FOUNDATIONS OF AFRICAN THEOLOGY
POLYGAMY: A MORE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE ALTERNATIVE
Theologians of the mainline churches, Catholics and Protestants, especially of the evangelical tradition, are of the conviction that for a marriage to be Christian, it must of necessity be monogamous. Taking their cue from Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh”, this group of thinkers believes that monogamy is mandatory, not only for Christians but for all mankind.
The expression ‘A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife’, says O.J Baabs, ‘Is in the singular, a one man one woman relationships. There is no room for a third party’.[i]
This position was echoed by J.T Thompson and J.S. Wright who held that monogamy was implied in the story of Adam and Eve. Since God created only one wife for Adam, it would seem that God left it to man to discover by experience that monogamy was the proper relationship.[ii]
Towing the same line, Robert Wieland sees monogamy as the intended marriage pattern for humanity. To him, monogamy is neither Western, Eastern nor African. It is from the Creator and Redeemer of all human beings. It is natural for a man who loves a woman to desire to become ‘one’ flesh with her and vice versa. This inward desire of a man is for ‘one’ woman only and a woman’s desire is for ‘one’ man only. We call this ‘love’. It is pure and holy in its ‘one’ man ‘one’ woman exclusiveness.[iii]
Polygamy according to Wieland is contrary to God’s plan for man. Polygamy, adultery, fornication, prostitution and corruption are inventions that are out of tune with man’s nature.
On his own part, Geoffery Parrinder maintains that although God permitted polygamy in former times, a careful reading of the Old Testament reveals a gradual evolution from this ancient Jewish practice towards monogamy. By virtue of this progressive development in the history of salvation, monogamy has emerged as the properly human and divinely willed form of marriage.[iv] The one man one woman relationship is, therefore, God’s design for matrimony. It is the creation ordinance while polygamy was a later deviation.
Using history to buttress his point, Parrinder asserts that in the ancient code of Hammurabi, monogamy was assumed while polygamy was an exception. In ancient China also, there was one legal wife and it was forbidden to take a second in her lifetime.[v] The same was true of ancient India where polygamy was confined to the rich. Monogamy developed in India as early as the Rig-Veda period that is, before 1000 B.C. The laws of Manu recommended that mutual fidelity should continue till death. If a wife was faithful and bore children, a second wife was unnecessary.[vi]
Hans Haselbarth also believes that Genesis two speaks of one man one woman, she being given to him as a helpmate. Both become one flesh. To Haselbarth, monogamy was the accepted order in most of the Old Testament and completely so in the New Testament. Jesus teaching on marriage clearly presupposed monogamy.[vii]
Like Hans Haselbarth, most of those who advocate monogamy believe that polygamy was abolished by Christ Jesus in his discourse on divorce in Matthew 19.1ff. His reference to the creation story is seen as confirmation of monogamy. “It is obvious”, says otto Piper, “That what Jesus said about marriage in Matthew 19:3-9 implies monogamy”[viii]
Taking a more radical stance, Karl Barth asserts that polygamy did not exist in the New Testament times, so there was no need for Jesus to deal directly with the matter.[ix]
Other proponents of monogamy would argue more confidently from relevant Pauline passages. The Criteria for Church leadership outlined by Paul in his epistles to Timothy and Titus are most appealing. Making his case for monogamy Paul insisted that only those with one wife should aspire for the offices of bishops and deacons[x]. Based on theses instructions, it is held that what is good for church leaders is equally good for church members since all the redeemed are priest unto God. By the same token, the admonition of Paul to the Corinthians to avoid immorality by “Each man having his own wife and each woman her own husband”, is viewed as supportive of monogamy since the emphasis is on a one to one relationship. Similarly, conjugal rights should be exclusively between a man and his wife, this being the only way sexual expression could find its sanctification[xi].
