By Preston Sprinkle, President of The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender.
My friend Branson Parler and I wrote an article on polyamory for Christianity Today several months ago, and it’s recently elicited several critiques (see HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE for starters). The article was titled: “Polyamory: Pastors’ Next Sexual Frontier.” And as the title suggests, the goal of the article was to help pastors understand what polyamory is and to encourage them to cultivate a response—one that’s both biblically faithful and gracious in tone. Because tone really matters in Evangelical conversations about sexuality—a point that deserves its own lengthy blog post.
Some people in polyamorous relationships have criticized the article because we said that “Scripture does clearly connect sex, marriage, and monogamy in ways that are violated in polyamorous relationships” and that polyamorous people “need to be called to repentance for the way they have committed adultery.” That is, we simply stated that polyamorous relationships are sin without justifying my conclusion. But more recently, critiques have come from the conservative side of Evangelicalism, who accuse the article not of being too harsh toward polyamorous relationships, but for being too soft. And it’s those critiques that I want to respond to here.
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If you’re not familiar with the article, I encourage you to read it before you continue on. I’m going to pull quotes and respond to certain pushbacks, but none of this will make as much sense if you don’t read the entire article and are familiar with the context.
To get us warmed up, one of the minor critiques had to do with our statement about polyamorous people: “Will they be accepted and affirmed?”—which obviously can’t mean what it seems to mean in isolation. This was intended, in context, to be a question that pastors will be asked by people in polyamorous relationships or people who want to bring their “poly friends” to church. Branson and I weren’t implying that the answer is “yes, they should be accepted and affirmed in their polyamorous relationships!”
In any case, let me be as clear as a sunny day: I believe all sexual relationships outside of a male and female marriage are sin. That includes opposite sex and same-sex sins. It includes masturbating to porn, boyfriends having sex with their girlfriends, and sexual abuse in the church—and the leaders who cover it up. And, yes, it includes those who engage in polyamorous sexual relationships.
Some people have called Branson and me “soft men, writing soft words for a soft magazine, published in a soft generation,” while others have labeled me an “effeminate man.” At first I thought these guys were compensating for something, as many I’m more masculine than thou tough guys do these days. But then I saw who wrote these words. I was wrong. These are men. Real men. The gibborim of renown. Testosterone dripping from rock hard bodies.
In any case, I can see how some might think that Branson and I are soft on sin, a sort of “evangelical light” approach to immoral sexual behavior. One critic said we “technically identified polyamory as against God’s will,” but were incredibly weak and soft with our words. Now, we never used and never would use the word “technically” in identifying polyamory as sin. That’s the critic’s words not ours. But I get it. I really do. I understand why some would think this of us. The article didn’t yell and scream and call down hellfire and brimstone for those in polyamorous relationships (or straight people addicted to porn) in 2 sentences or less. It didn’t construct a short online statement for you to sign, showing your agreement that polyamorous relationships are sin so you wouldn’t have to actually dig in and evaluate what the Bible actually says. The point of the article wasn’t to layout biblical reasons why polyamorous relations are sin. Branson and I have done that rather thoroughly elsewhere. Rather, one of the main points of the article was to encourage Christian leaders to think. To think theologically, and think pastorally. To think ahead of the cultural curve about polyamory, to understand what it even is. Because you must first understand something before you disagree with it. Disagreement isn’t refutation. It’s just a reaction.
Our ultimate goal, then, was to initiate a conversation where leaders can first understand what polyamory is. We want leaders to construct a robust, biblical, and pastoral response that’s rooted into God’s vision for marriage and sexual expression, seasoned with grace, and eager to help people live into the divine image we’ve been created it. Because, if we don’t bleed for actual people—whatever their sin—we shouldn’t be pastors.
This has become a serious problem in Evangelicalism. We’ve gotten good at knowing what we believe, without knowing why we believe it. Most Christian leaders believe that polyamorous relationships are sin. Great. I do too. But do we know why we believe this? Do we have a good explanation of 2 Samuel 12:8 when someone asks about it? Or would we have to look it up? “Wait, what?” the enquirer will ask? “You’re adamant that polyamory is sin, yet you aren’t even aware that God said he blessed David with multiple wives? Hmmm…okay.”
We need to start thinking now about polyamory. And we need to ask hard questions and not settle for trite answers. If marriage reflects God’s love for the church, and God is plural (three in one), why can’t plural love reflect God’s love for the church? Is polyamory an orientation—we were born this way—and does it matter? Why, or why not? Why did God bless David—a man after God’s own heart—with many wives?
