By Keith Eitel
Dean of the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at Theological Matters and is used by permission.
Dry dusty roads led into the village. Worshipers gathered. As a missionary guest that day, I preached at that church. Lively music and dancing are typical of African worship. This day was no exception. It came time for an evangelistic invitation. A sub-chief walked the aisle for a decision. That was all well and good, even celebrative. The only complication to this man’s expression of faith was that he brought his five wives with him to make this decision. What does a foreign missionary do?
Polygamy, a long-standing issue in most African settings, is characteristic of African Traditional Religious belief systems that pre-date the advent of both Islam and Christianity. These ideologies persist in the fabric of various Christian traditions, whether denominational or not, in African churches today.
Solutions are not simple fixes. The convention we were part of had already developed a policy to help normalize reaction to this issue. The convention’s historical practice was to ask the man to choose one of the wives and “put out” the remaining ones. There were usually children involved, and this act created serious and ongoing social crises. The wives who departed the family network usually were as destitute as widows. People in the rest of the culture viewed these women as still being the wives of the man who wished to join the church. That limited their likely options for any sort of familial support in the aftermath of such disruptions. More often than not, they were soon resorting to prostitution to provide basic needs for their children and even to eat. As supposedly new believers, this was no healthy discipleship program.
At the time, a recently developed policy recommended first in-depth counseling with them all in order to understand their own personal decisions regarding Christ. If confident in their decisions to yield their lives to Christ, one could proceed with discussion of church membership. After all, Christ’s blood covers the sins associated with polygamy too. Finally, they could be presented for church membership on the grounds that, in a group, they each gave testimony of their salvation; confessed having entered the practice of polygamy due to cultural norms without knowing about Christ or that this was sinful; and agreed to end the practice of polygamy with that generation and to never seek nor accept leadership roles in the local church. They would ask for the congregation to assist them in teaching their children not to continue polygamous practices when they would eventually have families.
In parallel with these happenings, I had a very sharp African seminary student in my biblical ethics class. He asked me if an article he had read was true, namely that in America we have a problem of men marrying many women over time or sequentially. “It does, unfortunately, seem to happen in some families,” I replied. My own mother and father married each other three times and divorced each other three times. When my dad died, he was on his sixth marriage. The student said then, “Sir, in America, you have the same problems, then, that we face here. The main difference is that, in our cultures, it is common to have all the wives simultaneously.”
Eventually, I found academic articles that characterized our North American marriage and divorce cycles as “serial polygamy.” In the end, lest we get too prideful and ethnocentric in judging other cultures, we should look at ourselves. Could a man walk the aisle to present for membership this Sunday, and the pastor be asked to conduct him through the membership process, though essentially the gentleman is a “polygamist,” having had multiple marriages? It is not a question of one culture being more fallen than another. Instead, it is that we need mutually to assist one another with “beams” and “specks” in our eyes for better glorification of God’s design for the family.