HSR Summaries: Section XV: Reflections on Polyamory
By Jeff Scripps
The Human Sexuality Report that came to Synod 2022 has been widely debated but seldom read. Its intimidating length and broad areas of discussion mean many have heard about it but few have dug into it for themselves. The debate at Synod centered almost exclusively on the issue of same-sex marriage, but the report is far broader than any single issue. In this series we want to give you an overview of the Human Sexuality Report in bite-sized pieces and offer pastoral implications for us to live into going into the future.
Polyamory is a hybrid word coming from Greek “poly” (many) and Latin “amory” (love). First recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1992, the term “polyamory” covers several kinds of sexual relationships that expand beyond the one-man-one-woman (biblical) marriage model to include one or more other people. The most frequent seem to be groups of three or four. These nonmonogamous arrangements have traditionally been considered by Evangelicals and Catholics to be unacceptable. However, there is a growing number of people who identify as Christians who assert that polyamory is permissible.
The revisionist (if we may use that term) argument in favor of polyamory is that in the Old Testament, one finds many instances where a man has more than one wife and no explicit condemnation is forthcoming. God does not say anything about the matter itself to Abraham, Jacob, or Elkanah. David only gets into trouble because he takes a wife who already belongs to another man (Bathsheba from Uriah) and murders the rightful husband along the way. Solomon likewise only is condemned in his polygamy after he begins to worship the idols that these foreign women bring into Israel. Furthermore, the laws in Deuteronomy seem to accept polygamy as a fact of life and only caution against too many wives. In the New Testament, the only passages that seem to address multiplicity in marriage are the commands that candidates for elder and deacon be the husband of one wife; this is a rule for officebearers but likely not for regular church members.
Revisionists make a theological argument that amounts to copying the Holy Trinity. The argument there is that since God exists as a glorious union of three-in-one, it would make sense for human beings to imitate the godhead by living in committed three-person relationships of the most intimate kind. Also, God in the Old Testament seems to have multiple wives (take Ezekiel 23 and Jeremiah 3 which call Jerusalem and Samaria each the wife of God). In addition, Jesus can be said to be the husband of the church, so what about the previous relationships with Israel and Judah? Jesus Christ also has intimate connection with every congregation and every believer, therefore polyamory is perhaps the most natural way for human beings to live.
Finally revisionists fall back on the “born this way” argument. Some people simply are predisposed to non monogamous sexual relationships. Polyamory is not what people do, then, it is who they are. The church ought not to place on these brothers and sisters the heavy and unreasonable burden of monogamy.
The revisionist arguments are not convincing. With regard to the Bible, it is true that several Old Testament men did take multiple wives, one must distinguish between what is prescriptive (actual commands to be obeyed today) and what is descriptive (the manners and customs of people in the days when the Bible was written). The practice of polygamy among God’s people is nowhere encouraged and in fact the Bible discourages polygamy indirectly as it describes the pain, division, and strife that occurs because of polygamous relationships. Furthermore, in the act of creation, God in Genesis 2 fashions one woman for one man and thus the institution of marriage is made. Jesus reinforces this one-man-one-woman definition of marriage in Matthew 19:4-5. This biblical formula for marriage is assumed in Ephesians 5 and spelled out in 1 Corinthians 7 as each man should have his own wife (not wives) and each woman her own husband (not husbands). As for the “husband of one wife” passages in the pastoral epistles, the most sensible understanding is that officebearers would be faithful in marriage and the behavioral expectations for officebearers do apply to regular church members.
The theological arguments for the permissibility of polyamory likewise do not stand up under scrutiny. The relationship among the members of the Trinity is nowhere described as sexual or as a model for marriage. With regard to God and Jerusalem and Samaria, Judah and Israel, a reader of the Bible will quickly discover that the covenant people of God were not supposed to be split into two or more factions. Furthermore, in the prophetic literature we are dealing with metaphors which by definition are not meant to be taken literally. God does not engage in sexual relations with large groups of people, nor does Jesus get into bed with individual believers or every congregation. The church is the singular Bride of Christ in a spiritual sense and physical marriage is a picture of that union and that brings us back to the one-man-one-woman formula.
Similarly, the biological “born this way” argument will not accomplish in the church any sanction for polyamory. At present, there is no evidence that some human beings are “hard wired” for multiple sex partners at one time. Even if there was such evidence, we hear in the Bible many calls to put away behavior to which our flesh might be inclined (frantic pursuit of money, overconsumption of food or alcohol, outbursts of anger, etc.). We are called by Christ to leave the ways of sin and death and follow Him in resurrection that begins by faith even today as the Holy Spirit enables us.