Erotophobic is a phrase frequently applied to the Western Christian Church. Thus, the inclusion of sexual minorities, discussions of sexual behaviour, and different relationships styles is something rarely associated with the Church. There is, however, some evidence to suggest that attitudes towards these areas are better than one might presume; specifically in relation to bisexuality, and consensual non-monogamy. Here I will briefly sketch the background to the monogamy debate within the context of the Christian faith, before presenting some of the findings of my own research.
The fundamentalist view on polyamory is humorously encapsulated (or tragically, depending on your churchmanship) in this quote from Delita Johnson, co-founder of Focus on Christ Ministries, Tennessee:
Marriage is beautiful in God’s sight and was created for one man and one woman. The very first marriage occurred in the book of Genesis with Adam and Eve only; not Adam, his buddy Fred and Eve with her best friend Wilma.
Johnson continues with a quote from Hebrews 13: 4 in the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul states:
Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
However, the liberal view, which does not advocate for a literal reading of the Bible, but allows for contextual interpretations of Scripture, takes a less rigid approach. In the words of Carter Heyward, Liberation Theologian and Episcopal Priest:
An un-examined, static commitment to monogamy can become a canopy for unspoken hurt, lies, and in time, the dissolution of a relationship (Heyward, 1989: 146).
Psychotherapist and bisexuality specialist, Dr Beth Firestein, makes a similar point in a personal interview with me (July 2015), presenting honest duogamies as morally superior to deceitful monogamies.
The concept of ethical non-monogamy is one presented by Heyward in Touching Our Strength, which she defines as ‘engaging in loving, intimate relationships with more than one person, based upon the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.’ (1989: 146) This position refers to couples who openly, and with the full knowledge and permission of their partner, engage in sexual relationships with others. Some are involved in group sex, and others experiment with bisexuality. For Heyward, the Christian faith is not about rigid adherence to a set of rules laid down in the context of the Ancient World, where mind-body dualism created a set of gendered behaviours that played directly into the hands of patriarchal power structures. Rather, Christianity is about social justice expressed through a fully embodied sexuality, where the body does not wage war with the mind, and the genders are not locked in perpetual power struggles:
To be faithful in our sexualities is to live a commitment to mutuality. Reciprocal relations between and among ourselves in which no one owns, possesses or dominates, or controls the other, but rather in which the lover participates with the beloved in living together in a home, in society, and/or a world in which each gives and receives (Heyward 1984: 192).
Do Heyward and like-minded liberals stray too far from Scripture, in the name of progressive theology? Perhaps not. As more than one person I have spoken to has pointed out, the Bible is littered with polyamorous relationships. Many key figures in the Old Testament had multiple wives, seemingly with God’s blessing. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) while Mormons maintain that God commanded Abraham to take a second wife, Hagar (Genesis 16). Moreover, the Old Testament command ‘Do not commit adultery’ (Exodus 20: 14) seems to refer to the theft of another man’s property and does not appear to be a reference to consensual polyamory.
In the New Testament, Jesus has little to say on marriage and relationships, though his comments on divorce in Matthew 19 suggest that multiple partners are tolerated rather than approved of by God. The Apostle Paul’s only comment regarding monogamy states that church leaders (not lay people) should not take more than one wife (1 Timothy 3:12). This appears to have a pragmatic rather than a doctrinal basis, as it is listed alongside good parenting and abstention from excess drinking.
In short, whatever the Bible appears to say on relationship configurations, the prevalence of alternative marital constructs and the emphasis on traits such as honesty, integrity and humility as key indicators of godliness over and above sexual proclivities, would seem to suggest that the Divine is more concerned with social justice and mutuality in human relationships than monogamy.
In 2016, I interviewed 54 bisexual Christians, evenly split between the UK and USA, as part of my doctoral research into bi-Christian intersectional identities. In addition to these bisexual Christians, I also interviewed a total of 33 pastors and supporters of bisexual people in the UK and USA, of whom only a minority identified as bisexual themselves. One of my key questions involved challenging the myth that all bisexual people are inherently unfaithful to their partners. This decision was not without controversy among those I interviewed, a number of whom objected to my giving credence to such caricatures of dual+ attracted individuals. So what did bisexual Christians have to say on the subject of monogamy?
