Towards a Theology of Marriage and Polygamy
Kwame Bempa was not a Christian. He was married to Adwoa Bompmaa. They had no children. Adwoa was mocked by other women because she was barren. After some years, in accordance with the custom of their people, Adwoa’s family suggested to Kwame that he should marry Adwoa’s sister Serwaa, so that she might bear children for him. Kwame and Adwoa both consented. Today he is living with both Adwoa and Serwaa. Adwoa still has no children, but Serwaa has eight. Kwame and his family have since become Christians. His children and first wife have all been baptized, but Kwame has been told by the church that he cannot be baptized or allowed to participate in communion until he divorces his second wife. He does not want to divorce the mother of his children and does not think it is right to do so.
How can church leaders in Africa deal with the problem of the polygamous state of new Christians in a way which reflects the spirit of the Gospel?
This case illustrates a common dilemma in the African Christian Church of Ghana. For this reason, some African Christians are asking searching questions about the negative attitude of their church toward converted polygamists. The current practice of the African Christian Church is to make monogamy normative and exclusive for the membership of male converts. In section 270 of its constitution (Regulation, Practice and Procedure), the African Christian Church states that: (a) Plurality of marriage is not approved. (b) Polygamists enrolling themselves as candidates for baptism can be given the usual preparatory instruction, but can be baptized only when they have managed to put away all but the first wife (Larbi, 98).
The church has not changed its position since it was founded by British Missionaries. As Harold Turner wrote:
Nineteenth century missionaries to Africa were probably not conscious of the distinction between monogamous marriage as an institution in Western culture and monogamy as the Christian norm for the marriage relationship; and they sought to replace polygamy found in African cultures by the Western institution as a basic necessity in a Christian church. . . . In the judgement of most missionaries those key points were represented by what was known as ‘medicine,’ or ‘fetish,’ or the whole realm of magic and the native practitioner, together with African customs or institutions, of which polygamy was the most important (Turner, 313-314).
At a 1979 congregational meeting a lawyer, Mr. Isaac Quaye, asked the elders to reconsider, in the light of the weak finances of the church, the regulations limiting admission to the Lord’s Supper and water baptism. He said young men today were questioning whether monogamy should be the criterion in each case. A committee was appointed to study the issue of polygamy and the sacraments. They presented a report with the following submission: “It is the opinion of this committee that polygamists be not admitted to baptism and holy communion until such a time as they shall be in the position to divorce all but the first wife. The wives of polygamists may be admitted to the sacraments” (Larbi, 100).
The above report was accepted unanimously by the elders. Since then, strong reactions have gone forth from individuals against the church’s inflexible position on polygamy. Simon Tagoe, in a congregational meeting in 1978, raised the question as to whether God approves of monogamous marriages only. At one time in history, he said, God seems to have been in favor of polygamous marriages. He further asserts:
Many Africans, including some Christians, though aware of the New Testament emphasis on monogamy, have followed their traditional and Old Testament view. They have at times privately opted for polygamy with no shame or embarrassment whatsoever. Problems can exist in both polygamous and monogamous families; but problems are there to be solved. It is to be recognized that many polygamous families prosper. We must therefore admit them to full participation of the church’s sacraments (Larbi, 102).
A similar position is taken by Dr. James Amarh. His sentiment about the church’s view on polygamy is more vehement. He presents the church’s stand thus:
The general presupposition in the church is that polygamy is inherently sinful and that those who contract polygamous marriages live in sin. Furthermore the church assumes that one cannot sincerely love Christ and be a polygamist at the same time. The reasoning of the church on polygamy leads to the conclusion that a murderer and a thief can take part in the Lord’s Supper as long as they do not have more than one wife (Larbi, 102).
The statements issued by the church do not anywhere equate polygamy with sin. What one does notice is that the statements are silent on the grounds of the church’s negative attitude to polygamous marriage.
