Christian positions on polygamy and other marriage issues

by Walter Trobisch

Cultural anthropology insights from a missionary dealing cross-culturally with marital issues

(adapted from Readings in Missionary Anthropology II, edited by William Smalley. Used under the educational "fair use" provision of the U.S. Copyright Acts.)

"Jesus took the man aside, away from the crowd ... and said to him 'Be opened.' With that his ears were opened, and at the same time the impediment was removed." (Mark 7:33-35)

What we need is a message tailored to each individual. In a concrete situation, general principles alone are not enough. Let us, therefore, take three people aside -- away from the crowd. Let us try to help them and take responsibility for them as a congregation. All three of them are real people. They come from three different African countries, thousands of miles apart, but I shall not tell you from which countries. I have also changed their names. They each have given me permission to use their stories, so I am not breaking their confidence.

Joseph's story

Joseph is a 26-year-old teacher at a mission school. I never met him, but we corresponded for almost three years. He wrote me after he had read my book I Loved a Girl:

Three years ago, I married a 15-year-old person. I have ten years of schooling, while my wife has only six. God blessed us one year ago with a baby. I purposely did not choose a. girl with a higher level of education, for I intended to educate my wife in order that she become exactly as I wanted her to be in her work and cleanliness, in her whole life. But she does not satisfy me anymore with her obedience. She does not do what I command her to do. If I insist, we quarrel. I ask you for a solution to save this young marriage.

In order to help Joseph, we have to understand his way of thinking. For him, marriage is an alliance with an inferior being. For him, a woman is primarily a garden. Man is then primarily the bearer of the seed of life. Such is their mutual destiny. Their destiny decides their function. Their function defines their relationship. According to this conception, the woman can never be as important as the man, any more than the soil can be as important as the seed. By her very nature, she is secondary and auxiliary. This is the root of all discrimination between man and woman that has shaped the history of mankind, not only in Africa but also in Asia and -- until recently -- in Europe and America. This conception of marriage is not only based on wrong and inaccurate biology. It is also not in accordance with the New Testament, which conceives of husband and wife as equal partners before God.

My task was to change Joseph's image of marriage. Here is my answer:

Joseph, you have not married a wife. You have married a daughter. You were looking for a maid, obedient to your commandments. She was 15 when you married her. Now she is 18. In these three years, she has developed from a girl to a young woman. In addition, she has become a mother. This has changed her personality completely. She wants to be treated as a person. She wants to become your partner . . . It strikes me that your quarreling started after God gave you a baby. How long is the period of lactation in your tribe? Could it be that your quarreling has a deeper reason? It is not God's will for a married couple to abstain from physical union for such a long time.

Joseph's answer came quickly:

You are exactly right . . . It is true that we abstain from sex relations for two years after the birth of a child ... This habit is incorporated in us. Otherwise, we are afraid of losing the baby, especially if the mother breast-feeds it and if it is a boy .. . My father-in-law pointed this out to me when our child was born.

The practice of abstaining from sex relations during the period of lactation presupposes a polygamous society. According to the biological conception of marriage, a man can have several gardens to be planted one after the other. A garden can have one proprietor only. Joseph wants to be a Christian. He has been taught by his church that polygamy is a sin. But he has been left with this negative message. He has not received any positive advice on how to live with one wife as a partner, nor has he been told how to space his children.

It is interesting that Joseph did not confide his problem to his pastor. Evidently, he did not expect any help from the pastor. Still, Joseph looks for a counselor. He may find that counselor in a questionable friend, maybe one that is not even a Christian, and he may be advised to do things that are poison for his marriage. The method our couple uses for spacing their children -- complete abstention -- will lead to an estrangement, and husband and wife will slowly drift apart.

Let us imagine that Joseph would have tried to solve his problem by taking a second wife. It is evident that refusing him communion as punishment for this action would have been the most inadequate answer to his problem of how to space his children. What is needed in Africa are not church disciplinarians, but marriage counselors.

In this case, had Joseph not gone ahead and simply taken a second wife but confided his intention to his pastor, explaining his motive, would his pastor have been able to help? Would the pastor have received enough training in this respect at the seminary? When a Christian takes a second wife, it is mostly due to the fact that his congregation has not carried responsibility for him.

