Negotiating With Polyamory: A Snapshot Of Evangelicalism In 2020

Introduction

H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) is the slightly less famous younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). The latter was a favorite of two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Richard Niebuhr is most famous for his 1951 book, Christ and Culture, though his early work, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929) and The Kingdom of God in America (1937) remain influential. In the latter he perfectly characterized liberal Christianity as that in which “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In Christ and Culture he offered an influential taxonomy of Christian approaches:

  • Christ against Culture
  • Christ of Culture
  • Christ above Culture
  • Christ and Culture in Paradox
  • Christ Transforming Culture

American evangelicals think of themselves as belong to the “Christ against culture tradition” but in reality they are simply a slightly more conservative version of the “Christ of culture” tradition. Since the early 19th century American evangelical religion has been a mirror of the culture. It is not transforming culture nor does it transcend culture. It is a creature of the culture and is constantly being transformed by the prevailing culture.

Polyamory: A Test Case

The relation between American evangelicalism and the culture is illustrated in the recent essay in Christianity Today, in which Preston Sprinkle, an outspoken advocate of so-called “Side B” Christianity and Branson Parler, who teaches theology at Kuyper College (who works alongside Sprinkle in the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender) and also seems to a advocate the so-called “Side B” approach to same-sex attraction (this catechism clearly takes the Side B approach), consider polyamory.

According to Psychology Today,

Polyamory is the practice of having multiple intimate relationships, whether sexual or just romantic, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved. Polyamory is not gender-specific and rejects the idea of exclusivity; anyone can have multiple partners of any gender.

The article continues by saying that polyamory is a sub-species of “open relationships.” In short, it is another aspect of the sexual revolution. Now that Hollywood has liberated sex from natural and divinely established limits, since LGBTQ characters now represent more than twice the national average of LGBTQ of figures on television, polyamory is the next sexual frontier. Already polyamory is featured in a mainstream network TV series (e.g., SWAT—only Hollywood in 2020 could find a way to wedge polyamory and LGBTQ issues into a show ostensibly about Special Weapon and Tactics).

Were this simply an introduction to the ethical and social challenges and opportunities for witness and evangelism presented by polyamory we should be grateful to the authors for helping us to face the next wave of the sexual revolution. The essay begins with a story involving professing Christians involved in polyamory, who receive appalling direction from an alleged Christian counselor. The authors note that there are about as many people involved in polyamory in the USA (5%) as identify as LGBTQ (4%).

The essay challenges pastors and churches to think through their response to this “next sexual frontier.” How will churches answer when asked if they are open to those who are “poly”?1 Does the church accept and affirm them? These are questions to which thoughtful churches and pastors will want to formulate a careful and gracious response. Here is one proposed response: All Welcome. No Exceptions.

They observe that one family chose to listen to their polyamorous child even as they did not affirm his choice. Another family, however, was unable to maintain a relationship. They correctly call pastors and churches to be proactive (rather than waiting for it to crop up in church and which then leads to desperate searches for materials to address it—my inbox is a witness to this reality—and most importantly, they do say explicitly call polyamory adultery and encourage us to call those who are involved in it to repentance.

Polyamory And Christ Of Culture

So far, so good. The approach of Sprinkle and Parler, however, presents some challenges for Christians who hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic, i.e., that not only non-heterosexual, extra-marital sex is sin but the very desire for such is sin.

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.

The underlying assumption here is that there are elements of polyamory that should be affirmed. E.g., the authors call us to affirm the desire for community, family, relationship, care, and affection. They repeat the Revoice/Side-B-fueled critique regarding the Christian idolatry of the “nuclear family.”

Certainly as image bearers all humans desire (or should) desire community etc. It is true that sin corrupts those desires. The problem here is not that we should identify these desires as, of themselves, good. Rather the problem with this approach is that where we would expect to find a full-throated, not to say angry, condemnation of yet another gross transgression of the laws of nature and of Scripture, before we can get to the one time polyamory is described as sin, though the word sin never occurs in the article, the authors must find something about polyamory to affirm.

What Would Habakkuk Do?

This move says so much about the nature of contemporary American evangelicalism. Niebuhr, as I recall, used Tertullian to represent the “Christ Against Culture” model (anthesis). Did Tertullian affirm supposed positive elements pagan Roman sexuality? No. More importantly, where do the Old Testament prophets find something to affirm about Israel’s sin before they condemn it? Surely the Israelites were seeking something worthy when they made the golden calf? Think of all the missed opportunities in the Minor Prophets to affirm the church before criticizing her.

If the Old Testament is, well, just a little to Old Testament for one’s tastes, what about our Lord Jesus? Where does he do what Sprinkle and Parler do? Jesus said, “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…” (John 16:8; NASB). The Spirit does not first affirm what is good about what sinners are doing. He convicts.

