Some in African culture believe that barrenness is a curse and that procreation is the primary purpose of marriage. A barren marriage is a marriage that did not achieve its goal. Samuel Kunhiyop gives a practical example:
Among the Bajju of Nigeria, [a barren woman] is referred to as anakwu, meaning “one who is distressed for a child.” The word is closely related to the word dukwu, meaning “death”, and indicates that she is as good as dead. When she does die, a priest steps between the legs of the corpse and says, “go away, you worthless woman.”
John Mbiti thinks polygamy for the sake of progeny should be acceptable:
If the man marries another wife for the sole reason that his first wife is medically proven to be barren and she agrees to his marrying another wife, then the marriage should be given the blessing of the Church and the wedding performed in the Church. . . . Of course a childless marriage could work and be a happy one, but children in African marriages are an absolute necessity and a couple without them is simply miserable.
Before responding to the argument above, it is important we remember what Scripture says about children. They are cherished in Scripture and precious in God’s sight. Because children are a blessing (Prov. 17:6; Ps. 127:3-5), parents pray for (e.g. Gen. 15:2-3; 1 Sam. 1:27; 2:20), celebrate (Jer. 20:15), and provide for their offspring (Ps. 17:14; 1 Tim. 5:8).
Also, it is God who opens and closes the womb. He closed the wombs of Sarah (Gen. 16:2), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:5) and Abimelech’s house (Gen. 20:17-18) and made Leah fertile (29:31).
Moreover, though all of the matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah—experienced childlessness, there is no indication that this was due to anything sinful on their part. As far as we know, they were under the pleasure of God and enjoyed intimacy with their husbands regardless of their prospects of procreation.
To say that children are essential is effectively saying that marriage is essential, since this is the only righteous way in which children may be born. But Paul, who was single and childless, said the opposite. “ I wish that all were [single] as I myself am” (1 Cor. 7:7). So it is wrong to present childbirth as a necessary cause for joy and happiness in a marriage.
So if a childless marriage may not embrace polygamy, what should they do? Three observations:
(1) Adoption is a beautiful way to deal with childlessness.
Moses was adopted (Exod. 2:1-10) and became the leader of Israel. Due to poverty, HIV and low life expectancy, Africa has many orphans that need nurturing and godly homes. In the Shangaan village where I reside, I have been amazed and humbled by the overwhelming love that Africans express toward children. African believers should use this affection as a tool to bring orphans into a godly family through the process of adoption.
John Piper believes those who cannot conceive can still make followers of Jesus:
God’s purpose in making marriage the place to have children was never merely to fill the earth with people, but to fill the earth with worshippers of the true God. One way for a marriage to fill the earth with worshippers of the true God is to procreate and bring the children up in the Lord. But that’s not the only way. When the focus of marriage becomes “Make children disciples of Jesus,” the meaning of marriage in relation to children is not mainly “Make them,” but “Make them disciples.” And the latter can happen even where the former doesn’t.
(2) Polygamy is no guarantee to fix the problem.
It could be that the man, not the woman, is infertile. God is sovereign over all procreation, regardless the methods we may use to sidestep his plan. He can close the womb of the first wife and the second.
(3) Invest in spiritual children.
Jesus implies that there are ways to have children spiritually in the family of Christ. He said:
There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children [biologically] or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children [spiritually] and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30, emphasis added).
In other words, those who leave blood family for the cause of Christ will receive back one hundred fold spiritual children in this life. This emboldened Paul–who had no progeny of his ow– to call his disciple Timothy “my own son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2). He could say to the believers in Corinth, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15).
He understood that parenthood might be expressed through shared affection—not just shared blood—when he said: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well” (Rom. 16:13).