Of Polygamy and Chastity: A Response to the Gospel Coalition (Part I)

Last week, Kevin DeYoung over at the Gospel Coalition wrote “Five Questions for Christians who Believe that the Bible Supports Gay marriage.” I found his questions relevant, as they are probably questions that the wider Christian culture is asking, so I thought I would oblige and give my answers.

Before I do, though, let me clarify my credentials: I am a yoga teacher finishing up a degree in classical vocal performance (read: I am not a pastor, scholar, or theologian, and I have no formal education in theology.) These answers do not come from any formal credentials, but instead from my life as a gay man struggling to understand his faith. I am in process, still struggling to form my beliefs and navigate my theological world. As such, my responses are more a conversation and less an answer.

Question # 1: On What Basis do you insist that marriage must be monogamous?

DeYoung goes on to ask,

Presumably, you do not see any normative significance in God creating the first human pair male and female (Gen. 2:23-25; Matt. 19:4-6). Paul’s language about each man having his own wife and each woman her own husband cannot be taken too literally without falling back into the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage (1 Cor. 7:2). The two coming together as one so they might produce godly offspring doesn’t work with gay marriage either (Mal. 2:15). So why monogamy? Jesus never spoke explicitly against polygamy. The New Testament writers only knew of exploitative polygamy, the kind tied to conquest, greed, and subjugation. If they had known of voluntary, committed, loving polyamorous relationships, who’s to think they wouldn’t have approved?

These aren’t merely rhetorical questions. The issue is legitimate: if 3 or 13 or 30 people really love each other, why shouldn’t they have a right to be married? And for that matter, why not a brother and a sister, or two sisters, or a mother and son, or father and son, or any other combination of two or more persons who love each other. Once we’ve accepted the logic that for love to be validated it must be expressed sexually and that those engaged in consensual sexual activity cannot be denied the “right” of marriage, we have opened a Pandora’s box of marital permutations that cannot be shut.

I sympathize with this question, and it was one that caused me some discomfort when I held the traditional view. If I’m honest, I am still sorting out this question, and I think that I am not alone in my theological questioning (not to mention the fact that I am trying to square my conviction that monogamy is ideal with the fact that polygamy is practiced and never condemned in Scripture.) I think the modern church is only just now beginning to ask this question, so whatever theological answers we have at present will be incomplete.

While I may not be able to give a totally clear answer on this question, I can perhaps offer a few observations.

First, dismissing something because of what it might lead to is a logical fallacy. If something is right or wrong, determine that to be so based upon its own merits, not upon what may (or may not) happen afterward. A slippery slope fallacy means that we don’t ultimately judge the morality of the thing in question (homosexuality), leading us to judge the morality of the bigger, scarier thing down the “slope” (polygamy.) The end result is that we have not truly engaged with the deeper questions raised by homosexuality – we were too busy asking questions about incest, polygamy, a “pandora’s box of marital permutations” – the things that frighten us. While I believe that homosexuality, polygamy and incest are tied together by the common theme of human relationship and sexuality, I also believe that they are ultimately different scenarios with different implications for people’s lives. Tying them to each other in a slippery slope ultimately muddies the issue, and has inhibited the Church’s ability to look clearly at the issue of homosexuality itself.

When we ask people to abstain from polygamy, we are not asking them to forego a marital one-flesh bond for the rest of their lives. When we ask someone to forego incest, we are not also asking them to give up marriage entirely. But that is precisely what we are asking of most gay people when we tell them that they must never experience a same sex love.

This is a subtle but monumental difference. Mandatory gay celibacy takes the question of homosexuality out of the realm of preference and into the much more fundamental, elemental territory of the human need for kinship, partnership, one-flesh union, and family. To say that a man cannot marry one woman because she is his sister is not the same as declaring that he may not marry any woman at all. Sexual union and family are available to people even after we have forbidden polygamy and incest. It is not available to most gay people for a myriad of complex reasons after we have forbidden same sex relationships. This distinction requires us to ask a different set of theological questions about the implications in people’s lives. Conflating the acceptance of polygamy or incest with the acceptance of homosexuality is misguided, then, because they are completely separate pastoral issues with very different implications for the lives of individuals.