Ecclesiastical Declarations on Monogamy
The cumulative affirmation of these convictions gave rise to ecclesiastical declarations that have remained normative in Christian circles to this day. Among the Catholics, for instance, the opinion of Saint Anselm of Laon Formulated in A.D 1117 is still normative. Anselm saw marriage as,
The consent of a man and a woman holding a single sharing of life, the consent to remain with one another exclusively and have sexual intercourse only with one another and without baring the way to offspring, a consent that is legitimate, one that is made legitimately by legitimate persons.[xii]
Saint Anselm’s concept of matrimony was adopted by the Council of Trent in 1563, where it was unanimously agreed that,
If anyone says it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time and that it is not forbidden by any divine law, let him be anathema.[xiii]
By the same persuasion, Henry Venn, the General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society summarized the feelings of the Anglicans. In his memorandum of 1856, Venn declared that,
The state of polygamy is unlawful within the Church of Christ even though commenced in ignorance, because it is not only contrary to the divine institution of marriage but also Christ pronounced it as adultery.[xiv]
This position was also upheld at the Lambeth Conference of 1888. In addition, the assembly resolved that polygamists should not be baptized; those already baptized who took additional wives should be excommunicated. Their wives should however be admitted on certain conditions.[xv]
The sentiments of the Catholics and the Anglicans were shared by almost all other missionary organizations that operated in Africa. In the Methodist Church, membership was for monogamists only. As the Anglicans met at Lambeth in 1888, the former were apprehensive that the Anglicans would compromise on polygamy. When they did not, the Methodists were exquisitely happy in show of solidarity for a common front[xvi].
The Presbyterian Mission initially adopted a lenient attitude in baptizing the wives of polygamists along with monogamists. This was later abandoned as inconsistent with Christian teachings. So polygamy in all its ramifications was completely outlawed. At the moment only the Cameroonian branch still grant full membership to “Those women who were forced into polygamous unions”.[xvii]
The American Baptist were consistent in their opposition to polygamy. In 1905, they advised their local churches against associating with polygamists. The advice was followed up with a warning in 1910 that financial aids would be withdrawn from any Church that had polygamous membership. To press home their resentment, they refused to establish schools near the Independent Churches ‘Suspected’ of tolerating polygamy and threatened to cut all fellowship from such Churches[xviii].
The Lutherans exhibited the same aversions for polygamy. While Martin Luther himself was more sympathetic towards polygamy as evident in his advice to Philip of Hesse whose wife was invalidated that he should resort to “Polygamy rather than divorce and adultery”, the Church that grew in his name developed a tradition that was completely inimical to that spirit. In all the ten countries where the Lutheran Mission established in Africa, monogamy has been the pre-requisite for church membership. Only the Liberian chapter has an amicable attitude towards polygamy. In the All-Africa Lutheran Conference at Marangu in 1955, they informed the congress that they were admitting into baptism those with plural wives who showed faith in Christ[xix].
Christian Reformed Church Mission had the same posture towards polygamy. From the accounts of Miss Johanna Veenstra, their first missionary to Nigeria;
Very often a man is kept waiting for ten years before he receives baptism and that for no other reason except that he has more than one wife. It may be that he had these plural wives before he was converted, but even so, he is not allowed to enter the fellowship of the church until he comes to live with only one wife… Now we do not tolerate polygamy.[xx]
The only missionary society that came to Africa with open mind and sympathetic heart towards African customary marriage was the Bremen Church Mission. Thought they did not accepted polygamy as a distinct, legitimate and lasting marriage in its own right, just as monogamy, they had a consistent policy which was formulated in the following words.
Polygamy existed at the time of Jesus Christ and the Apostles, but we do not find that monogamy was made a condition for acceptance into the church. Therefore, a man who has several wives must be admitted to baptism and communion, however, all are always to be reminded that monogamy is the true marriage according to God, and that only in this way can the purpose of marriage be reached.[xxi]
We could proceed ad infinitum to cite examples of devout men and Christian organizations bearing the conviction that monogamy is not only a Christian way of life but the most ideal form of marriage for humanity in general. But what is worth noting is that the application of monogamic pressure of African societies as a whole had more of its temerity from the civil arena than the religious. In some parts of Africa the colonial administration confronted polygamy with more ferocity than did the church. Whereas the Church could only appeal to people’s consciences through religious instructions and feeble threats, the government had at its disposal the instruments of coercive powers to enforce it.