The church’s policy on converted polygamists has led to serious missiological, pastoral, and theological problems. Converted polygamists are viewed as “second class” Christians with fewer rights and privileges. They are permanently on probation. Should the converted polygamist wish to become a “first class” Christian, then he must repudiate all other wives except his first. This multiple-class Christianity has led some African Christians to find a place where they can be at home with their Christian faith and matrimonial situation. The emergence of African Independent Churches testifies to this reality. In 1978 alone, two-thirds of the church membership left and joined the African Messianic Church after the pastor refused to baptize a wealthy polygamist.
This multiple-class Christianity creates a problem because it prevents an entire segment of the church from attaining Christian maturity. The leaven of the Gospel becomes properly effective among a people only through their active participation in the life of the church. Since growth in Christian maturity is supposed to be gradually achieved in the course of a person’s whole life, it seems biblically and theologically unsound to evangelize polygamists and then to prevent them from participating fully in Christian fellowship. The church’s policy, in effect, made polygamy the unforgivable sin. Is the monogamous standard a biblical imperative, or is it the unwise imposition of Western tradition? Whatever it is, this policy obviously affects church growth and confuses the Gospel message. German theologian Helmut Thielicke wrote, “The task of the mission is not to preach monogamy, but rather the gospel” (Thielicke, 180).
The church’s policy, in many instances, also led to deceit, death, and divorce. Some polygamists lied to the church in saying that they would send their extra wives away, but in fact they would merely ask their wives to stay away from home until they had been baptized. Some built houses for their wives in another corner of the village where church officials could not see them. The non-Christian villagers wink about them and laugh at the missionary behind whose back these deceits go on. They do not think highly of a religion that results in such actions. Sadly, when the polygamists lied to the church about divorcing their additional wives, they were admitted into full membership of the church. In doing so they were not only sinning but also giving Christianity a bad reputation. Such hypocrisy prevented the church from gaining new members.
The additional wives who were divorced by their husbands experienced emotional, psychological, and economic problems. They were sent away to fend for themselves. As Kiwovele observes: “Being divorced by polygamous husbands is painful to the conscience of the wives and even to their husbands. They are faced with several evils among which they might choose for the security of their marital relation. They are usually married by other polygamists or go into fornication or prostitution” (Kiwovele, 19).
How can the church in the name of Christ insist upon such a cruel policy which seems to contradict the very spirit of the Gospel and works even greater unrighteousness? Is it more Christian for a woman to commit infidelity or fornication than to become the second or third wife of a respected member of the community? As Karl Barth rightly puts it:
Situations can and do arise in which the immediate abolition of polygamy as an institution (for example, the discharge of all but one man’s existing wives) would bring about not only a cruel but an ethically irresponsible confusion and dissolution of social relationships which may be highly problematical, yet are not senseless and wicked; but are the guarantees of law and order and security and protection, and can no longer be so if there is an abrupt transition to monogamy (Barth, 203).
The children of divorced mothers also suffer. Children who stay with their father are often not treated well by their step-mother. When quarrels between children from different mothers develop, the remaining wife naturally sides with her children. The children who go with their divorced mothers also suffer. When divorced women go back to their parents, their children can only get along with grandparents and other relatives as long as the mothers are still with them. When the mothers remarry they have to leave children with their grandparents. Then children can begin experiencing a hard life. This is especially true for the young ones, due to lack of parental care. Sometimes children decide to go back to their father’s home, especially after their mothers have remarried. At other times they simply return to their grandparents if they find that life at their father’s home is more difficult. It is always unsafe for a woman to take any child with her to her second husband. In rare cases a second husband will allow a woman to come with a child who is very young.
These children suffer whether they remain with their fathers or go with divorced mothers. They suffer because their homes have been broken and nothing can replace them. The church finds it difficult to attract divorced wives to church. The Gospel, which is breaking up their families, is not regarded as good news. Among Africans, when one person offends another, he offends not only that person but his family, his friends, and sometimes his clan. So in the end the African Christian Church loses more people than it gains. There are also numerous examples of polygamists who kill their wives because they cannot divorce their additional wives. In this connection, Turner’s comments are important to note:
What have we done to the Africans in the name of Christianity? Polygamy which Christ does not forbid, we have fought against as the greatest of all evils, but divorce and remarriage which he does forbid, we have introduced. We have truly managed to Europeanize them. Mission theory should teach us to preach the gospel but not our own national traditions (Turner, 314).
