Have you heard the term polyamory yet? If you haven’t then you’ve perhaps deduced from the poly that it means multiple of something. Polytheist means a belief in many gods. Polygamy you may remember is having multiple spouses. So, what is polyamory? To answer this, you need to channel your inner Frank Sinatra and remember That’s Amore. It means having many loves.
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What Is Polyamory?
On the surface, then, it sounds like something Christians should not only not reject but also something in which we should actively embrace. Of course, we should love multiple people. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor. There are numerous calls in the New Testament for us to “love one another deeply from the heart.”
Polyamory, however, means a little more than just loving multiple people. Perhaps the most helpful definition is given to us by the Polyamory Society.
"Polyamory is the non-possessive, honest, responsible, and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously. Polyamory emphasizes consciously choosing how many partners one wishes to be involved with rather than accepting social norms which dictate loving only one person at a time."
The key term that helps us define “loving multiple people” are the words “partner” and “involved with”. It is helpful to see what polyamory is not.
It is not polygamy. Polygamy involves being married to multiple partners. Polyamory is having intimate relationships with multiple people but not marriage.
It is not having an affair. In a polyamorous relationship, all parties involved are consenting to multiple relationships.
It is not an open relationship. Preston Sprinkle says it well, “Open relationships are polyamorous, but not every polyamorous relationship is an open relationship.” What he means here is that polyamory is not just that people know you are having sex with multiple people. There is an added layer of “partnering” and “being involved with”.
The Polyamory Society further defines polyamory as “a serious, intimate, romantic, or less stable, affectionate bond which a person has with another person or group of persons.” They refer to it as “responsible, ethical or intentional non-monogamy.”
Though it may seem a little confusing, polyamory is on the rise.
Why Is Polyamory Rising?
Some estimates have 4-5% of people living in the US being in a polyamorous relationship or at least participating in some form of an open relationship. And some believe that 1/5 of the population has “participated in a consensual, non-monogamous relationship at some point in their lives.” Perhaps even more eye-opening is that according to one study “only half of millennials (defined as under 30-years-old) want a “completely monogamous” relationship.” Though these statistics are more reflective of the culture at large, certainly these conversations are beginning to happen within the church. One study even showed 24% of churchgoers believing that polyamory was morally permissible.
I can tell you, anecdotally, that this was not a topic of conversation 10-15 years ago when I was working with teenagers. We had conversations about things like premarital sex, homosexuality, etc. Those were issues. But polyamory wasn’t even a consideration. Today, I’ve had those conversations on polyamory. And even if the specific words are not used the worldview questions related to polyamory are being frequently discussed. It is on the rise. But why?
I always try to understand a position as best as I can and then attempt to make an argument for it, even if I disagree with it. It is important that we represent people well and that we attempt to make arguments from their side and not build strawmen. I’ve attempted to do this here. What is the best case for polyamory? What is it about polyamory that is appealing to people?
There are certainly foundational and worldview shifts that have paved the way for considering polyamory as an option. If you have largely left organized religion and believe that conventional views of marriage and family are broken (having come from a broken home yourself), then you would certainly be open to other options. And if Trueman is correct in his assessment that for many “so-called ‘external’ or objective’ truths are simply constructs designed by the powerful to intimidate and to harm the weak” (50), it becomes even more than an option—there is an impetus to make a cultural switch in how we view relationships.
This switch from the external to the internal has meant that “psychological categories and an inward focus are the hallmarks of being a modern person” (46). But at the same time, we are hungry for community and depth of relationship. We are inwardly focused and outwardly hungry. Our globalized world has caused us to believe that not only are we complex beings but so are other people. We are not easily satisfied creatures.
If I am a complex being who is not easily satisfied and I have a desire to not only experience deep personal fulfillment but meaningful community with other people, why would I not want to explore a polyamorous relationship?
The New York Times interviewed “two dozen non-monogamous people” and found that for many polyamory had appeal because it meant “more exploration and more pleasure.” Polyamory gives you an opportunity to explore more about yourself and to experience deeper personal fulfillment. But it’s not entirely self-centered. One of those referred to it as a “returning to that nomadic sharing of partners and resources.” Why not partner with multiple people to not only give love to one another but also to receive love and fulfillment?
Given our cultural climate, it is not surprising that couples are exploring polyamory and that it is on the rise. But does this mean that Christians should join the movement?
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How Should Christians Respond to Polyamory?
