A pastor recently told me (Preston) about Tyler and Amanda (names changed), high-school sweethearts raised in Christian homes, living in the Bible belt. After getting married, they seemed to be living the American dream with a house, good jobs, and two kids. Then Jon, a friend of Tyler’s, began living with their family. Amanda developed a close relationship with him, but their flirtation soon developed into something more, and Jon and Amanda proposed to Tyler that they begin exploring polyamory, with Amanda adding Jon as a significant other. They also encouraged Tyler to develop a relationship with another woman he’d met at the gym. He agreed.
When Tyler and Amanda came out as polyamorous, their parents were shocked. What seemed like a fringe practice of the sexual revolution had settled into the heartland of Middle America.
Making the situation even more complex, Tyler and Amanda sought counseling from a Christian counselor who advocated polyamory. Tyler’s parents were disturbed by what their son and daughter-in-law heard there: “It’s only adultery or cheating if someone is kept in the dark. If you are open and honest, this is a God-honoring relationship. And this is good for the kids! It takes a village to raise a child, so a polyamorous relationship actually brings more support and ‘family’ into your kids’ lives, much like the extended families in the past.”
Tyler’s parents wanted to know how to respond to their children but also wanted to know how the church should respond. Should Jon be welcomed into the church as an addition to Tyler and Amanda’s family? In a world where many sexual choices and identities are accepted, polyamory is often still stigmatized, so Tyler’s parents didn’t know who to talk to or where to turn.
An Introduction to Polyamory
For many Christians, polyamory seems so extreme and rare that there’s no need to talk about it. But it is much more common than some people think, and it’s growing in popularity. According to one estimate, “as many as 5 percent of Americans are currently in relationships involving consensual nonmonogamy,” which is about the same percentage as those who identify as LGBTQ. A recent study, published in a peer-reviewed journal, found that 20 percent of Americans have been in a consensual non-monogamous relationship at least once in their life. Another survey showed that nearly 70 percent of non-religious Americans between the ages of 24 and 35 believe that polyamory is okay, even if it’s not their cup of tea. And perhaps most shocking of all, according to sociologist Mark Regnerus in Cheap Sex, roughly 24 percent of church-going people believe that consensual polyamorous relationships are morally permissible.
Over the last several years, my (Preston’s) full-time job at The Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender has been helping leaders and pastors engage questions about sexuality and gender with theological faithfulness and courageous love. Naturally, I often get asked, “What’s the next discussion Christians need to have about these issues?” My answer is always the same: “Polyamory.”
Polyamory—from the Greek poly, meaning “many,” and the Latin amor, meaning “love”—refers to “the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved.” While these intimate relationships between three or more people are typically sexual, they don’t need to be. And they can take many different forms. For instance, vees (Vs) are poly relationships where one person is sexually engaged with two other people (as in the case of Tyler, Amanda, and Jon), while triads are relationships where all three are sexually involved with each other. Another defining element of polyamorous relationships is that they are honest and consensual—cheating and lying are frowned upon in the poly community.
Unlike polygamy, polyamory does not always involve a marriage commitment, and it is much more egalitarian. Polyamory is also different from swinging or open relationships, though they 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.” Notice again that polyamory is not just about sex. It includes love, romance, and emotional commitment among three or more people.
Preparing a Pastoral Response
How can pastors and leaders prepare to address questions related to polyamory? Several pastors tell us it’s becoming more common for people who identify as poly to ask about their church’s view on the matter. Will they be accepted and affirmed? The discussion is still young enough that most pastors have some time to construct a robust, compassionate, thoughtful response to the question, “Is your church inclusive of people who are poly?”
How would you respond to Tyler, Amanda, and Jon? How would you counsel Tyler’s parents to respond? Tyler’s parents’ pastor advised them to first listen to their son rather than trying to preach at him, so after Tyler came out to them, they set up a time to simply connect and listen. Though they were clear they did not affirm Tyler’s choice, they did affirm their love for Tyler, Amanda, and their grandkids. They made a point to keep their weekly Thursday afternoon “dates” with their grandkids and stay a part of their lives. Because of this, Tyler has maintained his relationship with his parents, and though his relationship choices are unbiblical, they have been able to communicate their love and care for him and his family. Amanda’s mother responded differently. Decades earlier, her relationship with Amanda’s father had ended when he had proposed a polyamorous relationship and then left when she wasn’t open to it. Amanda’s choice reopened her mother’s unhealed wounds. Feeling angry and betrayed, Amanda’s mother effectively broke off the relationship with her daughter. When children choose less than God’s best for their relationships, affirming both grace and truth is a difficult but necessary balance for parents to maintain.
Another important pastoral step is to distinguish elements of polyamory that are in violation of God’s will from elements that are simply culturally unfamiliar to us. When we want to lovingly call people to repentance, we should be precise about what needs repentance and what relationships or elements can and should be sanctified in Christ. For example, the notion of kinship in polyamory is a secular echo of the way Scripture calls the church to function as a new family. In cultures that idolize individualism (but actually isolate individuals), polyamory’s focus on relationship, care, and affection can have a powerful pull. And in churches that idolize marriage and the nuclear family, polyamory’s focus on hospitality and community can be an attractive alternative. We can acknowledge that many of the elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—are good things.
But Scripture does clearly connect sex, marriage, and monogamy in ways that are violated in polyamorous relationships. In the example above, Amanda and Tyler both need to be called to repentance for the way they have committed adultery. A pastoral approach would commend them for their desire to have other adults contribute to the life of their family but point them to the church—not a polyamorous relationship—as the place where God intends for that to happen.
Finally, a healthy pastoral response will involve clear, proactive teaching. Rather than waiting for specific situations to arise before you address them, church leaders can educate themselves in a biblical view of marriage and sexual ethics and then pass that knowledge along to their congregations. It’s not uncommon for leaders to frantically scramble around scanning resources and shipping in speakers to address a raw situation that just flared up at their church. But instead of educating in “reaction mode,” we can construct a positive vision for what God intends. Instead of preaching about polyamory directly from the pulpit, consider constructing a positive vision for monogamy. Instead of addressing homosexuality, educate your people on the meaning of marriage and sexual expression. Instead of doing a sermon series on transgender identities, talk about what it means to be created in God’s image as male and female. People are much more eager to follow a positive vision for marriage and sex than to adhere to a list of “don’ts.”
Preston Sprinkle is a biblical scholar and president of The Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender.
Branson Parler is professor of theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and director of faith formation at Fourth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.