The Law says, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). The Gospel says, “For God so loved sinners…” (John 3:16, paraphrased). What Sprinkle and Parler offer is neither law nor gospel. A substantial percentage of those who identify as LGBTQ have been traumatized by sexual violence of some sort, by an alcoholic parent, or they have been neglected or otherwise seriously hurt. It does not require a great imagination to think that the same is probably true of those attracted to polyamory. They are likely seeking to fill a void in their lives but as much as they need to be heard and helped, they also need to hear the law announced unequivocally. The law condemns their abuser(s) and it condemns them, if they are outside of Christ.

The article begins by discussing professing Christians who are involved in polyamory without ever asking whether we are supposed to credit such a profession. This is a telling omission. The Side-B approach to Christianity cannot address this silence because their case also rests upon it to a significant degree. They also call us to regard as Christians those who have a same-sex attraction (but who do not act upon it sexually) and who are impenitent about that attraction. In other words, they do not see SSA as sin to be mortified. Is poly attraction a sin to be mortified? Yes. The desire to have sex with someone who is not one’s heterosexual spouse is sin. That the very desire for a poly relationship is sin, however, is not clearly indicated in the article.

Finally, the article is typically evangelical in its neglect of the category of nature, another word (and category) that does not occur in the essay. Yet it was a basic category by which our Lord addressed closely related questions. When Jewish authorities sought to trap him by asking to to sort out the question of who would be married to whom, in view of polygamy, in the new heavens and the new earth Jesus answered:

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way (Matt 19:8; NASB).

When Jesus said “it was not so from the beginning” he was appealing to nature, to creation. The Mosaic permission of polygamy was contrary to the creational intent. It was not contrary to nature in the same way that homosexuality is, for obvious reasons but this passage addresses polyamory quite adequately. Polyamory is institutionalized adultery but it is also contrary to the creational intent of marriage: one man and one woman. The Jewish authorities wanted to frame the question relative to grace, i.e., the new heavens and the new earth, the eschaton, but Jesus framed his answer relative to nature, creation.

Evangelicals struggle with the very existence of the category nature because they are Pietists, for whom grace has more or less obliterated nature. This is why Pietists have so many rules, when to have a quiet time, how to have a quiet time, what one can eat, where, and with whom. Grace obliterates the common. It turns us all into monks and nuns. For their part, the neo-Kuyperians (e.g., Doyeweerdians et al) have been at war with the classic Christian distinction between nature and grace for more than a century. They cannot speak of nature and grace without also using the noun dualism. A distinction is not a dualism.

In contrast, the classical Reformed approach is to affirm the existence and validity of both nature (creation) and grace (redemption). Perhaps this why one does not see the Reformers and their orthodox successors speaking about “redeeming” this and that, because they knew that cobbling and plumbing were not dirty or sinful and did not need to be redeemed? They knew that grace renews sinners in the image of God and empowers them to fulfill their good vocations (e.g., cobbling and plumbing) in the world Coram Deo, before the face of God.

Finally, this episode is, as they say in poker, a “tell” about how evangelicals relate Christ to culture insofar as they must always find something about the culture to affirm. The evangelicals hope to remain relevant to the culture. Once upon a time they harbored hopes of influencing the culture. After all, Christianity Today was originally headquartered in Washington D.C. Remember the Moral Majority?  Remember the American Family Association? Remember Focus On Family? Now they are reduced to finding something in polyamorous relationships to affirm.

We must be compassionate to fellow sinners but we do not need to find something to affirm in whatever the culture does. We need to affirm nature, grace and humans as bearers of the divine image, but who through original and actual sin have defaced and are defacing that image in rebellion against their Creator. We need to call them to repentance and faith, by preaching the law, whereby God the Holy Spirit will convict them of their sin and misery (including polyamory) and the gospel, by which the Spirit will bring his elect to new life and true faith in Jesus the Savior. We need to point those new believers to true churches where, out of the gospel in union with Christ, they will learn what it means to follow Jesus, of gradual renewal in the image of Christ, and a daily life conformed to nature (as intended) and grace.

NOTE

1. The slang “poly” has more than one meaning. It is a also short-hand expression used by and about those who are of Polynesian descent and culture.

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17 comments

  1. Is that the same Sprinkle of Sprinkle publications, which reprinted Rutherford’s _Rex Lex_? And is that Kuyper any relationship to Abraham?

    • Sprinkle? No, perish the thought! Pastor Lloyd Sprinkle of Harrisonburg, Virginia, was a wonderful, godly man, a Calvinistic Baptist, and founder of Sprinkle Publications. His republishing of various Reformed and Calvinistic volumes has blessed the church immensely. As far as I know, there is no connection whatever between Lloyd Sprinkle and Preston Sprinkle. Check the status of Sprinkle Publications at http://www.sprinklepublications.net/.

