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.
Dr. Rick Patrick, Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL
Executive Director, Connect 316
Over the past few years, some Southern Baptists have been making overtures about the possibility of combining our North American Mission Board with our International Mission Board. I can already envision the slick public relations campaign. It will sound spiritual, logical and fiscally responsible, like the clear, God-given solution to all of our problems:
We must merge these two great organizations in order to demonstrate our gospel unity because a house divided against itself cannot stand. Our financial crisis can only be solved as we marshal our forces and work together to glorify God and fulfill the Great Commission.
Mighty fine sounding words. But look deeply at such a proposal and you will discover a troubling knot of principles that threaten our historic Southern Baptist governing philosophy. Such a consolidation of raw power would strike a serious blow to principles like shared leadership and participatory decision-making. It would ignore important differences in the mission and function of each board. And it would represent the logical, if misguided, extension of a Great Commission Resurgence Plan begun in 2010 that has consistently failed to deliver on its promises.
Frankly, this centralization of authority at the national level, eerily reminiscent of Obamacare, would create more headaches than it would solve, for once the two organizations were enmeshed, it would be extremely difficult to untangle them. This merger is the kind of idea we should oppose even before it has been formally proposed. Like the telemarketer who interrupts your dinner, we should reject his pitch on principle without bothering to digest his fast-talking spiel and overblown promises of time-sharing nirvana.
Recently, I wrote two articles about what it was like to grow up in a small church. From the responses, I realized most of my readers grew up in a church just like mine. If you still have that annoying “stand up” and “sit down” chorus from Vacation Bible School stuck forever in your mind, then you too grew up in a small church.
Our church may have been small, but it was always pointing us to a bigger and a more global aspect of the church. On occasion, we would have missionaries come and speak to us. Sometimes the church would have a mission dinner, with the food reflecting whatever nation our guests served. For a country boy who grew up on meat, mashed potatoes and gravy, something just wasn’t right about a dish wrapped in seaweed or an eyeball floating around in the mix.
In our little church, it was the opinion of most, and especially my parents, that National Geographic magazine was “not suitable for children.” Sometimes it would contain photos of people who lived in a far-off village, and these villagers … well, let’s just say there wasn’t enough material among the entire tribe to put together one proper set of clothes.
On the other hand, it was perfectly fine if missionaries came to our church and, during their slide show, showed the same kind of photos of half-dressed tribal people, because we as a church needed to be aware of the conditions these poor heathens lived in. Praying for them confused me. I didn’t know whether to pray for their souls or their clothes. So we just asked God to clothe them in His righteousness, crossing our fingers that it would come with a pair of pants and a shirt.
I loved it when missionaries came to our little country church. Many times, they would tell stories that centered around how God had chosen and called them from a small rural community and how they had been obedient to that call. They talked about counting the cost and what an honor and a privilege it was to suffer for His name’s sake. But they considered all this rubbish compared to the joy of serving Him. These men and women desired to blend into that culture so they could become all things to all men so they might win a few. They would tell stories of how they lived like the people they served, ate their food, dressed the way they dressed and spoke the same language.
To this day, I count it an honor to have met and known these missionaries. They are my heroes, and they will rebuke me for even calling them that. They are humble servants of God and have names like the Fletchers, Bowies, Raves and more. As an adult, I had the privilege of walking alongside many of them in their countries. Even though they have aged, one thing you will never meet is a retired missionary. They will serve Jesus until their last breath.
To this day, I can hardly look at a National Geographic magazine without feeling like I am breaking one of the Ten Commandments. But what’s odd is that I’m now in the pictures with these half-naked villagers. That’s what happens when you’re surrounded by true heroes of the faith. They inspire you to open your mind to see the world from God’s perspective. You see the joy of suffering for Christ’s sake, and neither I nor any of my missionary friends would trade the call of God for a castle on a hill. Besides, why would we want a castle when Jesus has gone and prepared a place for us? Many of these missionaries count me as an equal in kingdom work, but I have to be honest: When I am around them, I am just a little child who sits in awe as they talk about God.
I thank God for those small churches who exposed us to missionaries who gave us a bigger vision than just reaching the back 40 for Him. I often read about an event recorded by another small church: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3).
No matter what God has planned for your children, you need to expose them to three things: 1) Missionary stories. One of my favorites is Bruchko, the story of Bruce Olson. 2) Go hear a missionary speak or (even better) invite one into your home. 3) Once in a while, let them see a National Geographic magazine.