As I have said numerous times throughout this blog, I believe that a celibacy mandate for all gay people is absolutely deadly, and is an urgent pastoral issue. I believe that forbidding people from making meaningful, monogamous, family units together creates a culture of disease, abuse and promiscuity because sexuality is such a ferocious force of nature that when it is practiced outside of marriage-like bonds it destroys us. I believe that this is precisely what has happened in the gay community. When we prohibit a significant percentage of the human race from marriage, the entire population suffers. Prohibiting polygamy or incest does not have such dire pastoral implications.

Several months ago I asked James Brownson (author of Bible, Gender, Sexuality) about polygamy, incest and pedophilia in relation to homosexuality. I would encourage everyone to read the full interview (and to read his book), but here are his thoughts about polygamy:

Polygamy enters the argument in a somewhat different way.  Among the many possible forms of this argument, let’s explore this one:  If marriage is not exclusively between a man and a woman, but can exist between any two people who desire to be together, what is to prohibit polyamorous relationships, say, between two men and three women?  If they all want it, and accept the implications of the commitment, who is to say no?  At the root of this complaint is the worry that the approval of same-sex relationships represents a capitulation in our culture to the idolization of personal preference, and the loss of any objective standards against which those preferences are to be measured.  I’m somewhat sympathetic to this concern, but I think it needs to be expressed more clearly.  I don’t think that the church should consider accepting same-sex relationships simply because “people should be able to do what they want, as long as everyone agrees and no one is harmed.”  Rather, the question is whether for gay and lesbian people, as for straight people, erotic love can be drawn into sacrificial relationships of devoted love and concern for the other that reflect divine love.  If these same dynamics can work in same-sex relationships, then these relationships can be sanctified and drawn into divine love.  I’m not convinced that polyamorous relationships can reflect divine love in quite the same way, though that, of course, is a rather long discussion in its own right!

Question # 2:  Will you maintain the same biblical sexual ethic in the church now that you think the church should solemnize gay marriages?

The short answer is that yes, I will.

Deyoung further asks:

After assailing the conservative church for ignoring the issue of divorce, will you exercise church discipline when gay marriages fall apart? Will you preach abstinence before marriage for all single persons, no matter their orientation? If nothing has really changed except that you now understand the Bible to be approving of same-sex intercourse in committed lifelong relationships,we should expect loud voices in the near future denouncing the infidelity rampant in homosexual relationships. Surely, those who support gay marriage out of “evangelical” principles, will be quick to find fault with the notion that the male-male marriages most likely to survive are those with a flexible understanding that other partners may come and go. According to one study researched and written by two homosexual authors, of 156 homosexual couples studied, only seven had maintained sexual fidelity, and of the hundred that had been together for more than five years, none had remained faithful (cited by Satinover, 55). In the rush to support committed, lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships, it’s worth asking whether those supporters–especially the Christians among them–will, in fact, insist on a lifelong, monogamous commitment.

Really, my morals have not shifted much since becoming affirming. I still believe that we are all – gay, straight, married, single and celibate – called to practice chastity. I believe that chastity means abstinence before marriage, and fidelity in marriage. That is what I strive to practice, and that is what I preach to others. It’s been difficult for me and a refining cross to carry, as I’ve struggled to integrate my faith and sexuality, but it is a cross for everyone.

Just because I believe God may bless gay marriage does not mean I believe sexuality is suddenly meaningless, or without power. Affirming gay marriage does not strip sex of its gravitas. Chastity is necessary precisely because sexuality is significant and can make or break lives. In my experience, many gay people experience such promiscuity because we have been told that our sexuality is meaningless, broken, and can never be a channel of grace. Why, then, should we be careful in the use of our bodies? There is a deep, unverbalized, intuitive question in many gay people I have met: if I cannot be sexually united to another in a pure, sanctified way, then what is the meaning of my sexuality? How can any expression of my sexuality be good, even celibacy, since healthy celibacy requires a healthy relationship with one’s sexuality?