This may be one of the reasons why Christianity has come to be viewed by many Africans as a foreign religion. They do not experience a genuine encounter with the Gospel.
THE GOSPEL FOR AFRICANS
The missional theological model, which seeks to bridge the gap between biblical revelation and the human context, shall be employed in this section to find an alternative way of dealing with converted polygamists, one that is informed by Scripture and the African cultural context. The missional model demands that we remove the Western cultural wrapper and allow the Gospel to encounter the African culture directly. William Ofori-Atta, a Ghanian lawyer and Bible teacher who was a Presidential candidate in 1979, states:
The majority of Ghanians have accepted Christianity in its outward form, but their inward spirit is still ruled by the attitudes and outlook of the old culture. . . . For conversion to the Christian faith to be more than superficial, the Christian church should come to grips with traditional beliefs and practices and with the worldview that these beliefs and practice imply. . . . Biblical Christianity must, by reason of its nature and mission, come into conflict with culture wherever it is introduced (Ofori-Atta, 2).
No culture is completely good or completely bad. Most aspects of a culture will fit into the more neutral category. The question is how well the church exercizes discernment as a “hermeneutical community” (Van Engen, 223). African Christians, not the missionary, must be involved in evaluating their own culture since they know their culture better and are therefore in a better position to critique it (Hiebert 1987, 110). We must not be sentimental admirers of our traditional culture. Rather we must allow the Gospel to confront the cherished beliefs of our people. We may approach the process in several ways.
First, the church must distinguish the customs and practices in the African culture that are not unbiblical and thus must be kept. As Paul Hiebert rightly puts it:
Western Christians, for example, see no problem in eating hamburgers, singing secular songs such as ‘Home on the Range,’ wearing business suits, or driving cars. In many areas of their lives, Christians are no different from their non-Christian neighbors. In keeping these practices they reaffirm their own cultural identity and heritage (Hiebert 1987, 110).
Second, the church must discern what the Gospel cannot tolerate in the customs and practices of the Africans. These include old customs with hidden meanings that may not be apparent to those outside the culture (Hiebert 1987, 128), such as naming ceremonies, cattle-rustling, and sorcery.
Third, the church must also determine which old customs need not be rejected outright, but can be modified “by giving them explicit Christian meanings” (Hiebert 1987, 128). These may include the talking drums, “adowa” dancing, and appellations. The primal religion of the Corinthians, for example, promoted outright immorality, and much about the Corinthian lifestyle could never be brought into the church. Yet Corinth becomes the one place where worship is dynamic, and the innovations introduced do reflect the culture and temperament of the Corinthians.
Don Richardson found that his “redemptive analogy” for telling the story of Jesus was already in the Sawi myth (Richardson 1974). What would appear on the surface of culture as contradictory to the Gospel actually became the vehicle of truth. It takes careful study of the Word and discipline in the Spirit to know what features of the culture can be used to communicate the message and enhance the meaning of worship.
Fourth, the church must decide which African customs, though not ideally Christian, are nevertheless tolerable to the Gospel using the criterion that there is no clear teaching against them in Scripture and that they are likely to die as we allow the leaven of the Gospel to gradually bring transformation.
One African custom that calls for that kind of discernment is polygamy. The issue meets our suggested criteria. The Bible contains no explicit and direct statement condemning polygamy. This suggests the adoption of a new policy of toleration along the lines already tested by the Lutheran Church of Liberia. Persons who have, in good faith and according to the socially accepted practice of their time and place, entered polygamous marriages prior to conversion to Christianity should not be required to divorce all but one wife in order to participate in the sacramental life of the church. As part of their normal instruction in the faith, however, it should be made clear that no additional polygamous marriages are permissible once they have entered the Christian community through baptism. As the Lutherans in Liberia have found, it is possible to safeguard and promote the ideal of monogamy as normative, while allowing people of good will to remain in the polygamous condition in which they were at the time of their calling to the Christian faith.
