When I was in Kenya a pastor and his wife invited us over to their apartment for dinner. They were well-educated people and his wife had received her Ph.D. from Wheaton College. We had a wonderful meal and a great discussion. He told me that he had grown up in a polygamous family.
I asked, “Well, when did you become a Christian?”
He replied with a question, “Are you assuming that you can’t be a Christian if you are a polygamous?”
I was surprised by the question and I responded, “Yes, I guess I am.”
The pastor then asked me two questions, “Where does it say that polygamy is wrong in the bible? Are there any examples of polygamy in the bible? “
I responded, “Yes, there are examples of polygamy in the Old Testament, but I believe that the New Testament does speak to believers having one wife.”
The pastor smiled and said that he also believed that the intent of the New Testament was one husband and one wife.
He continued challenging me, “What are we to do with Christians who are polygamist?”
If that question had been asked by a U.S. pastor, we would look at the pastor and wonder if he had gone off the deep-end, but it is a real and viable question that is facing the church in Africa.
What It Is Like for Women and Children
Many of my students have been raised in a polygamous family, and have shared the negative impact of such family dynamics. According to my students, in a polygamous family there tends to be a favorite wife, which leads to jealousy and unequal distribution of family resources to this wife and her offspring. When this happens, the other wives may be forced to forge for food and other resources for their children.
Education, which is one of the most valued resources, tends to be given to the favorite wife’s children, especially the boys. As you can imagine, this leads to animosity among the wives. The women become manipulative because that is the only power they have to control their lives.
If the man decides he no longer wants one of the wives, she must leave, with the father having the option of keeping the children. It was interesting to talk to a student who was still angry with his mother for leaving him, even though his mother had no choice.
In many places in Africa it is almost impossible for a woman to be able to survive on her own. When a man divorces her or puts her out of his house, the woman often ends up living with or marrying another man, which in turn may mean that she will have to move away from her children. In any event, whether the children live with the father or the mother, they become potential victims of abuse either from the stepmother or the mother’s boyfriend or their new stepfather.
No Easy Answers
As you can already tell, I am biased against polygamy because I think it is harmful to women and children. It is just one more example of what can beset women who live in this fallen world. Yet it is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Church in Africa, and there are no easy answers. Some polygamous families may be drawn to the Christian faith, but turn there back upon it because they know the church may reject or try to split their family. The Church may demand that the husband divorce all but his first wife and send the other wives away, even though the consequences of splitting up an intact polygamous family may have long lasting negative consequences for the women and children.
For an interesting and easy read on this topic go to http://taylorinafrica.org/Reports.htm and click on An African Perspective on Polygamy in the UMC North Katanga Annual Conference by Reverend Mbayu Ilunga Watete.
Be sure and read the Think Through and share your thoughts. I want to hear what YOU are thinking.
P.S. By the time you read this I should be back in Liberia. I will try to faithfully keep posting on the 1st and the 15th of each month. However, sometimes the internet goes down. So if you don’t hear from me, there has been an internet disruption.