In my own journey, I struggle deeply to integrate a sexual ethic into my life that makes sense and is not rooted in fear. As a gay Christian, I have received little from the church beyond, “don’t be sexual”, “be straight, or at the very least act straight,” and “be very afraid.” I knew that my promiscuity was wrong, but I could not truly articulate how or why, especially when it seemed so helpful for me and felt so good. (only in the moment. Afterwards I felt used up, beat up, and discarded.) I started to find some direction when I finally read Dr. Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality, in which he says,

We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent. Sexual union is deeply metaphorical, and when we strip sexual union of the wider metaphorical kinship meaning intended by Genesis 2:24, we cease to live in the “real world” governed by God’s purposes and decrees (…) sexual unions are thus a sort of bodily language in which meaning is enacted and conveyed.

In other words, I must not say with my body what I cannot say with the rest of my life, precisely because my sexuality is significant, is bestowed with meaning, and can be a vessel for grace. It has a language and I must not misuse that language: it is not meaningless gibberish.

I found further guidance in Rowan Williams’s The Body’s Grace, in which he states,

Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivializing them. But in this experience we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. And that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing.

I am still exploring and developing my sexual ethic, but I maintain traditional sexual ethics for both gay and straight people because I believe that both gay and straight sexuality is significant and powerful, touched by sin but also capable of redemption and sanctification through Christ’s great grace. I still believe that sex is deeply metaphorical, and creates a one flesh bond.

Before I conclude the discussion of this question, one last thought: it is true that there is a great deal of promiscuity in gay culture, and I will personally attest to the truth that it is hard to be chaste in certain parts of gay culture. However, I have come to believe that this is a cultural problem, not a gay problem. In my experience, gay people are just as capable of fidelity as straight people; infidelity is not so much a gay problem as it is a human problem. The rampant promiscuity in the gay community is the result of the cultural values of an extremely secular community, not of homosexuality itself. Certainly, gay people will struggle with chastity and fidelity as much as the rest of the human race, but I know many gay couples who have been monogamous throughout their relationships. When a couple pursues discipleship, shared values, and faithfulness, I have watched the promiscuity of the gay culture fall away.

(To be continued…)

11 responses to “Of Polygamy and Chastity: A Response to the Gospel Coalition (Part I)

  1. Great answers from the authors. Look forward to the next part.
    I do think there should be a greater emphasis on chastity for everyone, but also what it is. The Friend by Alex Bray was a good book to read..

  2. This link below is my cousin Ryan a beautiful Christian man, a virgin at 37. He lives for Elohim not for himself. I don’t identify him by his sexuality but as a man, I never think of him as gay, straight or anything. Ryan chooses to live his life according to God’s Word (Bible) . Maybe we should take sexuality out of the mind set that we somehow believe this makes one complete, I have discovered that many people, men especially, feel alone, incomplete and isolated in the world even when in a relationship and with children. I love Ryan’s commitment to the Word and not the world, therefore this comment is for Christian’s only as those in the World live by the world and those in the Word should be living only by the Word for the greatest deception in the last days will be that Christians will believe that God will let me do whatever I want and He will forgive me and love me and accept me.. http://www.ahern.com.au/2012/10/about.html

    • Since the “Word” is subject to interpretation, I suggest that one’s commitment to the highest overarching principles contained within is the approach that maximizes benefit and minimizes harm (and needless sacrifice). People first, adherence to every syllable of scripture second.

      Are you equating “whatever I want” with the real and legitimate need for intimacy?

