Ethics Applied: The Problem of Polygamy

21 Jan

I have suggested before that there is a difference between soteriology (salvation) and ethics (read here).  Both are important, but they are different.  Ethics is about “right living”  — how do we live as disciples of Jesus with integrity.

This is not always as easy and clear-cut as it sounds.  We’ve been talking a lot about homosexuality on this blog (obviously) and that is a pretty hot topic with most people having strongly ingrained positions and agendas… sometimes makes it hard to really talk about.

So let’s look at another case study: Polygamy.  

I think most of us would agree that, at least culturally (and probably Biblically), polygamy is a bad idea. (I say only “probably Biblical” because there is no specific chapter/verse you can look at to say polygamy is bad, and it was practiced by God’s people for a long time).  

But how does (and should) this play out on the missions field?

Take this scenario, as described by David Seamands in Christianity Today:

When I was a missionary in India, the most complex problem was polygamy — what to do with a man who sought baptism but had more than one wife. I shall never forget the first time I baptized a man and his two wives. Even though Silas was the first convert from Hinduism and the one most responsible for winning almost the entire village to Christ, it was still a spiritual trauma to my biblically trained, evangelical, and—I now realize—culturally conditioned American conscience. I wrestled with how to proclaim the Christian gospel amidst a non-Christian culture while also lifting the patterns of the culture to Christian standards.

If the church insisted on the Christian ideal of monogamy and required Silas to “get rid of” all but one wife, the only option in that culture for the other wives would be prostitution. In addition, destroying relationships with children, in-laws, and a whole social network seemed to nullify the gospel message. The sanctified wisdom of the early missionaries in India had led almost all denominations to agree on a policy: They would take an absolutist stand against adultery, but would make a concession to existing polygamy by baptizing the husband along with his wives.

This was only for first-generation Christians, however. Strict monogamous standards were applied to the next generation of believers. As a result, polygamy among Christians in India was almost wiped out in a relatively short time. Contrast this with Africa, where the majority of churches insisted that the man choose one wife and get rid of the rest. Many sincere believers were kept from seeking baptism, church growth was impeded, and little impact was made on the evils of polygamy. Only later did some groups (such as the Lutherans in Liberia) change their policies.

Simply put, what do you think the right answer is?

What are the questions to ask and things to consider?

How does scripture help us answer these questions?

What would your advice to these missionaries be?

1 Comment

Posted by on January 21, 2010 in Uncategorized


One response to “Ethics Applied: The Problem of Polygamy

  1. Ben D.

    January 21, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    <p>Brian… I think you are pretty much correct. In fact, I am not sure there really is any other answer.</p><p>I think the assessment is along these lines:</p><p><i>1. Polygamy is bad.</i></p><p>2. Divorce is also bad.</p><p>3. Leaving women destitute with no other option but prostitution is really bad.</p><p>4. Therefore, the loving/compassionate/ethical thing to do is to allow the continued polygamy — even within the church.</p><p>Some conservative voices would argue against this position, saying:</p><p><i>a. God’s Word is not relative… it applies in all circumstances.</i></p><p>b. God is always faithful to obedience. We must trust God to care for the women and take care of the situation.</p><p>c. We are not free to tolerate "lesser sins" — all sin is evil and must be rejected always.</p><p>d. Furthermore, marriage is created by God and is part of the foundations of creation. Anything that compromises the divine institution of marriage is intrinsically evil.</p><p>e. Therefore, we must not allow polygamy anywhere in the church no matter what… and those who argue otherwise are less faithful and are in danger of false teaching, destroying the institution of marriage, and leading others into sin.</p><p>My response is that these arguments fail to appreciate the big picture of what God is doing in the world… and miss the idea of allowing the Holy Spirit to lead and transform individuals and culture. I also think they miss that salvation is always primary over ethics… </p><p>In the real world, working with real people, we are often faced with choosing among "less bad" options… part of what it means to live in a fallen world. Our job is to find the best possible answer given all the relevant facts…</p>



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