Most Western cultures consider polygamy a relic of the past that only shows up in history books, talk shows, and reality TV. However, in many African, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations, polygamy is still regularly practiced.
It’s all well and good for Western Christians to advocate marriage between one man and one woman. That’s easy to proclaim in Christian-influenced cultures or among families who have been Christians for several generations. It’s relatively easy to guide Christian young people to limit their upcoming marriages to one man and one woman.
However, Christian missionaries face a delicate situation when polygamous adults convert to Christianity.
Consider this common scenario. Amar grew up in an animist tribal area, where the wealthiest men often took multiple wives. When Christian missionaries came to Amar’s village, he listened to their stories of Jesus. He saw how they lived like Jesus by caring for the sick and extending compassion to all. God touched his heart, and he and his entire household converted to Christianity - including his three wives and his ten children.
What should Amar do now that he is a born-again, Bible-believing Christian?
Christian leaders have given different answers in the various contexts where polygamy is practiced.
- Some would tell Amar that only his first marriage is valid. Hence, he should divorce wives 2 and 3. He should turn them and their children out of his house and “return to the wife of his youth,” staying faithful to her and her only. Culturally, the women would be considered “damaged goods” or “bad luck,” and it would be exceedingly unlikely for them to be able to remarry or even to be taken into a house as servants. Once rejected by a husband, the women and children would be alone on the streets as beggars, thieves, or prostitutes. Many conservative Christian missionaries in Africa have given exactly this advice, and the high cost to the family was considered part of “carrying one’s cross” for Christ.
- Some would tell Amar that he should continue to give material support to all three wives, but that he should have sex only with his first wife. Sensitive to the plight of the women (who were often originally “sold” into the marriage by their families) and sensitive the desperation of the children, some missionaries chose this option as a means to protect the innocent while maintaining a strict definition of marriage. As I understand it, this is how Nazarenes in Africa have have responded. They allow all of these adults to become “associate members” in the church, which limited their voting and leadership rights but still gave them a degree of acceptance and welcome within the church. One polygamous “associate member” helped plant hundreds of churches - all the while being ineligible for full membership because of his marital status.
- Some would tell Amar that he should continue acting as a husband in every way with all three wives. After all, it’s not the wives’ fault that the husband converted to Christianity. It’s not fair, these leaders argue, to consign these women to a life of celibacy simply because their husband became a Christian. (Remember that many of the women had no real choice in the marriage in the first place.) Following Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 7, these women have a right not only to their husband’s money but also to his body. However, because polygamy is not God’s ideal plan, polygamous spouses are still limited to associate membership, with its corresponding limits to leadership. This is the stance of Nazarenes in Bangladesh.
Which of these is right?
What advice would Jesus give to a polygamous convert?
Which of these most honors the traditional Christian understanding of marriage while also showing compassion to people who find themselves outside that ideal with no easy paths to change?
Is this a case in which the person should be more important than the law (such as Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath)?
What does this mean for the Church in Western contexts where gay marriage is now the rule of law? How will we respond to Christian converts who are already in a same-sex marriage?
Is it possible to offer limited acceptance of gay marriage while still upholding that marriage is still ideally only between one man and one woman?
Is this a possible middle ground for conservative evangelical Christians who still want to uphold a “traditional” view of marriage while also welcoming their gay neighbors?
Or will this kind of limited acceptance necessarily lead to a slippery slope, next leading to full acceptance of gay marriage, and finally eroding all parameters for marriage?
Will progressive Christians (evangelical or mainline) consider limited acceptance of gay marriage simply unacceptable? Or will they accept this as a good-faith compromise from semi-conservative churches in times of extreme cultural upheaval?
These are important questions - even if uncomfortable.
However, because we are in the midst of massive cultural change, the culture of 20th century American Christianity is an insufficient framework for tackling this highly complex set of questions. We must consider how the Church has handled similarly prickly ethical dilemmas at different times and in different places.
May God give us wisdom to see clearly in this fog and, until then, overflowing grace as we debate and stub our toes on our journey through this mist.
This blog is part of a long series on how the Church can have a better conversation on homosexuality. Read the rest of the articles here:
- A Better Conversation about Homosexuality
- 4 Reasons We Need to Talk
- Not About Orientation
- Not About Promiscuity
- Not About Nature vs. Nurture
- Not About Individual Worth
- Not About Sodom and Gomorrah
- Not About Whether We Believe the Bible
- Not About Equality
- Not About Sex
- Not About Rejecting the Body
- A Better Conversation: The Question for the Church
- Should Evangelicals Advocate for Gay Divorce?