It is unkind and merciless if missionaries condemn polygamy as sin, but keep silent to Africans about methods of conception control which they themselves use. It is even more so because a missionary usually has powdered milk at his disposal while an African villager does not.

Let us imagine another possibility. Maybe Joseph did not take a second wife but secretly had sexual relations with an unknown girl or even the wife of another man. In other words, he had committed adultery. Now, since he wants to be a Christian, his conscience hurts him. What could he have done? Would he have found someone in your congregation to whom he could have gone, confessed his sin, and received the absolution? If he had come to you, whether you are a pastor or not, would you have known what to do?

What is needed in Africa are not ex-communicators but confessors who keep the secret of confession absolute. What kind of training do our pastors receive in this respect? Here is the heart of the congregational responsibility for the individual. The offer of private confession is probably the most helpful contribution the Lutheran Church could make to the African churches as a whole. Martin Luther said: "No one knows what private confession can do for him, except he who has struggled much with the devil. Yes, the devil would have slain me long ago if the confession would not have sustained me."

It is also possible that Joseph would not have dared to confess, but maybe you would have heard anyway about his sin. Then it would have been your duty to go to him. Responsibility for the individual means to take the initiative. God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ and Has spoken to us without our inviting Him,. Therefore, we have to take the initiative and talk to our brother, even if he does not ask us. This is "church discipline" according to the New Testament. "Go ye therefore ..." not to put him out of the church but to win him back to being a Christ-follower (Matthew 18:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:25). Church discipline means to go and to win, not to wait and to judge.

There is no time to report the case of Joseph in full. The relationship between him and his wife improved after I informed him about other methods of conception control. Later on, a new problem arrived. The family moved from the village to town. While living in the village Joseph's wife had fed her family from that which she had grown in her own garden. But in town, she did not have a garden. She had to go shopping. Joseph had to give her money, which had rarely happened before.

Here is Joseph's letter:

Tell me how to make up a family budget and how to convince a woman -- however idiotic she may be -- to keep to it. Most of the time, my wife buys things that we don't need, and then they spoil.

I made up a detailed monthly budget according to Joseph's income and included as one item, "pocket money for each one of you."

Joseph wrote:

My wife was very happy about it. After we had divided up the money, she was frank enough to tell me the criticisms that she had in her heart about my spending habits. She was overwhelmed by joy to see the item, "pocket money for each one of you."

This was, after almost three years of correspondence, the first time that Joseph had reported to me a reaction of his wife. The fact that he had shared my letter with her, that he even listened to her reproaches, but above all, the fact that he gave her spending money shows that his marriage had grown from a patriarchal pattern where the husband-father dominates his wife into a marriage of partnership. A garden cannot rejoice and talk. One cannot listen to a garden. Joseph's wife had changed from a garden to a person. She had become a wife.

Formerly, the course of life was channeled. The individual made very few decisions on his own. The road was marked by customs and traditions. This has now changed. The individual has to make up his mind about many things which formerly were decided by the family and the group. But -- as the case of Joseph and his wife shows -- the individual is not trained to make these decisions. Counseling, therefore, becomes indispensable. It belongs to the responsibility of the congregation. It is the service that the Christian church must give in a situation of social change.

The work of the counselor can be compared best of all with "swimming." The time is past when a counselor could stand on a solid hilltop and give prefabricated rules and commandments to the counselee. The counselor has to descend from the hilltop and go into the water. Counselor and counselee have to swim together. With this picture of "swimming" in mind, the fact of uncertainty is expressed. At the outset, the counselor may be more in need of advice than his counselee. But he swims together with him, trying to make out beforehand the whirlpools and the rapids, the islands, and the riverbanks. For a limited time, while exploring the situation for clarification and solutions, the counselor becomes the partner of his counselee. God is in this situation, and the counselor has to find his will together with the counselee. Only what the latter is able and willing to accept and put into practice will help him.

The development of Joseph's marriage during the time of our correspondence proves that marriage guidance by letter can be fruitful. It may even be easier to confide the most intimate problems to a complete stranger. Because of the long distances and the lack of trained counselors, marriage guidance by mail has great promise in Africa, all the more because a personal letter there is highly treasured. It gives the receiver the experience of "being taken aside, away from the crowd," to have his impediment removed.