How, then, should the African Christian Church promote monogamy while allowing the polygamy of converts to remain? The following recommendations are offered toward the implementation of this alternative.
- The church should undertake biblical sex education and marriage counseling for teachers, church-workers, youth, engaged couples, people in early years of marriage, elderly couples, and converted polygamists. The teachings should affirm monogamy as God’s ideal. Celibacy, for example, must be taught as an option for singles. Christian parents should assist with the education.
- Childlessness is a critical pastoral problem in African society because the idea of procreation in marriage still dominates and overshadows the solid principle of authentic married love. Marriages rarely last without children. The church should encourage “adoption” within the clan as an alternative to childless couples.
- The church should combat chronic diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid fever which kill infants at a high rate.
- The church should set up vocational training centers for unmarried women. Here, women are to be assisted to define their place in the church and society, recognizing new emerging roles for African women.
- The church should set up a fund to support widows.
- The church should shape and contribute toward social transformation of the African culture in all fields with respect to the full recognition of the equal dignity of men and women. The free-will and basic worth and dignity of individuals, especially of women and young people, needs to be deeply respected in a developing African society.
- The church should take an active interest in drafting just legislation concerning marriage, divorce, remarriage, and inheritance.
- The church should teach good methods of family planning.
- Converted polygamists should affirm at baptism that they will teach monogamy and not advance polygamy.
The proposed alternative has missiological, pastoral, and theological implications. First, it is a witness to the gracious God who meets humans where they are and accepts them as they are, and then by His Spirit transforms their lives. It grants all of us the opportunity to manifest our gratitude for God’s enduring patience for us by learning to be more patient with the different ways of other peoples and by allowing them also the time required for the leaven of the Gospel to become gradually more active in their different cultures. Second, the African Christian Church will experience growth as many polygamists and their families, including the chiefs, will be encouraged to join the church. They will be a powerful and influential witness to their community. Third, the Africans will fully embrace and feel at home with Christ as their truly incarnated Savior on the basis of faith alone. It will grant them the basic tools for assessing their own cultural heritage, for making their own contribution to Christian life and thought, and also for testing the genuineness and Christian character of that contribution.
Fourth, this alternative will guide foreign missionaries working among Africans. It will be a rebuke to missionaries who promote Western tradition rather than the Word of God. It will reflect the importance of taking the cultural context of the recipients of the Gospel seriously. Fifth, it will aid Bible colleges and seminaries in Ghana in the training of pastors and the development of a balanced biblical theology of mission. And finally, it will aid the Western church in dealing with marriage and polygamy in their context, where simultaneous polygamy is on a steady rise.
The model employed in this article has implications for the way the church does mission today. First, this model guards against a form of theological imperialism. It ensures that theology is done by the local churches in their own cultural context, for their own people. As the Yaounde Consultation on Polygamy puts it: “This being a problem which the white man cannot understand from within, it is desirable that missionaries should withdraw from discussions in which African churches seek guidance of the Holy Spirit in this matter” (Turner, 319).
The model ensures that local churches do theology with methods and tools with which they are conversant. The modern European historical-grammatical method of getting truth from Scripture makes the Bible a closed book for most Christians in the world. There are some scholars today who believe it is impossible to understand Scripture without the tools of critical exegesis. But as Tité Tienou says:
It is no longer sufficient to claim biblical foundation for this or that theology. One must always go beyond the theologian’s claim of faithfulness to Scripture and discover the all-compassing mode which explains the system proposed. One’s hermeneutics always rests on a prior allegiance or world view. . . . The question remains: how faithfully does theology reflect the biblical message for the times and situations it addresses? For if biblical truths are unchanging and unchangeable, the theologian’s task is to explain and actualize the Bible’s message in such a way that it communicates without being unfaithful. In order to do this, one must rid oneself, as much as possible, of any pre-understanding and take Scripture as it is in all its simplicity and complexity (Tienou, 91).
“What then, is the best method for reaching beyond our pre-understandings in order to grasp the biblical message?” Tienou concludes, “. . . a helpful way is to take a major problem of human existence and examine it in biblical perspective, then in a specific cultural milieu and finally seek to correlate the two” (Tienou, 91).
