Can a Polygamous Man Be an Elder in the Church?

By Doug Priest

Dan Crum and Joe Cluff, along with their families, have served for many years as missionaries among the Maasai people of Kenya. They were interviewed by CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor Doug Priest.

 

When did each of you arrive in Kenya and what has been your ministry through the years.

DAN CRUM: We arrived in Kenya in 1988, and lived in rural Maasailand for 10 years in the ministry of evangelism, church planting, and leadership training. The next three years were focused on producing written materials in the Maasai language, followed by seven years as team leader. Recently we have worked part-time with Maasai in water purification.

JOE CLUFF: I arrived in Kenya in February 1996. In February 1997 I moved to a rural community called Ewaso Ng’iro. I lived half a mile from a training center operated by Christian Missionary Fellowship (CMF). For two years I helped start a functioning youth ministry among the Maasai. Later I worked with church leaders in rural churches to help them grow in their understanding of Christian leadership, as well as their understanding of Scripture and the work of the church.

Since my arrival, all church leadership and physical facilities have been turned over to the indigenous church. CMF has a separate government registration and leadership structure from Community Christian Church. [CCC is the indigenous church planted and discipled by CMF missionaries among Maasai and Turkana.] My role has been to help CCC understand the basic organization it needs to fulfill Kenyan law and to interact with other stakeholders.

CCC numbers 163 congregations with 11,000 members. Almost all of the members are disadvantaged, meaning they come from poor backgrounds.

 

What features of the culture made it easy for Christianity to take root, and what cultural features presented real challenges?

CRUM: I remember asking for a piece of land in 1993 on which to build our house, and in return I would visit the villages and talk about God. They all liked that idea, as traditional Maasai have belief in one God. I also assured them I was not there to take their cows or land, which they also liked! The love of song among the Maasai made it a natural fit to put Christian words to their indigenous tunes. Even the prebelievers sang the songs, as the tunes were familiar to them. Love of family, curiosity in outsiders, and hospitality all gave us inroads to live and preach Christ.

Maasai Christians often gather under trees for special occasions, although most congregations have built permanent church buildings. On this Sunday, church and community members of Miton (a village near the Kenya/Tanzania border) gathered for the ordination of five Community Christian Church pastors. (CCC is a registered association of CMF–Kenya churches.) The day before, everyone celebrated the baptisms of 85 people, which took place in a nearby cow watering trough!
Maasai Christians often gather under trees for special occasions, although most congregations have built permanent church buildings. On this Sunday, church and community members of Miton (a village near the Kenya/Tanzania border) gathered for the ordination of five Community Christian Church pastors. (CCC is a registered association of CMF–Kenya churches.) The day before, everyone celebrated the baptisms of 85 people, which took place in a nearby cow watering trough!

Giving up polygamy and certain ceremonies were two of the bigger barriers to Maasai accepting Christ. The ceremonies were rites of passage where the whole community was welcome and much honey-beer was served. Drunkenness and sinful practices were common. Yet it was important to acknowledge this important life step to the host, and share in the happiness. Sleeping with wives of age-mates was common and a hard practice for people to change after becoming Christians.

CLUFF: The Maasai were traditionally monotheists. They have a foundational myth in which Enkai (God) is so disgusted by the sin he sees that he leaves the mountain where he resides and goes away. From that time, the Maasai relied on diviners to manipulate spiritual forces to do their will.

The missionaries were able to enter the culture and tell the Maasai that it was true that Enkai was disgusted with their sin. But he did not go away and leave them. Instead he sent his Son to save them and his Spirit to guide them.

Africans as a general rule are religious. They are willing to listen to whoever claims to have some new truth about the mysterious, spirit-infused world around them.

Christianity is viewed as a progressive force in the culture. Many Maasai learned about Christianity in school. Missionaries promoted literacy alongside the government and schools. Missionaries did it to help people read the Bible. The church spoke out against wife beating, drunkenness, and female genital mutilation.

One challenge was that the culture was patriarchal, pastoral, and polygamous. This means the book of Genesis seemed as current as today’s newspaper. The problem is, when teaching the Bible to the Maasai, they never wanted to leave the patriarchal narratives of the Old Testament and shift to the New Testament. Why learn to worship a chaste, woman-affirming carpenter’s son when you could hear about Abraham or Jacob or other men who lived lives so much like your own?

