during the era of colonialism, polygyny again became associated with the “barbaric” other, in contrast to the “good” Europeans.

Mind you, the evidence isn’t that the Europeans actually were monogamous. Rather, they seem to have slept with anyone they could coerce. But since it wasn’t marriage, it didn’t count as polygyny, right?

Note on the Antebellum South:

I think this bears mentioning at this time, with the KKK demonstrating in the South, African American churches being torched, and all kinds of people (again, predominantly on the right) defending an emblem of White Supremacy.

The Antebellum South was a polygynist society.

As I noted above, polygynist societies are not purely polygynist. Rather, there are three strata to society. The powerful men at the top have multiple women. The men in the middle are monogamous. The men at the bottom get nothing.

It is pretty easy to see how this played out in the South.

Plural marriage may not have existed, but concubinage sure did. Despite the denialism of those believing the “Lost Cause” myth, masters raping having sex with their slaves was the rule, rather than the exception. Genetic research has shown universal presence of “white” genes in African Americans of slave descent. This shouldn’t even be debatable by this time.

It is also entirely predictable, given the culture and economic structure. The most wealthy and powerful men (slave owners) added concubines to their legitimate spouses.

Let’s look for the factors: A patriarchal society? Yep. Ownership of women? For slaves, yep. An unequal distribution of wealth? Yes. The gap between slave and master was huge. No other options for slave women? Indeed not.

About all you don’t have is a numerical gender imbalance. But think about it: there were lots of slave males who couldn’t marry, right? So, they had to be kept in line by fear and violence.

And, guess what else you see?

You see a terror of Black male sexuality that persists to this day.

Who saw that one coming?

So, whenever you hear about the Confederate Battle Flag standing for “Southern Heritage,” remember that it stood for slavery and white supremacy.

But remember too that the “heritage” that is so beloved was in fact a polygynous society too.

Patriarchy’s Polygyny Problem:

It isn’t hard to see in the recent scandals involving Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips a little bit of polygyny in action. Actually, you can kind of see it in the Duggar mess too.

Let’s look at it.

Gothard sexually harassed and/or assaulted dozens of women over the last several decades. (More than 60 have come forward.) The factors are there: a cultic system in which “authority” was the key teaching. Including a belief that all men ruled all women. A man with wealth and power - including an incredible amount of spiritual power over his followers. Lots of available females with no other options, given college and career were forbidden. Either they married or worked for Gothard. Yep, seems like the factors fit.

Phillips sexually assaulted a young woman who worked in a domestic capacity in his household. I might also add that she was a woman of color. Factors: similar teachings on authority and gender to Gothard. (If anything, even MORE extreme.) A man with tremendous comparative wealth and power. (Her family was poor.) No other viable options at the time for her. And doesn’t it seem (if you’ve read the facts) that he viewed her as his concubine? Sure does to me.

And even the aftermath of the Duggar molestations. The double standard is there in spades. Josh disclosed that he had a sexual past. (Whether he was honest about exactly what he did isn’t clear.) However, his offense wasn’t really treated as an issue. It didn’t prevent his marriage or future career - until what he did became known outside the Patriarchy bubble.

Look, I’ve spent enough time in that culture. If a girl had to “confess” that she had a sexual past - even just making out with a previous boyfriend - she would have been considered damaged good. Heck, even the victims are probably viewed as somehow tainted. But not the man. Because, just like in polygyny, the point is that a man can spread his semen wherever, but the woman must remain pure. (Again, think about it from the Darwinistic point of view, and it makes sense. But we Christians or even decent moral humans shouldn’t be analyzing ethics as if males were mere animals, right?)

Theonomy and Polygyny:

For many of us Christians, the fact that the Old Testament condones polygyny isn’t really a big deal.

However, for the theonomist, it presents a huge problem. If the sole basis for ethics and morality is divine command, as determined through increasingly detailed study of our ancient holy book, then we have a problem.

I have seen it resolved a few ways. One is to say that the Old Testament just doesn’t apply to us. (Okay, except the things we want to apply to others…) But then you end up picking and choosing. And you also have the question of why something we consider so vital to the faith as monogamous marriage wasn’t that important to God in the past. It also raises the uncomfortable question of how why God “changed His mind” about polygyny - and in a way that reflected the culture - but the Greco-Roman cultural views of marriage remain God’s will.

Another way is what I view as the ultimate destination of Theonomy: the acceptance of polygyny as the will of God. From a purely textual point of view, this is completely defensible. Although only a few fringe groups come out and say so. If the perfect civil law is the Mosaic Law, then polygyny is fine.

