Bigger Love: Debating Marriage and Sex Beyond Morality | Sojourners

Bigger Love: Debating Marriage and Sex Beyond Morality

Photo: Mincemeat /
A recent court ruling has thrust polygamy into the spotlight. Photo: Mincemeat /

There’s something romantic about a pair of lovebirds on the lamb, fleeing the authorities to keep their love alive. But add a few more wives, and not so much. When the first episode of “Sister Wives” aired on TLC featuring the poly-union of Kody Brown and his four co-star wives, Utah police announced the very next day that they would investigate the illegal union. Brown promptly relocated his brood to Nevada, leaving one intolerant state for another where polygamists are allowed to run free, and from there filed a complaint in a U.S. district court challenging the law that spurned their love.

After years of struggle, last month a Utah judge struck down the state’s polygamy law, decriminalizing poly-unions in the state that has endured a relentless barrage of polygamy punch lines, even during the decades where it was expressly verboten. The case will now advance to an appeals court, but conservative harbingers are already offering “I told you sos,” largely bemoaning the slide down the slippery slope of morality opened by same-sex unions.

But is morality the only way to talk about marriage and sex? Certainly the American judiciary thinks otherwise as it hammers out the constitutionality of every union under the sun. The polygamy question could broaden the discussion among evangelicals to include nuances beyond morality.

If conservatives have (hopefully) learned anything from the gay-marriage war, it’s that the glib phrase “biblical picture of marriage” is less of a show-stopper than a blind alley. The fact is, lots of God-sanctioned marriages in the Bible diverge from the Cleaver model, some including so many spouses that reality TV producers must curse being born a few millennia too late.

Take David, the famous King of Israel. He had a lot of wives, and they were given to him by God. This, in fact was what made Nathan the Prophet’s indictment for the Bathsheba affair so potent:

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.” (2 Samuel 12:7-8).

Everyone knows the story: David’s son Absalom fulfills the promised punishment, humiliating his father with more drama than an entire season of Big Love. The sin and the sting of these passages don’t work unless David’s polygamy is a legitimate form of marriage.

While God-fearing, church-going believers might find polygamy repugnant on any of a number of levels, there is a greater problem than sexual mores: the writers of the New Testament never explicitly condemn polygamy. Not even Paul — who has no problem generating entire lists of contemptible behavior, which include explicit sexual sins — specifies polygamy.

But that is not to say that Paul offers a full-throated endorsement of polygamy. Instead, he undermines the practice, barring polygamist men from church leadership. When he instructs Timothy in what qualities to look for in a leader, monogamy is at the top of the list: “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.” Paul is undermining poly-unions, though in very different ways than the vociferous moralists who opine that polygamy, if given an inch, will result in a culture of swingers and threesomes.

But if Paul does not object to polygamy on moral grounds, then what’s his problem? Here are some possibilities.

Polygamy centralizes power.

Perhaps Paul was wary of the intra-church politics that could easily be dominated by larger families. Since Paul was adamant about establishing the family unit, he might also have been reluctant to allow family loyalty to override the message of the Gospel.

Take for example the Yearning for Zion polygamist community of southern Utah, headed up by Warren Jeffs, which was raided by the FBI in 2008. More than 300 “lost boys” were squeezed out of the community, a practice that some experts say was to be expected. Poly-marriages leave fewer women for men, placing men in steep competition. "If you have men marrying 20, 30, up to 80 or more women," a social worker told National Geographic Magazine, "then it comes down to biology and simple math that there will be a lot of other men who aren't going to get wives. The [Fundamentalist Church of Later Day Saints] says it's kicking these boys out for being disruptive influences, but if you'll notice, they rarely kick out girls."”

The threat of ejection from a community is serious pressure, one that cows even the slightest divergence in opinion. The ejection of young boys and men from the FLDS community is nothing more than a power struggle, a struggle that resembles the animal kingdom, and which is patently unfitting for the people of God.

In barring polygamists from leadership, Paul might be trying to establish a church that critiques power at a relational level. The church is not a setting for rival politics, but a gathering of people who have given up their own power and rights under the headship of Christ.

Polygamy is for the wealthy.

When moralists protest that polygamy will take over the world, usually they do not consider that polygamy is not a poor (or working) man’s option. In the Old Testament, polygamy is practiced almost exclusively by kings and rulers. Solomon is the wealthiest, wisest, and the uncontested most wife-laden man in the entire Bible. The reason Abraham even had a concubine hanging around to begin with was that he had the means; he was well off.

In fact, in some very poor societies the men result to the inverse: polyandry (two men to one wife). These people, whose days are filled with backbreaking toil, and who embrace this centuries-old practice to make better economical use of the land, often don’t even care which husband sired which child. It’s true that some poor cultures engage in polygamy, but those cultures look more like promiscuity than matrimony. For the great teeming masses of humanity, the poorer you go, the further from reach polygamy becomes.

That being the case, Paul might be resisting the trend so common in the world: the wealthy gain power. In the church, Paul is after something much more democratic where there is neither slave nor free, rich nor poor. He is after the dissolution of classes (just as important as the eradication of ethnic prejudice), and polygamy might be a serious challenge to that goal.

If men with multiple wives —r ead: men of means — are eligible for positions of leadership, the very human tendency to establish social pecking orders that exclude the poor is likely to develop. Paul will have none of it.

Polygamy dilutes the voice of women.

Paul the Apostle is known for introducing through his God-inspired theology the most radical view of male-female equality imaginable. In Christ, he insists, women are equal to men. In the middle of a funny discussion about head coverings, Paul delivers the first statement of women’s equality in all of ancient literature:

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. (1 Corinthians 11:11-12)

And he cements this lofty ideal in the place it matters most: marriage relationships. Husbands are commanded routinely in Pauline literature to love their wives, a directive that devastates the male tendency to treat women as sexual objects, swapping them out as one would a pair of shoes.

As a result, women in the faith are empowered. No longer must they bite their tongues for fear that their husbands will abuse them in the myriad ways men have invented over the centuries. Their role as equals is established, and they have an equal share in shaping the culture of the family and of the community as well.

That said, many women married to a single man dilutes the very paradigm that Paul wishes to establish as a Christian witness. Polygamist wives, including celebrity polygamist wives, routinely confess their battles with insecurities and jealousies. These struggles are apparent in sexual relationships outside of the context of marriage, but polygamy brings them within marriage. Sarah became a relentless antagonist of Hagar, and sister-wives Leah and Rachel were locked in an identity-threatening showdown that only ended when one of them died giving birth.

God’s radical vision for women includes deliverance from this entire order of struggles. Though polygamy might not be classified as “sexual sin,” Paul undoubtedly does not think it is the optimum context for women to thrive.

In search for the “biblical” framework for marriage, evangelicals would do well to develop ideas that take into account more than just sexual ethics. Marriage as an institution has the capacity to be a truly prophetic institution, depicting the heart and nature of God, and addressing destructive parts of society. It’s a vision for marriage that makes Big Love look small by comparison.

Bret Mavrich is an award-winning writer living in southwestern Pennsylvania where he and his wife minister to a local church. He's passion is to see the Church restored in both word and spirit, he writes about God in the world, and tweets (erratically) at @BretMavrich.

Image: Mincemeat /

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