Another challenge was the culture’s lack of literacy and lack of a Bible in their mother tongue until 1993. Maasai preachers could only recite what they heard, rather than read the Bible themselves. This has become less of a problem in the last 10 years, though many Maasai Christians still cannot read.

 

We often think of polygamy in terms of having numerous sexual partners, perhaps overemphasizing the sexual aspect of polygamy. Are there other reasons for the Maasai to practice polygamy?

CLUFF: Maasai, both male and female, are sexually promiscuous. Maasai men take extra lovers, even if they have multiple wives. The desire for multiple wives is not driven primarily by libido.

In Maasai culture, one’s wealth is determined by two factors: children and livestock. The more one has, the wealthier one is, and the greater one’s standing in the community. If a wife can give birth to eight children during her lifetime—men avoid sleeping with their wives during pregnancy and postnatal nursing—then a monogamous man can have eight children. But a polygamist with three wives can have 24 children. He would be wealthy and well-known, especially if he has sufficient livestock to care for his large family.

Many Maasai men will take an additional wife when they get older. It is not unheard of to see a wealthy man in his 60s with a new wife in her late teens. Like some American men, the Maasai man will trade in the wife of his youth for a younger model. The difference is that the American must divorce his first wife, while the Maasai will simply have his first wife live in a village a fair distance away. Given the similarity, though, we sometimes speak of the American divorce culture as “serial polygamy.”

CRUM: It is not uncommon for an aging wife to ask her husband to take a second wife to help share the workload of gathering firewood, water, and helping with chores. Having multiple wives is also a way to display wealth, proving that a man has enough resources to take care of several women and their children. Arranged marriages by fathers of very young children is also a cultural practice that promotes polygamy; men will promise their daughters as second or third wives as a way to seal their relationship with an age-mate.

 

What different approaches to polygamy have various churches taken in Kenya, and what stance did the missionaries take? What is the church’s current position regarding polygamy?

CRUM: Some have tried encouraging dismissal of all wives except the first one, but this led to divorce and prostitution to support a husbandless family. Still others have simply stood against it, but only those who were monogamous could actually speak with believability. It was not uncommon for men to leave the church when the time approached to take a second or third wife, as traditional society avoids interpersonal conflict. Once the ceremony had passed and enough time had gone by, they would return to the church. Obviously, it was quite a challenge to break such a longstanding feature of traditional Maasai culture.

Our mission team took the approach of accepting anyone in a polygamous relationship (husbands or wives) into the church, baptize them, but ask that no more wives be added. We taught monogamy as God’s ideal.

The position of the church now is certainly monogamy, for biblical reasons, but also to decrease transmission of HIV through multiple partners.

CLUFF: Many churches censured polygamists. If you were a polygamist you could not be baptized, could not speak up in the church assembly, or lead in any capacity in the church.

This led to some tragic conclusions. For example, if all of the best natural leaders in a community are polygamists, and polygamists are barred from the life of the church body, then you eliminate anyone who has been gifted by God to lead from serving in the church.

The church quickly got a reputation for being the reserve of women and children. A number of early church leaders were irresponsibly poor—thus monogamous—and they used the pulpit to talk down to the wealthy, respectable polygamists who were forced to sit in the back pew. God, in his great mercy, has empowered his church to grow in spite of such shortsightedness.

 

Does this mean that you see no difference between polygamy and monogamy?

CLUFF: Absolutely not! Our mission team has always viewed monogamy as God’s ideal for Christian marriage. Many polygamist marriages have been beset with strife and jealousy. One wife is always the favored one. Her children always go to the best schools and wear the best clothes. The other wives’ children are jealous of the favored children.

None of this is surprising. We see the same thing in the Bible with Joseph and his brothers, Hannah and Peninnah, and King David and his wives and children.

 

Can a man who has more than one wife be an elder in the church?

CRUM: Great question. This is one our team struggled with for years, because of the elder qualifications mentioned in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that state an elder must have only one wife. The final conclusion reached, in 1999/2000, stated that polygamists could serve as elders in this generation as long as they took no further wives, did not give their daughters to be a cowife, and would teach monogamy. We saw scriptural backing for these decisions:

• 1 Corinthians 7:20, “Each of you should remain as you were when God called you” (New Living Translation). These were first-generation Christians, and they had done nothing wrong within their culture. If they would commit to remaining “as they were” (take no more wives), and otherwise resembled the qualifications for elder, they were eligible to become elders from our perspective. There would be no polygamists chosen to be elders as the church matured and monogamy became more the norm.

