The New Marriage Battleground: Polygamy, Polyamory, and Open Marriage

polygamyThis post originally appeared on Theological Matters at

Students who have taken my Christian Home class are familiar with a diagram I draw on the board each semester. In this diagram, I visually depict the difference between polygamy and polyamory—two marriage arrangements that contrast monogamy. I then tell my students that such arrangements will most likely be legal in the United States in just a matter of years and that the church will need to be prepared to address them.

The timeframe for normalization of these alternative marriages may have accelerated in recent months as a series of articles have been published touting the advantages of various forms of multiple marriage. It is important for us to understand what these are and to critique them from a biblical perspective.

The Marriage Alternatives

Until the last couple of years, laws in the United States only recognized marriage to be between one man and one woman. The 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges opened the door to same-sex marriage. Now we see a push for different types of marriage that infringe upon monogamy.

Polygamy is a marriage arrangement where one individual is married to multiple partners. Historically this is primarily a man married to multiple women. This form of marriage is the one most clearly set up for legalization through the Obergefell decision.

Polyamory literally means “many loves” and describes “consensually non-monogamous relationships [where] there is an open agreement that one, both, or all individuals involved in a romantic relationship may also have other sexual and/or romantic partners.”[1] Polyamory differs from polygamy because all partners can be in multiple marriage-like relationships. While a recent Christian blogger has stated that polyamory is not about sex,[2] the basic premise of this type of relationship is that the various partners are in multiple intimate, romantic, sexual relationships.

Open marriage is the third alternative in the marriage battleground. This arrangement involves couples in the marriage being open to romantic, sexual relationships outside the context of their own marriage. In some respects this is similar to polyamory, although the outside relationships may not be formalized as marriage. Proponents of open marriage argue that as long as both spouses are in agreement with the arrangement then it does not break the fidelity of the marriage bond.

The Battle Ahead

Are these marriage alternatives really going to become mainstream? Numerous articles have appeared over the last year promoting these different marriage arrangements. New York published an article promoting consensual nonmonogamy.[3] The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed philosopher Carrie Jenkins about her new book What Love Is and What It Could Be in which she promotes polyamory.[4] NPR even ran a story about the cultural moment for polyamory stating, “Lately, I’m seeing ‘polyamory’ everywhere. It’s not a new word or concept of course, but it seems to be having a cultural moment.”[5] Polygamy is popularized on the television shows Sister Wives and Polygamy USA.

From a Christian perspective, progressive Christian blogger Chuck McKnight is currently publishing a series of blog posts promoting polyamory and open marriage based on a “love-based ethic” in which our ethical actions are judged by only the question of whether they are loving. McKnight believes that polyamory can be loving and therefore not biblically prohibited.

The Christian Response

In response to the cultural push for acceptance of these marriage alternatives, Scripture gives us a couple of clear ideas about marriage.

Scripture communicates a consistent message about the monogamous nature of marriage. Beginning in Genesis, we see that God’s design for marriage is a comprehensive, covenantal relationship between one man and one woman. Genesis 2:24 provides this divine commentary on the nature of marriage:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.

God designed that the man (singular) would be joined to his wife (singular) in marriage. All subsequent descriptions of marriage relate the ideal of monogamy. While there are examples of polygamists in the Old Testament (for example, Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon), their polygamy is not depicted as ideal. In fact, their polygamy is the source of great strife and conflict in their homes. Despite the presence of such polygamy, the overwhelming testimony of Scripture points to monogamy as the standard. Both Jesus and Paul affirm the monogamous standard. In Matthew 19 and Mark 10, Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 and then describes two becoming one flesh. He never inserts a third or fourth individual into the marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul states, “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). Paul clearly communicates the idea of monogamous marriage here. The message is consistent throughout Scripture.

Any departure from monogamous marriage is a form of sexual immorality. Scripture consistently condemns adultery, but two specific passages come to mind in response to the current challenges to marriage. In Romans 7:3 we read, “So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress. . . .” Paul describes a standard monogamous marriage (a wife with one husband) and equates any union with another man as adultery. In addition the author of Hebrews tells us, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4).

If Scripture depicts God’s design for marriage to be monogamous, and if any departure from monogamous marriage is equated with adultery, then the various alternative marriage arrangements—polygamy, polyamory, and open marriage—are all forms of adultery that are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore, Christians should not endorse these forms of “marriage,” nor should they tolerate them within their midst. Just as Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for tolerating the man who had married his father’s wife, we too should rebuke those who promote and tolerate such distortions of God’s design for marriage.

[1] Rhonda N. Balzarini, et al., “Perceptions of primary and secondary relationships in polyamory,” PLoS ONE 12 (2017).

[2] Churck McKnight, “What Polyamory Is Not,” Hippie Heretic (September 11, 2017).

[3] Drake Baer, “Maybe Monogamy Isn’t the Only Way to Love,” New York (March 6, 2017).

[4] Moira Weigel, “‘I Have Multiple Loves’: Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory,” The Chronical of Higher Education (February 3, 2017). Carrie Jenkins, What Love Is: And What It Could Be (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

[5] Barbara J. King, “A Cultural Moment for Polyamory,” NPR (March 23, 2017).

