If Polygamy Prevents a Childless Marriage, is it Good?

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.”

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Does Polygamy Help Alleviate Poverty?

The thinking in some cultures is that because labor is difficult, having multiple wives (and thus more helping hands and more children) will help alleviate some of the work responsibility for one family.

John Mbiti writes of African culture: “Within the context of life, polygamy is not only acceptable and workable, but is a great social and economic asset.”

Here are several objections:  Continue reading

Is Polygamy a Valid Restraint to Immorality?

Because infidelity is relatively common among married men who work far from home, John Mbiti suggests polygamy is the best solution.

For [men who work a long distance from home] the most practical way of leading faithful lives, is to have one wife looking after the family on the land, while the other is with him in the distant town or city where he works. This to me seems like a very plausible, practical and understandable way of facing the situation of life honestly and fairly. It is more sensible and moral than chasing after prostitutes.

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Is There Love and Harmony in Polygamy?

Some argue that love thrives in polygamous unions just as it does in monogamous marriages.

John Mbiti argues: “I believe that where there is deep love and understanding on the part of the couples (or triples) concerned, and where their community accepts and assimilates them, polygamous marriages can be as successful and happy as monogamous ones, even if monogamy is ideally better.” Elizabeth Isichei agrees with Mbiti: “Missionaries familiar with the story of Jacob and Rachel were, for the most part, blind to the way in which love could flourish in a plural marriage.” Continue reading

Is Polygamy Adultery?

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The first wife looks the least happy.

Groucho Marx once said: “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go in the other room and read a book.”

When it comes to polygamy, I resonate with Marx. Every time someone talks about this matter, it forces me to dig into books, namely my Bible.

Phil Hunt is a friend and fellow missionary church planter up in Zambia. Recently he forwarded me a doctoral dissertation by Honoré Afolabi on polygamy. Having written a similar paper on the subject, I was anxious to read Afolabi’s work. I was not disappointed. The paper was excellent.

Afolabi took the majority of his time to show that polygamy is sinful and contrary to God’s plan. With this I wholeheartedly agree. We differ, however, on two basic questions: (1) Is polygamy adultery and (2) should active, converted polygamists be barred from church membership? Afolabi denies both; I affirm both. Here, I would like to address only the former. Continue reading

Why the Old Testament Doesn’t Rebuke Polygamy

One of the arguments people use to minimize the sinfulness of modern-day polygamy—especially in Africa—is the apparent blind eye God has towards it in the Old Testament. John Reisinger writes: “There is no instance in the Old Testament Scripture that suggests, in any way, that polygamy was a sin. This does not prove that polygamy was not a sin, but it does prove that God never treated it as a sin.” John Mbiti is even more direct:

Christians who uphold monogamy as the only acceptable form of marriage before God, tell us that this is what the Bible teaches. They go on to tell us that polygamy is a sin. I have searched the Bible carefully and one of the staggering things concerning marriage is that the Bible does not treat marriage in terms of either monogamy or polygamy.

Whether or not Scripture explicitly forbids polygamy is fodder for another day’s war. The issue here is whether God’s relative silence about the patriarch’s polygamy implies tacit approval. I say no. Here are some sins in Genesis by righteous people.

1)    Noah gets drunk (Gen. 9:21) – No rebuke from God.

2)    Abraham lies (12:10-20) – No rebuke. In fact, God punishes Pharaoh.

3)    Lot impregnates his daughters (19:30-38) – No rebuke

4)    Abraham lies again (20) – Abraham not rebuked…but Abimelech is!

5)    Jacob deceives his brother (25:31-33) – No rebuke

6)    Isaac lies (26:6-11) – No rebuke, but more blessings! (12)

7)    Jacob deceives father (27) – No rebuke, just more blessing (23)

8)    Jacob tricks Laban (31:20) – No rebuke

Assuming no one would use these stories to support drunkenness, incest, or dishonesty, why then polygamy? Surveying the other 38 books in the OT would bring endless more examples. The point is that God’s disapproval of polygamy in the OT is clear. It shouts at us, but not in propositional form. Rather, the narrative paints for us the ugly picture of family squabbles, marital tension, painful neglect, discarded children, broken promises and unquenched jealousy.

After all, we are never explicitly told that the prodigal son was wrong for squandering his wealth. Just look at the consequences.

The Polygamy Problem in Tsonga Culture

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President Zuma of South Africa has numerous wives in his harem

The South African Constitutional Court has recently decided that a Tsonga man who wants to take an additional bride must first receive permission from his first wife. This follows a lengthy court battle whereby the first widow of a polygamist wanted to void the marriage of the second widow because the first widow had never given her consent. Both marriages were finally recognized after the matter went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Since consent is the grid by which South Africa determines morality, government officials were tripping over themselves as they tried to explain the Supreme Court’s ruling. “If Ron can marry consenting Jim, then how can you allow this marriage if Ruth does not consent to July joining the harem? This line of argumentation proved too much for the powers that be, so they decided to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision.

We’re planting churches among the Tsonga people and there are scores of polygamists in our village, so I thought it would be helpful to do a series of posts regarding the biblical position on polygamy and how a minister should pastor polygamists.

There may be exceptions that allow for polygamy, something we will soon discuss, but without a doubt monogamy is God’s design for the human race. It took just over fifty verses before the author of Genesis began defining for us the meaning of marriage, and it is this passage to which we will turn next.