As clearly defined by T.F Buxton, the task of Europe in Africa was not just to colonize but to civilize. The interference of colonial authorities with African domestic life, therefore, had to do with the conception of their role as civilizing agents. Having arrived from a culture which claimed polygamy was unknown in its history, the African family set up presented itself as the most challenging area for reforms. So plural marriage was considered repugnant and enactments had to be made to entrench monogamy based on western perception and practice.[xxii]
The colonial experiment with the eradication of polygamy was most ruthless in East Africa. There, taxation and other social pressures were used to curb plural marriage. While polygamists were charged higher rates, they were at the same time deprived of accommodation in urban centers.[xxiii]
In Central Africa, the denial of legal recognition to plural marriage was extended to rural communities as well. In the end the native Christians and the local population suffered untold hardships as a result of increases in divorce, prostitution and family rip-offs.[xxiv]
The Sway of Polygamy
The tenacity of polygamy in Africa in spite of concerted efforts to eradicate it finally pushed Western scholars and theologians to a sober reflection on their attitudes to it. For, regardless of their stringent measures and fervent prayers that God should perfect their parishioners in monogamy, the latter kept adding more and more wives.
Miss Margaret Nissen, a Lutheran missionary to Adamawa, noted the fall of their devout evangelist who abdicated his role as a preacher in favour of additional wives.
The fall of Yohanna Markus was a great blow to the missionaries and friends in the homelands. They had expected so much from him, he was such a shining witness. Many prayers ascended on his behalf, but instead of sending his second wife away, he added others and separated himself more and more from other Christians. He was ultimately put out of the Church. He did not come back till his death in 1960.[xxv]
From Zaire, Ephraim Anderson also repeated that apostacy owing to polygamous marriage occurred frequently. Since the Christian era began, marrying a second wife kwela nganda has been the severest temptation to Christians. Catechists and others at work in the mission could not escape the seduction by this form of marriage. Anderson cited an instance of a Catechist, Aseli Kionga, who was considered one of the most remarkable evangelists among the Dondo who took several wives and lost his reputation with the Christian population.[xxvi]
Johanna Veenstra had the same experience at Takum with a Kuteb convert who persisted in marrying a second wife. After several warnings and prayers with him, he went ahead and took his second woman. His name was stuck out of the register.[xxvii]
As the years rolled by, the overt discomfort of African Christians with monogamy graduated from isolated recalcitrance to massive resentment. The period between Lambeth 1888 and 1914 saw the emergence of prophetism and African Messianic movements[xxviii]. The response of the native populace to these new insights into biblical interpretation and freelance operation of the Holy Spirit was so spontaneous that under three decades, almost all the continent had been engulfed.
In West Africa we had Prophet Wadi Harris from the then Ivory Coast; Garrick Sokari Braide from the Delta area of Nigeria and later, Josiah Oshitelu from Akure in Nigeria. From South Africa we had Isaiah Shembe, Messiah of the Nazarite Baptist Church. From Rhodesia came Johane Maranke, Founder of the African Apostolic Church in Central Africa, arose Simon Kimbangu of the lower Congo whose Church movement grew to be the largest African Indigenous Church.[xxix]
A common factor to these prophets was their toleration of polygamy. Their movements drew multitudes not only for their charismatic leadership but their identification with African Christian aspirations. Harris, for one, had four wives, Isaiah Shembe also had four. Josiah Oshitelu had seven while Johane Maranke left behind sixteen.
