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.