Marriage guidance is not only a counseling task. It is also a missionary opportunity. Since marriage is part of practical Christian living, the Christian marriage counselor has the possibility of proclaiming the Gospel to non-Christians along with the advice he gives. Marriage has become the problem of life today. People of all confessions, religions, classes, and races are interested in it. Every heathen, Muslim, or Communist will listen to those who have something useful to say about marriage. As Christians, we do have something useful to say. But, do we say it? Or is the church in possession of a treasure of knowledge and wisdom and is keeping it locked up instead of handing it out?

Elsie's story

Elsie is a high school student and the daughter of a "minister of religion," as she calls it. I know her too only by letter. She wrote to me and asked: "How can I meet a Christian boy?" I advised her to attend church. There she could meet boys.

Here is her answer:

The old people in our churches don't want boys to meet girls, not even to talk to them in their presence. The Sunday service always begins by speaking against boys and girls. This has turned away most of the boys and girls from attending church. The other day the pastor said: "If any boy has written to you a letter, return it to him and tell him never to write to you any letter."

I answered, but for a long time did not hear from Elsie. Later I learned that her school principal had confiscated my letter. I was not on the list of men with whom she was allowed to correspond. So my letter went to her parents, who lived in a small village hundreds of miles away from her school. It took three months before the permission came, and my letter was handed over to Elsie.

Finally, she wrote again:

I have met a boy who is not of my tribe. He is a keen Christian and a student in a secondary school. It appears to me as if he would make a good husband according to the directions in your book I Loved a Girl. I went home and talked to my parents about him. They said they would not allow me to marry from any other tribe apart from mine. They claim that men from my boyfriend's tribe are going about with other women, even if they are married. I have tried to tell them that not all men from that tribe are bad, but they insist on me marrying someone from my own tribe. Since we are told that we should honor our parents, I cannot do something which is against their will. To make it worse: I do not live at home. I know very few boys from my own tribe. Seeing that this boy is interested in me, should I disregard my parents' advice?

In my answer, I advised Elsie to take her boyfriend home once and present him to her parents so that they could meet him as a person. If she is certain about God's will for her marriage, she should obey God more than men.

Elsie's answer:

My parents have become impossible. They cannot approve of the choice I have made. They say they have heard rumors that the man I have chosen was misbehaving at college. But ever since I met him, he has never shown me any nonsense. I have decided to remain single for the whole of my life unless I can marry him.

Marriage between two Christians must be based on mutual trust and confidence. Confidence demands a free choice. Free choice demands opportunities where young people can meet in a healthy atmosphere without suspicion. It is the responsibility of the congregation to provide such opportunities. Many marriage problems in Africa have their root in the fact that the couple never had time and opportunity to really meet and get acquainted before marriage.

Many African boys and girls have a list with the names of a limited number of persons with whom they correspond. In a society where the meeting of the sexes is still difficult, also for outward reasons, we have to recognize that letter-writing as a means to establish contacts can be a good one. Instead of intercepting mail, schools should rather teach criteria of how to evaluate a letter and give helpful instructions for answering.

Elsie's case reflects two areas of conflict. The first is a conflict between the younger and older generations. Dealing with parents, uncles and grandparents is probably the thorniest problem of a marriage counselor in Africa. It has been overlooked that, in a fast-changing society, the education of the older generation is also a responsibility of the congregation. The church may have to speak out on the rules of exogamy (the tradition forcing a young man to find a bride outside a defined group of relatives) or endogamy (reversely, the rule that a bride can only be found within a close core of relatives.) A young African once wrote to me that he had 11,000 girls ("sisters") in his tribe that he could not marry. Unfortunately, he had fallen in love with one of them.

The second area of conflict is the conflict between individual freedom and the obligation to tradition and family. Elsie has new possibilities of choice, unknown to her parents. She is caught between (1) making use of this freedom and (2) submitting to rules originating from customs no longer relevant to her situation. Like Joseph, she is in need of personal counseling in her new freedom.

Her decision to renounce this freedom and the wish of her heart, even against the advice of her counselors, poses lots of questions:

Elsie's case is an encouraging one. She has character. She proves that one member of a new generation of African girls is able to make up her mind by herself instead of being pushed around and dominated. She is on her way to mature womanhood. Africa's future will depend upon this growth. There will be no free nations unless there are free couples. There will be no free couples unless the wife grows into a true partnership with her husband. It is the responsibility of the congregation to help toward such growth. It is the solution for Joseph's case as much as for Elsie's and even for our next case.