The third way is the non-Theonomic way. It is an acknowledgement that God has always met us where we were in our culture. The Old Testament naturally reflects the culture and institutions of its time. Polygyny, patriarchy, slavery, genocide, and all. God met us, and gave a little push in the right direction.

And likewise, the New Testament met us where we were, with the patriarchal view of marriage and the polis, slavery, totalitarian tyranny, and all the rest of it. And we got a nudge in the right direction, away from exploitive relationships, and toward a love-based view of sexuality.

The discomfort for the Theonomist crowd with this view is that it leaves open the possibility that the New Testament was not the end-all of ethics either, and that perhaps there is room for new understandings of the world, slavery, economics, gender, and sexuality; new cultural institutions; and a need to look beyond an ever-more-detailed parsing of the language of the Bible to distinguish between right and wrong. After all, the writers of the Old Testament thought they had it all right. And so did the writers of the New. Even on slavery.

At this point, let me quote from the outstanding book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, on how the issue of slavery was not resolved by better theology:

The evangelical Protestant churches had a problem because the mere fact of trusting implicitly in the Bible was not solving disagreements about what the Bible taught concerning slavery. The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.

And now, just like then for the defenders of slavery, these issues won’t be decided by a more detailed study of the Bible, and they won’t be won by whoever can thump their Bibles the loudest. And that is a good thing.  


  1. While I agree with you about the history and associations of polygamy, the people who point out that the same arguments will be used by polygamists as were used for same-sex marriage are not wrong either. People coopt whatever arguments they can, especially in law. It doesn't matter where they came from. (Heck, I do it myself.)

    And I doubt your philosophical musings about the long-term value of an equitable society (which I also agree with, for the most part) will stand against the current overarching value of Everybody's Sex Life Is Equally Valuable. Few people today are capable of that level of nuance and long-term thinking.

    Anyway, polyamory is legally indistinguishable from polygamy, and polyamory *is* a very sexual-revolution lifestyle. When the far left and far right can join forces, the unconvicted middle is not going to put up a resistance.

    I'm reminded of two G. K. Chesterton quotes. One is that Christian morality has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. The other is that a philistine is only a person who is right for the wrong reasons. The Christian right has been scared and lashing out without nuance or understanding while trapped in the same maelstrom of social change and falling prey to their own failures. But their gut feeling that monogamy is of great importance to society will in the end turn out to have been correct.

    1. Of course people will co-opt the argument. That isn't a surprise. But that doesn't make it fair to blame polygamy on the sexual revolution either. The forces driving that actually do tend to run counter to the idea of free love, so to speak.

      The other thing I would note is that there doesn't seem to be much of a groundswell of demand for *legal* recognition of polyamorous relationships. If anything, that community would prefer not to have the entanglements of commitment.

      You are right that the religious right is scared and lashing out. They really have no idea about how to act when they are not culturally dominant, and are not doing a good job of adapting to a world where Divine Command isn't a trump card.

      But I do think that their fears that monogamy will disappear is a bit overblown. Interestingly, both the average and the median number of sexual partners has dropped a good bit in the last two generations, while age of first intercourse has risen. It's a whole post by itself, but what has changed is that people are not getting married - particularly the poor. But it's much more satisfying to moralize about how people are having too much sex than to actually look at the sociological factors leading to a decline in marriage.

    2. Just a thought on your last paragraph I recently pointed out to my dad that his generation was arguably the most promiscuous in American history. He thought about it for a minute and then admitted that in his experience the statistics were true. I heard decidedly less grumbling about the moral decline of the current generation after that. Write an article about all that I would love to hear you take on it.

    3. It does seem a bit rich all the endless articles on how the Millennials are so awful...

  2. Excellent analysis and synthesis! However, re slavery, I would ask whether it was in fact that much worse than the unbridled capitalism in the North at that time: laborers having to live in company towns, paid not in cash but in scrip that could only be redeemed at the company store; and if the workers dared to organize, they could be sure of facing police or National Guard troops. (Think the Ludlow massacre in Colorado.) This system seems to have broken up marriages at a staggering rate; think of men having to go where the work was, leaving wives and children behind, or taking them into conditions little better than slavery. And of course, the men who owned the companies could have stable marriages, mistresses, prostitutes; while the laborers were lucky if they could marry at all. Yes, things have gotten better since then, but only at the cost of extreme risk and dedication by folks willing to stand up to the established order.

