A Case Study on Polygamy: Is Polygamy a Sin?
Missionary groups and even nonprofits across several cultures eventually come face-to-face with the issue of polygamy, which also includes God’s original creation design, adultery, divorce, a spouse becoming a believer, abandonment of family, and baptism of new believers (i.e., election doctrine) regarding polygyny. The responses to these issues are unconfined to one community since it will have implications for the missionaries’ ministry, their friends, and neighbors. Coupled with the dilemmas faced by the missionaries are the concerns of following Christ by the elders since they fear having to abandon their family. Due to the multidimensional nature of the dilemmas and concerns, a close examination of scripture and the West African culture is warranted to provide a solution to the baptism of new believers in a polygamous society.
Within polygamy, there are two subtypes: polyandry (a marriage of one woman to two or more husbands)1 and polygyny (a marriage of one man to two or more wives)2. The rationale of polygyny from the elders in the West African community is based on the belief that family and alliances hold high importance due to the possibility of their community being founded on a patrilineal (unilineal) kinship system.3 The rationale of the missionaries is to approach the issue of baptism of believers who practice polygyny through hermeneutics since their worldview resides in biblical sufficiency to every aspect of life. Based on this, baptism is available to all believers and commanded of all believers (Matt. 28:19-20, Acts 2:38, Eph. 4:4-6, English Standard Version). Therefore, a polygamist who becomes a Christian can be baptized.
1 Brian M. Howell and Jenell Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 1802 Ibid., 1803 Ibid., 169-180 Conversion does not negate a Christian to leave the condition in which they were called (1 Cor. 7:20) but to do all they do in love (1 Cor.16:14). While polygyny was allowed for a season, there were also issues that arose with it since it was not God’s original intent for marriage between one man and one woman, noted in a singular linguistical manner in Genesis 2:24-25. Issues that arose with polygyny included jealousy (Gen. 30:1-25), familial strife (1 Sam. 25:44), and being unequally yoked spiritually (2 Sam. 6, 1 Kings 11:1-8). Monogamy serves as the model of the relationship between God and His bride, the church (Eph. 5:32). To baptize and add polygamists into church leadership would therefore contradict scripture.
Scripturally and culturally, polygyny was practiced for many reasons. These included a wife’s barrenness (Duet. 25:5-10), to provide protection for women against prostitution or rape (Duet. 22:25, 23, 25:5, 7-10), make or preserve national alliances (1 Kings 3:1), and prohibit greed (Gen. 38, 2 Sam. 12:8). Polygyny also allowed a faster progression of the birth rate, following the command of Genesis 1:28 to procreate. It was also recognized as a legitimate marriage under the Levirate law that also provided ordinances against abandonment of family (Deut. 25:5-10, Ex. 21, Matt. 19:5, 1 Tim. 5:8). Even though polygyny was able to be used by God for a time, church leaders (pastors, elders, deacons, etc.) are called to be sober-minded men of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6). A solution to the baptism issue would be to not restrict the polygamists’ addition into the body of Christ, expressing understanding,4 and appoint monogamous men (either inside or outside the community) to leadership positions within a corporate church to teach sound doctrine.
4 Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. (Downers Grove, IL: Baker InterVarsity Press. 2006), eBook, chap. 9, para. 2-3 Bibliography Brian M. Howell and Jenell Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019. eBook. Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. Downers Grove, IL: Baker InterVarsity Press, 20016. eBook.