This article first appeared in the Postmodern Realities column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 2 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When Chuck and his wife revealed their desire on Facebook to open their marriage to other relationships, I was a little shocked.
I had known Chuck through mutual acquaintances and wouldn’t have guessed that this was his sort of thing. The comments section erupted in cheers for their courage to commit themselves to other people outside of marriage. Some questioned the wisdom in pursuing other partners, but they were drowned out by numerous defenders quick to shut down any concerns as “bigotry.”
What made their announcement so shocking was not their decision to embrace polyamory (I’ve been waiting to see that shoe drop since Obergefell1) but Chuck’s arguments in support of polyamory from Scripture and Christian theology. Apologies for sexual relations outside of marriage based on consent have been around since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Justification of polyamorous relationships based on Trinitarian language and Jesus’ charity ethic are dangerous for a proper understanding of Christian sexual ethics.
Franklin Veaux, creator of the polyamory lifestyle website 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 different 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 of the group). Ultimately, non-Christian polyamorous individuals believe that consent is the centerpiece that holds the relationship(s) together — anything beyond this is up to the individuals in the relationship.2
The Rise of Christian Polyamory. Christian polyamory builds on this foundation of consent but seeks to normalize the relationship by appealing to creative interpretations of Scripture and Christian theology. Jennifer Martin, describing her own journey to discovering Christian polyamory, states 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.3
Although she still uses the language of consent with regards to her justification of polyamorous relationships, she’s hesitant to stop there. Martin desired to ground her polyamory in an unorthodox version of the Christian life: “Even though I subscribe to a postmodernist view of Scripture….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.”4 Writers such as Jeff Hood provide justification for Christians who desire to pursue these types of relationships. Hood, a progressive pastor in Dallas and former Southern Baptist minister, states that “love [is] the thrust of scripture.”5 He sees the polygamist relationships pursued by the patriarchs 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: “I find Paul’s patriarchal words to be derogatory, demeaning and dismissive.”6
Hood and Martin make similar appeals in their attempt to justify polyamory as a valid form of romantic love. (1) Both mention the OT’s portrayal of polygamist relationships as a sign of God’s openness to options outside monogamy, (2) both used the perceived silence of Jesus as grounds for His approval of sexual relationships other than monogamous, heterosexual ones, and (3) both are critical of Paul’s views on sexuality, dismissing him as a true representative of the views of Jesus.
Chuck, in his post unveiling his polyamory, takes 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.”7 He claims many faithful Christians practice polyamory but offers no statistics to support his claim. Nonetheless, he is right to note that progressives are slow to accept polyamory as a valid sexual framework for marriages.
Erin Wathen, a pastor in the 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 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.”8 Ironically, she laments that she sounds like an old-fashioned traditionalist.
Christian Theology and History Is No Friend to Christian Polyamory. The increasing acceptance of polyamory by progressives and (soon-to-be former) evangelicals is a symptom of the state of the church’s witness to God’s normative pattern for sexuality after Obergefell. These pastors and teachers have taken license with the biblical text to open up a path for LGBTQ and polyamorous persons into the church without confession and repentance of their sexual sin required by Jesus Christ. There is also a noticeable lack of reference to Christians throughout history who denied that any sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage has God’s blessing.
Christian history reveals a damning issue for Christian polyamorists: no Christian theologian has advocated for this position at any time in recorded history. In a response to my critique of Christian polyamory that I’ve made elsewhere,9 blogger Christian Chiakulas took issue with my defense of monogamy as the Bible’s exclusive view regarding sexuality. When it comes to defending polygamy, who does he turn to in his defense? Augustine? Aquinas? Maybe even Barth (known for his romantic partnership with his secretary)? No. Instead, Chiakulas relies on Friedrich Engels, the nineteenth-century atheist and close confidant of Karl Marx, for support for his position that “monogamy arises late in the development of human society, alongside the concept of private property. It is intrinsically patriarchal, as it is the only way for humans without the benefits of DNA testing to prove paternity. But it is not in our nature, and it was not an original part of Creation.”10
Putting aside the fact that Engles’s whole motive for disregarding the central role of the family is so that the state subsumes it, Chiakulas’s statement that “monogamy…was not an original part of Creation” is completely wrong. The creation story begins with God bringing the cosmos into being by the power of His Word and His Spirit. At the pinnacle of creation, God creates male and female and binds them into one union — the first marriage. It is, in fact, one of the central tenets of the Creation that male and female join together as one in order to act as stewards of God’s created order, contradicting Chiakulas’s statement that “monogamy…was not an original part of Creation.”
