While some churches are uncomfortable to allow polygamous men and women to occupy their prominent ranks, others, particularly African congregational independent churches accommodate and allow them to do so. This is often true in rural areas where traditions are still held in high regard. It is one of the reasons why such churches have high influx of members compared to mainstream traditional churches that are opposed to polygamy. Should mainstream churches change their attitude to accommodate polygamous members into their ranks such that they will not lose members?
The fact that the Christian church is divided over the issue of polygamy signals the presence of a problem worth to react on. This is therefore the reason that has inspired me to engage into a simple paper with hope that the ideas expressed in here will calm down the tempers of some while to others it will arouse them to take on a total research on the subject of polygamy in the church today. This article critically focuses on the church in Africa specifically Uganda.
I will use the word polygamy throughout this paper to refer to a state of man having more than one wife for religious, legal or customary unions. According to Gaskiyane, polygamy is defined as a culturally determined, socially acceptable and legally recognized form of permanent marriage where a man has more than one wife at a time. Kahiga observes that different meanings may be inferred contextually, but in essence polygamy refers to marriage where more than one wife is involved. This definition accommodates the people of the African continent as well, and is reinforced by certain monotheisms such as Islam. Polygamy is not illegal in societies in Africa. The ideas suggested in this discussion may by and large apply to the church beyond Africa where polygamy exists and accepted as a way of life.
Polygamy in the Bible: why was it allowed/not allowed?
Before we can consider polygamy and its role in Scripture, we must look at the doctrine of marriage as presented to us in Scripture. According to the Bible, marriage is a divine institution that God Himself set up. The Bible puts it plain clear that the first social institution God established was marriage between one man Adam and one woman Eve in the Garden of Eden. This was the perfect plan for marriage for mankind (Gen 2:21-25). Adam needed a suitable companion to eliminate the loneliness that surrounded him. Although he would enjoy all the creation including the animals around him, he remained in a solitary state because one of his like was absent.
Marriage starts with engagement. This is where the marriage covenant was made and could only be broken by death or by divorce. The engaged persons are referred to as husband and wife (Matt 1:19). Any engaged person that is involved into elicit sexual relations with another incurred death, hence underscoring the importance of marriage. Therefore marriage must be established on and around the Word of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ took this approach when the Pharisees tried to force Him to take sides with one of their schools of thought (cf Matt 19:3-9).
How should we respond to the Old Testament Polygamy?
Following from the Genesis stories about marriage, it is clear that polygamy found its way into God’s plan of marriage because of the sinful heart of man, and that God will never allow although He can tolerate it. The truth is that the story of polygamy in the Old Testament is a problem. Although monogamy was clearly God’s intent from the beginning, the picture blurs pretty quickly after Adam and Eve’s first sin and expulsion from the Garden. By Genesis 4, you have Cain’s son Lamech taking two wives. The patriarchs Abraham and Jacob themselves had multiple wives and concubines. Moses had two wives as well. The Mosaic Law likewise accommodated the practice of marrying more than one wife, including captured prisoners from foreign conquests (Deut 21:1-17). It also made provisions for continuing the family line by marrying a brother’s wife if he died without producing heirs (Deut 25:5-12). And the stories keep coming: Gideon, one of Israel’s champions, had many wives; Elkanah, a presumably godly man and the father of Samuel, had two wives. In sum, during the Old Testament times, polygamy was not only permitted, it was sanctioned. Other “love stories” in the Bible are similarly plagued with polygamy. Queen Esther was undoubtedly part of a harem. And what of Ruth? Boaz most likely had another wife, but was obligated to marry Ruth out of his legal obligation to his relative’s family as a kin’s redeemer.