Polygamy: The Next Marriage Battle?

polygamyWhile the battle over same-sex marriage still rages, it is hard to imagine what the next battle might be. However, astute observers of the marriage debate have already seen the newest challenge to the definition of marriage—polygamy. In an article this week on Slate, Jillian Keenan proposes that the legalization of polygamous marriage is a desired result of the current marriage debate. She argues:

While the Supreme Court and the rest of us are all focused on the human right of marriage equality, let’s not forget that the fight doesn’t end with same-sex marriage. We need to legalize polygamy, too. Legalized polygamy in the United States is the constitutional, feminist, and sex-positive choice. More importantly, it would actually help protect, empower, and strengthen women, children, and families.

Keenan is not playing the “same-sex marriage is a slippery slope” card to argue against same-sex marriage. In fact, she ridicules that argument as a “tired refrain.” Instead, she brands herself as a feminist who believes polygamy is in the best interest of women and society and perfectly in keeping with the arguments for same-sex marriage.

Besides the 2011 lawsuit to decriminalize bigamy and polygamy in Utah filed by the stars of TLC’s Sister Wives, the discussion of polygamy and its connection to the same-sex marriage debate has been fairly silent. Keenan, however, wishes to end that silence.

While admitting that the argument against polygamy has generally been that it hurts women and children, Keenan believes legalization would actually benefit them. She claims that polygamists live in the shadows and fear the authorities. If they were allowed to live in the open, they would be more likely to report instances of abuse.

In addition, she believes feminists should support polygamy because it empowers women. She states:

Finally, prohibiting polygamy on “feminist” grounds—that these marriages are inherently degrading to the women involved—is misguided. The case for polygamy is, in fact, a feminist one and shows women the respect we deserve. Here’s the thing: As women, we really can make our own choices. We just might choose things people don’t like. If a woman wants to marry a man, that’s great. If she wants to marry another woman, that’s great too. If she wants to marry a hipster, well—I suppose that’s the price of freedom.

And if she wants to marry a man with three other wives, that’s her . . . choice.

At the end of her article, she gets down to the fundamental argument for why polygamy ought to be legalized. On this point, her logic is sound—I just disagree with her first premise. She declares:

The definition of marriage is plastic. Just like heterosexual marriage is no better or worse than homosexual marriage, marriage between two consenting adults is not inherently more or less “correct” than marriage among three (or four, or six) consenting adults. Though polygamists are a minority—a tiny minority, in fact—freedom has no value unless it extends to even the smallest and most marginalized groups among us. So let’s fight for marriage equality until it extends to every same-sex couple in the United States—and then let’s keep fighting. We’re not done yet.

Keenan’s entire argument is built upon the idea that the definition of marriage is plastic. She believes it is constantly changing and must always expand to include the newest idea.

This is the clear connection to the same-sex marriage debate.

The current battle over marriage involves the definition of marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage (and supporters of polygamy) consider marriage to be an intimate, emotional relationship between individuals. They offer no basis for discrimination according to gender or number. Thus, the “new” definition of marriage would allow for same-sex marriage and polygamy. If culture, and specifically the government, adopts this new definition of marriage, then Keenan is right. There will be no choice but to legalize polygamy as well as same-sex marriage. However, Keenan does not go far enough. Incest is the next step of progression. We could add to her argument above: “If a woman wants to marry a man, that’s great. If she wants to marry another woman, that’s great too. If she wants to marry a hipster, well—I suppose that’s the price of freedom.” The next line should read: “If she even wants to marry her brother, that’s her choice.”

This is the direction of the debate. Keenan has opened the door and publicly stated what others have been ridiculed for saying. The definition of marriage matters. A redefinition of marriage will undermine the entire concept of marriage that has been recognized throughout human history. As Chief Justice John Roberts stated during the oral arguments before the Supreme Court: “If you tell a child that somebody has to be their friend, I suppose you can force the child to say, ‘This is my friend.’ But it changes the definition of what it means to be a friend.” If we tell people they can marry whomever they wish no matter the gender, number, or blood relationship, I suppose we could call that marriage. However, it changes the definition of what it means to be married.


Jillian Keenan, “Legalize Polygamy! No. I am not kidding.” Slate, April 15, 2013.

Good Reading: The Perils of Polygamy

Christopher Kaczor has an interesting article on The Public Discourse entitled “The Perils of Polygamy.” He breaks down the problems with polygamous societies and examines the difficulties that accepting various forms of polygamy can create for families, children, and civil society. Here is an excerpt:

In a polygamous marriage, the man does not give himself qua husband entirely to his wife. A polygamous husband gives himself qua husband to however many wives he has. Wives, by contrast, are expected to reserve themselves in a sexual way for their husband alone. Moreover, wives face inequality among themselves as “senior wives” enjoy rank above “junior wives.” The polygamous relationship can never attain the mutual and complete self-donation of spouses in monogamous marriage because it is intrinsically impossible to reserve oneself in a sexual way entirely for one person and at the same time reserve oneself in a sexual way entirely for a different person (or persons). Marriage understood as a comprehensive union can exist only between two persons, and never more than two persons. Society, therefore, has good reason not simply to proscribe polygamy, but to endorse monogamy.

The discussion surrounding the political/legal definition of marriage going on in our society today has mostly focused on same-sex marriage. However, the debate has also opened the question of polygamous marriage. Kaczor has exposed many of the problems with polygamous marriage and why society should not go down that path even though nearly 85% of all societies in history have practiced polygamy. Take some time to read the article–it is worth your time.


Christopher Kaczor, “The Perils of Polygamy,” The Public Discourse, May 21, 2012.