Omodo's case

On one trip, I worshiped in an African church where nobody knew me. After the service, I talked to two boys.

"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" I asked the first one.


"Are they all from the same stomach?"

"Yes, my father is a Christian."

"How about you?" I addressed the other boy.

He hesitated. In his mind, he was adding up. I knew immediately that he came from a polygamous family.

"We are nine," he finally said.

"Is your father a Christian?"

No," was the typical answer, "he is a polygamist."

"Are you baptized?"

"Yes, and my brothers and sister, too," he added proudly.

"And their mothers?"

"They are all three baptized, but only the first wife takes communion."

"Take me to your father."

The boy led me to a compound with many individual houses. It breathed cleanliness, order, and wealth. Each wife had her own house and her own kitchen. The father -- a middle-aged, good-looking man, tall, fat, and impressive -- received me without embarrassment and with apparent joy. Omodo, as we shall call him, was well-educated, wide awake, and intelligent, with a sharp wit and a rare sense of humor. From the outset, he made no apologies for being a polygamist. He was proud of it. Here's the essential content of our conversation that lasted for several hours.

"Welcome to the hut of a poor sinner!" The words were accompanied by good-hearted laughter.

"It looks like a rich sinner," I retorted.

"The saints come very seldom to this place," he said, "they don't want to be contaminated with sin."

"But they are not afraid to receive your wives and children. I just met them in church."

"I know. I give everyone a coin for the collection plate. I guess I finance half of the church's budget. They are glad to take my money, but they don't want me."

I sat in thoughtful silence.

After a while, he continued, "I feel sorry for the pastor. By refusing to accept the polygamous men in town as church members, he has made his flock poor. They shall always be dependent upon subsidies from America. He has created a church of women whom he tells every Sunday that polygamy is wrong."

"Wasn't your first wife heartbroken when you took a second one?"

Omodo looked at me almost with pity. "It was her happiest day," he said finally.

"Tell me how it happened."

"Well, one day after she had come home from the garden and had fetched wood and water, she was preparing the evening meal, while I sat in front of my house and watched her. Suddenly she turned to me and mocked me. She called me a `poor man,' because I had only one wife. She pointed to our neighbor's wife, who could care for her children while the other wife prepared the food."

"Poor man," Omodo repeated. "I can take much, but not that. I had to admit that she was right. She needed help. She had already picked out a second wife for me, and they get along fine."

I glanced around the courtyard and saw a beautiful young woman, about 19 or 20, come out of one of the huts.

"It was a sacrifice for me," Omodo commented. "Her father demanded a very high bride price."

"Do you mean that the wife, who caused you to become a polygamist is the only one of your family who receives communion?"

"Yes, she told the missionary how hard it was for her to share her love for me with another woman. According to the church, my wives are considered sinless because each of them has only one husband. I, the father, am the only sinner in our family. Since the Lord's Supper is not given to sinners, I am excluded from it. Do you understand that, pastor?"

I was entirely confused.

"And you see," Omodo continued, "they are all praying for me that I might be saved from sin, but they don't agree from which sin I must be saved."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, the pastor prays that I may not continue to commit the sin of polygamy. My wives pray that I may not commit the sin of divorce. I wonder whose prayers are heard first."

"So your wives are afraid that you will become a Christian?"

"They are afraid that I will become a church member. Let's put it that way. For me there is a difference. You see, they can only have intimate relations with me as long as I do not belong to the church. The moment I became a church member, their marriage relations with me would become sinful."

"Wouldn't you like to become a church member?"

"Pastor, don't lead me into temptation! How can I become a church member if it means disobeying Christ? Christ forbade divorce, but not polygamy. The church forbids polygamy but demands divorce. How can I become a church member if I want to be a Christian? For me, there is only one way: Be a Christian without the church."

"Have you ever talked to your pastor about that?"

"He does not dare to talk to me, because he knows as well as I do that some of his elders have a second wife secretly. The only difference between them and me is that I am honest, and they are hypocrites."

"Did a missionary ever talk to you?"