The picture gets even dicier when one considers the practice of the kings of Israel. King David, the “man after God’s own heart,” had eight wives. God not only seemed to “permit” this activity, but in one instance at least, actually took responsibility for it. In 2 Samuel 12 when the prophet Nathan confronts David over his sin with Bathsheba, we read: “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I have given you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your bosom . . . and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah, and as if this wasn’t enough, I would have given you even more.” David’s son, Solomon, however, went overboard, flouting a stipulation in Deuteronomy 17 that kings not accumulate “too many” wives. For the record, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.
Does polygamy serve any merit? Polygamy was beneficial when the number of men was reduced by warfare. Old Testament Palestine was frequently marred in warfare due to its strategic position on the highway from the south to the north and from the east to the west. Nations fought nations for commercial or superiority benefit. As a result, young men from Israel perished in large numbers as victims of the battles. Therefore polygamy helped women who would otherwise be on their own to have supporting husbands and the childless widows to have children. Also, it helped to replace the population more quickly. In peacetime, however, this practice meant that if rich men had more than one wife, then some poor men had to remain single.
How does one respond to this situation? The answer begins by seeing that God always points his creation back to the primacy and perfection of the original design. Next, you have to read every book to the end, and especially in its biblical context. And if you read the stories about the characters referenced above, you will quickly find that polygamy was an unmitigated sociological disaster that created heartbreak and sowed familial discord. By the time of the writing of Malachi, God’s desire was clear: covenantal monogamy was to be the norm.
Further, through the ministry of Jesus, we see God “reset the clock” so to speak to the original goodness of monogamous marital union – pointing forward to a new society and a new way. He also enacted new provisions to protect women and raise their standing in society. Jesus showed a world that had distorted the meaning of marriage back to the beauty of “the man being joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh.” The nouns Jesus used are singular here. He showed that there is a way to go back to our “origin story” in the Garden – where one husband is joined to one wife – a relationship Saint Augustine once called, “the basic bond of society.”
The New Testament on polygamy
The New Testament confirms and reinforces the truth of God’s plan for monogamy in its teaching about marriage in passages such as in the first Corinthians and Ephesians (1 Cor 7:1-24; Eph 5:23-33). In these and other New Testament passages a husband is always assumed to have one wife. Gaskiyane observes that reasons of God’s plan of monogamy for mankind are not hard to understand. In her heart no woman really wants to share the love and attention of her husband with another woman.
It is commonly believed that the teaching of Jesus on permanence (indissolubility) of marriage amounts, at least implicitly, to a repudiation of simultaneous polygyny. Since the Lord Himself makes no explicit reference to the problem of polygamy, His argument hinges decisively upon the assumptions that Genesis evidently depicts monogamy as evidently willed from the beginning and that polygyny is bound up with divorce and remarriage.
When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce, He took the opportunity to set them straight about polygamy. Jesus quoted the key verse used by Qumran Jews (Gen 1:27) and even said this was what happened at the beginning of creation (Mark 10:6), which presumably reminded His listeners that Qumran Jews called this the foundation of creation. Jesus deliberately used the Qumran argument to stress monogamy contrary to the Pharisees.
But the Jews whom Jesus lived among had the same problem of polygamy. Polygamy had been considered perfectly normal and proper until the Romans took over and said it was disgusting and immoral. The Romans allowed Jesus to continue practicing polygamy in Palestine, but elsewhere in the empire monogamy was strictly enforced. Many Jews living outside Palestine, therefore got used to the principle of one wife, and it seemed natural to them. By Jesus’ time many Jews had come to agree with the Roman view, and polygamy fell out of practice during subsequent generations, although the Jews did not actually outlaw polygamy until the eleventh century. We however do not know how frequent polygamy was among the Jews in Jesus’ day.
And for Paul, in several of his passages, he is cited with corroborating evidences by those who hold that polygamy was merely tolerated by Moses and finally repudiated by Christ. In various places Paul speaks of husband-wife relationship in the singular. He alludes to the Old Testament expression of “one flesh” with conjugal unity and he depicts the love of Christ for His church in monogamous language. For Paul, the Old Testament practice of polygamy was outmoded. In 1 Corinthians 7:39, he said that a widow could marry whomever she wanted but added that she should marry a fellow believer.
