I’d first encourage readers to read the longer pastoral paper on polyamory that I wrote as resource for The Center for Faith, Gender and Sexuality. You can download it for free here. To write that paper, I spent over a year researching in order to provide biblically-rooted analysis and pastorally-wise insight. Certain segments of the CT article come directly from that paper, and so it’s helpful to have that broader context. Several of the responses to the CT article were good reminders that our age values instant responses over thoughtful engagement, drawing lines for one’s tribe over listening to understand, and constant commentary without careful research. I hope that my response here can serve to further clarify rather than obscure what is at stake and give sound pastoral and theological wisdom that is focused on ministering to real people in real life.
Before digging into the criticism, I want to note the difference that posture makes. Preston and I wrote our article, I would say, as missiologists trying to equip pastors who see themselves ministering in Babylon, not as culture warriors trying to reinforce to the faithful what we already believe.
That being said, I’ll primarily address the points made by Owen Strachan, because his comments seem to be behind Al Mohler’s remarks, as well as those of a few other critics. In particular, Strachan took issue with a sentence in the article that stated: “We can acknowledge that many of the elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—are good things.” According to Strachan, this claim is false and misleading because it states that people pursue polyamory for good reasons. As he puts it, “there are no ‘good things’ that draw us into sinful actions.” In a second blog post he wrote on the piece, he states that Preston and I claim that there are “good things in polyamorous interest.”
In response, I want to briefly note three things: 1) the need for a proper pastoral response to the complexity of polyamory, 2) the descriptive nature of the disputed sentence, and 3) the nature of sin from a biblical, Augustinian/Reformed perspective.
First, a key pastoral question is: how do we guide polyamorous people who genuinely want to repent. What precisely do they need to repent of? It’s important to have a clear answer to that question so that we can truly call people to repentance, but also to avoid calling people to repent of things that are not actually sins. That’s why I say, “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.” Now I can imagine Strachan or other critics pulling out their hair at this point. “Sin is sin is sin and sin can’t be sanctified!” I agree. Polyamory is sin. But what precisely about polyamory is sinful?
What I am afraid my critics don’t understand is the complexity and variety of polyamory. Strachan states, “If there are ‘good things’ in sexual actions the Bible calls depraved, there must be ‘good things’ in all sins.” For me, this is helpful, because I think Strachan seems to think that all partners in a polyamorous relationship are sexually active with another. But that’s not always the case.
Let me give an example to illustrate the complexity and think through what repentance and good pastoral counsel looks like. Let’s suppose there’s a polyamorous V relationship between a man and two women whom we’ll call Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. In a V relationship, Jacob has a sexual and romantic relationship to both Leah and Rachel. Leah and Rachel, however, are not in a sexual or romantic relationship with one another. Let’s suppose that, for Leah and Rachel, their lives are deeply intertwined, and they are close emotionally and relationally. They live in the same house, together with Jacob, and they actually care deeply for one another to the point of considering themselves sisters. Clearly, we’d say that the non-monogamous relationship as a whole doesn’t conform to God’s intentions for marriage, and so we would call Jacob, Leah, and Rachel to end the polyamorous relationship.
But in this situation, it’s important to be able to clarify precisely what is sinful about Leah and Rachel’s relationship with each other so that they can have good pastoral counsel on how to move forward. There is no sexual relationship between them that requires repentance. If Jacob chose to end his relationship with both women, would there be anything morally wrong about Leah and Rachel continuing to live together and share a household as friends and sisters in Christ? That would be a question of pastoral wisdom in each unique situation. Given their history, there may be reasons to think it would not be wise. But there may also be factors that could suggest that, if both are genuinely repentant, then sharing the same household would not be wrong and may even be beneficial. Certainly, to bind their conscience and say “this is unequivocally sinful” is not something you could say on the basis of Scripture. Again, depending on the maturity of the people involved, pastoral counsel might vary. But even as they give up polyamory, we could affirm that their deep relationship, care for each other, hospitality, and community are dimensions that could be sanctified in Christ, precisely because none of those things are identical with polyamory. As good pastors, we want to call people to genuinely repent of sin. But we also must avoid laying heavy burdens on peoples’ backs and calling them to repent of things that are not actually sinful.
Second, I want to briefly unpack that controversial sentence from another angle as well. This sentence was largely meant to be a descriptive claim about why polyamorous people themselves say they are drawn to polyamory. Before I started researching polyamory about 2 years ago, I didn’t know a whole lot about it. But in researching polyamory, I had a number of conversations with people who shared a bit about their own life or those of polyamorous friends and family members. I dug into some of the key texts on polyamory, including The Polyamorists Next Door by Elisabeth Sheff and Polyamory in the 21st Century by Deborah Anapol, as well as numerous journal and popular-level articles. In this research, I had some of my own assumptions challenged. What I heard, particularly in the extensive research done by Sheff and Anapol, was that people in polyamorous relationships were drawn to polyamory by things like deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community. In light of that, I think the sentence critiqued by Strachan certainly holds as a descriptive claim: the actual data of interviews and engagement with polyamorous people reveals that they are drawn to polyamory by deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community. It would be hard, on the face of it, to object to the fact that these things draw people to polyamory (for that is exactly what polyamorous people are self-reporting) or that those things—deep relationships, etc.—are inherently bad in themselves. This is not at all to deny the reality that our sinful, warped desires lead us into sinful actions and relationships. Obviously (or so I thought). But a proper biblical ontology should lead us to recognize that sin is the distortion of the good, which leads us to the final point.
