Chuck and his wife made their announcement on Facebook. They were opening up their marriage to other relationships.
I had only known Chuck through a few mutual acquaintances, but he and his wife seemed like a normal, monogamous couple. The comments section erupted in praise and cheers for their “courage and bravery” to commit to others outside the marriage covenant. While a few people attempted to question the wisdom of pursuing additional partners, they were drowned out by a chorus of defenders quick to shut down such “bigoted” and “judgmental” concerns.
What made the announcement so shocking wasn’t the decision to embrace polyamory. Like many others, I’ve been expecting that ever since the Supreme Court paved the way for polygamy in the Obergefell ruling on same-sex marriage. What did surprise me were Chuck’s arguments for polyamory from Scripture and Christian theology. Apologies for sexual relations outside of marriage based on consent have been around for decades. But justifications of polyamorous relationships based on Trinitarian language and Jesus’s charity ethic are a recent and dangerous development—a threat to a proper understanding of Christian sexual ethics.
From Consent to ‘Christian’ Polyamory
Franklin Veaux, creator of the popular polyamory lifestyle site More Than Two, defines a polyamorous relationship as “a romantic relationship where the people in the relationship agree that it’s okay for everyone to be open to or have other romantic partners.” Psychologists and social scientists differentiate between types of polyamorous relationships, including swinging (spouses who seek other partners for casual sex), polygamy (the marriage of multiple spouses), and polyfidelity (the commitment between partners to not form relationships with those outside the group), among other poly-type practices. Ultimately, non-Christian polyamorous individuals believe consent alone is the centerpiece holding the relationship(s) together—anything beyond this is up to the individuals involved.
“Christian” polyamory builds on this foundation of consent, but seeks to normalize the relationship by appealing to misreadings of the scriptural witness and creative interpretations of Christian theology. Jennifer Martin, describing her own journey to discovering Christian polyamory, says that as a young, traditional Christian she “[got] married young, felt trapped by the conservative bounds of purity culture, and wanted to explore the sexuality that we never really got a chance to have.” For her, this meant taking a boyfriend alongside her husband of nine years, a man with whom she shares two children.
Chuck’s Facebook post was shocking, but it serves as a warning to Christians living in the wake of the sexual revolution: almost nothing is out-of-bounds.
Although Martin uses the language of consent to justify polyamorous relationships, she hesitates to stop there. She wants to ground her polyamory in a revised vision of the Christian life: “Even though I subscribe to a postmodernist view of Scripture,” she says, “I still found it hard to believe I wasn’t ‘dirty.’ And it’s been difficult to find spiritual leaders who both accept my feelings as natural and respect my deep faith.”
Writers and teachers such as Jeff Hood are all too willing to provide just such justification for Christians wishing to pursue these types of relationships. Hood, a progressive pastor in Dallas and former SBC minister, claims that “love is the thrust of Scripture.” He sees the polygamist relationships pursued by the biblical patriarchs (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) as problematic, but the arrival of Jesus signals an era of love and tolerance that supersedes the Old Testament. When confronted with Paul’s teaching on marriage, Hood dismisses him entirely: “I find Paul’s patriarchal words to be derogatory, demeaning, and dismissive.”
Martin and Hood make similar appeals in their attempt to justify polyamory as a valid form of romantic love for Christians: (1) Both mention the Old Testament’s portrayal of polygamist relationships to signal God’s openness to other options besides monogamy, while critiquing the Old Testament's patriarchal bent; (2) both use Jesus’s perceived silence as proof of his approval of non-monogamous, non-heterosexual romantic relationships; and (3) both critique Paul’s views on sexuality, dismissing him as a illegitimate representative of the views of Jesus.
On Chuck’s widely shared post unveiling he and his wife’s adoption of polyamory, he takes secular progressives to task for their slow acceptance of Christian polyamorous couples: “The Christian church has come a long way on matters related to human sexuality. . . . However, the same can’t yet be said for another relational orientation: polyamory.” Chuck claims “thousands of faithful Christians” practice polyamory. While he doesn’t offer statistics to support this claim, he’s right to note that even progressives are slow to accept polyamory as a valid sexual framework for marriages.
Erin Wathen, a pastor in the progressive United Church of Christ, is one of those unconvinced that polyamory is a constructive path forward for Christians. Although she affirms her belief in the goodness of same-sex marriage, she nevertheless says: “I am convinced that there’s something to the one and one, that marriage is best kept as a covenant of two. I am still convinced that fidelity means loving the one you’re with—body, mind, and spirit.” Ironically, she laments that she sounds like one of those “old-fashioned traditionalists.”
Next Era of the Sexual Revolution
The increasing acceptance of polyamory by progressives and (soon-to-be former) evangelicals is symptomatic of the church’s witness to God’s normative pattern for sexuality after Obergefell. Pressured (or freed) to come to terms quickly with their accusers in the wider culture, these teachers have taken license with the biblical text to open a path for LGBTQ and polyamorous persons into the church without the confession and repentance of sin required by Scripture. Moreover, there is a noticeable lack of reference to the uniform witness of Christians throughout history that—until a few years ago—denied any sexual relationship outside heterosexual marriage has God’s blessing, on the grounds that such relationships are counter to his revealed pattern for marriage.
Chuck’s Facebook post was shocking, but it serves as a warning to Christians living in the wake of the sexual revolution: almost nothing is out-of-bounds. Polyamory is but the next movement to find an accepting audience among professing Christians already willing to justify any consensual sexual relationship with revisionist readings of Christian history and theology. Many Christians have been warning those of us who hold to monogamous heterosexual marriage as sexuality’s only valid expression that this day was coming.
Are you prepared to answer “Christian” polyamorists’ claims?