Critiques to the New Testament teaching on monogamy
Critiques to the New Testament teaching on polygamy are championed by Eugene Hillman who argued in his book on polygamy that the key New Testament passages on marriage (Matt 5:27-32; Mark 10:2-12; Rom 7:2-3; 1 Cor :2-16; Eph 5:22-33) repudiate adultery, divorce, polyandry and consecutive polygyny but simultaneous polygamy is not considered at all in these passages, although the New Testament writers certainly must have known this that this customary form of marriage existed among their Jewish contemporaries, even as it existed during the time of Jesus. He further says: 'The whole biblical case against the practice of polygamy is developed only by inferences, and it hinges on a number of assumptions which can no longer be taken as self-evident.
The teaching of Jesus is that '. . . Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.' (Matt 5:32; cf Matt 19:9, Mark 10: 11-12, Luke 16: 18). '. . . For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two but one flesh' . . . (Matt 19:5-6, Mark 10:7-9). Eugene Hillman has argued that the purpose of these sayings of Jesus was not to repudiate polygamy but rather to stress the permanence or indissolubility of marriage. Our Lord was answering the question put to him by Pharisees whether it is lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause. He was dealing with the question of divorce not polygamy. No matter how many wives a husband may have, the action of divorce is normally directed against only one "wife" at a time. The fact that Jesus spoke of the "wife" in the singular is, therefore, just what might be expected in a discussion about divorce according to the law of Moses. It is surely too much to interpret this use of the singular as an argument, a teaching, or a statement against simultaneous polygamy.
The fact that Paul, while writing about the husband-wife relationship, speaks in the singular is no proof that he rejected polygamy. The Greco-Roman world was basically monogamous and as he was an apostle to the Gentiles, he was dealing with believers who had come from a monogamous society. There were of course some Diaspora Jews who were polygamists. To such Jews he might have said, 'everyone should remain in the state in which he was called. (1 Cor. 7:20) and. whatever state each one was called, there let him remain with God (1 Cor. 7:24). The context here however is the state of 'circumcision' versus 'uncircumcision', 'slavery' versus 'freedom'. Nevertheless, Paul extends this to whatever state each was called' and this could include the state of marriage whether Jewish polygamists or Gentile monogamists.
In the Pastoral Epistles Paul teaches that the bishops and deacons should be husband of 'one wife' (1 Tim 3:2, 12; Tit 1:6). One possible interpretation of these verses is that Paul knew that the law allowed men to have more than one wife. He therefore commands the ministers of the Church not to claim this liberty. Other Christians may have married more than one wife but the bishops and deacons should have only one wife. The Early Church may therefore have tolerated polygamy among the Jewish converts to Christianity, but excluded such persons from holding offices as bishops or deacons. The above biblical exposition on the polygamy versus monogamy has fairly prepared us to engage into polygamy practiced by Christians in the Anglican Church of Uganda and how the Church would cope.
The Church of Uganda and the polygamy problem
Polygamy in Uganda: is it culturally and/or economically caused?
Before I embark on the question of polygamy in the Church of Uganda, it is in order to establish whether polygamy in Uganda is a cultural or economic phenomenon or both. In Uganda, a man is allowed to marry multiple wives at a time as long as he “buys” his wives with a bride-price or gives a gift called a dowry to the parents of the girl. The parents of the girl and the community must acknowledge the bride-price or the dowry in order for the marriage to be legalized. By society I mean the relatives on the sides of the man and girl being married, the clan elders and the councils of the villages of the groom and the bride. The bride-price or the dowry is a result of negotiations between both sides and is paid to the father of the girl. It can take the form ranging from monetary to domestic animals, cloth, chicken, beers, and foods, and these days household ware. Any marriage outside this arrangement is illegal and unpalatable. According to the 2014 census of Uganda, around 8.3 percent of all women aged 18 years or more, were currently married or cohabiting in a polygamous relationship.
