What do Christians need to know about polyamory?

14 July 2023

Head of Public Policy Tim Dieppe tackles the increasingly common topic of polyamory

Almost every week it seems like there is something in the media promoting polyamory: romantic or sexual relationships between more than two people.

For example, this MailOnline article: “Meet Sam, his fiancée Anna – and his weekend girlfriend Megan: the polyamorous throuple who started their arrangement AFTER he popped the question and now spent Christmas Eve together.”

Or the Mirror, covering the story of another man who tried to talk his wife into trying polyamory and encouraged her to find a new boyfriend – but she refused, so he went and had an affair instead.”

Similarly, The Times has written that “Polyamorous families fight for rights.” This article cites a claim that “four to five percent of American couples are currently practising some form of non-monogamy and one in five will engage in it at some point in their lives.” It says that there is a growing push for greater recognition of polyamorous relationships in the US that is being compared to gay rights and other civil rights campaigns. Some states in the US have granted domestic-partnership rights in law to people in polyamorous relationships and banned discrimination based on family structure.

A growing trend?

The BBC was early on this trend, publishing an article about “Ethical non-monogamy: the rise of multi-partner relationships” in 2021. The following year, The Sunday Times published a feature article: “The ultimate guide to polyamory without heartbreak.” This article claims that “More and more Britons are exploring relationships with multiple partners.” It adds that: “non-monogamy is now a valid and increasingly mainstream approach to relationships, particularly among younger generations.

It has also been reported that “there is significant crossover between those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and pansexual and those who practice nonmonogamy, according to multiple studies.”

The Times has also published a survey showing that nearly a third of men were open to the idea of more than one wife or long-term girlfriend, but only 5% of women were interested in forming part of such a relationship. The Spectator has asked: Why are so many young women buying into polyamory?” This article notes that having babies is unlikely to work well in polyamorous relationships and some women are starting to wake up to that reality.

In the New Statesman journalist Pravinda Rudra said that at the age of 28 she finds “more and more of [her] friends uttering that well worn phrase ‘monogamy isn’t natural’.” Her reluctance to embrace open relationships makes her wonder whether she isn’t progressive!

Logical consequence of abandoning marriage

In the UK, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 marked a momentous change in society’s attitude to marriage. Granting same-sex couples similar legal rights to a married couple fundamentally undermined the uniqueness of marriage as a legal and cultural institution.

Then in 2013, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was passed, redefining marriage in law to include same-sex partnerships.

At the time, many people said this would inevitably lead to polygamy. After all, the arguments used to justify the redefinition of marriage closely parallel arguments for recognition of polygamous relationships. ‘Love is love’, as the saying goes. Having redefined marriage so that it does not exclude same-sex couples, why should marriage be restricted to only two people? Once you allow for ‘equal marriage’ why not allow for ‘open marriage’? If we define marriage to be about recognising who you love, then why not recognise as many people as you ‘love’?

So, it is really no surprise that polyamory is on the rise. The sexual revolution hasn’t ended yet. Polyamory is the latest taboo to come under attack. There are signs that paedophilia could be next. Then there’s bestiality. And then, as the writer of Judges said, we will be back to the anarchy of ”everyone doing what is right in his own eyes.“ (Judges 21:25).

Does the Bible endorse polyamory?

There are several examples of polygamy in the Bible – in which a man has more than one wife. That is not to say that the Bible endorses such behaviour though. There are also examples of murder, rape and adultery. So how do we decide what is endorsed and what is not?

The clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that marriage is between one man and one woman. This is first taught at the creation of the first man and the first woman where it says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24). The nature of marriage is part of the created order.

Jesus repeated and reaffirmed this teaching when asked about divorce (Matt 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-9). The seventh commandment forbids adultery – which is sexual activity outside of marriage. The Mosaic law specifies that a king “shall not acquire many wives for himself.” (Deuteronomy 17:17), which means that those kings such as David and Solomon who had multiple wives clearly breached Biblical law. In the New Testament, a qualification to be an elder or deacon is that he should be “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). Also, 1 Corinthians 7:2 says, “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband,” in a further endorsement of monogamy.

The first example of polygamy in the Bible is Lamech in Genesis 4. Lamech is clearly portrayed as a rebellious character, and part of his rebellion was in taking two wives in deliberate defiance of the clear instruction that marriage is between one man and one woman, and in sharp contrast to his ancestors. Where other characters practise polygamy it always results in strife, sorrow, jealousy and misery. This includes the examples of Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon. Thus, the examples of polygamy serve to teach that it causes problems. God in his grace, however, still blesses these leaders and makes promises to them in spite of their sin.

One verse that is sometimes used to argue that God approves of polygamy, and even facilitates it is 2 Samuel 12:8 where Nathan tells King David:

“I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.”

This is in the context of Nathan rebuking David for taking Bathsheba as his wife after he had committed adultery with her and arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. Thus the context hardly endorses polygamy. In this context, where Nathan reminds David that his ”master’s house and wives came into his hand”, it refers to the royal household coming under David’s authority as king. David’s wives are listed and named in several places, but none of them include former wives of Saul. Thus Nathan is not saying that God gave Saul’s wives to become David’s wives, but that he allowed David to become King and ruler of Saul’s household.

