Polygamy in South Africa

The issue of polygamy has dominated the press for the past week in South Africa not least of all because of President Zuma’s polygamous practices, as profiled on the world stage, and his impregnation of Irvan Khoza’s daughter as revealed in the press over the weekend. It has raised much debate ranging from the dignity and rights of women, to secular versus Christian state laws, and the issue of polygamy and the history of Christianity. Professor Christene Landman of UNISA theological department certainly spices up the debate as a “Church historian” professing that monogamy is biblically unsubstantiated and arises more from Roman culture than a distinctive and united Christian heritage. She argues that to view the issue from a Christian point of view one must stop asking the question of polygamy as a morally appropriate practice and rather ask the question of equality in relationships regardless of how many relationships are being referred to. Professor Landman raises President Zuma to the height of a role model for the complex South African context as he is able to exercise his “shifting identities” as a head of state with a secular constitution, a bishop of an African church, and one who is true to his cultural Zulu heritage with apparent ease. Interface on SABC3 hosted a debate on the issue where Rev Theuns Botha from the Christian Democratic Party argued the Christian position against polygamy. To his credit he stood firm on the authority of scripture as a Christian and challenged a democracy that bulldozes the views of a majority position on a number of matters, including polygamy. He struggled, however, to show that outside of the law that he subscribes to as a Christian that there is any inherent evil or danger in the practise of polygamy at the level of personal preference. The only argument he was able to produce was that it compromised the dignity of women in such relationships.

This raised the concern to me that many professing Christians sitting in churches throughout South Africa, indeed the world, hold certain beliefs as if cultural but cannot articulate them based on a biblical worldview. The classic retort in a secular society is, “Good for you! I am glad you are a Christian! Now leave me to practice my belief and I will leave you to do the same.” Though I am able to leave the matter there without the need to take up arms to enforce my Christian position, since the kingdom of Christ is not advanced that way, I would hope to be able to give a reason for the hope I have in Christ as to why I am looking forward to a new and renovated kingdom in which polygamy will not exist (knowing marriage won’t be there either). In other words if polygamy is sin and Christ came to rescue me from the slavery to sin then what bearing does this have on my personal life as I repent in a way that will also stand out as a witness and hope in a fallen world. This is also important because of the allegation that ridding cultures of polygamy is merely a form of imposing Western culture on other cultures. It must be clear that when we come to Christ we receive a faith of equal standing to every other Christian since our righteousness is from God and through Christ (2Peter 1:1). So it is not a matter of articulating a superior “western culture” but a matter of living for Christ. With this in mind here is my humble attempt to present a brief biblical defence of monogamy as the biblical norm for marriage over against polygamy.

1. Both the Old Testament and New Testament affirm and are developed in the light of God’s creation design as the pattern for healthy and orderly life in God’s world. This includes marriage, which is why Jesus and the apostles appealed to the Genesis account a number of times. Many scholars scoff at the Adam and Eve prototype and pattern for marriage but then Peter said that many will deliberately forget God’s creation and destruction of the world as recorded in Genesis. These they will do because they want to follow their own inner passions and because they despise authority, which seems to refer to biblical authority of Old and New Testaments that are Holy Spirit inspired and delivered by prophets and apostles. (See 2Peter 2:1-3, 10 & 3:1-7)

2. As Genesis unfolds the disaster of sin we come across Lamech in Genesis 4:19-24 who is a “not so delightful” character. He is the first in a long line of “takers” or “sons of God” or “men of renown” that God ultimately grieves over and determines to judge because of their wickedness in Genesis 6:1-8. This follows the “sociologically mixed view” interpretation of who the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 were. They were power hungry despots that sought to make a name for themselves by lusting after power and usurping control of people, property and positional status. This is everything that God did not intend mankind to be and is an acute expression of the fall of male leadership in the household, in communities and over God’s creation. As Lamech takes two wives and as God instructed the king of Israel to be different in the context of polygamy in Deuteronomy 17:17 we must conclude that bigamy or polygamy is a far cry from what God created marriage to be. There is an inherent evil and character flaw associated with the desire and practise of making a name for oneself by accumulation of people or property. Whether this is expressed in a culture where polygamy is the norm or whether it is a western man with a mistress on the side or merely lusting after that which you don’t have, these are all an expression of the inclination of man’s heart being wicked all of the time. This incurred and will incur God’s judgment and should be considered as being under judgment already according to scripture. It is a less than blessed arrangement no matter how much the husband or the wives try to convince the world that equality prevails.