"Yes, once. I told him that with the high divorce rate in Europe, they have a successive form of polygamy while we have simultaneous polygamy. That did it. He never came back."

I was speechless. Omodo accompanied me back to the village. He evidently enjoyed being seen with a pastor.

"But tell me, why did you take a third wife?" I asked him.

"I did not take her. I inherited her from my later brother, including her children. Actually, my older brother would have been next in line. But he is an elder. He is not allowed to sin by giving security to a widow."

I looked into his eyes. "Do you want to become a Christian?"

"I am a Christian," Omodo said without smiling.

What does it mean to take responsibility as a congregation for Omodo? I am sorry that I was not able to see Omodo again. Our conversation contains, in a nutshell, the main attitudes of polygamists toward the church. It is always healthy to see ourselves through the eyes of an outsider.

I asked myself: What would I have done if I were the pastor in Omodo's town? Let me share with you my thoughts and then ask for your criticism. They are based on many experiences in dealing with other polygamist families. You may have better ideas than I have. Please, help me to help Omodo.

The trouble with Omodo is that, unlike Joseph or Elsie, he did not ask for help. But that does not mean that he is not in need of help. The fact that he did almost all the talking and hardly gave me a chance, proves his inner insecurity. His sarcasm showed me that deep down in his heart, he was afraid of me.

In order to take this fear away, I accepted defeat. You will have noticed that I was a defeated person when I left him. If you want to win someone over, nothing better can happen to you than defeat. In the eyes of the world, the cross of Jesus Christ was a defeat. Yet, God saved the world by this defeat. In talking with people. we must remember this truth. We can easily win an argument, but lose a person. Our task is not to defend, but to witness.

Humble acceptance of defeat is often the most convincing testimony we can give for our humble Lord. It is the one thing that the other one does not expect. Counseling is not preaching at a short distance. It is ninety percent listening.

When I have a conversation like this, I ask myself, first of all, where is the other one right? I think Omodo is right in his criticism of contradictory church policies, which sometimes deny our own doctrines. We have made the church the laughingstock of a potentially polygamous society. We have often acted according to the statement, "There are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of them all is church order and discipline."

Some churches demand that a polygamous man separate himself from all his wives, some from all but one. Others demand that he keep the first one. Others allow the man to choose. Some will allow the man's wives wives to stay with him under the condition that he have no sexual intercourse with them.

Some do not even allow polygamists to enter the catechumen class. Others allow them but do not baptize them. Still others baptize them but do not give them communion. A few allow them full church membership but forbid them to hold any church office.

One generous solution that was tried was to baptize polygamists who were very near death. However, even that doesn't always turn out well. A Swedish missionary once baptized a polygamist who seemed to be dying. However, the man did not die but recovered after baptism. So, the church council decided, "Such things must not happen." I am not sure whether they referred to the recovery of the polygamist or to his baptism. We have made ourselves fools before the world with our policies. Let us honestly admit our helplessness first of all. We are facing a problem where we just do not know what to do.

Maybe our mistake is that we want to establish a general law for all cases. We want to be like God, knowing what is good and evil, and we have decided that monogamy is "good" and polygamy os "evil" while the Word of God makes no clear statement to that effect. The Old Testament has no precisely-worded commandment against polygamy, and the New Testament is conspicuously silent about it. Instead of dealing with polygamy, the Bible has a message for polygamists.

Therefore, let us not deal with an abstract problem. Instead, let us meet a concrete person. Let us meet Omodo. Is he a special case? Well, every one of us is a "special case" in one way or another. There are no two persons exactly alike. Still, if we can help in one case like that of Omodo's, we might find the key to dealing with many others. So, what would I have done?

First of all, I would have gone back to visit him again. Church discipline, as the New Testament understands it, starts with me, not with the other one. I would have taken my wife along. I would have asked her to tell Omodo what she would think of me if I let her work all day in the garden, get wood and water, care for the children, and prepare the food while I sit idly in the shade all day under the eaves of my hut and watch her work. I think she would have told him that he does not have three wives, but actually, he has no wife at all. He is married to three female slaves. Consequently, he is not a real husband; he's just a married male. Only a real husband makes a wife a real wife.