  2. I cannot be certain, but what is today called polyamory seems to me to be different from the polygamy God tolerated from saints in the past. In the polygamy of the past, a man might have many wives, but he sexually engaged with them one at a time and the wives did not engage sexually with one another. All the women of a harem were married to the same man, but none of them were married to one another. There were never more than the husband and one wife in the bed on any given occasion. While I believe this to be “against nature” on the psychological component of marital relationships, it was not against nature in the physical aspects of sexuality.

    But today’s polyamory embraces those who are “throuples” and so forth and who, by group sexual activity, violate the very nature of human sexuality. There “groupings” are, for all intents and purposes, agreed upon orgies. I have little doubt that some poly-amorous relationships involve multiples of both sexes and involve, not only a perversion of heterosexual conduct, but add the homosexual component as well. And, sadly, I doubt that it will be long before such relationships receive the stamp of approval of legal marriage. We are seeing Romans 1.18 ff. unfold before our eyes, here in the USA. May God help us.

    • Joseph,

      Yes, there is a significant difference between polyamory and polygamy. The latter was permitted by God and the former has never been permitted by God. Polyamory is institutionalized adultery. In polygamy, one man commits to the care of multiple wives. Polyamory is, as I said in the article, a kind of “open” marriage, by definition. It is not fixed. It is neither necessary heterosexual nor is bound by any fixed norms. It is whatever its practitioners want it to be.

      So, your analysis is correct.

    • Great points.

      One thing seldom considered is the violence polygamy and polyamory bring. Sheikh Bin Laden was a polygamist who had something like 50 sons, one of whom was Osama Bin Laden. Polygamy and polyamory seem to create violence by allowing sons to raise themselves apart from distant, aloof fathers. Violence is a way to establish oneself in a hierarchy of brothers and also a way to get noticed. We can see this back to ancient times where the sons of Israel threw Joseph into a well then sold him to slave traders which was basically a death sentence. Joseph was Israel’s favorite. Then there was the incident with David’s son Absalom. The Biblical examples are plentiful.

      I’d expect more exported violence from Utah after this, but of course Father’s Day is the most confusing day of the year to inner city youth who live with and experience a lot of violence as well. We’ve been very good at keeping our violence tucked out of sight by practicing it in foreign countries or against the unborn or allowing it in poor areas, but I suspect it’s going to break out much more into the open.

  3. Scott,

    I think we’ll see violence in the suburbs next. Not only are Section 8 housing vouchers designed to move inner city problems out into the suburbs, but also the suburbs will generate plenty of problems organically as the family dysfunction becomes the norm and the housing and infrastructure decay. The Left wants us all to move to their urban Soviet-style khrushchyovka so they can collect rents from us, but they can’t make the cities livable. There’s a reason homesteading has become fashionable again.

    • All in light of Harry Brown’s comment to the effect, “Government is good at breaking your leg and then offering you a crutch (you ingrate, you)”. Progressivism, the Left, socialism is all about more govt. to solve the problems brought about by govt. in the first place. At least when you idolize it like the Left does and think that is how a secular heaven is to be introduced on earth.

  4. I don’t believe this is a necessarily fair characterization of Sprinkle’s position. Noticeably absent are quotes demonstrating Sprinkle’s understanding of SSA or “polyamorous desire” as non-sinful. In fact, he doesn’t mention “polyamorous desire” at all. His arguments in dealing with the sinfulness and non-sinfulness of desire are complex and nuanced in a way that allows for a carefully nuanced affirmation of an original good intent of a desire that is perverted in its current form. Two biblical precedents that seem to allow this careful addressing of desire would be a) Paul’s affirmation of the Athenians’ ‘desire to worship,’ if I may use that terminology, even though it is being currently expressed in idolatry (in the Areopagus in Acts 17); and b) Paul’s encouragement for those who burn with passion (lusting for sexual relations while unmarried) to see in it a desire to marry. Both cases show the apostle Paul addressing those tempted towards sinful behavior, and rather than railing on that sin, he instead chooses a different approach. They are deceived in thinking that their real desires will be satisfied in this sinful behavior, and instead need to redirect. If you read Sprinkle’s content more carefully, this sounds like much of his approach.

    Furthermore, unless I missed something (please correct me if so!), there is no affirmation of sinful desire in Sprinkle’s article that is referred to. In fact, he carefully explains that desires for relationships of different kinds are actually combinations of many desires, rather than over-simplifying it into a single desire: “I desire polyamory!” Rather than thinking people just “desire polyamory,” it’s instead helpful to notice that people have many desires (including some that are good) that they believe (wrongly) that polyamory is the way to go in order to fulfill them. See this section where he draws this distinction:

    “ 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.”

