Bigamy and Missions

I have fallen out of the habit of getting involved in discussion boards. I guess part of the reason is that over the decades they attract trolls. But even when they don’t they often draw people in based on their ability to type rather than their ability to discuss or think.

Recently, I saw a discussion thread put up by a person I know somewhat who was asking what one does if a missionary leads a man to Christ who has two wives, each wife having children.

A wide variety of answers started flowing in. The answers that I saw fell inuseto three overlapping categories.

  1.  Verse-drop answers. This is where one takes a single verse or passage and suggests that it provides the full answer. Some may  take I Timothy 3:2 or a statement that one of the OT patriarchs had more than one wife, as an answer to the issue. Verse drop answers push people to the extremes. Some used a passage to justify that “Hey, bigamy is no problem,” while it pushed others to the opposite extreme, “the family must be destroyed at all costs.” My problem here is that using just one verse misuses Scripture, and then describes that misuse as the “Biblical answer.”
  2. Feelings answers. Some of the answers appeared to be based on how the person felt about it. If they found bigamy distateful, it must crushed. If there is empathy for the wives and children (to say nothing of the husband/father) there was more of an accommodationist approach.  Feelings are important, but frankly, the feelings of the discussion members are the LEAST relevant of the interested parties. The feelings of the participants are the ones that should be honored. <I live in a region where people eat dog. Feelings may be relevant to the discussion on whether one should eat dog. But it is the feelings of the people who live in places where people eat dog that is relevant, not people far removed from the situation.>
  3. Simple. In this sense, I mean that there did not seem to be much soul-searching as far as struggling with the issue. If bigamy is a problem, one must find a quick answer to deal with it— divorce one, or maintain a chaste relationship with one or both wives. A boss of mine described these as Al Yagoda solutions. Who is Al Yagoda? He is the guy who knows the correct answer without fully knowing the situation.  “Al Yagoda (“All you got to”) do is ______________________.” The problem beyond ignorance is that it is dualistic. Christian morality is never dualistic. There are things that are good and commendable. There are things acceptable but undesirable. There things that are neutral.

The issue brought up is very real world. In many parts of the world, bigamy is practiced. In some cases it is a sociological necessity almost. What is the cost of following Christ. Does it include destruction of the family? In some parts of Africa, Muslim missionaries are expressing Islam as an attractive alternative to Christianity because polygyny is not condemned. Also, in many cultures, to have the father reject a wife and her children would have severe consequences on the entire family. Obviously, one does not come up with answers because it is practical to do so. But arm-chair answers don’t really help. Our family had a family living with us. She was a second wife of a Muslim Imam. She followed Christ, and she decided that to do this, she must take her children with her and leave the broader family. Did she do the right thing. I have no idea… and probably you don’t either. The children became devout Christians, but they wanted to maintain connections with their father, over the objections of their mother. Was that good or bad?

I would suggest a different set of considerations.