Uganda is one of the few predominantly Christian nations in Africa to legally recognize polygamous unions with the others being Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Central African Republic among others. There have been numerous attempts to outlaw polygamy in Uganda the first of which was 1987, though none of the active proposals was passed in parliament.
There are forces at play to cause a polygamous marriage in Uganda. Such forces are a mix of social, cultural, and economic. The major reason for marriage among the traditional Uganda societies is to bear children. A man (and woman) is considered unworth if he has no children. The notion of sterility for men is absent in traditional society. Therefore a man will marry as many wives as he can to make as many children as he can. This is also true where the man’s wife gives birth to one sex children. The question whether one can care for his many children or not does not arise. The more wives and more children a man had the more prestigious he was among his peers. It ensured a good reputation in the community.
It is also true that polygamy did not exist for the sake of producing many children per se. Trowel explains that polygamy prevailed because everyone desired it. In Africa, marriage means life, respect, and happiness to the woman. These would only be secured for a woman that was married. Therefore parents wanted their daughters married, respected and happy. No parents wanted their daughters to be spinsters. For the women, being unmarried was considered a taboo. Every woman must have a husband even if it means marrying one who has a wife or wives. Or else she will be looked at as an outcast. Moreover the women wanted co-wives to help them to hoe the vast gardens, and to give a hand in the household work.
Polygamy is not a luxury among African societies as some may think. Trowel rightly observes that there are times when a wife is unclean, or when she is pregnant, or lactating, or when she is simply sick. Under such conditions what should the man do? How would work in the homestead be done? Who would cook for the husband? A second wife was not a mere luxury but a necessity. Therefore with numerous wives around, there was no sexual starvation to the man or going without food.
There is the question of economic welfare. Large families mean economic stability since workers on the fields were readily available. Many wives and many children are a source of manpower to generate income. One should know that the Africans did not have the Western technology and machinery to work on their vast farms. There was sufficient labor force to work on the fields to grow and harvest crops and to tend the animals. There is also sufficient work force in the home to lighten the work. It was believed that the larger the family of a man especially in terms of children, the wealthier he was expected to be. There was need for cheap labor to hoe the farms and tend the animals. The only way to replenish the desired labor is by marrying more wives who will produce children who will eventually make available the desired labor. The daughters bring in plenty of wealth through bride-price/dowry paid by those that marry them. Children are also an economic security source when old age or sickness strikes on the parents.
“Such economic welfare is realized through alliances,” says Hillman. There is need to form alliances between families and clan groups. Here polygamy plays the role of social solidarity on the level of the extended family, the clan and tribal or ethnic community. Each new marriage sets up new relationships of affinity between two different kin groups resulting into a variety of assistance mutual patterns. Many children particularly sons ensured the strength and security of a tribe over others. When war broke out, there were men to go to battle.
Kenneth Little observes that although it is mainly the younger men who are involved in urban migrations, numbers of unattached women and girls also move from the rural areas and some of the male migrants are accompanied by their wives. Besides, good education opens the chances for earning money and improves a person’s social standing. Such desired good education is available in cities and towns, high schools and technical institutes.
Nevertheless, because of the cash economy nature of life in urban areas, there is a tendency to keep spending low since things including food and accommodation space must be paid for. This imposes a significant check on the size of families. Keeping a large family presupposes large spending. Therefore the trend of polygamy is decreasing in urban areas, while on the other hand, it is increasing in rural areas.
The Church of the Anglican Province of Kenya approach to the polygamy disgrace
The House of Bishops and the Provincial Standing Committee of the Synod of the Church of the Province of Kenya requested His Grace David Gitari to recommend ways in which the Church might deal with pastoral problems arising from polygamous marriages for the Synod to consider. Should the church admit a polygamist to the sacramental life of the Church? A decision on this issue is long overdue.