These pioneers of African Indigenous Churches operated under the conviction that the sublime idea of monogamy held out to African Christian did not correspond with Europe life patterns, let alone of Africans. For, while Western missionaries denounced simultaneous polygamy among Africans, their countrymen displayed similar tendencies in various disguises as apparent in consecutive polygyny, concubinage, mistresses and the like.[xxx]
Moreover, their access to the scriptures stimulated the awareness among native Christians that the undue emphasis on monogamy as precondition for Church membership had no solid biblical foundation. They could not, therefore, accept without further discussion the idea of being in the wrong over polygamy. What they wanted were concrete scriptural proofs against plural marriage and not simply the assertion that polygamy was unchristian.
Shifts in Attitude Towards Plural Marriage
The glamorous success of African Indigenous Church vis-à-vis the sharp decline in membership of Orthodox Churches compelled many missionaries to reassess their performances over the years as gospel bearers in Africa. Some began to question the justification of building a theology of sin around African plural marriage which in every way was akin to the Old Testament practices. Thenceforth, notes a caution were sounded from all quarters.
Giving instructions to fresh missionaries in 1915, A.M Brouwer warned that they were not being sent out to reform morals and check social abuses. “Morality is the product of the inner life and missionaries were not to go into heathen lands to amend behavior any more than a husbandman would regard it as same horticulture to go out and tie the fruits on the tree limbs”. They were to go into the world not as trustees of better social life, but of his life who said of Himself, “Except ye eat of the flesh of the son of man and drink of his blood, ye have no life in you”.[xxxi]
Laying the same emphasis, Hunter brought it out in clearer tune;
If changes were pressed too fast, if the missionaries denounced polygamy too fiercely, if the dances were stopped, there might be a purely regressive and violent rebellion. The African Messianic movements testify to this danger.[xxxii]
About six decades before then, some thoughtful missionaries had already indicated their misgivings about the official position of missionary societies to polygamy in Africa. The first person to toss the ball was Bishop John William Colenso of the Natal Parish in South Africa. In his article published in the Journal of Ecclesiastical history Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1855, Bishop Colenso expressed strong displeasure over the practice of separating women form their husbands upon conversion to Christianity. This, he said, was unwarrantable and again the plain teachings of Christ.[xxxiii]
Had his forebodings been taken seriously, a lot of missiological and pastoral problems might have been averted in the African Parish. Instead, his views were greeted with pious indignation from his colleagues. Their umbrage notwithstanding, Collenso followed up his article with another in 1860 in which he insisted that;
With respect to the polygamy question, all my experience has deepened and confirmed the conviction that a most grievous error has been committed all along by our missionary societies in the course they had, hitherto, been adopting with regard to native converts who had more than one wife at the time of receiving the word of life in the gospel.[xxxiv]
A similar objection was raised later by Reverend S.G. Pinnock, the General Secretary of the American Baptist Mission over what he called “The use of the big stick” to suppress local church aspirations regarding polygamy. This conviction brought him into serious conflict with the Home Board. When in 1922 he was given the options of taking a definite stand against polygamy or resigning, he resigned.[xxxv]
Records have it that the enforcement of monogamy among Christians had not gone down well even with Church men in the West. The mass reversion to plural marriage by the Anabaptist in Europe and the Mormons in America in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively are cases in point.
That apart, individual thinker outside Christian circles have expressed their skepticism regarding the merits of monogamy. In 1900, James Hinton announced his doubts about the virtue and authenticity of monogamy existed in the Western society as he knew it. He believed there were fewer men who were genuinely monogamic than were to be found in Eastern polygamic societies
Monogamy as established, he said, was a selfish and anti-social institution and was responsible for prostitution and other social vices.