In the meantime, I would have talked to Omodo's first wife and told her precisely the same, that only a real wife makes a husband a real husband. I would have challenged her because she had not demanded enough from her husband. She had behaved like an overburdened slave trying to solve her problem by getting a second slave. Instead, she should have asked her husband to help her. She should have behaved like a partner and expected partnership.

She probably would have thought I was joking and not understood at all. So I would have explained, and we would have talked, visit after visit, week after week. Then, finally, I would have asked her why she ridiculed her husband. I am sure there was something deeper behind it, a concrete humiliation for which she took revenge, a hidden hatred.

At the same time, I would have continued to talk to Omodo -- not telling him anything that I had learned from his wife, but listening to his side of the story. I am sure I would have heard precisely the opposite of what his wife had said. I would have tried to make him understand his wife and to make his wife understand her husband. Then, after months, I would have started to see them both together at the same time, possibly again accompanied by my wife.

The best way to teach marriage is a partnership is by example. One day we were discussing this in our "marriage class," a one-year course I taught at Cameroon Christian College. The students were telling me that African women are just not yet mature enough to be treated as equal partners. While we were discussing this, rain was pouring down. We watched through the window of the classroom the wife of the headmaster of our primary schools, who jumped from her bicycle and sought refuge under the roof of the school building. After a little while, a car drove up. Out stepped her husband. He handed her the car keys, and off she drove with the car while he followed her on the bicycle, getting soaked in the rain. This settled the argument. It is up to the husband to make his wife a partner.

Then, one day I would have attacked the case of the second wife. I can imagine her story. She probably was given into marriage with Omodo for a high bride price at a very young age. I would have tried to find out how she felt about her situation. Young and attractive as she was, I cannot imagine that she was so terribly excited by old fat Omodo. It is very likely that she had a young lover on the side. I have found that women in polygamous marriages often live in adultery, because their husbands, staying usually with one wife for a week at a time, are not able to satisfy them.

Solving the problem of the second wife would involve talks with her father and "fathers" and also with the young man she really loves. It would have been a hard battle, but I do not think it would have been a hopeless one. It is a question of faith. I would trust Jesus that He can do a miracle. I would ask some Christians in the congregation who understand the power of prayer to pray when I talk to the father. Every father wants to have a happy daughter. I would try to convince him to pay the bride price back to Omodo (or at least a part of it).

The first time I would have suggested to Omodo to let his second wife go, he probably would have thrown me out the front door. So I would have entered again through the back door. I would have tried to tire him out with an unceasing barrage of love.

It is very important that by now, a very deep personal contact and friendship would have been established between Omodo and me, a "partnership in swimming." In this partnership, Jesus Christ would be a reality between us even when His name is not mentioned in every conversation.

One day, I think, Omodo would have admitted that he did not take his second wife just out of unselfish love for his first one, but that he considered his first wife as dark bread when he had an appetite for a piece of candy.

Now, we could start to talk meaningfully about sin. Not about the sinfulness of polygamy, but about concrete sins in his polygamous state.

To talk to a polygamist about the sinfulness of polygamy is of as little help as talking to a soldier about the sinfulness of war or to a slave about the sinfulness of slavery. Paul sent the slave Onesimus back to his slave master, while at the same time, he proclaimed a message incompatible with slavery that finally caused its downfall. Paul broke the institution of slavery from the inside, not from the outside. This is a law in God's kingdom which can be called the "law of gradual infiltration." It took centuries until slavery was outlawed. God is very patient. Why are we so impatient?

So I would have talked to Omodo about his selfishness. I would have talked to his first wife about her hatred, lies, and hypocrisy and to the second one about her adultery. The minute they began to see how these things separate them from God, it would not have been difficult to make them aware of their need for forgiveness. Then we could have talked about reconciliation with God. This reconciliation would have happened through the absolution. He has enlisted us in this ministry of restoring relationships, or reconciliation, as 2 Corinthians 5:18 puts it.

After the experience of absolution, we would have tried together to find the will of God for each person involved. Would the separation of Omodo from his second wife be a divorce? It depends upon whether we consider polygamy to be a legitimate form of marriage.

Parenthetically, I believe we may have to. Let us be fair. Polygamy is not "permanent adultery," as a missionary once tried to tell me. Adultery is never permanent. It is a momentary relationship in secrecy with no responsibility involved. Polygamy, on the other hand, is a public state, often based on a legally valid contract. It involves lifelong responsibility and obligations. If polygamy is marriage, separation is divorce.