      • My comment was for Christians that are born again of the Spirit. Also if you are a born again Christian did you know that that in the world to come that no one will be in marriage or taken in marriage, we will all be like the Angels and will not be married. Therefore marriage on earth is definitely for the reproduction of mankind, no human can take the place of the Father God for another human, some humans do that to each other and it is called idolatry, and also it is not fair to put so much pressure on another human to make them feel loved, make them feel good about themselves, that is setting up the other person to be God when that person is not the source of love, only God is, thereby if each person receives their inner needs from God then they have it to give away and therefore not take, take, taking always from the other person but giving.. That is why Jesus said to Christian’s to be evenly yoked. I became born again in my marriage at the 5 year mark and 25years on and my husband is still an unbeliever and boy is it hard work. I am so happy, joyful and peaceful and he is miserable always sucking the life out of me, if I didn’t have God I wouldn’t have been able to stay in this marriage as I too would have been demanding on him to make me feel good and because I do not look to my husband as you must meet my needs I therefore am able to love him despites his weaknesses and neediness, God is the only one who can meet mine and other’s inner needs, Him alone. Also when the Spirit comes He gives you new desires and an ability to understand the Word and enables or empowers a person to want to live by it Should you fall in some area there comes an overwhelming desire to make it right and it is so wonderful knowing He is there to helps us overcome it, but to go on sinning believing He is good, forgiving, kind and loving is the deception that I was talking about for Christians only. On judgement day Jesus is talking to the Christians when He say’s “Get away from me I do not know you, you doers of iniquity” to which the Christian replies “But Lord but didn’t we heal and prophesy in your name?” Sorry going to church, believing in Him and moving in the gifts of the Holy Spirit do not permit someone into eternal life (being with the Father) our lives must be lived according to the Word by empowerment of the cross, which is the sinless blood of Jesus, as He was not born of man therefore no inherited sin and he also didn’t commit sin whilst on earth therefore making the sacrifice for mankind pure, spotless and without blemish all for forgiveness of our inherited sin and sinful acts we have committed in our own lives, that is why we can now for the first time in history have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that is the key to change of desires. I do not find it needless sacrifice to follow the Word, I guess without the cross, blood and indwelling Holy Spirit I would find it hard to give up sin because I would have to use my own efforts to overcome or follow some written rules. The Word is alive when the Spirit comes. I love Him so much there is no one like Him, I have stood in His presence and He is so loving beyond depth and description, so humble for someone so important and great and so gentle. I so want to be perfect like He is perfect, I desire to be like Christ therefore I want to continue to run and persevere to the end. So many Christians have sex out of marriage, they sin without knowing it. Check out this 30 minute documentary by Ray Comfort http://www.noahthemovie.com/

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I don’t feel like I can approach people in the church about my sexuality even in the most broken of places for help, and so getting some reflections from someone who also struggles to hold this tension between faith and inner reality is a huge help and gives my mind some new circles to run in. Seriously, thank you so much!

  4. As always, thought and faith provoking and building. I am looking forward to the next part of this conversation.

  5. If promiscuity in the gay community is a “cultural” issue, maybe the idea that there is an essential type of human subject “the homosexual” who can only find psycho-emotional relational flourishing with a member of the same sex…is also a social construct. Maybe the scripts of egalitarian “romance” are also a historically contingent construct.
    How would you answer the line of thought which says “Some people may not be able to flourish without a gay marital partner. Some people are absolutely miserable in the confines of monogamy. In either case, these existential needs, while in one sense very real and sympathetic, also mean sonething is terribly wrong with the state of modern subjecthood.”
    It’s one thing to assert, quite rightly, that pastorally speaking to demand certain abstinence may be cruel and unhealthy, putting people under unbearable tensions. But it’s quite another thing to question that whole situation and ask whether the unbearability of those restraints is sonething absolute in human nature, or rather the result of a given socio-cultural dilemma of the human person that itself should perhaps be problematized.

  6. Pingback: When I Suck at Celibacy | Building Bridges in War Zones

  7. Pingback: Five answers for Christians who are A**holes | GregComesOut

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