We arrived at it too soon, for it is a mistake to convert an ideal however good into a universal legal form. The result has been that though ostensibly existing to avert licentiousness, it has called out more license than polygamy would have led to.[xxxvi]
In the words of Hinton, people should not assume that one special type of sexual pattern is of higher moral character and social value than the others. The polygamy which people view today with consternation is what someone has called simultaneous polygamy, since with the increase in divorce and remarriage, many people practice consecutive polygamy.[xxxvii]
Coming out almost simultaneously with and in support of James Hinton’s skepticism were the research works of social anthropologists like Bronishlow Malinowski, A. Radcliffe-Brown, E. Evans-Pritchard, C.K. Meek, Lucy Mair, J.V. Taylor and others which brought to public the inherent virtues in African polygamous marriage customs. As comparisons were made between the advantages of family stability, peace and security bequeathed by the polygamic arrangement in Africa and the chaotic situations prevalent in the Western monogamic set up, it was obvious that the missionaries and colonial authorities were working on false assumptions.
Polygamy in History
Extra-biblical information from Jewish circles indicates that the much publicized Eve of the Holy Scriptures was not after all the first wife of Adam.
In her article, “The coming of Lilith”, Judith Plascov Goldenberg had this to say;
In the beginning the Lord God formed Adam and Lilith from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. Created from the same source, both having been formed from the ground, they were equal in all ways.[xxxix]
Adam, man that he was, did not accept this situation of equality. In his attempt to assert his superiority over Lilith, the latter could no tolerate it. So she called upon the name of the Lord and flew away.
Caught up with loneliness, Adam complained to the Lord God. When Lilith could not be persuaded to rejoin Adam, God cast a deep sleep on Adam, took out one of his ribs and fashioned Eve for him.[xl]
Much as this narrative may sound fanciful and perhaps difficult to take, it is equally difficult to reject because a lot of the information that made up the first eleven chapters or Genesis appears similarly romantic. Before their codification, these stories circulated as oral traditions and must have undergone a series of edition before their extant forms. Being documented by men, there is no doubt that they would prefer only that which would affirm the superiority of men over women. Hence the excision of the Lilith version.
Besides, the mere association of another woman with Adam is not an issue that could simply be waived since internal evidences from the scriptures suggest strands of narratives that complement, conflict and, indeed, contradict each other.
From all indications there are no human societies the world over, ancient or modern, in which the concept of polygamy is totally foreign. Even in polyandrous societies where plural marriage is in the reverse direction, the keeping of many partners is a matter of course. The remains of large harems among the Summerians, Akkadians, Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Jews and Arabs, attest to the preponderance of polygamy in human societies. Among the Jews of biblical period, polygamy was at times obligatory. The law of levirate which thrusts on a man the widow of his deceased brother is polygamy by compulsion since the mandate did not preclude married men.[xli]
The most staggering thing concerning marriage in the Bible is that it is not treated in terms of polygamy or monogamy. Throughout the Bible the two marriage forms are complementary and acceptable before God. If, as the Law of Moses presented it, levirate was mandated by God, polygamy must be seen as a more tenable alternative. For, nowhere in the scriptures did plural marriage come under God’s censure. Had God considered the attachment of a man to more than on woman as sinful, nothing could have prevented him from prohibiting it in the Decalogue or the by-laws since it has never been in the habit of God to hide his feelings about anything he resented.
On the contrary, most of the men God used extensively in carrying out his will on earth were polygamists. Abraham, the proto-type of faith, had three wives, Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah[xlii]. Esau, according to Genesis 28:9, took to wife Mehalath, the daughter of Ishmael, “In addition to the wives he had”.
Jacob married the two daughters of Laban; Leah and Rachel, together with their maids Zilpah and Bilhah. Form these four women came the twelve sons of Israel and none of them was regarded as illegitimate.