In February 1970, the Anglican Archbishops' meeting at Lusaka debated this matter and decided to sponsor, a ‘Pastoral appreciation of the problems arising out of African marriage customs in relation to full membership of the Church’. Adrian Hastings, a Roman Catholic Father, was appointed to carry out a thorough investigation and to submit a report and recommendations to the Conference of Archbishops of the Anglican Communion in Africa (C.A.P.A.). Father Hastings submitted a comprehensive report in a book published in 1973 under the title ‘Christian Marriage in Africa’ Father Hastings’s report as an attempt to disentangle and advise upon the chief pastoral issues in the area of church marriage discipline in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. He approached his study from sociological, legal and theological dimensions. In his theological chapter, Hastings attempts to tackle three pastoral problems in marriage:
1. Customary Marriage and Church Marriage: Does a customary marriage require the blessings of the Church before the couple receive Christian sacraments?
2. Polygamy and Monogamy: Should polygamy be considered as so sinful a state of marriage that polygamists should not receive the benefits of Christian sacraments?
3. Marital breakdown and remarriage: Should the Church tolerate divorce and should a divorcee remarry in Church and be re-admitted to full membership of the Church?
In each of these pastoral problems, Hastings gives guidelines for the way the Church should tackle them and makes some bold recommendations. Hastings suggests four basic positions a Christian could take in regard to polygamous marriage.
1. Polygamy is simply a sin, comparable to adultery.
2. Polygamy is an inferior form of marriage, not sinful where it is the custom, but always unacceptable for Christians.
3. Polygamy is a form of marriage less satisfactory than monogamy and one which cannot do justice to the full spirit of Christian marriage. In certain circumstances individual Christians can still put up with it, as they put up with slavery, dictatorial government and much else.
4. Polygamy is a form of marriage, monogamy another.
Each has advantages and disadvantages; they are appropriate to different types of society. It is not the task of the Church to make any absolute judgment between them. Hastings favored the third position and recommends that a suitably disposed polygamist can in some circumstances be baptized, together with his wives and children, while fully continuing in his polygamous marriage. If this is done they should also be admitted to communion.
The Church of the Province of Kenya (C.P.K.) revised the Canon Law on Marriage in 1979 but does not seem to have taken seriously the Hastings Report. The Canon on Marriage seem to have concentrated more on the problem of divorce but hardly tackled the other even more pressing problem of polygamy. At its sixth synod in November 1982, the C.P.K. passed the following resolutions on Christian Marriage and Polygamy:
1. Christian Marriage and Family Life. Whereas Christian marriage is a life-long indissoluble union freely entered into by Christian men and women, it is a holy and honorable state which ought to be undertaken with care, thought and due preparation. It is expressive of Christ's relationship with his Church and is for mutual support, help and comfort at all times in the life of the people involved. Whereas we recognize a civil or customary marriage within its own context, we nevertheless note that a Christian marriage has the added blessing of being solemnized and vows taken before God and the assembled congregation of His people.
2. People Married under Customary Law. The Church of the Province of Kenya is convinced that a non-polygamous person who is married in accordance to the traditions of his ethnic group or tribe and has fulfilled all the requirements of the tradition such as consent of parents, dowry etc., and is recognized by the community that he is married, such a person is truly married. C.P.K. shall not in future make re-marriage in Church a condition for baptism or admittance to Holy Communion. The local pastor in exerting this decision may however exercise his pastoral care and encourage such a couple to have their marriage blessed in Church. Each case will be looked into on its own merit.
3. Church and Polygamy. 'The Church of the Province of Kenya is convinced that monogamy is God's plan for marriage and that is the ideal relationship for the expression of love between a husband and wife. Nevertheless, this teaching is not easily understood in many Kenyan cultures in which polygamy is widely practiced and is socially acceptable. While it teaches monogamy, the Church must be sensitive pastorally to the widespread existence of polygamy.