In the UK, I found that four out of 28 bisexual Christians had practised consensual non-monogamy, though only one of these had remained active in the Church (but was, notably, no longer polyamorous). I also discovered that most bisexual Christians were affirming of consensual non-monogamy, even if it was not for them personally (in fact, only two out of 28 UK participants entirely disapproved). This did not always relate to churchmanship, i.e. non-affirming denomination (i.e. those denominations against non-monogamy) did not appear to equal a non-affirming position for the individual, though affirming denomination did tend to equal affirming views. Personal preference rather than ethical or biblical considerations generally dictated attitudes to consensual non-monogamy, though interestingly, biblical precedence was used to justify both male and female consensual non-monogamy.
Here, participants cited polygamy in Scripture, the concept of God as love (all love) and an absence of direct condemnation of consensual non-monogamy from Christ. The church was unsurprisingly viewed as erotophobic by some, though those with sexual experience prior to joining church carried less guilt and shame regarding sex and were therefore less weighed down by prescriptive teachings. However, for others, consensual non-monogamy had proved detrimental to their sense of wellbeing, and particularly for bisexual Christians married to the opposite sex, for whom polyamory had not been found to provide a solution to the conundrum of being bisexual and married. Notably, those who still practised polyamory in the UK no longer attended church.
In the USA, four of 26 bisexual Christians interviewed were consensually non-monogamous, but unlike their UK peers, had managed to remain active in the Church. A ratio of approximately two to one participants had no objections to polyamory, whether they identified as polyamorous or not. Those polyamorous participants who still attended church unsurprisingly came from more liberal church traditions (Quaker, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists). Correspondingly, those with non-affirming church backgrounds were less likely to approve of polyamory (Seventh-day Adventists, Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians).
Attitudes to consensual non-monogamy were more polarised in the USA than in the UK among bisexual Christians, reflecting a more generally polarised religious society. From interviews, this appeared to be a reaction against the influential Mormon Church, with its historical links to polygamy, but was also explained by a desire to preserve the moral integrity of the bisexual identity.
In both the UK and USA, consensual non-monogamy was seen by some to enhance existing relationships, while for others it proved detrimental to their sense of psychological wellbeing. In general, participants voiced approval of consensual non-monogamy, so long as concepts of mutuality and transparency in relationships were observed. Biblical precedence was cited by participants from both research cells as justifying consensual non-monogamy. It also appeared that non-binary sexual identities enabled many to be more receptive to non-binary relationship models.
When it came to pastors and educators of bisexual people, this cohort was, on the whole, accepting of consensually non-monogamous practices. However, as with their bisexual congregants vis-à-vis clients, there were frustrations among some that bisexuality was so often equated with polyamory.
To conclude, it was generally felt, among both UK and US pastors and educators, that ingrained binary thinking meant acceptance of the bisexual orientation in churches and wider society remained a distant dream at this point in time, which impacted on the ability of church leaders and congregants to embrace non-binary relationship configurations as well.
Erotophobic? Possibly. Simplistic and unwilling to entertain complexity in order to maintain existing power bases? Certainly.
If the Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4: 12), then arguably there is justification for contextual and progressive readings of Scripture when it comes to consensual non-monogamy and other hot biblical potatoes.
Barker, K. L. (1985). The NIV study bible. Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Heyward, C. (1984). Our passion for justice. Pilgrim, Nueva York.
Heyward, C. (1989). Touching our strength: The erotic as power and the love of God. Harper San Francisco.
Carol Shepherd is a Research Officer and PhD Supervisor at the University of Winchester, UK, working in Academic Quality and Development. Her research areas are LGBT and faith intersection, particularly bisexuality, and sexual identities within mixed-orientation relationships (MORs). She is also an active member of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups. Dr Shepherd’s monograph, titled: Bisexuality and the Western Christian Church: The Damage of Silence, will be published with Palgrave McMillan/Springer International on the 29th of October 2018.
Image: Courtesy and Copyright of Olena Waśkiewicz