Moses of Israel’s legal fame, who received his laws directly from God, ended up with two wives Zipporah and an African woman of the Cushite stock[xliii]. Elkanah, the father of Prophet Samuel had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Gideon, one of the greatest judges in Israel had many wives and a concubine all of who gave him his seventy-one children.[xliv]
Saul, the first king in Israel, was a polygamist. The same was true of David, the man after God’s heart, who was given the wives of Saul in addition to those of his own initiative. In the case of David, God was prepared to grant him more wives if he had so desired. What brought him under God’s disfavour was his adultery with Uriah’s wife and the murdering of her husband in the process[xlv]. Then came Solomon, the greatest sage in history who set the record of keeping seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines.[xlvi]
There are ample evidences that polygamy continued into the New Testament era. Although the Roman Society had already adopted monogamy before the advent of Christ, concession had to be given to Jewish citizens who were in no mood of abandoning their traditions. The primitive church, therefore, had to tolerate polygamy by allowing husband to take second wives instead of divorcing the first when dissension arose.[xlvii]
The Apostolic Fathers were not all consistent and coherent in their views regarding marriage. The silence of the Lord Jesus on the number of women one should keep under the new dispensation left an open end for all manner of interpretations. While Clement of Alexandria saw nothing wrong in celibacy, monogamy or polygamy, Justin Martyr found it repulsive that Jews in the new era still kept four to five wives each.[xlviii] The injunction of Paul that Bishops and deacons should be husbands to one wife was by implication an affirmation that polygamy was still in vogue among early Christians.
That the issue never came to focus at any point in Christ’s discourses with the Jews is a pointer to the fact that polygamy had no stigma of sin its manifestation. If it had, Christ could have modified it along with other ancient traditions he abolished.
Even in the few instances he was given the opportunity to discuss marriage; his attention was focused on divorce which was by then a routine in the Jewish community. So the linkage of sin to polygamy by latter Christians could best be seen as a desperate attempt to find moral justification for its condemnation and a deliberate effort of men to improve on God’s sense of judgment.
Demerits of Monogamy
Advocates of monogamy have overplayed its virtues by sweeping under the carpet some obvious social evils associated with it. Take the case of divorce, for instance, statistics reveal that the phenomenon is more characteristic of monogamous societies than polygamous. Whereas the network of social relationships in polygamous marriage especially as obtained in the extended family setting in Africa makes divorce very difficult to secure, the rate of family break-ups in monogamous West is uncomfortably alarming.
Lenore J. Weitzman (1981) lamented that with each successive year since 1974 the divorce rate had surpassed all previous records. Within the twelve months of 1975 more than one million divorces were recorded in the United States. Things worsened by 1979 when divorce hit 5.3 million.[xlix] Going by that rate the situation in the last one decade could be deplorable.
Another main feature of monogamous society is prostitution. The protest of Mormon women in the Untied States against the Anti-Bigamy Bill in 1870 is a testimony. Having experienced the advantages and dignity of family life bequeathed by polygamy, the women of Salt Lake City in Utah registered their unqualified objection to the legislation against plural marriage.
Arising from their meeting presided by Mrs. Sarah Kimball, they stated unequivocally that the practice of polygamy as upheld by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) was
The only reliable safeguard of female virtue and innocence; and the only sure protection against the fearful sin of prostitution and its attendant evils now prevalent abroad.[l]
Prostitution became an unresolvable issue in ancient Greek and Roman societies when they opted for monogamy. In the Greek cities, prostitution was such a booming business that it was elevated to the point of worship. Temple prostitutes could be found in Corinth, Athens and other cities of influence. Freelance sexual indulgence was carried to the extent that no one saw anything wrong with it. This attitude was summarized in Pseudo-Demosthenes, 59:122.
We have prostitutes for our pleasure, concubines for everyday needs, wives to raise our legitimate children and to have dependable guardians of the home.[li]
In Rome prostitution and concubinage were so promoted that men generally preferred not to be tied down to marriage since the women were there for fun. The social instability introduced by that development called for Caesar Augustu’s reforms which compelled all marriageable men and women to be coupled
Similarly, when Europe and America legislated in favour of monogamy, they could no stem the tide of prostitution either. For, it was impossible to prevent women from being legally attached to men as second wives and at the same time deny them the franchise for sexual gratification.
Here in Africa, prostitution surfaced at the instance of the enforcement of monogamy in the church and society. Until then, every marriageable people were given in marriage. This made the phenomenon of desperate over matured singe women who now threaten family peace and stability completely absent in traditional African societies.