3.1 People who were Polygamists before becoming Christians: 'That a person who becomes a polygamist before becoming a Christian shall on accepting the Gospel be baptized with his believing wives and children on condition that he shall not add any other wives. The Bishop may confirm such a polygamist, his wives and children after further instructions in the Christian faith. That a person who has contracted a polygamous marriage before or after baptism should not in any way be required or compelled to put away any of his wives as a condition of being admitted or re-admitted to the Holy Communion.
3.2 People who become Polygamists while already Christians. A Christian who becomes a polygamist deprives himself of the privileges of participation in Holy Communion, standing as sponsor in baptism and in holding office as a member of a Church committee or parish council. Also that in keeping with the teaching of St. Paul, no polygamist should hold office as a Bishop, priest, or deacon or lay reader The Bishop shall have the discretion to re-admit a polygamist to the full privileges of lay Church membership after due consideration of the following circumstances with regard to each individual case:
a. The lapse of a notable time.
b. The polygamist's repentance for his faults in breaking the vows which he made at his marriage.
c. The acceptability of such re-admission in the eyes of the local Church.
d. Special factors operating in an individual case which made it hard for the polygamist to resist taking a second wife.
How has the Anglican church of Uganda dealt or is dealing with polygamy?
The general consensus of the Anglican Church of Uganda and among Christian men and women is that those persons who are involved in polygamous marriages are categorized as unworthy of membership in the Christian community. This consensus prevails despite the fact that some polygamists show positive signs of faith and function as the religious and political leaders of their people.
One of the pastoral and practical implications of such a judgmental position is the injustice involved in the Church’s demand for the removal of a second wife or wives in order to allow a polygamist to be baptized and thus be allowed to partake of the Holy Communion. It is apparent that the Church failed to understand the cultural manner of African marriages, and the contexts within which it operates. This leaves its followers with no clear guidelines about how to live.
It is the case that often men become members of the Church when they are already in polygamous marriages for several years, and with children with every wife. It becomes practically difficult for such a man to send away his other wives and live with only one. Who will take care of the other wives that are abandoned? Where will they go when they are sent away from their husband? It is very difficult for such wives to find mates because everybody knows that they are married to someone.
It is therefore apparent that the Church is tearing down families if it forces monogamous marriage upon families that are already operating in a polygamous style. This is dehumanizing, selfish, and far removed from the Christian spirit of familial charity. For example, in traditional African culture, children and relatives respect their elderly parents and aging relatives, thus making a commitment to take care for them in their old age. How will the abandoned wives, with no where to stay, no land to till, and no means to generate income be able to take care of their aging parents? On the contrary, in the West, once one is old, he or she is often taken to a care center to be looked after by those who are not related by blood to them for they would be a bother to their children. To an African, this is an unacceptable cultural practice.
Baeta states; “The Western mission churches in Africa did not only try to dissolve African marriages, but they claimed that in order to become a Christian, a man must put away all his wives but the only one he will have as his ‘Christian wife.’ Monogamous marriage was prerequisite for becoming a Christian.” Today the Church finds itself is in a dilemma as it tries to impose monogamy on polygamists. On the other hand, the Church preaches the indissolubility of marriage, and on the other hand forces polygamists to divorce their other wives, choose one of then and be married to that woman in the church. This is a contradiction I think, and therefore an unacceptable position for the Christian church in Africa to swallow.
While no one should develop a theology of marriage outside the teaching of the Bible, we should discover one that is entirely biblical, but at the same time sympathetic to a man found polygamous but would like to embrace the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. If this is achieved, then Christianity in Africa shall be authentic and the Church truly indigenous. On their part the Western missionaries came to Africa from areas where polygamy was alien and thus knew not how to deal with it. So they were intolerant and unsympathetic to polygamy. For them therefore, one would not be a Christian unless he was married to one wife.
