Poly-What? And Who Cares?
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
This is a true story (with names changed) from a Christian Reformed denominational draft paper on human sexuality:
During Sunday worship, Lisa, 45, wonders how church members would react if they knew she and her husband each have deep personal relationships with other people which include sexual intimacy. They practice polyamory. She and Andrew know that many biblical figures were polygamous, and the couple believe Jesus preached an ethic of love. They realize they cannot meet all of each other’s needs and are happy to have discovered deeper love with more people.
This couple isn’t just your 70’s “swingers.” There’s way more to it than “just” swapping sex partners for a night. This practice is distorting everything Christians believe about family and fidelity and it’s probably happening right in your church.
The following blog is by Dr. Preston Sprinkle, PhD. in New Testament, former professor at Cedarville and Eternity Bible Colleges and the President of The Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender. www.centerforfaith.com. I often get asked, “what’s the next discussion that Christians need to have about sexuality and gender?” My immediate answer is: “polyamory,” though the morality of sex with robots is a close second.
Polyamory is often confused with polygamy, but they are actually quite different. For one, polygamy is a type of marriage while polyamory is not necessarily marital. Also, Polygamy almost always entails a man taking more than one wife, while polyamory is much more egalitarian. “Polyamory is open to any mixture of numbers and genders so it is just as common for a man to be in a relationship with several women as it is for a woman to be in love with several men,” writes Mike Hatcher.
Polyamory is also different from swinging or open relationships, though these do overlap. Open relationships are polyamorous, but not every polyamorous relationship is an open relationship. Sex and relationship therapist Renee Divine says: “An open relationship is one where one or both partners have a desire for sexual relationships outside of each other, and polyamory is about having intimate, loving relationships with multiple people.” And that’s the key. Polyamory is not just about sex. It includes love, romance, and emotional commitment between more than 2 people.
For some Christians, polyamory seems so extreme and rare that there’s no need to talk about it. It’s wrong. It’s ridiculous. No need to defend why it’s wrong or think through pro-poly arguments. Just quote Genesis 2 and move on. But hopefully we’ve learned the hard way from our rather “late-to-the-discussion” approach with LGBTQ questions that it’s better to get ahead of the game and construct a view rather than just fall back into frantic reactive mode when the issue is in full bloom.
For other Christians, polyamory is only considered when being used in a “slippery slope” argument against same-sex relations—if we allow gay relationships, why not poly relationships? While I agree that the ethical logic used to defend same-sex relations cannot exclude poly relationships, merely using polyamory as a slippery slope argument is inadequate. We actually need to think through plural love, as it’s sometimes called, and do so in a gracious, thoughtful, and biblical manner.
Polyamory is much more common than some people think. According to one estimate “as many as 5 percent of Americans are currently in relationships involving consensual nonmonogamy” which is about the same as those who identify as LGBTQ. Another recent study, published in a peer reviewed journal, found that 1 in 5 Americans have been in a consensual non-monogamous relationship at least some point in their life. Another survey showed that nearly 70% of non-religious Americans between the ages of 24-35 believe that consensual polyamory is okay—even if it’s not their cup of tea. What about church going folks of the same age? Roughly 24% said they were fine (Regnerus, Cheap Sex, 186).
Why would anyone engage in polyamory? Doesn’t it foster jealousy? Can these relationships really last? Aren’t children who grow up in poly families bound to face relational harm? These are all valid questions, ones which have been addressed by advocates of polyamory. At least one argument says that people pursue polyamorous relationships because it’s their sexual orientation. They really have no other valid option, they say. They’re not monogamously oriented. They’re poly.
I’ll never forget watching Dan Savage, a well-known sex columnist, swat the hornet’s nest when he made the audacious claim that “poly is not an orientation.” Savage is no bastion for conservative ideals, and he himself admits to having 9 different extra-marital affairs with his husband’s consent. This is why it was fascinating to see him get chastised for making such an outlandish statement—that polyamory is not a sexual orientation.
Is there any merit to the claim that polyamory is a sexual orientation? It all depends on our understanding of sexual orientation. How do you define it? Measure it? Prove it? Disprove it? What exactly is sexual orientation? (Stay tuned for a later blog on this.) It’s not as if we take a blood sample to determine whether somebody is gay, straight, or poly. Sexual orientation is much, much messier than most people realize.
Celebrities, of course, have suggested that polyamory is an orientation when they talk about monogamy being “unnatural,” or that some people are just wired for more love than one partner can provide. Pop culture isn’t the only advocate, though. Scholars are also starting to argue that polyamory should be considered a sexual orientation. As early as 2011, Ann Tweedy, Assistant Professor at Hamline University School of Law, wrote a lengthy 50-page article in a peer reviewed journal where she argued that polyamory should be considered a sexual orientation. Tweedy writes: “polyamory shares some of the important attributes of sexual orientation as traditionally understood, so it makes conceptual sense for polyamory to be viewed as part of sexual orientation” (“Polyamory as a Sexual Orientation,” 1514).
The logic is familiar: Those who pursue polyamorous relationships can’t help it. It’s who they are. It’s how God has created them. And it would be wrong to pursue a relationship, like a monogamous one, that goes against their orientation. No, I’m not retorting to the age-old slippery slope argument (e.g. this is where gay relationships will lead). I’m simply summarizing a growing opinion expressed in both pop culture and academia.
Polyamory might be, as a Newsweek article suggested 10 years ago, “The Next Sexual Revolution.” And several of my pastor friends tell me that it’s becoming more common to have people who identify as poly asking about the church’s view on the matter and if they will be accepted and affirmed. These are not abstract questions, and yet the discussion is still young enough so that Christian pastors and leaders have some time to construct a robust, compassionate, thoughtful response to the question—“what’s your church’s stance on people who are poly?” Put more positively, we have time to construct a truly Christian vision for monogamy, if indeed that is the only truly Christian vision.
My purpose of this blog is to put this topic on your radar, not to answer all the questions that you might have. With that in view, here are a few more questions that Christian leaders should wrestle with:
What are the relevant biblical passages and themes that mandate monogamy for those who are called to marriage?
How would you respond to someone who says that Genesis 2, Matthew 19, Ephesians 5 and others just a few “clobber passages” that are used to beat down poly people?
How do you know that “one man, one woman” statements in the Bible apply to contemporary poly relationships? Perhaps they only prohibit abusive, misogynistic polygamous relationships.
If God’s love for us is plural, and our love for (a Triune) God is plural, then why can’t human love for each other be plural?
Is polyamory a sexual orientation? Why, or why not?
And what issexual orientation, and should it play a role in determining (or at least shaping) our sexual ethic?
Is it helpful to talk about poly peopleor should we talk about poly relationships? (And can you pinpoint the important difference?)
Since the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn plural marriages that are polygamous (or does it?), could we say that monogamy is the ideal while still allowing for polyamorous relationships as less than ideal but still accepted in the church? Why, or why not?
If sexual expression is only permitted if it is faithful, consensual, and marital (which is what most Christians would say), then why can’t it be plural? That is, what is the moral logic that drives your view that monogamy is the only way? Is it just “God says so? Or is there some rationale why plural love is immoral?
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