While Chiakulas finds in Engels an ally for his assault on monogamy, Christian theologians throughout the centuries have affirmed monogamy as the only biblical vision for marriage. Augustine and Ambrose view the marriage of Adam and Eve as both a template for mankind and the necessary symbol that points to Christ’s union with His church.11 Thomas Aquinas, in Question LXV of the Summa Theologica, states that it is against both divine and natural law to engage in sexual behavior outside of heterosexual marriage. Calvin is explicit in his commentary on Genesis: “The conjugal bond subsists between two persons only, whence it easily appears, that nothing is less accordant with the divine institution than polygamy.”12 J. I. Packer defines the biblical view of marriage simply as “an exclusive relationship in which a man and a woman commit themselves to each other in covenant for life, and on the basis of this solemn vow become ‘one flesh’ physically.”13 Whether decades, centuries, or millennia after the death of Christ, Christians have believed and confessed the Bible’s teaching regarding its normative sexual ethic: one man and one woman, for life.
Christian Polyamory Isn’t Going Away Quietly. Chuck’s Facebook post was shocking, but it serves as a warning to Christians living in the wake of the sexual revolution: nothing is out-of-bounds. The response to the Nashville Statement by left-leaning evangelicals and progressives made it clear that they are ready to gnash their teeth at the idea that traditional biblical sexual ethics still has a place in the church. Polyamory is beginning to find an accepting audience among Christians already willing to justify any sexual relationship with revisionist readings of Christian history and theology. The question for those who hold to monogamous heterosexual marriage as the only valid expression of sexuality is not “Are we going to have to answer Christian polygamists’ claims?” but “When?”
—C. Daniel Motley
Daniel Motley is a product manager for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He holds an Advanced MDiv from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
- “Obergefell v. Hodges,” Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2014/14-556. Accessed February 2, 2018.
- Jennifer C. Martin, “Even Christians Are Rethinking Monogamy,” Splinter, http://splinternews.com/even-christians-are-rethinking-monogamy-1798358003.
- Martin, “Even Christians Are Rethinking Monogamy.”
- “Toward a Christian Persepctive on Polyamory: A Conversation between Rev. Danny Cortez and Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood,” Rev. Jeff Hood, http://revjeffhood.com/toward-a-christianperspective-on-polyamory-a-conversation-between-rev-danny-cortez-and-rev-dr-jeffhood/.
- Chuck McKnight, “It’s Time for the Church to Talk about Polyamory,” Patheos, August 31, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hippieheretic/2017/08/its-time-for-the-church-to-talkabout-polyamory.html.
- Erin Wathen, “Get Ready for the Polyamory Movement,” Patheos, August 22, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/irreverin/2016/08/get-ready-for-the-polyamory-movement/2/.
- Daniel Motley, “Is the Church Ready to Respond to ‘Christian’ Polyamory?” The Gospel Coalition, September 28, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/is-the-churchready-to-respond-to-christian-polyamory/.
- Christian Chiakulas, “Polyamory and the Kingdom of God,” Radical Christian Millennial, October 6, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/radicalchristianmillennial/2017/10/polyamory-kingdom-of-god-christianity/.
- Augustine, Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichaeans, 13.19; Ambrose, Letters to Laymen 85.
- Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 136.
- I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 229.