3. Jesus Christ came to restore and re-establish the value amongst God’s people of being prepared to give and to serve rather than to receive and to take as the godly form of leadership. The relationship between marriage and Jesus’ marriage to the church is inextricable and reminds us that the husband is called to love his wife and to lead her in holiness, a tough task indeed for fallen males! So how does this work or fail to work in a polygamous setting?

A. The examples of polygamy in the bible, which Professor Landman argues establishes a biblical basis for polygamy, reveal profound inequalities and unhappiness among the wives. They usually result from a lack of faith and leadership on the husband’s part as in the case of Abraham. In the case of Jacob the culture of Laban forced Leah and Rachel into polygamy that was marked by ugly competitiveness rather than equality. The practical outworking being that a husband must focus on one wife to love her in a way that she can respond to with trust and security. This is impossible when the husband is on the “take” or accumulating women amongst other things to prove or substantiate his manhood or to make a name for himself. God has already made a name for the Christian husband that frees the husband to serve one woman and to provide the environment for a secure marriage to flourish.

B. In times of war, it is argued, the women vastly outnumber the men and therefore polygamy is necessary to afford every woman the opportunity to experience the blessing of childbirth and raise a family. This is to miss the real issue of why are men going of to war all the time! This is not the situation in South Africa at present either. Jesus Christ also came to bring an end to the violent streak of man and one would hope that commitment to Him in all areas of life would also deal with the issue of such shortage, which it has curbed over a number of centuries though there is no end to war yet. Even if the “shortage of men” was an issue it is clear in the New Testament that a life of singleness is neither a plague nor a sentence to second-class citizenship amongst God’s people. The absence of father figures or the subjection of an entire generation to the fatherhood of men that enjoy fathering children with many women while failing to take responsibility for them or even favouring a few over the rest is outside of the value of sacrificial love that Christ died to establish. The mature Christian woman would recognize this and though it be emotionally difficult she is equipped and satisfied by faith in Christ to sacrifice the fulfilment of her “rights” for good of society and any potential offspring she might otherwise raise from the sperm of an absent or partially present husband and father.

C. When it comes to those with “shifting identities” being the happiest people in a complex society like ours we must consider the identity we are called to in Christ. We no longer exist to satisfy ourselves in futile ways as were handed down to us by our forefathers, no matter what our cultural background is. Our identity in Christ calls us to renovate that in our culture that stands opposed to God’s kingdom and what it means to be found in Jesus Christ. The Christian will then be an alien and stranger in the culture of his or her upbringing and does not have the “luxury” of “shifting identities”. When the pursuit of happiness by the definition of a world enslaved to the sin of taking and fulfilling personal rights even at the expense of others is king in the “Christian’s” life then that Christian must re-evaluate the basis of his or her identity in Christ. Has Christ bought you from slavery to sin or are you denying the Master that bought you for a new life? In the case of polygamy there is not even the promise of happiness for the majority since only a few despots will benefit. In this case living out our identity in Christ will indeed also bring great happiness to all involved.

There is always more to be said on a subject as wide and complex as this one but the three points above are at the core of what we need to consider and articulate as Christian people that stand on the authority of scripture. It is always difficult to pitch the gospel to an audience entrenched in self-obsession and standing on personal preferences and rights but we were all there at one time or another and return there from time to time. Yet, by the grace of God in the gospel, and that is why we need to remember to practically articulate this gospel over and over again, the power of God will break into people’s hearts and lives so that they will see the truth of Christ and the value of His sacrifice working its way into the details of life.

4 Responses to Polygamy in South Africa

  1. lebogang March 10, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    dont you think that polgamy is part of south african culture? because its not a bad thing to have 3 or more wives

  2. Stan Armes April 24, 2010 at 11:46 am #

    Polygamy may be the culture of South Africa but that is not the important question. The question is whether it is biblical. As the article pointed out there are a lot of questions that are raised. I think the New Testament makes it clear. In 1 Timothy the requirements for church leaders is that he “is the husband of one wife”. This rules out polygamy no matter what culture we may be from. CESA foundation is “God’s word above all things” This makes the 1 Timothy passage above all culture

  3. webmaster June 19, 2011 at 5:23 am #

    Helpful and interesting even if I found it so long after publication

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