Associated also with monogamy were the emergence of lesbianism and incestuous relationship. These are aspects of moral degeneration now common in Western monogamic societies. Since women would not be allowed to share their men as legitimate wives nor practice open prostitution, they naturally turn to their relations of the opposite or same gender, even the exploitation of youthful innocence, for sexual gratification.[lii]
Virtue of Polygamy
In spite of all the aspersions cast on polygamy, it has remained demonstrably more advantageous to the health of the society than monogamy. Gerald R. Leslie and Paul Bohannah have sundrilly observed that societies which practice polygamy have healthier attitude to sexual relationships. Unlike monogamous societies where sex itself is the focus of regulation, polygamous societies do not venerate sex beyond its value of procreation and self fulfillment.
Besides, polygamous societies are more stable and jealousy free. Women in such communities are quite disposed towards sharing husbands with each other. In many instances, the women themselves would pressurize their husbands to, and, indeed, initiate the cooption of other female partners into the family.
African polygamous relationship is governed by the concern that everyone in the society has the right to companionship and sexual fulfillment. This fulfillment must be within an organized marriage setting else it would run to the detriment of societal cohesion. So polygamy provides the legitimacy for such physical, social and emotional gratification. To call it unchristian would tantamount to fostering the impression that Christianity aggravates and sustains the irresponsible sexual promiscuity that goes with monogamy.
As observed by Thomas Price, the tragedies of fatherless families were unknown in Africa before the advent of Europe influence. Men were always ready to protect their women folks by absorbing all available as wives, making prostitution, concubinage and illegitimacy irrelevant.[liv]
The report of the Anglican Church Commission on Polygamy and the Christian Family revealed that masculine infidelity often cited in connection with polygamy cannot be substantiated. While polygamous husbands could always turn to their other wives for sexual satisfaction during pregnancy and lactation, monogamists have no alternative in their homes. Those who could not exercise abstinence often engage in momentary polygamy with prostitutes and concubines, thereby marrying their marital relationship with deceit, betrayal, suspicion and running the risk of transmitting venereal diseases to innocent spouses.[lv]
Reconsidering the position of his Church on polygamy in the light of his experience in Angola, a Methodist Bishop had these disturbing questions to pose;
Is it more Christian to have organized prostitution, marital infidelity with impunity, a rapidly growing divorce rate and increasing numbers of illegitimate children than polygamy? Is it more Christian for young women to become prostitutes, call girls or mistresses than become a second or third wife to a respected member of the community?... is a widow any better or happier in the world alone than living intimately with a member of her husband’s family?[lvi]
Towards a Realistic Approach to Polygamy
By this survey it is established that the connection of sin with polygamy was a missionary obsession than an absolute biblical injunction since from the scriptures no such stigma is attached to it. Keil and Dlitzsch, for example, would see polygamy in Africa as an evidence of the “Hamitic curse” which Noah supposedly pronounced on one of his descendants. According to them;
In the sin of Ham, there lies the great stain of the whole Hamitic race, whose chief characteristic is the sexual sin, and the curse which Noah pronounced on this sin still rests upon the race.[lvii]
If sexual virility in the African as manifested in polygamy is truly on evidence of the said Hamistic curse, we must accept also that the Jews, the Germans, the Slavs, the Teutons, the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes, the Greeks, the Romans, and Americans, both ancient and modern, all of whom history has shown, were and are still practicing polygamy in one form or other are descendants of Ham, and still bearing the same stain of the Hamitic curse.
What the scriptures explicitly denounce are adultery and divorce. The Lord Jesus Christ put these two sins in one breath when he told the Pharisees:
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.[lviii]
What is at stake here his not polygamy but divorce and adultery. The three are distinct entities. Whereas divorce and adultery are sins before God, polygamy is not. Divorce entails a subtraction of human being emanating from the absence of love, a dehumanization of one who bears the image of God.
