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16. Polygamy and Christian values

Bible reading: Genesis 2vs22-25; 3vs20; 4vs19-24; 6vs1-8; 7vs21-23. My life (put) alongside God's word, volume 1.

Just after the vote for succession was taken, in August 2011 President Omar al-Bashir urged Sudanese men to take more than one wife in order to increase Sudan’s population and aid the country’s development.[1] In some societies Sudanese men perceive, “More wives and more children for greater production and an increase in (cattle) wealth and prestige”, “showing the blessing of God and ancestors”.[2] To date I have been unable to find any specific statements on this issue of polygamy from the government of South Sudan.

How can Christian leaders clearly teach what God wants and the Bible reveals openly, which is against these sincerely held cultural and economic world-views?

People involved in polygamy before their Christian conversion must be ministered to with sensitive Christian love and care. “Only God can work out a solution”[3], as every case will be different. It will take prayer and patience, but there is no reason why baptism need be withheld if and when genuine repentance is obviously seen (Acts 10:47-48). If the marital state is thought best to be retained for the sake of the wives and children, this can be seen as “a temporary basis”. Recognised patterns for family Christian living are waited for, as “changes made generationally”[4]. This gradually transforms a culture, one family at a time, with the pastoral application of God’s truth.

Leadership in the local or national church is a different matter and should not be permitted (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:5-9). God’s ideal is clear, the church leader must be “the husband of but one wife”, 1 Timothy 3:2-7. The application of this must be done to cause as little hurt and disruption as possible, while clearly pointing the steps being taken towards God’s ideal, to be achieved over due time. Verses 4 and 7, “he must manage his own family well”, “he must have a good reputation with outsiders” both seriously apply as challenges for the polygamist trying to practise his new found Christian discipleship.

The differences between the Old and New Testaments are testimony to how, “Over the years, God slowly changed His people in the direction of monogamy” [5] away from the sinful polygamy into which they had fallen. They had forgotten God’s Creation ideal.

In the beginning God provided for Adam in His perfect world. There was only one Eve! Genesis 2:22-25, 3:20. Polygamy was, and is, not the will of God.

The first to break this standard was Lamech, Genesis 4:19-24, which led inevitably to 6:1-2 “When men began to increase in number, … the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose”, (Italics mine). The loving heart of God was broken, Genesis 6:5-6. It mattered so much to Him, God destroyed almost everybody on earth, 6:7-8, 7:21-23.

Although there are examples of polygamy in the Bible, they are definitely not put there as good examples for us to follow. The reason they are there is to show us how “to understand God’s actions in the midst of tragic human history”.[6][7] Think of the problems caused by Abraham’s two “wives” and their children, even today, (see Genesis chapters 15-17, and 21). What is commonplace in some traditional African societies is offensive to Almighty God. Our Lord Jesus referred “family” matters directly back to Genesis, Matthew 19:3-9.[8]

Reading the works of several students of African societies I conclude that the reasons people give for keeping polygamy are ultimately for personal pride, or they show a lack of personal trust in God.

Reasons of pride include symbols for power, influence, wealth, being given honour in society and keeping the family name alive. Reasons of a lack of trust in God include avoiding sexual immorality, having enough family workers for field and home – help in sickness etc., receiving a good bride price for daughters, and having enough children to keep yourself secure in old age. (Life expectancy in Sudan is currently 52yrs.)[9]

Both personal pride and a lack of trust in God are sins against God! God’s wisdom calls out, “I hate pride and arrogance”, Proverbs 8:13. The same Bible book says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight”, Proverbs 3:5-6.

Of course, people who become polygamous after converting to Christianity are simply rebelling against God. By doing so they invite His judgement on to themselves. That is never a sensible thing to do.

Discussion questions:

1. Discuss any Bible accounts of polygamy. (See footnote 7 below) Are there any that say it is a good example for us to follow?

2. Why are compassion and sensitivity needed in bringing our churches into line with God’s will for marriage? See Colossians 3:12-17.

3. What happened between Creation, Genesis chapters 1-2, and the earliest of people, Genesis 4-15? Why did this make such a difference?

4. How did it affect marriage? What does Ephesians 5:22-33 say which takes the ideal marriage back to Creation?

[1] Sudan pushes polygamy (BBC News on line) 15/08/11. [2] Peter Reat Gatkuoth Perception of polygamous marriage in Sudan (Sudan Tribune) 16/09/07. [3] Wilbur O’Donovan Biblical Christianity in African Perspective (Paternoster Press: Carlisle) 1992, p.171, 288-292. [4] David Hesselgrave Communicating Christ Cross Culturally (Zondervan: Grand Rapids) 1991, p. 121-2, 128-9. [5] Bedru Hussain Polygamy – an Ethical case study (rector of Meserete Kristos College: Addis Abiba) on line, 2002. [6] Lionel Windsor Polygamy in the Bible: a Sordid Tale (The Briefing: Epsom UK) September/October 2012 [7] Bible polygamists include:

  • Lamech Genesis 4:19,

  • Abraham 16:3, Esau 26:34, 28:9,

  • Jacob 29:20-30, 30:3-4, 9,

  • Gideon Judges 8:30,

  • Elkanah 1 Samuel 1:2,

  • David 1 Samuel 18:17, 2 Samuel 3:2-5,

  • Solomon 1 Kings 3:1, 11:3,

  • Rehoboam 2 Chronicles 11:18-21,

  • Abijah 13:21,

  • Joash 24:3.

[8] See also Matthew 5:31-32, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:16-18. [9] Fast Facts, 2010 estimate.


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