    1. An interesting question about exploitation in general. Mark Noll also discusses it in The Civil War As A Theological Crisis. Part of the problem arising out of the fact that theology did not solve slavery is that it then lost credibility in the important questions of the industrial revolution, unionization, and so on. Again, the pattern of top-heavy polygyny seems to exist wherever there is inequality and oppression. It is a lesson that I think we need to take to heart now, and it is discouraging to see so many on the right fail to see the historical parallels and throw their lot in with the robber barons once again.

  3. To play devil's advocate for a moment, I can see why they focus on divine command in view of things like complete moral relativism, where morals/ethics come ONLY from society and nothing can really be said to be absolutely right or wrong in the final analysis. I've always found this view puzzling myself, because in my experience people who say they believe it, almost immediately demonstrate that they really don't (i.e., at the beginning of the post they claim they don't believe in absolute morality, by the end they are on a flaming tirade about how misogyny and racism were wrong even back when they were the societal norm).

    That being said, though, the traditional theistic view of God as divine Lawgiver and source of morality, etc. (which obviously predates Van Til and theonomy by millennia), allows for ethical reasoning based on factors other than "God says so." It also doesn't mean that all atheists, materialists, etc. are unable to act ethically and will automatically become the worst people possible. And in any case, as you pointed out, even if we WERE working just from "God says so," there's no place in the Bible where He spells out "polygamy is wrong." You could reasonably claim that monogamy is held up as ideal and made a qualification for leadership in the Pastorals, but all that gets you is polygamists can't be elders and deacons. In theory that still allows a polygamist to be a lay member and not technically be violating anything. Which could actually be a critical distinction in certain mission fields, even today.

    1. I think you are correct that most people *in practice* don't believe in absolute relativism, which does (in the classic argument) imply a lawgiver. I think, though, that the acknowledgement of a Divine source isn't the same thing as a Theonomic approach to scripture and a "divine command" approach to ethics.

      In fact, the more that I read the words of Christ, the more struck I am by the fact that his teachings are a direct refutation of the Theonomic approach and a refocusing on issues of the heart, relationships, and the law of love. It's an approach to ethics that infuriated the religious leaders of the day, and got Him accused of being a libertine and worse.

  4. Yeah, theonomists seem to take an approach closer to "God says so, so shut up and don't ask why." It's weird because I remember from my childhood, people talking about Leviticus and attempting to find reasons some of the rules made sense beyond "God said so" - things like bacteria in undercooked pork, vultures being carrion birds and probably not the healthiest to eat, mold reaching a point where it's better to just tear down your house, etc. That's not to say they were always GOOD reasons, but they were at least talking about reasons. Now in the current climate they seem to have reversed their stance and are just shouting "God says so" over and over again, even in face of things like there being no evidence that children raised by gay couples are worse off, etc.

    Not to mention they're also making a number of unstated assumptions about the relation of earthly governments to divine law, which also seem to be derived from theonomy, and America's relation to God in particular. But maybe that's just on my mind because it's 4th of July and the infamous SCOTUS-decision-that-shall-not-be-named came down only last week.

    1. Yes, it does seem like things have deteriorated to loud Bible thumping.

      I too remember more of the offering reasons for things when I was a kid. And if you think about it, many of the rules may very well have made sense in that time and place. It is indeed better to bury one's poop outside the camp when one is on a 40 year backpacking trip. But that doesn't mean that it is a better idea for, say, Los Angeles to do the same thing, rather than use modern waste processing technology.

      I also very much agree that the Theonomists have so influenced American Christianity that they can no longer distinguish the roles of moral law and governmental law.

      I can't find where I read it now, but I saw something over the Independence Day weekend that 60% of Evangelicals over the age of 50 think that God has a special relationship with the United States. Whaaaat?

      And therein lies the problem. The belief that the US is God's special convenantal people, the New Israel. That's a big, big theological problem. We cannot and must not mistake the USA for the Kingdom of God.

  5. Thank you for once again for putting into words the thoughts I had running around in my head. I happen to know of a friend of a friend who grew up in homeschool patriarchy and is in a polygamist marriage. This isn't some internet rumor it is actually happening.

    1. I'm not at all surprised. To some degree, it was inevitable. As it is, for years, people like Matthew Chapman have been advocating that young girls (15-16 years old) marry much older men. Add in the hostility to college and the endless theological requirements for a suitor, and pretty soon you have too few "eligible" men. So the old guys get to step up and keep the baby train going so we can have the army to establish the theocracy...