Adultery is the willful and conscious instruction into someone’s privacy, a violation of a person’s rights and disturbance of his peace. The non recognition of such rights due to others often triggers jealousy, hate and the demand for vengeance which may ultimately terminate in death for the offender or victim of the offence.
Polygamy on the other hand is an addition of human being to a family, a humanizing process, a recognition of a woman’s self esteem as someone worthy of attention, the display of a higher degree of love. Polygamy involves self sacrifice on the part of the couple and their acceptance to bear each other’s burdens. Viewed from this angle, polygamy is a more Christian alternative since it reflects the all-embracing non-exclusivist love of God which seeks to humanize than dehumanize.
What is amazing is that over the years the church has come to accept what God condemned and reject what he did not. The concession on divorce and adultery and overzealous denunciation of polygamy cannot be attributed to the guidance of the Holy Spirit because that would make belief the Spirit was sent to contradict the revealed will of the Father and the Son.
There is no doubt that the greatest burden of orthodox churches in their mission fields is the yoke of guilt. Imposed by the application of monogamy. Grimley and Robinson found that monogamy has been detrimental to church growth in the Central Belt of Nigeria. Many Christians in part of the country would prefer to remain church goers than devout communicant members because they are in no mood of parting with their multiple wives.
The inability of the Church in Africa to make a break from the degenerate and retrogressive emphasis on monogamy despite its havoc on the church and society is due to the fact that a wrong practice has the propensity of posing as right if it has had the endorsement of the majority and the backing of the strong. More so when that which is wrong is said to have been sanctioned by God. This has been demonstrated in Pavlov’s psychology of social conditioning where pressure from the majority could force an individual to regard black as white even if he were convinced that the reverse was the case.
Moreover, the marriage vow of loyalty to only one woman at the expense of all others is taken with all seriousness by faithful. From African orientation, covenants are not breached without repercussion. This belief has been brought over into Christianity with such a persuasion that no serious minded Christian would want to renege on a vow.
As taught in Africa, the main difference between Christian marriage and that of Islam or Traditional cultures is in monogamy and polygamy respectively. So, to the committed African Christian polygamy is just untenable.
Nevertheless, in the light of the foregoing discussion, will it not be better for the Church in Africa to take God in his own terms as revealed in the scriptures than to continue on the misleading precepts of orthodox theology? Is there no lesson to learn from the fact that the same Western society which had brought the malady of exclusive monogamy is now turning again towards polygamy as a way out of their predicament? How and what is the guidance of the Holy Spirit on this matter?
All around us we meet beautiful committed Christian girls who should be making decent living as second or third wives to some respectable Christians. But orthodox theology had taught them to wait patiently for the arrival of their single counterparts as husbands. Many have waited only to discover in their thirtieth year that the single suitors were not forthcoming.
Out of disillusionment and exasperation some have ended up in Muslim homes as second or third wives, the very loathsome situation they had resisted in Christian circles. Those who could not brave it this way have expanded their parent’s families with illegitimate children. The very faithful few who have succeeded in escaping such seductions are now left with singing, “I am married to Jesus, Satan leave me alone…”, as if other Christians who have families are no longer brides of the Lord Jesus.
Pulling out of the warm embrace and companionship of their wives and the fellowship of their children, orthodox Pastors will callously mount their rostra every Sunday to remind these unfortunate spinsters to “Resist the devil and fight the good fight”, as though some have been brought into this life just to fight the good fight of resisting the devil.
It is no gainsaying that loneliness is not part of God’s design for human survival on earth. If it were, God could not have created Lilith and Eve for Adam. The insistence of the Church on conditions that could consign certain persons to perpetual loneliness without their consent is, therefore, a negation of God’s purpose in creation. Such indifference to the plight of victims of ‘Social go slow’ in the name of upholding monogamy simply depicts the church as an unfaithful witness to what it stands for because it is not only playing out of tune with God’s mandate on love but overtly abets the social evils associated with marriage already in circulation.