Soul Searching is our series about how the most secular generation in history is changing the face of religion.
I sat quietly in the wooden pew, discreetly toward the back. I try to attend church every week: It’s important to me to support small, progressive churches near my home in Virginia and to feed my spirituality. To my right sat my husband of nine years and our two children. To my left sat my atheist boyfriend, looking deeply uncomfortable. I looked around and thought: Even at my liberal, female-pastored parish, a part of the United Church of Christ, the first denomination to openly welcome LGBTQ members and clergy, am I the only polyamorous person here?
A few weeks prior, I had been sitting on the grass in a park with people in their twenties and early thirties at a polyamorous support group. One by one they told their stories. Most members were into the same sorts of things, and only one or two others had children. They seemed so much more worldly than me, with their fetish clubs, their devotion to the classic polyamory guidebook The Ethical Slut, their accepting families, and their open lifestyles. I looked around and wondered, Am I the only Christian here?
Christian acceptance of what was until recently considered sexual deviance is growing. I know multiple people in same-sex relationships who also consider themselves religious. Gone are the days when I had to watch my LGBTQ friends fake it to their conservative parents; even evangelicals can be accepting, if not approving, of what they often consider a “lifestyle choice.” Today, Eliel Cruz-Lopez, a bisexual faith activist, encourages the #FaithfullyLGBT hashtag in order to promote visibility of the religious queer community. Christian blogger Glennon Doyle Melton made headlines in May when she married former soccer star Abby Wambach.
Yet I see no such movement for Christians who are polyamorous. Even among those who ascribe to queer theology, like I do, monogamy is seen as a vital part of a Christian relationship. Multiple relationships are considered so sinful that they’re posed as the logical conclusion of the slippery-slope argument: “If you allow gay marriage, what’s next? People can marry more than one person?” It’s true that polyamory is far more of a choice than sexual orientation or gender identity. Still, I can’t help feeling very alone sometimes.
But I’ve learned over the past two years, seeking out other Christians who are polyamorous, that I’m far from the only one. We tend to have gotten married young, felt trapped by the conservative bounds of purity culture, and wanted to explore the sexuality we never really got a chance to have. But it can be daunting to leap from the repressed Christianity we were raised with to the sexually open world of non-monogamy. As one might imagine, squaring polyamory and scripture can be an active struggle.
I found one of my first polyamorous Christian friends almost by accident. Not too many of us are “out.” I’ll call her Sabrina, and she is 29 years old, like me. I’ve known her for about a decade. We grew up in the same town in Tennessee, right outside of Chattanooga, with conservative, white, Southern values. We are both Christians raised in a Christian home. And, also like me, she married someone she’d been with from a young age.
About a year ago, I saw her secondary Facebook profile pop up in my “suggested friends” list, and out of curiosity, I clicked on the profile. It was full of photos of her and some guy in Europe. It wasn’t her husband. Desperate to connect with someone who might be like me, I messaged her and asked, “Are you polyamorous? Because I am, too.” It turns out she was, and had been for awhile.
She says she realized she’s been polyamorous since her early twenties. “Before that, I just thought I was broken or something,” she says. “I can’t be any other way. I’ve tried.” Even if having multiple relationships is a sin, she says, she doesn’t think she has any control over how she feels. “And it’s not going to damn me any more than those swear words that slip out on occasion,” she says. “So I try to just not worry about it.”
For me it was different. After I got married to my husband in 2008, I would develop deep infatuations with friends that never led to anything more than flirting. They always made me feel terribly guilty. Even though I subscribe to a postmodernist view of Scripture, believing that the words in the Bible should be read with a relativist perspective and that the words are not inerrant, I still found it hard to believe I wasn’t “dirty.” And it’s been difficult to find spiritual leaders who both accept my feelings as natural and respect my deep faith.
I first heard about Reverend Jeff Hood while I was desperately researching Christian leaders’ thoughts on polyamory and found his blog, but he’s best known for being the organizer of last year’s Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, which turned deadly after a sniper shot and killed five police officers. Hood lives outside of the Fort Worth-Dallas area in a house with a wife, five kids (two sets of twins), and 52 chickens. He’s worked as a social justice minister, theologian, and pastor since 2006. Surprisingly, he was originally ordained in the Southern Baptist Church—one of the most conservative evangelical denominations in America.
Hood has written 18 books with titles like The Queering of an American Evangelical. He’s not polyamorous himself, but his theology accepts polyamorous practice as part of progressive queer theology. He always accepted same-sex couples in his church, and for him it seemed a natural progression for people in polyamorous relationships to show up looking for God, too. That almost makes it more affirming to me, a polyamorous Christian, that he isn’t one himself: He’s not just using his theology to justify his own life.
“I’ve worked with poly couples and throuples,” he says, speaking into the phone with an unmistakable Southern drawl. “When we encounter the beauty of Jesus, we are changed. I don’t see how you can encounter the beauty of these relationships and not be changed.”
Hood says he became impassioned about defending polyamory when he worked for a social justice nonprofit that was part of Cathedral of Hope UCC, a well-known progressive haven in Dallas. There, he came to believe the Christian defense of polyamory was just as important as the Christian defense of same-sex marriage.
But Hood also believes that the Trinity is an example of a polyamorous triad. “Not only is polyamory a positive thing, I think it’s a holy thing,” he says. “I think it mimics the personhood of God. Different relationships can show us different things, and I think polyamory can show us what the Trinity looks like.” Which shows just how many possible interpretations of scripture there are. Perhaps the sexual lessons of the Bible don’t have to be used in the service of misogynistic, imbalanced partnerships.
In the Old Testament, polygamy is practiced with impunity—but only by men, of course. Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and slept with both of their servants. It’s the basis of the legalized, ritualized misogyny and rape practiced in The Handmaid’s Tale. The story of Leah and Rachel echoes the story of Sarah offering her servant, Hagar, to her husband Abraham in order to produce an heir. King David literally kidnapped and raped Bathsheba, who was married, and then had her husband’s death arranged once she became pregnant with David’s baby. And let’s not forget his son, Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines.
By the time we reach the New Testament, we know that Jesus says nothing of homosexuality or polyamory: His concern is how we treat our enemies, the poor, and the suffering. Paul was hesitant to encourage relations of any kind, much less polyamory or homosexuality. But he was happy to change the rules for Gentiles in order to make Christianity more accessible to them, declaring they didn’t have to be circumcised and could eat any meat they were offered.
Christianity, at its heart, is a highly malleable religion. That’s the way I practice it. It is at its best and most effective when the focus is on love for our enemies, our neighbors, our families, and our friends, no matter what form that love takes. But whatever is to be made of the evolving relationship of sexuality to Christianity, one thing is for certain: There will always be detractors. After 2,000 years of schism after schism among multiple denominations and interpretations of what it means to be a Christian, polyamory surely won’t be the thing that derails all of it. Same-sex marriage certainly didn’t.
Hood agrees: “I think that Christians should speak for love, and whenever we’re not speaking for love, we’re not standing for God.”