Some might be irritated that I’m simply asking these questions. Don’t challenge me to think; just give me the answers! But there’s no point giving answers if we don’t know what the questions are. I’ve spent my life asking hard questions about what the Bible says, what it means, and how it applies to today, and I make no apologies about this. I will continue to do so, even if it makes some Christians uncomfortable. If raising hard questions makes you nervous, then your faith is nearing a shipwreck anyway.
We need to know what we believe and why we believe it. Our failure to articulate the latter is one reason why so many Christians are disenchanted with American evangelicalism (though still passionate about Jesus). “The scandal of the evangelical mind,” writes Mark Noll, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Inject this statement with steroids and you have the typical evangelical approach to sex and sexuality.
Some critics were appalled that we “told pastors not to ‘address homosexuality’.” Rightly, they exclaim: “What unbiblical counsel!” And it is. It’s terrible counsel. Here’s the full context of what we said:
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.”
Elsewhere in the article, we said:
We need to help people cultivate a Christian vision for sexuality, sexual expression, singleness, and marriage. Why did God create us as sexual beings? What is marriage for? What is sex for? What is the significance of our sexed embodiment as male and female? And what does genuine—sexual or non-sexual—intimacy look like?
Now, I do want to say, I should have added the word “just” in front of the phrase “addressing homosexuality. ”So—“Instead of just addressing homosexuality, educate your people on the meaning of marriage and sexual expression.” I honestly felt like the “just” was implied here. If our critics would still have a problem with this counsel, then I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree what a healthy education of a theology of sexuality looks like.
Obviously I don’t believe preachers shouldn’t “address homosexuality.” I mean, I’ve spent the last several years of my life and ministry doing exactly that. Just last year alone, I’ve preached on LGBTQ related issues for what amounts to about 150 hours of preaching in about 20 different denominations. That’s like 300 sermons (or 17 from John MacArthur J ). And a good chunk of my preaching has to do with laying down a thick biblical theology of marriage and refuting counterarguments to the historically Christian view of marriage and sexual relationships. I don’t know. Some might think it’s a bit too much. When I’m not preaching and teaching on the topic, I’m creating resources to help Christian leaders address sexuality and gender-related questions. The very mission statement of The Center is to “help Christian leaders and churches address questions of faith, sexuality & gender with theological faithfulness and courageous love.”
Okay, but none of that was stated in the article. That’s fair. I really should have said “just.” But—the critics who raised this concern know about The Center’s ministry. I have to conclude that their interpretation of this part of the article is an uncharitable attempt to interpret my words in the worst possible direction. And that’s not a very masculine thing to do. We leaders have an ethical responsibility to interpret a person’s words according to the author’s intention.
I stand by the point of those two paragraphs quoted above. A thousand times over, I stand by them. Christian leaders: we cannot rely on just—just!—denouncing sexual sins. We must instill a robust Christian view of marriage and sex in the people we lead. We must not just teach what sexual sins to avoid. We must help people understand, teach, and embody a Christian vision for what marriage is for and what sex is for.
Because most Christians don’t know. And this is partly why the church is plagued with layers upon layers of sexual immorality. Porn addictions, sex outside of marriage, emotional and sexual affairs, sexual abuse (and the leaders that cover it up), and unbiblical views of singleness. This is because, in part, we’ve adopted a cultural view of marriage and sex and added one little footnote: “don’t have sex until you’re married (and shame on you if you do!).” Few Christians who agree that sex belongs within marriage could tell you what sex is for. Many Christians think that marriage is simply what two people do when they emotionally fall in love and want to have sex but are told that they have to wait until marriage. Few Christians have a sense of marriage as vocation, marriage as a picture of Christ and the church, marriage as “the coming together of male plus female” as “a signpost pointing to that great complementarity of God’s whole creation, of heaven and earth belonging together” (N.T. Wright).
If all we do is add a footnote to a secular view of sex and marriage, or rely on sexual dos and don’ts (which are necessary but insufficient), we’re going to continue to see loads of sexual immorality plaguing the church. And we’re going to have a growing number of church members engaging in polyamorous relationships. Just telling them to “stop it!” like Bob Newhart isn’t going to do much. (How’s that going with the porn epidemic, divorce rate, and sex outside of marriage?)
Finally, I think the most troubling statement for some people was this: “We can acknowledge that many of the elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—are good things.”
Some took this to mean that we believe “there are ‘good things’ in sexual sin.” But we never said that. We said that there are good elements that draw people to polyamorous relationships. Alonging for intimacy, to know and be known. The longing itself is good. The way it’s manifested—like in polyamorous relationships—is sin.
Some raise a good question about this line of reasoning. I mean, it’s more of a critique than a question, but a question nonetheless:
By extension, are there “good things” in: Racist attacks? Lynchings? Genocide? Molestation of five-year-old girls?
