Big Questions

Ethics: A young married couple with children who are active members at our church practice a “polyamory lifestyle”...

A young married couple with children who are active members at our church practice a “polyamory lifestyle” and see nothing wrong with it since some people in the Old Testament had multiple wives. How should the church respond?

According to one polyamory website, a polyamorous relationship is “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.” It is not to be confused with “swinging” because it emphasizes commitment and emotional love as opposed to simply recreational sex. And polygamy is only one possible form of polyamory, as it does not insist that all romantic partners have to be married. This movement seems to be growing, even among some Christians.

Although the Bible does not explicitly condemn polyamory per se, the Bible does present monogamy as the ideal. Jesus upholds Genesis 2—the two will “become one flesh”—as the basis of marriage (Matt. 19:4-6). Other New Testament passages also point to monogamy as the ideal for romantic relationships (1 Cor. 7:2; 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). Polygamy was tolerated and allowed in the Old Testament but never held up as a prescribed ideal. As Jesus taught concerning divorce, God sometimes allows practices that are not ideal (Matt. 19:8-9). In fact, Scripture often portrays the dysfunctional dynamics that arise from polygamous relationships. The Old Testament examples, therefore, cannot be used to justify polyamory.

Polyamory follows our culture’s tendency to reduce sexual relationships to mutual consent and desire. But feelings and desires need to be disciplined and directed. Scripture consistently used marriage as a metaphor for God’s covenant love for Israel and for Christ’s sacrificial love for the church. Therefore, marriage is not simply about meeting our sexual and emotional needs. Christian marriage has a missional dimension of bearing witness to God’s faithfulness. Monogamy’s exclusiveness better portrays God’s exclusiveness (as opposed to idols) with us.

The church community should pastorally and prayerfully help this couple learn this biblical ideal through gentle and patient instruction. We should not be quick to judge but must rather aim to be kind, “realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4).

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

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Comments

Wow! Maybe I don't understand what is actually being asked, but this sounds like incredibly inadequate advice! Better call Paul! - 1-800-1Cor5

My own initial reaction and comment to the article were inadequate and flippant. I do agree with the author in his statement that "Scripture consistently used marriage as a metaphor for God’s covenant love for Israel and for Christ’s sacrificial love for the church." Too easily we assume the cultural posture in regard to important issues - Matthew 19 shows us that this is nothing new. Jesus sets a high bar, his disciples are flummoxed. A recent article by Wesley Hill, "Jigs for Marriage and Celibacy" (at Comment - cardus dot ca), sets forth a similarly challenging meditation on marriage that may help us think about this specific situation - as well as providing a context for discussion of related issues.    

I agree that polyamory harms the witness of the church by affecting the way we view the relationship between God and the church, and that we must not be judgmental when engaging in church discipline. However, if I understand the question correctly (perhaps not?) the Bible does clearly forbid this behavior.  

Polyamory in this context means infidelity at the very least and potentially fornication (sex outside of marriage), which are clearly forbidden in the NT. The elders are tasked first with talking to the couple about God's will for sexuality and about marriage and warning them against continuing. If they continue in this harmful and destructive pattern, the response is elevated, following the pattern of 1 Cor 5, just as Dave Dill alluded to, and Matthew 18. This is nothing new; it's the process we follow if someone in the church is sleeping around or cheating on a spouse.

We are lucky to have such a strong parallel in 1 Corinthians. Just as Paul took sexual sin seriously, we need to avoid soft-pedaling this. I know of one or two cases like this one. They use language to dress up what is essentially one person taking advantage of another for sexual pleasure, or both showing a reluctance to commit (most often the former). This sort of behavior needs to be taken seriously for the sake of all involved, and addressed in a loving but biblical and ethically clear manner. If the church lets this behavior continue it not only harms those involved but also sends the message to the rest of the church that the Biblical standards of sexuality are irrelevant in our modern culture.

I am stunned at the "advice" given to this question! Why is there nothing mentioned about adultery? The definition of adultery is "voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not his or her spouse." There has been some talk about situations like these where the spouses say they are not committing adultery because the husband and wife give consent to the other spouse to have sex with another person, therefore how can it be adultery? The definition gives no "out" if there is consent by the other spouse.  Jesus also did not give an "out" for adultery.  In fact, Jesus upped the ante by saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28).  Jesus told us where adultery begins; in the human heart with temptation, lusting, coveting, pondering, and then imagining it. 

The author almost seems to say a polyamorous relationship is ok because, unlike "swinging," there is a "commitment and emotional love as opposed to simply recreational sex."  WHAT??!! Swinging, polyamorous relationships, an unmarried person having sex with a married person are all adultery.  Because there are feelings of commitment and emotional love makes it better than swinging?  I would bet you could ask anyone in an adulterous relationship (with or without the other spouses consent) and they would all say they have feelings of love and/or commitment.  But so what? It is adultery plain and simple and this is explicitly forbidden by God in the Bible.  The author writes”the Bible does not explicitly condemn polyamory per se..."  How does it get any more explicit than God telling us we "shall not commit adultery?" 

"[T]he Bible does present monogamy as the ideal." No, the Bible presents monogamy as THE ONLY WAY NOT JUST THE IDEAL! The author even quotes the Bible for this: "the two will “become one flesh”—as the basis of marriage (Matt. 19:4-6)."  But then backtracks when he writes "as the ideal" it implies that monogamy is probably the best way to go but there are other ways not quite as good.  How can the author give such a weak-kneed answer about monogamy and not boldly proclaim God tells us it is the only way for a married couple.

