Christian Objectivity: Polygyny

What happens when a Western missionary moves into a village someplace and has great success in converting the population to Christianity, but then realizes that some of the new Christian men have more than one wife? These men are often societal leaders or elders, even chiefs, but doesn’t Christianity ban having more than one wife? Should the missionary encourage divorce? But doesn’t God hate divorce?

My sister was presented with this dilemma in one of her classes at Biola this year, and I’m quite proud of her for taking an unpopular stand on the issue. It’s also an example of where I feel most Americans’ ethical objectivity is limited by their culture. The Americans that my sister interacted with, both in her class and in her dorm, tended to argue that polygyny is wrong. When any Biblical texts they used to defend their position were shown to be addressing other issues, they still tended to argue that monogyny was “God’s ideal,” with very little basis. Monogyny is such a part of American culture, it seems, that most Americans find it immensely difficult to conceive that polygyny could be moral.

Polygyny, after all, is why we persecuted the LDS in the first place, and why we continue to persecute the LDS sects that continue to practice polygyny. Polygyny, we argue, will be the end result of allowing gay marriage!

Biblically, though, there is not much of a case against polygyny. The Old Testament contains commands, aimed mostly at kings, to refrain from marrying too many wives, taking for granted that a king will have more than one wife. The Old Testament also contains the commandment for men whose brothers have died without an heir to take their brother’s widow as a wife and raise up an heir for their dead brothers; in effect, this actually commands polygyny when the surviving man has a wife already. Polygyny, then, can’t always be wrong, nor can it be inherently wrong, since God commanded it in certain circumstances.

In the New Testament, we see a command for elders to be “the husband of one wife.” Elders aren’t called to a higher standard than the rest of us; they become qualified to be elders by living by the standard all of us are called to. This command applies to all of us. What is important to remember, though, is that New Testament cultures that Paul was operating in did not practice polygyny. Instead, they practiced serial monogamy, an issue much more relevant to American culture today, and one that is ignored by much of the western Church. Paul was commanding New Testament Christians to be “the husband of one wife” because, in that culture, the only way not to be “the husband of one wife” was to be unfaithful to your wife or to engage in serial monogamy; polygyny wasn’t an option. Paul couldn’t have been banning polygyny because polygyny wasn’t an active practice and he was writing about problems that were contemporary to when he was writing.

The only remaining arguments that I’ve run across, Biblical or not, against polygyny are anecdotal or typological. God created one man and one woman. Biblical examples of polygynous families record nothing but strife. There is one God and one Church and marriage is a typological reflection of that reality. These are all just anecdotes and typology, however. Most hermeneutic systems require that doctrine be substantiated by the clear teaching of Scripture and only backed up or illustrated by anecdotes or typology.

So, what should the missionary do, in my opinion? First off, they need to understand that their cultural forms and ideas about morality are not necessarily absolute universal moral laws. They may, as Stephen points out in his series on Christian Objectivity, have moral ideas that aren’t actually derived from the teaching of Scripture but are instead idiosyncrasies of their own culture. This is actually something that a great many mission agencies teach their missionaries about, if not so much concentrating on morality as on the “forms” of worship. The basic concept is that the Gospel is like a seed that, when planted in different soil, in a different climate, will sprout into different-looking plants that still have the same DNA and still bear the same fruit. Missionaries faced with polygynous Christians, then, should leave well enough alone and teach husbands and wives to love each other. It would actually be evil to teach husbands to divorce their wives merely to conform to the missionaries’ own culture.

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    • Stephen Hale
    • June 10th, 2011

    Yep! Yep, yep, yep! I’m so glad you said this. I’ve thought about it before, and I can’t find anything in Scripture that bans it. I probably last thought about it as a teenager. Now returning to it, I think you’re right.

    And I think your point, that Scripture in some cases COMMANDS polygyny, is very important.

    We do monogamy because Europeans do monogamy. They always have. That’s the only reason. There’s ~3 main sources of Western culture: Rome/Greece, the indigenous European tribes (Celts, Germans, mostly), and Christianity. European Christianity has always simply presumed monogamy because it was raised in the environment of Europe. In other words, we picked up, and Christianity assimilated almost from the beginning, the other two sources on this issue.

    That don’t sanctify it, folks! Good for your sister! Proof-texting is still proof-texting, and it takes a strong mind to see through it, and a strong will to stand against it in a classroom.

    -Stephen

    • Stephen Hale
    • June 10th, 2011

    Although, I should point out, serial monagamy was a Roman practice, not a Greek practice. Of course it would spread across the Empire in the upper classes, but…

    Now that I think about it, this is just trivia.

    And now that I think about it, I’m not sure Greeks didn’t do serial monagamy, I just know they didn’t do it for the same reasons the Romans did….hm….anyway. Probably irrelevant since in any case it would have affected Timothy. (Right? It’s in Timothy?)

    -Stephen

  1. This issue came up in a class I had at Biola. What my teacher, Douglas Hayward, said that HE did when he encountered polygyny was to make the two wives and the husband promise to be faithful to each other and baptize them as a family. If they were already married, they stayed. This was among the Dani people of Papua Indonesia. Younger men did not take more than one wife, and men with more than one wife were not church leaders. That was a way to keep families intact while introducing what he believed to be the biblical teaching on how marriage should be, that is, monogamous.

    In a parallel case, what do you do if a Christian man or woman has a girlfriend or boyfriend who is not a Christian? On the one hand, that’s not good because of deep disagreements that will come up later in marriage, but on the other hand, if they have a good relationship, the Christian guy or girl should not simply dash his or her significant other on the rocks for the sake of observance of a rule. Non-Christians have hearts, too.

    A significant overarching theme here then is, how do you account for the transition that the groups of people will have to make in order to live out the gospel? Whenever you preach, you meet people in the middle of living out their lives. The gospel is both an integration and an interruption from God, and we have to handle both delicately.

      • Staples
      • June 22nd, 2011

      I would actually argue that what your teacher did was wrong. We can’t have “second class Christians” that are ineligible for leadership because of what they did before they became Christians. The fact that your teacher’s position leads to this result is a secondary argument against his position. What sense does it make to say “you did something you thought was right before you became a Christian, but now that disqualifies you for Christian leadership and, also, don’t try to remedy the situation you got yourself into. It’s both good and bad at the same time.” Bringing that kind of message to someone is, I think, evil that is only mitigated by the fact that your teacher was also bringing Christ to them.

      So far as non-Christian boyfriends and girlfriends go, I wouldn’t argue for an immediate end to the relationship across the board. If the relationship is unhealthy, I may advise ending the relationship quickly, but only in the same way that I would advise a non-Christian friend to end an unhealthy relationship in the same situation. I wouldn’t advise moving forward in the relationship either, though. Christians marrying non-Christians is bad for both spouses.

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