Polygamy and theological education

Polygamy and theological education

I am pretty sure you have not read anything with this title before, so it requires some justification.

There are two main lines of attitude to polygamy in mission studies. The older missionary practice is to refuse baptism and the lord’s supper to those in Africa with more than one wife, viewing polygamy as a form of adultery. A newer line is to see polygamy as something deeply rooted in a particular cultural view of marriage (such as in Walter Trobisch’s My wife made me a polygamist) and see it as something which can be dealt with not as an issue of repentance but as a slow process of societal and personal change, not a barrier to conversion and acceptance.

Charles Kraft, who worked among the Higi people in West Africa notes that only polygamists are accepted as mature men in that tribe and so should even be considered for church eldership. The apostle Paul seems to suggest otherwise in his situation, saying that elders should be the husband of one wife, but this assumes polygamy was tolerated by Paul in the church but not the eldership. Indeed, God tolerated it for a long time in his people in Old Testament times and someone like David who was a man after God’s own heart was a polygamist.

I am not advocating polygamy or practicing polygamists entering seminary (see below). And I understand that this post significantly simplifies a complex biblical and ecclesiastical issue for our African brothers and sisters. We should note that those mentioned above would see God’s great purpose as one man one wife. But Kraft (and seemingly scripture) see it as an intermediate issue – something to be worked on and put right over time but not something that will interfere with acceptance.

And theological education? How much do students need to be like us and have taken the same sort of life decisions before we accept them? Do we have a genuinely diverse student body? Are we willing to believe in intermediate issues to be dealt with after acceptance?

Our statements of faith tend to be quite basic and fundamental, many people not at all like us could sign them without reservations. But there is another factor present in acceptance; the sociological, cultural and ecclesiological patterns of thought and action superimposed on our basic beliefs that define our community as much as the doctrine. These are the factors which tend to produce a remarkably homogenous student body, who mostly dress the same, think the same, act the same, have the same lifestyle, are often from the same socioeconomic group and come from the same sort of churches.

I do understand that those training for leadership in God’s church need higher and more precise standards than others – as Paul’s distinction on polygamy would suggest – but there are many intermediate issues that we have wrongly elevated to acceptance issues. They would include all secondary issues of doctrine, some lifestyles, some attitudes and some practices; those things (and people) Paul would be happy to lump into the category “let each be fully persuaded in his own mind” and “accept one another as Christ has accepted you” (Romans 14 &15) – at least until people see clearer.

Homogenous student bodies make for an easier teaching job but come with a less exciting classroom.

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One Comment on “Polygamy and theological education”

  1. KiwiAllan Says:

    I appreciate your phrase ‘intermediate issues’, Graham. A bit like “unity in necessary things; freedom in doubtful things; love in all things”… and with a peculiar (and often frustrating) twist for the theological education setting.

    Thanks for the stimulation.


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