Even from a secular standpoint polyamory is certainly not without its pitfalls. There is often jealousy, comparisons, and even the “emotional complexity of interacting intimately with more people” which has those within polyamorous relationships realizing that it’s not a panacea for relationship difficulty. Most polyamorous couples acknowledge the difficulty of shared partnerships. Some polyamorous couples struggle with questions of children. As one woman in a polyamorous relationship stated, “I don’t know anyone else personally who’s done it.”
I say all of this to say that if Scripture is correct (and I believe it is) polyamory will not ultimately satisfy. When we talk of responding to polyamory one of the first things we should consider is how to compassionately minister to those who have been devastated by wreckages of a fallen worldview. I say that as one who readily acknowledges that we are also frequently picking up the broken pieces of failed monogamous relationships. But we must be prepared to lovingly minister to those who have grief and broken hearts—even if they stem from relationship structures we do not necessarily approve of.
Secondly, we must consider some of those elements which might have made polyamory appealing and use them as a bridge to the gospel. I tend to agree with Sprinkle and Parler “That we should find points of contact in other cultures—or other value systems, or perhaps relationships—in order to communicate the holistic gospel in a way that touches the other person where they’re at.” They mention a few of those connecting points such as a longing for deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community. Why not figure out ways to engage them on common ground and show how in Christ (and not a monogamous or a polyamorous relationship) we find the fulfillment of these longings.
As Christians within a democratic society, we do need to consider the impact that polyamory will have upon the family. Albert Mohler notes that when we redefine marriage, we are also redefining family. As he says, “If you basically redefine the marriage into an absolutely relativistic entity, then you also create the same reality for the family. The family becomes relativized. It becomes basically an evaporating norm. If the family can mean anything, then the family means nothing.” Sure, polyamorous relationships are not pursuing marriage. But it is a redefinition of the family. That might sound good in theory but on paper when you take into account things like medical insurance, parental rights, tax laws, and a myriad of other considerations it becomes a bit stickier. This will have an impact upon our society and we must consider those things on the front end and be prepared to deal with the ramifications on the other.
Lastly, we must ultimately stand where the Scripture does upon polyamory. Yes, it is right to pursue deep community and even deep love with multiple people. But the Scriptures speak of the importance of covenantal love. And the sexual union is to be expressed within the context of that covenanted love.
A Biblical Definition of Marriage
I understand that polyamorous relationships are not concerned with the definitions of marriage. They are not pursuing marriage as it has been historically defined, just an intentional relationship for an agreed-upon term. But if we are attempting to redefine the family, God does have something to say about this and marriage is central to this discussion.
I believe a biblical definition of marriage to be this: Marriage is a binding covenant created by God between one man and one woman for our holiness, for our joy, as a picture of the gospel to spread the glory of God. Each of these statements is intentional:
1. A Binding Covenant. Covenants matter to God. Breaking covenants is very serious to God. If you don’t believe me consider what God commits himself to in Genesis 15 and essentially says “let me be ripped asunder if I’m not faithful to you.”
2. Created by God. If humans created marriage, then we could make the rules. But marriage is a binding covenant that is created by God, as such He makes the rules.
3. Between one man and one woman. The two shall become one. This means breaking away from parents, past relationships, future relationships, and any other lovers.
4. For our holiness. Marriage is one of the means that God has ordained to sanctify us. God is not satisfied with us merely having a “good” marriage, He uses our marriage to make us more like Christ.
5. For our joy. Our joy increases when we, in holiness, fight for the joy of another.
6. As a picture of the gospel. Your marriage reflects Christ and His church. It was created by God to be a visible picture for everyone to see the love between Christ and His Bride.
7. To spread the glory of God. The purpose of God for humanity is to enjoy His grace and extend His glory. Marriage is no different. He uses marriages to rip out of our heart sin and unbelief. He uses marriage to further our joy. But he also uses marriage to create children and to raise and nurture children in godly homes.
You can see, then, from this definition why polyamory does not square with the biblical vision of marriage within society.
There is certainly more that could be said on this topic. This perhaps will be one small piece in a much larger conversation. But polyamory is on the rise and it’s something that Christians will be forced to reckon with. We must do so winsomely and compassionately, but we also must be committed to the biblical vision for marriage and family. And though it may have some similarities to a biblical picture for community polyamory, falls short of God’s design. This is especially in providing an accurate picture of the gospel. It would perhaps better image idolatry than covenant faithfulness. And properly imaging the gospel should be a principle concern for followers of Jesus.
Trueman, Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
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