  1.  Theological. Rather than verse-dropping, find what the whole of Scripture says about a topic. For polygyny, the Scripture has a lot to say. In the Old Testament, many of the the patriarchs had more than one wife. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, grabbed that fact and suggested that God approves of polygyny… or even mandates it. However in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Levirite marriages, polygynous relationships are spoken of negatively. Almost all stories of polygynous marriages have problems and the problems almost always relate to the polygynous aspect of the family.  On the other hand, bigamy, having two legal wives does not seem to viewed as fornication or adultery, so it is doubtful that one could apply verses rejecting adultery to the situation. In the New Testament, a church leaders should be a “one woman man.” This short phrase has been abused immensely I know a pastor who married a divorcee. He was told he could not serve as a pastor because of I Timothy 3:2. I am at a loss to see he violated the “one woman man” principle here. Regardless of what that phrase means in different circumstance (clearly suggests not being a flirt or unfaithful, but does it mean must be married, and does it reject the possibility of a pastor being a “one man woman”?), certainly the phrase appears incompatible with a polygynous marriage. A proper theological view on bigamy would look at all of this… but much much more. Simply verse-dropping is an abuse, not use, of Scripture.
  2. Sociological. Why does bigamy exist? Is it because of infidelity? Yes, in some cases. Here in the Philippines there is a surprising number of men who have a family in one town and a different family in another town. In some cases, both families have legal status (even if only because of paperwork error). In other cases, a man or woman works overseas and has a second family there. In these situations, loneliness may drive the activity, while in others the reasons are hard to ascertain. (To me, to maintain to separate families just seems like a form of self-abuse.) In other cultures the reasons can be different. In many family or clan-based cultures, there are very important reasons for bigamy. Where property and status is maintained by clan name, it is important to have an heir. The levirate marraige is part of this. Also, where there is a lot of warfare or other forms of killings, a society may have a shortage of men, so bigamy puts a salve on one aspect of a sociological blight. On the other hand, where the number of men and women are equal, polygynous marriages result in a large number of young men with a shortage of women. This creates its own catastrophic results. For some Christians, it seems irrelevant to consider sociological issues. But we must consider them, since God does. The Semitic culture of the Old Testament had polygynous marriages because of the clan system and a shortage of men. It is understandable then that bigamy was permitted but also discouraged. In the New Testament, sexual infidelity was rampant, but formal polygynous families were rare. The social drive for such families was not present generally, and there was no mention of accommodation for bigamy. God’s attitude did not change, but the context did. That leads to the third aspect.
  3. Contextual. Morality in the Bible is deontological (based on law), teleological (based on expected results), and contextual (based on the cultural setting). The Bible says “Do not murder.” This is a basis for deonotological ethics. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not really deontological, since it is far too broad to be legally instructive. This is teleological, if you think about it. Do acts that your neighbor would be expected to find beneficial. “Dress modestly” is a contextual guideline. It is not legally instructive since it is not clear what would qualifies as modest. Rather, modest dressing depends on one’s culture. I live in the Philippines, and Filipinos dress much more modestly than many other groups. I was in Coron recently on a tour, and there were many Filipinos, Chinese and Europeans, as well as a few Muslims. The female Muslims were covered to a degree that would make it difficult to enjoy the sweltering weather, it seems to me. The male Muslims dressed  more in line with the Filipino or Chinese men. The Filipinos dressed fairly modestly, keeping most of their skin covered (this is as much driven by a desire to avoid being tanned by the sun as it is modesty). The Europeans often dressed in ways that would be deemed scandalous by the other groups. The Chinese were in between the Filipinos and Europeans. “Modesty” is complicated in a multi-cultural setting. However, it definitely varies in different cultures.

So what about Bigamy. Should a man with two wives and children with each wife, be required to dump one wife and children? I can’t see that. The Bible doesn’t require that, but does require a man to take care of his wife (wives?) and children. One should not ask a person to explicitly sin to avoid a doubtful sin. One must figure out the sociological dynamics going on. Christianity is meant to be transformative. In the Cordilleras here in the Philippines, Christianity has done much to end “headhunting”– honor killings, violent rites of passage, and clan warfare. This transformation has reduced the sociological need for polygynous families. Such transformation does not change the past, but should work towards a better future. Polygynous families (regardless of deontological constraints) is damaging where the number of eligible men and women are equal. Since God made men and women in approximately equal numbers, where war is low, polygynous families have little justification– moral or otherwise. One must look at the context.

The Bible clearly attacks moral infidelity and fornication. These can be challenged supraculturally. But polygynous families are not so clearly addressed. Joanne Shetler speaks of her time with the Balangao people. When asked that she condemn the chewing of betel nut, her response was that the Bible does not clearly condemn betel nut. On the other hand it clearly rejects gossiping. So for now, she will focus on what is clearly condemned and withhold judgement on the other matter.

In a missiological setting, it is possible to avoid the extremes of wholehearted rejection and full acceptance. It can be seen as undesirable but acceptable. It can also be seen as transitional. That is, polygynous families may be seen as a relic of a time of war and misery… something that will fade as the culture transforms.




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