What about Biblical law?

The fact is that polygamy was widely practised in ancient cultures, and that many Israelites imitated this practice even though the teaching of Biblical law is that marriage is monogamous. This is why there is Biblical case law relating to polygamy.

For example, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 states:

“If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his.”

This law assumes that there will be cases of polygamy which will cause jealousy and disputes about the rights of the firstborn. That is not to say that it approves of or endorses polygamy. The following laws start by saying “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son.” (Deut 21:18), and then “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death.” Neither of these situations are endorsed by the presence of laws about them. And so polygamy is not endorsed by the presence of laws about it.

Another case law example is Exodus 21:10-11 which specifies that if a man takes another wife then he should properly provide for her. This does not endorse taking another wife but does make clear that a man cannot abuse any wives that he may have. This is in the context of a society in which women were particularly vulnerable and usually not able to provide for themselves. It is better for a second wife to be properly provided for by her husband than for her husband to divorce her or abandon her.

What about levirate marriage?

The only other laws that relate to polygamy are the laws concerning levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). If a woman’s husband dies with no son then one of the husband’s brothers should take her as his wife and raise a child to inherit the dead man’s property as well as to provide for the widow. The question arises as to what if the brothers were already married? Is this then instructing someone to take another wife?

This is very unlikely to be the case since it flies in the face of the consistent warnings against polygamy throughout the rest of the Bible. What is more likely is that it was generally assumed that for a ‘brother’ to fulfil this duty he must be unmarried. There are two examples of levirate marriage in the Bible – that of Judah’s son’s wife Tamar who was then married to Onan (Genesis 38), and that of Ruth (Ruth 4) who married Boaz. In both cases the new husband was unmarried. In the case of Boaz, the nearest relative relinquished the obligation as was his right (Ruth 4:6-8). It should also be noted that ‘brother’ in this context most likely means someone in the same clan rather than necessarily a blood brother – see Numbers 36:8. It would be very odd for there not to be an unmarried man in the entire clan.

The Sadducees used the levirate marriage laws to confront Jesus with a hypothetical situation where a woman had seven different husbands who had all died. They asked Jesus whose wife she will be in the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-28). The assumption behind the question is that none of the brothers had any other wives. Note how preposterous the Sadducees found the idea that a woman could have more than one husband in heaven!

What about other alternative family structures?

Today there are not merely examples of polygamy and polyamory, there are also people who, for example, live in throuple relationships whereby all three people claim to be romantically and sexually engaged with each other. Such relationships clearly violate Biblical sexual morality since they are not marriage and they inevitably involve same-sex sexual relations which are strictly prohibited in the Bible.

As we become an increasingly pagan culture we can expect alternative family structures and relationships to become more common. Some people have ‘married’ themselves – a practice which is sometimes called ‘sologamy’. This must be the ultimate expression of narcissism. Others say that they have ‘open relationships’ which allow partners to be romantically and/or sexually engaged with other people outside of the primary relationship. Then there are those who say that they are bisexual and so need sexual partners of both sexes to fulfil their sexual desires. All of this is very self-centred and pagan thinking. The fact is that we are created male and female and sexual expression should be reserved for heterosexual marriage.

In conclusion, Biblical teaching can in no way be used to support polyamory in any way. Marriage is clearly defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, and whilst polygamy was practised by several Biblical characters, that is not to say it was endorsed.

Polyamory remains unpopular

YouGov polling shows that consistently 80% of the population state that they are not open to polyamorous relationships, with 10% saying they are open to it, and only 2% claiming they are currently practicing polyamory. These numbers have remained virtually unchanged for the last five years and betray the media lie that it is growing in popularity. Perhaps it is just in the circles of the media elite where alternative family structures are growing in popularity? Much has been written about how disconnected the media elite are from ordinary people across the country.

Monogamous heterosexual marriage is best

It is only because of the influence of Christianity on our culture that we have a largely monogamous culture. Pre-Christian cultures were very largely polyamorous. As our society abandons its Christian heritage, it is no surprise to find more promotion of alternative lifestyles and family structures. This began with homosexual relationships, but it was never going to end there.

Of course, monogamous heterosexual marriage is what is best for society and for individuals. Men and women complement each other. Married people are on average happier and healthier than non-married people. And, of course, children, on average, do much better when bought up by their biological parents or by another heterosexual monogamous committed couple.

Somehow these common sense points are lost in an increasingly individualistic society which emphasises selfish self-fulfilment. In fact, giving yourself exclusively and sacrificially to one marriage partner is very fulfilling, but from the way marriage is portrayed in the media you wouldn’t believe it.

As Miriam Cates MP has stated, the government should promote and encourage marriage, because it is what is best for society. As she emphasised: “That is not a value judgment; it is clear from the evidence.”

Further reading:

Media coverage of polyamory:

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