Another extremely concerning statement made by the author when he writes "as Jesus taught concerning divorce, God sometimes allows practices that are not ideal (Matt. 19:8-9)." From this statement are we to infer because God allows divorce (not the ideal) God allows polyamorous relationships?  The scripture the author references, Matthew 19:8-9, allows a divorce "for sexual immorality."  Ironic isn't it?  The author writes that God allows for practices that are not ideal (divorce) but God allows for this less-than-ideal practice for ONE REASON...sexual immorality also known as polyamorous relationships, also known as adultery.

As I said in my first sentence, I am stunned by the answer to the question of polyamory lifestyle.  When I read the question I was sure I would read something about adultery, something about sexual immorality, something about monogamy being the only Biblical way for married couples.  Instead, I read about polyamory being less than ideal and God allows less than the ideal.  To back this up we read God allows the less-than-ideal divorce but no mention of why God allows divorce...sexual immorality.  When we have a publication that "speaks" for the Christian Reformed Church refusing to condemn sexual immorality by married couple (with small children on top of it) I am afraid we have "become of the world."  When the church will not strongly condemn actions such as this then where does the next generation turn to for morality?

I too believe scripture does in fact clearly condemn what we call polyamory in a modern day context.  Certainly, we don't have so many details in this pithy question, but given what is said, I think the council is failing badly with respect to this church, these "active members", and the other members of this congregation.

I would like to add to the above comments by suggesting that editor-in-chief Chong respond. This is a big enough lapse that we really ought to elevate the discussion to why this made it into print in the first place. Perhaps there needs to be a wider circle of reviewers vetting these? Just a thought.

First, I am glad so many commenters supplied many of the conventional arguments in response to this question that my answer did not supply. At a 350-word limit, any answer I offered to this question would never be fully adequate. These additional answers by commenters help round out the response to the church’s question.

Second, I know very little of the context of the question we received. My first assumption, then, was that there must already have been conversations between church leaders and this couple, resulting in the church’s knowledge of the couple’s polyamorist lifestyle and the couple’s expressed “biblical” justification, that is, Old Testament polygamy practices.

My second assumption was that the church leaders first responded to this couple with the conventional arguments or answers mentioned by commenters here: this is sin; this is adultery; this is cheating on your spouse; this is polygamy; and so on. And furthermore that these conventional answers had not been persuasive to the couple; otherwise, why would the church be asking this question of the Ethics panelist?

My third assumption was that since the Old Testament practice of polygamy was highlighted in the question, this was an especially contentious area in the issue between the church and this couple. For that reason I chose to focus on that issue.

I used my limited word count to show that polygamy in the Old Testament was not God’s will or intention, even if God allowed the practice to happen. Then I needed to explain why God allows practices that he does not intend. This is where I brought Jesus and divorce into the equation. The whole point of that exercise was to undermine polygamy as a biblical justification for polyamory.

From my research on polyamory, certain Christian groups that justify this practice make pains to point out that polyamory is not “swinging” or adultery or having sexual affairs, nor is it synonymous with polygamy. For them, all the arguments against adultery and similar sins do not apply to polyamory. It is beside the point, in their opinion. This is why I began the answer by defining polyamory as accurately as I could, as polyamorists define it themselves.

I chose to zoom in on what I think is polyamory’s biggest mistake—reducing marriage and sexual relationships to mutual consent and desire. Marriage and sexual relationships are more than that. Therefore, even if (as polyamorists argue), it is not adultery or cheating, polyamory still does not have biblical justification as marriage is more than mutual consent, and polygamy in the Old Testament does not mean God sanctions or intends alternative relationships.

Finally, I added the word about kindness as I believe there is still the opportunity here for the church to leverage its relationship with this couple to lead them to a biblical way. An overly harsh or judgmental attitude is more likely to end the conversation and push this couple away, only to continue in their sinful lifestyle. Only if they remain in the church and are taught God’s ideal for sexual relationships, would there be hope for repentance.

So was my answer the best answer possible? I do not know. I only know that I tried my best. Of course, it is fair for readers to disagree with my methods. But I hope that readers do not too quickly judge my motives.

With the hopeful asumption that the original posters are still reading (!), here is a useful and insightful and winsome post which specifically addresses polyamory. 

With the hopeful asumption that the original posters are still reading (!), here is a useful and insightful and winsome post which specifically addresses polyamory. 

I used this article in my adult Sunday School class.  We read it.  I asked for "impressions."  We discussed.  To make a 45 minute session short, the unanimous consensus of the class (all adults, in number about 15), at the end of the class, was the following:

This article "soft pedaled" polyamory and inappropriately opened the door just a bit for Banner readers who might be open to it or tempted by it.

The "young married couple" should not be considered "members in good standing" by the church's council.

Neither of the couple should be allowed to be in any leadership role (i.e., SS teacher, group leader, etc).

The council should be clear to this members that their argument justifying their polyamorous activity was insufficient and not consistent with Scripture, that they were committing a clear and highly significant sin that would negatively affect others in the church and their own children, that they would not be allowed to engage in any leadership function, that they would be disciplined if they did not discontinue their polyamorous activity.

The church's council should permit these members to attend the church service and other functions (even if not as leaders).  However, if the members brought their polyamorous couple to church with them (who should also be permitted to attend) and externally displayed the relationship so that it was advertised to others in the church (e.g., the husband/wife holding hands with the the counterpart of the other partner), they should be disallowed even from attending. 

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