With a wide experience in Uganda, F.B. Welbourn highlights on this painful issue thus: Missionaries have taken to Africa a complex culture which it is perhaps easiest to call “Christian-Western,” in which the faith is inextricably inter-woven with the techniques and values of a civilization it has itself helped to create. It is necessary on this close identity, in African eyes, of all Christian missionaries with Western political power and material culture, because while missionaries were themselves divided into distinct theological, and perhaps national groups…. Missionaries are Europeans, offering a culture which is Western as well as Christian unable to escape whether they wish it or not – from identification with men of other professions but their race. A question that out to be answered correctly is, “If God Himself though did not permit polygamy but tolerated it, why should the Anglican Church of Uganda not tolerate polygamous men? I argue that such men should be tolerated them, but under specific biblical principles.
Resoltions and responses of various conferences to the problem of polygamy.
There have been world councils and conferences one after the other attempting to settle the problem of polygamy and the church in Africa, and other polygamous communities around the world. The 1888 Lambeth conference which sits in England every ten years and attended by the primates and bishops from the Anglican Communion around the world developed the following resolutions.
It is the opinion of this conference that persons living in polygamy be not admitted to Baptism, but that they be accepted as candidates and kept under Christian instruction until such time as they shall be in a position to accept the Law of Christ (5 (A), passed by 83 votes to 21.
The wives of polygamists may, in the opinion of this conference, be admitted in some cases to Baptism, but it must be left to the local authorities of the Church to decide under what circumstances they may be baptized (5 (B), passed by 54 to 34.
The missionary conference held at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, despite some tolerant voices from parts of Asia, particularly China and India, resolved that:
Our correspondents in Africa view with unanimous intolerance conditions of life which are not only unchristian, but are at variance with the instinctive feelings of natural morality. With them there can be no “question” of polygamy. It is simply one of the gross evils of heathen society which, like habitual murder or slavery, must at all cost be ended.
The Edinburgh report continued:
In Africa polygamy is more prevalent than in other countries…. Indeed, the Christian law upon this subject may be said to be the greatest obstacle to the acceptance of our faith. In the face of this it is surprising to note, that it is in regard to the evidence from Africa alone that there is an almost complete unanimity of opinion. Every mission within our review refuses admission to the Church in Africa to any man who is actually living with more than one wife
Following these councils, the Anglican Church of Uganda imposed prohibitions and used the withholding of God-given sacraments as a disciplinary measure against polygamists. This discipline is lamentable. The Church forces polygamous men to divorce all their wives but choose one of them whom they must wed in Church holy matrimony. But the sad side of it is that the same Church has no program for the welfare of the divorced women some of whom are sent away with their children. Unfortunately, the Church makes insistence in the name of Christ who said nothing explicitly to condemn polygamy but clearly condemned the Jewish practice of divorce, a practice which the Church encourages among the polygamists to do
How should the Anglican church of Uganda deal with polygamy/should polygamous marriages be allowed/accommodated in the church? Why yes/not?
My opinion is that polygamy should be accommodated in the Church but under carefully laid down biblical principles. We saw above that God did not close out polygamous men in the Old Testament, but tolerated them. Similarly, God did so to the gentile converts of the New Testament church. It therefore follows that a polygamous man wanting to become a believer should be allowed to do so with his wives. Let him keep his wives but must not be allowed to marry new wives since that would be no different from adultery. A man married to one wife should be welcome into the church but not allowed to take on another wife for the same reason above.
Why this view? Oregon notes that God takes people as He finds them and introduce principles of righteousness within a moral framework with which the people can identify. This is what God did in the Old Testament. The application of this principle is that present sanctification is a gradual process. The Holy Spirit works in the hearts of God’s redeemed people over the entire course of their earthly lives to bring about a greater and greater conformity to the character of Christ in their lives. Even after a long and faithful Christian life, every Christian still falls far short of the perfection of God’s holiness. It is unrealistic to think that changes in imperfect cultural marriage patterns can take place in a short time without severe family trauma.