Well, no. And we never said there was. We weren’t making a categorical statement about all sin, but about this sin. And, again, we didn’t say there are “good things” about a polyamorous relationship, but “good elements that draw people to them.” Does this mean that the same is true of every other kind of sin? Of course not. And it’s a sloppy method of ethical reasoning to just throw out a bunch of other sins and demand that the same dynamics are at work in the same way in every other sin.
Do racist attacks spring from good longings? No.
What if a man breaks into your home, grabs your wallet and runs away, and in pursuit of him you crack him over the head with a baseball bat and kill the man—the homeless man trying to feed his three starving daughters? That’s a bad thing. You murdered a man. But were there any “good things” that lead you to get your wallet back? What if you were making sure he didn’t harm your kids playing in the front yard? And what about the thief? Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong. Period. Maybe. But did the man who wanted to care for his kids have any good desires that were misdirected?
Christian ethics can be complex and multilayered. We can denounce an act as sin, and yet explore all the reasons that would lead someone to this sin. That’s not being soft on sin. It’s just being a wise pastor.
In any case, our point was not to find “good things” in sexual sin, thereby softening the immorality of sexual sin. We simply wanted to acknowledge that there are some good, natural, creational desires that can go awry when not directed toward others in a Christ-centered, creationally intended manner.
And this is a basic missiological point. That we should find points of contact in other cultures—or other value systems, or perhaps relationships—in order to communicate the holistic gospel in a way that touches the other person where they’re at. Please feel free to disagree. Even some missiologists (or at least missionaries) disagree on this point. Some say there’s no need to find points of contact in the target culture (or relationship). Just preach the truth as hard and American as you can. Understanding and humanizing the target culture is irrelevant. Just tell it like it is. No need to listen to the pagan ways of those you’re trying to reach. They’re pagans! You don’t need to listen to them. Listening is compromise. Understanding is softness. Who cares about their rituals, their values, their sinful polygamous relationships. They just need to be told they’re in sin. Period.
I share the same evangelistic zeal of this approach, but for various missiological reasons, I find it to be inadequate. And as exiles living in Babylon, we are missionaries living in a foreign culture. This is one of the underlying assumptions of our CT article. The gospel—and the countercultural sexual ethic that comes with it—needs to be articulated and explained as any missionary would in a culture that embodies a very different value system.
But, having said all of that, I think Branson and I should have worded things differently. I can’t speak for Branson (he’s on vacation with his family, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth). But if I were to write that article again, I would have worded that original line as such:
“We can acknowledge that many of the there might be some elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—that are good things longings.”
Apart from the laborious use of the word “that,” I think this way of saying things might be a clearer way of communicating what we were trying to say. And I sincerely apologize to those of you who were trying to interpret what we were saying in charitable ways and yet were still troubled by our wording. I’m truly sorry. Clarity is a virtue and sometimes I fail at it. I hope this blog post has improved upon whatever was unclear in our CT article.
So let me be clear one more time: I believe polyamorous relationships are sin. I believe that marriage is by definition a one-flesh union between two sexually different persons (male and female) from different families and that all sexual relationships outside this union are sin. And I believe—because the Bible clearly says it—that ongoing, unrepentant sexual sin (or greed, or verbal abuse, or slander, among others) threatens to lose one’s place in the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Eph. 5:3-5; Rev. 2:14; 20-21). God’s the judge of who’s in and who’s out. And He’s revealed to us through His word that those engaging in ongoing, unrepentant sin have no confidence that they are in.
I believe these things so passionately that I’ve made it my full-time job to help Christian leaders around the world believe these things as well. I’m not hiding behind a blog or a tweet while bashfully hanging on to biblical orthodoxy. I’m actively and passionately going out of my way to instill these truths in the hearts of any Christian leader who’s willing to listen. Any Christian who says I’m soft on sexual sin is a soft and lying man. Or woman.
My conservative critics and I probably disagree on how to go about this. Our rhetoric, our tone, our posture is different. And I’m fine with that. I will say that the posture and tone exemplified by some of my critics has caused so much damage to so many peoples’ faith—especially those who love Jesus and struggle with their sexual or gender identity—that I’m eager to distance myself from their way of going about things. If listening to those you disagree with, or presenting biblical truth in a more gracious manner, or making sure we dignify one’s humanity even if they’re in sin, or if trying to genuinely understand another perspective before you refute it seems like a mark of weakness and effeminacy, then I’m very eager to continue doing my thing while you continue doing yours.
Sometimes how we believe what we believe is just as important as what we believe. She who has ears, let her hear.