Second, this model fosters our reliance upon the work of the Spirit. It forces us to trust the Holy Spirit to lead and meet people where they are through his transforming grace. He enlightens the mind of people to comprehend and appropriate truth. The believers in the New Testament did that. They had to rely on the Spirit’s leading on a host of difficult issues (Eph. 4:14; 1 Cor. 14:20; Eph. 1:17). As René Padilla puts it, “. . . no true evangelical theology is possible apart from the illumination and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Doing theology is not merely a scholarly but also a charismatic task” (Padilla, 83). The attitude of many mission organizations today would have crushed the spirit of the Gentile believers in the New Testament. We need to admit that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of believers across cultures and able to lead them to do theology in their context.
Third, this model creates mission mindedness. Local churches take “ownership” of the Gospel and reach out to their neighbors and actively provide the necessary training for it. The Gospel is perceived in a new way for all. As local Christians discover truths in God’s Word by themselves, they start to think of ways to communicate the Gospel to their neighboring culture or language group which are sensitive to their needs. This means our faith cannot be a private issue, but rather it must express itself in public ministry. The West especially must wrestle with the straitjacket of the Enlightenment, which has forced the concept of faith into a privatist mold of individual taste, as Lesslie Newbigin (1986) demonstrates. The church must be deeply concerned about the 4.5 billion people and thousands of unreached people groups who have not yet heard the Gospel. If our theology does not lead to mission, whether at home or abroad, then the church has lost her call (Verkuyl, 6).
Fourth, this model forces us to take the cultural context of the recipients of the Gospel seriously. When the Gospel comes together with foreign cultural baggage, it is often rejected by the recipients. Barrett’s search for a common cause of the tension which led to the independent church movement in Africa amounts to an indictment that all missionaries, whether black or white, should earnestly consider:
The root cause common to the entire movement of independency, therefore, may be seen in this one aspect of culture clash: a failure in sensitivity, the failure of missions at one small point to demonstrate consistently the fullness of the biblical concept of love as sensitive understanding toward others as equals, the failure to study or understand African society, religion, and psychology in any depth, together with a dawning African perception from vernacular scriptures of the catastrophic nature of this failure and of the urgent necessity to remedy it in order that Christianity might survive on African soil (Barrett, 156; emphases in the original).
This model recognizes that the Gospel must be presented in people’s own cultural context for any considerable impact.
Fifth, this model promotes incarnational witness. It reflects what God did in Christ, and what we are expected to do in ministry. Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7-8 ASV). God, indeed, came into the living context of people. Local churches are given the task to incarnate the Gospel in their context.
Sixth, the model ensures that conversion of a person is a part of a larger social, economic, political, and global reality. This means an individual conversion has implications for the transformation of society at large. There must be no dichotomy between the two. Missiology must find ways to integrate spirituality, psychology, anthropology, and sociology in holistic ways that approximate reality.
Seventh, this model avoids two theological extremes. It avoids the anti-contextualized approach of early missionaries which caused the Gospel to be perceived as foreign and thus led to nominalism (Hiebert 1989, 116). It also avoids “the reductionism of an uncritical contextual approach characteristic of instrumentalism and its divorce of form and meaning” (Hiebert 1989, 116). We must recognize that doing theology in the right way is a hard and long process and therefore we must patiently wait for its fruits to be manifested.
Finally, this model will affect the way we do theology on a global scale in this millennium. It means we must change the basis upon which we do theology of mission, the data we incorporate, the methodologies we use, the people we listen to, and the issues we address. World conferences and their pronouncements shall become less important to the theology of mission. Rather, serious attention will be paid to people in their own cultural contexts as they theologize for their people.
Polygamy, like divorce, is an institutional social reality that the church must deal with. Two different values are in tension, but both must be protected. The first is to continue the process that will lead to the final elimination of polygamy among Africans. The second is to protect and care for those who are entangled in polygamy: children who have only one father, wives who love their husband, and husbands who love and care for more than one wife. Balancing these conflicting values is clearly more difficult than a simple rule. However, it seems more in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel.
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