When we apply the truth of present sanctification to polygamy, it is clear that it is God’s will to change a polygamous culture to a monogamous one as He did with His people in the Bible. In the Old Testament God did this by speaking to His people within a moral framework in which they lived, but this took time. It did not happen in one generation. God does His work by gradually changing the inner moral character of His people with the culture where they live. Gaskiyane notes that by the time of the New Testament, polygamy had been abandoned as a practice among the Israelites.
In the New Testament times, monogamy was the accepted pattern among God’s people. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he spoke about the need for each man to have his own wife (not wives) to prevent immorality (1 Cor 7:2). Monogamy was and is God’s will and perfect plan. Jesus said that the marriage bond must not be broken (Matt 19:6). Separation of marriage partners or divorce is not the will of God, whether in monogamy or polygamy. Divorce destroys marriages, families and individuals and, especially children. Any society which does not suppress divorce is on a road to self-destruction. Therefore “a problem such as polygamy cannot be solved by simply making rules, for they will bring harmful consequences to individuals and families that are involved,” adds Gaskiyane.
Yes, God severely condemned King David for his adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, but He said nothing about David having more than one wife at the time. Nathan’s parable to David shows that God expected David to satisfy his sexual desire through one of his plural wives.(2 Sam 12:4). Here God made a clear distinction between David’s adultery, which was a serious sin, and his polygamy, which God did not identify as a sin. Although I am not advocating that God unconditionally approved of polygamy in the time of David, it is evident that God spoke to him within the cultural understanding of marriage at the time, which included the practice of polygamy.
Let me suggest the following as the theological principles to the Church of Uganda about how to deal with polygamous men that want to become Christians and are ready to serve Christ in the church; Jesus said: “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin” (John 1:22). “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called,” said Paul (1 Cor 7:20):
1. Polygamous men can become Christians if they want to. They can keep their wives but should not marry any more. If they do so, that would be sin of adultery and immorality like the one King David fell into with Bathsheba.
2. From (1) above it follows that polygamous men should be allowed to partake of the holy Sacraments (baptism and Lord’s Supper).
3. If from her conscience any of the wives in a polygamous relationship wants to leave the converted husband, let her be allowed to do so for scripture allows that (1 Cor 7:15).
4. No polygamous man should be allowed to take the office of bishop, elder, or deacon in the church. Scripture forbids that (1 Tim 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).
5. Polygamous men can hold non-spiritual offices in church such as steward of church revenues, participate in choir and others. The Bible is full of polygamous men that held non spiritual offices such as King David, Solomon and others.
I am aware that similar suggestions featured in the 1998 Lambeth conference of the Anglican Communion in England with approval and is practiced in the Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK) as I have discussed above. If this is so, then the problem of polygamy in the Anglican Church of Uganda is settled.
I considered the problem of the Anglican church of Uganda’s response to polygamy among its members. Polygamy is a strong cultural practice in Africa that has existed from time immemorial. Western missionaries that evangelized Africa wrapped the gospel in their cultural garbs. Such garbs did not fit into the African cultures and traditions one of which was polygamy. Built on missionary foundation rather than scripture, the Church in Africa overwhelmingly embraced the Western culture. For a long time the missionary church failed to understand that polygamy is not sin in Africa.
While the Anglican Church of Uganda should adopt the strategies suggested here in its evangelistic campaigns, it should not compromise the gospel as laid down in the Bible. Polygamy is not right, but it can be tolerated when a polygamous man becomes a Christian by not after a man has become a Christian. God’s way of changing a culture from polygamy to monogamy is not to punish polygamists and their wives and children, but to set before the church an example of His perfect will for marriage. The Church should do this by relentless proclamation and teaching of the word. Definitely this cannot be done in one generation.