    Noticeably absent is any affirmation of sinful desire, nor any kind of “the behavior is wrong but the desire isn’t,” as was claimed in the above commentary. Sprinkle does not say “polyamory is wrong, but the desire for polyamory is not.” Similarly, he never says the same about homosexual desire. His nuance is careful, and the above address seems to unfairly ignore the care he exercises.

    • Paul,

      1. I don’t believe that your comment/objection is a necessary conclusion from my response.

      2. I addressed both authors, not only one.

      3. I tried to summarize their position fairly and to affirm what I could but this an objectionable/disputable portion in the article and it is on that I focused.

  5. Thanks for the reply, Scott. I should have mentioned in that first comment that I appreciated your comments. Your argument was more complex and thoughtful than I may have made it seem that I thought in that first comment–I apologize! I think this is exactly the kind of conversation we need to be having right now.

    Briefly, though, on those 3 points:

    1. You are right there, I suppose. That was a conclusion that I drew rather than explicit in your words, but if not ‘necessary,’ per se, is it not at least a fair conclusion? The two main statements you made that led me there:
    – “The underlying assumption here is that there are elements of polyamory that should be affirmed. E.g., the authors call us to affirm the desire for community, family, relationship…”
    – “…where we would expect to find a full-throated, not to say angry, condemnation…the authors must find something about polyamory to affirm.”
    Both comments indicate that your reading of Sprinkle and Parler led to the conclusion that they were looking to affirm things about polyamory, when I don’t think they were. They were affirming underlying desires for good things, which I did see that you allowed that there is a place for. I do think, though, that there was actually a clear condemnation of the practice in their words. See: “Scripture does clearly connect sex, marriage, and monogamy in ways that are violated in polyamorous relationships.” Rather than seeing that as skirting the issue, that is a strong statement today in the public square. I read that as full-throated condemnation, and anyone attracted to polyamory (and particularly those outside the church) would likewise hear it as such.

    2. I apologize: you did. I didn’t give you credit for that. I am not as familiar with Barber as I am with Sprinkle, so my own ignorance came into view in my use of Sprinkle’s name alone. Sorry about that.

    3. I should say that I understand that your argument didn’t center on what I mentioned in my comment, and that it was a thoughtful and more complex article. Given that your argument seemed to rest, though, on a critique of their approach to addressing sin and idolatry through affirmation of good desires as as one that pulls punches where punches are due (and perhaps blurring the line between sin and non-sin in the process), I wanted to push back in three main ways: 1) I wanted to show that in my view, there is actually condemnation of sin in their article. 2) I wanted to show that while you helpfully pointed out examples of when affirmation was not employed (Moses, Habakkuk, Jesus, etc., as well as a bunch more throughout the Bible), there is also biblical warrant for the ‘affirmation of desire strategy’ (forgive the sloppy label) that Sprinkle/Parler seem to employ. The apostle Paul gives us a couple of examples, and for another example I’d say Jesus does, too, when he affirms our ‘thirst’ (you’re thirsty, which is leading you to approaches that will not satisfy…turn to me, and your thirst will be quenched). And 3) I wanted to address your frustration that they wouldn’t call ‘polyamorous desire’ a sin by attempting to point out the nuance with which they carefully used language surrounding ‘desire.’ I’m convinced that anyone reading the article would hear their clear teaching against polyamory, even as it is a clear encouragement towards a gentle, pastoral approach rather than the prophet standing up on the street corner preaching against idolatry. I would say that as the apostle Paul modeled contextual awareness in his preaching ministry and that unique sermon in Acts 17, Sprinkle and Parler sound like they are making a similar point: people will not listen if you preach as a Jew to Jews when you are a Jew surrounded by Greeks. In other words, we must know that even as we remain firm in our convictions, flexibility with our conversation strategy to fit into the lexical and worldview categories of the people around us is not only permissible, but inasmuch as it might win even one of them to Christ, by all means let us do it!

  6. Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that we are drawn to Christ because we are convicted of sin and in desperate need of a Saviour, not because He makes excuses for our sinful desires. Jesus said that he who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. I suppose if Jesus was using the gentle, pastoral approach, instead he should have affirmed the desire for intimacy and love as a way of reaching out and winning over the sinner. He should have mitigated the law rather than pointed to its terrible severity to convict of sin and need of Him as our Saviour. I suppose he missed a great opportunity to win over sinners by insisting that they are condemned in sin, and therefore need a Saviour. The problem was that He came to save them from the curse of sin, which requires conviction and repentance, not in spite of their sin. Therefore many were offended and they rejected him so that ultimately he was condemned and crucified. What an opportunity He missed. If only He had praised their good desires to sin instead!

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