If we compare marriage with a living organism, husband and wife can be compared with the two essential organs, the head, and the heart. In all higher-developed organisms, one head corresponds to one heart. Only primitive organisms are just a plurality of cells, as for example, the Alga volvox globator. Parts of that organism are relatively independent of the whole. A tapeworm can be cut apart, and the parts are still able to live. One could compare polygamy with a primitive organism that has not yet reached the state in which one head corresponds to one heart. Still, a tapeworm is one organism as much as polygamy is marriage.

Our dilemma is that we want monogamy, and we do not want divorce. Yet, in a polygamous situation, we cannot have one without the other. There are situations in life where we have the choice between two sins and where the next step can only be taken by counting on the forgiveness of our crucified Savior. It is in such situations where Luther gave the advice in all evangelical freedom, "Sin bravely!" being guided by the love for your neighbor and by what is most helpful to that neighbor. For me, there is no doubt that in Omodo's case, the most helpful solution for his second wife would be to marry the man she loves.

The case of Omodo's third wife, whom he had inherited from his late brother, is probably the most difficult one. In 0modo's case, it was especially difficult because she was blind. I would have gathered the elders of the church and explored possibilities with them on how to support her through congregational help in case she wanted to live independently. The way a congregation treats their widows is the best test of their willingness and ability to carry responsibility for the individual.

One question is still open: When would I have baptized Omodo? I do not know. One cannot answer this question theoretically. I hope you understand that what I have just described is not the work of an afternoon, but of months, maybe years. Under the condition that this work is done, the moment chosen for baptism is not of decisive importance. There are no chronological laws in the process of salvation.

I would not have baptized Omodo before he had an experience of private confession and absolution. But then, someplace along the way, I would have done it, asking God for guidance together with the congregation for the right moment.

We should get away from considering church discipline as a matter of sin and righteousness but rather put it on the basis of faith and unbelief. Faith is not a nothing, and the use of the sacraments is not a nothing. In case it would have taken years to find a solution for Omodo's wives, I would have expected such a solution to be a fruit of his baptism and not as a condition for it.

In the meantime, while working and praying for a solution, Omodo would have to "sin bravely," sensing his polygamous state more and more as a burden. As his brother in Christ, together with the congregation, I could only act then according to Galatians 6:2, which says: "Bear one another's burden and fulfill the law of Christ."

If we followed that course of action, would then the walls break, and the church be flooded by polygamy? I do not believe so. For economic reasons, polygamy is on the retreat anyway in Africa. The current generation of Africans longs for a monogamous marriage that is a partnership. We overestimate ourselves if we always think we have to keep shoring up the walls so they won't break. The statement "God is a God of order" is not in the Bible. What 1 Corinthians 14:33 says is: " God is not a God of disorder but of peace."

Counseling the individual is putting congregational responsibility into practice. In the process of counseling, the unacceptable person is taken aside, away from the crowd, and unconditionally accepted. To help the individual in the name of the God of peace, we need both the rules and the exceptions. The counselor has to give himself into life with its many different situations and happenings and "swim" with his counselee. God is with them in the water.

Reflection questions

  1. On what basis can a case be made for tailored messages and individualized counseling in addressing cultural and marital challenges onmstead of one-size-fits-all approaches?
  2. How can a church congregation best navigate the conflict between individual freedom and traditional expectations in ways that support the growth and decision-making of people?
  3. How might a patient and compassionate understanding address the unique dynamics of polygamous families while respecting the church's traditional teachings? What considerations should be taken into account when navigating this delicate balance?
  4. What broader implications does Omodo's story have for the intersection of cultural practices, religious doctrines, and individual choices in diverse communities? How might this narrative prompt a reevaluation of counseling approaches and church policies in addressing complex family structures in the context of ever-evolving societal norms?


Walter Trobisch, a native of Leipzig, Germany, was a pastor and missionary for over 30 years in Africa and Europe with his wife Ingrid. In his writings, he covers such topics as love, sex, self-esteem, and personal growth. His books include I Loved a Girl, I Married You. Living with Unfulfilled Desires, The Meaning of Intercourse, My Parents are Impossible, and Love Is a Feeling to Be Learned.

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