Third and finally, Strachan objects primarily to the final part of the sentence: that some of the things (deep relationships, etc.) that draw people to polyamory are “good things.” Before discussing this further, I have to apologize to the reader—Strachan and I are not precise in this theological discussion! For starters, I constructed the original sentence in the context of pastoral guidance in a popular-level article rather than a scholastic-level discussion of the theology of sin. I can see how different people could read our sentence in different ways. He’s also not clear, though, repeatedly asking whether there’s any good thing “in” a number of different sinful actions. “In” in what sense? It’s not clear.
Nevertheless, I’ll try to clear up my own view of sin. My claim was meant to be in line with Scripture, as expressed in the Augustinian/Reformed tradition: sin is disordered love. It is a distortion, a twisting of the good. A biblical, Augustinian view of sin involves sees sin as loving something good in the wrong way, context, proportion, or manner. So, for example, the common idolatry of self, which we call pride, takes something that is good (my own life, survival, well-being, etc.) and exalts it to the supreme good. Greed takes something good (economic ability and security for myself and family) and turns it into the supreme driving force behind what I do. A proper understanding of sin recognizes that sin is a disordered love of something good. Sin is when I replace God with some other created good, a good which is truly good, even if my own desire for it is disordered/sinful. As my friend Laurie Krieg likes to say, sin is what happens when we try to get the good needs of our heart met in ways that don’t satisfy us and don’t glorify God.
So when we identify a sin (“lust,” “greed,” “pride”), we’re not saying sex, money, or self-care (even self-love) is inherently evil. In fact, a proper ontology recognizes that these are created goods that are foundationally good. I love the way G. K. Chesterton puts it: “That ‘God looked on all things and saw that they were good’ contains a subtlety which the popular pessimist (Baptist?) cannot follow, or is too hasty to notice. It is the thesis that there are no bad things, but only bad uses of things. If you will, there are no bad things [that is, objects or things themselves] but only bad thoughts; and especially bad intentions” (Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas, p. 33). Again, sin is the distortion and twisting of the good. This means that, in dissecting sin, we’re looking for how something good has been twisted and distorted.
At first, I thought that Strachan himself was making this same point in one of his blogs critiquing us. There he states, “Sin is the hijacking interruption of a good thing, the full corruption of a good thing, the temporal (or patterned) displacement of a good thing.” I took this to be his formulation of the biblical, Augustinian tradition. But that’s exactly what I took our article to be claiming, which is why his response left me confused. I was saying that polyamory is a distortion of the good, that polyamory is a corruption (evil desire and action) of a genuinely good desire we have for deep relationships, care, hospitality, and community.
But then I read that sentence again: “the hijacking interruption of a good thing, the full corruption of a good thing, the displacement (absence?) of a good thing [does he mean ‘thing’ as physical object, action, relationship, desire? It’s not clear].” I’m not quite sure what he means. From an Augustinian perspective, I’m not sure the “full corruption of a good thing” is possible, since by definition what exists has some level of goodness merely by being. Even Satan is the twisting of a good creature, a goodness that, because he still exists, can’t be fully eradicated. If by ‘thing,’ Strachan means an act or desire, then he's certainly correct that a specific act that is objectively sinful is fully wrong and an evil desire is itself fully wrong.
So when Strachan says, “Sin is not a part of a good thing,” I find this too vague to properly know how to respond or critique it. I will do my best to read the chapter in his own book he’s referencing, because I’d love to know how he seems to come so close to the Augustinian/Reformed view of sin but not quite holding to it.
But this is where I find Strachan’s own account confusing. Earlier in the same paragraph, he claims, “It may sound well and good to say that ‘good things’ are found in our sinful pursuits. It may even seem this way in our individual experience. But it is not true. As Christians, we sin not when we follow good desires, but when we grant evil desires power.” Agreed. However, he claims that we are saying that “the desire for community, togetherness, and romance can drive us into polyamorous practice.” Perhaps Strachan read our article too hastily to recognize that we never said that those in polyamorous relationships were simply following good desires and ended up in polyamory. But that’s not what we claimed. Rather, in the context of talking about repentance and pastoral guidance, we said that (some of) the objects of their desire (deep relationships, etc.) were genuinely good things, good things which are distorted in polyamory.
Strachan is right to hold that there are certain objective acts and desires that are wrong. Indeed, the examples of sin he gives, primarily forms of murder and sexual assault, are all objectively wrong. No amount of ‘good intention’ can make them right. The same holds true for polyamory, and in particular the sexual sin involved in polyamory. Marriage and sex are meant to image God’s faithful, exclusive covenant love and polyamory certainly doesn’t do that.
So the theological and moral claim we’re making in the CT article is not that polyamory is good; it’s that, like all sin, it involves taking something good (deep relationships, etc.) and distorting it because of our disordered desire. This in no way justifies or excuses sin. Against Strachan’s claim, we are not claiming that sin is ‘sanctifiable.’ But people are sanctifiable. Our disordered love can be redeemed and reordered by Christ. Redemption involves repenting of our disordered love and finding that our deepest desires and genuine fulfillment can only be found in Christ. In Christ, our longing for deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community can be put in their proper place through repentance and living by the Spirit. In doing so, we give proper glory to God and find true satisfaction and fulfillment for our restless hearts. That’s a very good thing, indeed.