• 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6—“husband of one wife” [from the New American Standard Bible] seems to be subset to a man who is above reproach. We looked more for character, and found several polygamous men who exemplified Christ. Several Maasai polygamists were ordained and they turned out to be good mentors of younger, monogamous men.

CLUFF: I would like to alter the question a bit. Can a man who has had more than one wife be an elder in the church?

 Here the issues of divorce and polygamy force us to do the same hard work when trying to interpret biblical texts like 1 Timothy 3:2. The American church has suffered from the American divorce epidemic. Over the last 40 years, the church came face-to-face with a generation of men who had divorced and remarried in their younger years. Then those men became Christians, acknowledged their sin, and strove to honor their current wives as they honored God.

Many of our fathers searched the Scriptures to try to determine whom God would want to lead his church when many of the men available to lead were divorced. They concluded that a previous divorce would not disqualify a man from being an elder, provided that that man had proven his faithfulness to his current spouse over time. Our fathers knew that this contradicted the apparent meaning of the English translation of 1 Timothy 3:2. But in their humble search of the Scriptures, they decided to forgive as God forgave, and to honor the institution of marriage by requiring the newly ordained elders to stay faithful to their present wives.

How can polygamy be viewed like this? I would suggest most Americans recoil from polygamy because of its foreignness. When we hear “polygamy,” we think either of a fundamentalist living on a Utah ranch or of some African bushman wearing a grass skirt. We rarely think of someone like Kenya’s former polygamous president who resigned last year after an exemplary career in public service.

CCC churches did not have elders for years because all of the available men were polygamists. We concluded that, just like divorced Americans, we come to Christ as we are. So we would ordain a polygamist as an elder provided he had been a faithful Christian for a time and that he did not take any more wives after becoming a Christian. If he took additional wives, then he would have to resign from the eldership and be put under church discipline.

We promoted monogamy by requiring all ordained ministers/pastors to be monogamist. And we said the ordination of polygamist elders would be for “this generation,” until the church had a sufficient pool of elder candidates who practiced monogamy.

 

What changes have you seen in the Maasai culture that came about primarily because people became Christ followers?

CRUM: Many come to mind:

The diviners have lost some credibility, and their role as spiritual leaders has been replaced by church leaders.

Christian songs are sung throughout the villages, because local tunes and styles have been infused with Christian words. Christian prayers are offered at traditional meetings.

Church buildings dot the landscape and are mainstays in many Maasai communities. They are used for community needs—particularly schooling for kids.

Many people can read now, which early on was a result of adult literacy brought by missionaries or school involvement by missions.

Strife in communities has lessened, and in some areas peace reigns like never before. This is because so many people go to church and have learned the value of living as brothers and sisters in Christ.

CLUFF: I see four wonderful changes. First, Christ’s work is healing male-female relationships. Women in Maasai culture are property, more or less. Wife beating is the norm. In years past, girls did the chores until they were old enough to be married off. I’ve seen girls as young as 8 years old get married. 

But Christian homes are different. Strong believers will try to send their daughters to school and only marry their daughters to Christian men. Marriages are traditionally arranged, but a girl increasingly has veto power over her father’s choice for a husband if she is educated and her father is a Christian. Christians don’t beat their wives. Instead they listen to their wives and cherish them. And young Christian men take only one wife.

Second, Christ’s work is bringing about a moral revolution. Sexual promiscuity is no longer met with the same “boys will be boys” attitude among Christians. This is vital in a culture with a high incidence of HIV infection. Alcoholism is endemic in Maasai culture. Fathers drink away their children’s school fees and inheritance. But Maasai Christians do not drink and they take care of their families.

Third, Christ’s work is changing language. The Maasai language has no native word to express regret. The Maasai traditionally were proud and did not apologize. But Maasai Christians know that they are sinners and they say “sorry” to God. He forgives them and makes them his own.

Fourth, Christ’s work is changing the Maasai approach to death. Maasai have a deep fear of death. When someone dies, the women in the village will begin to weep and wail loudly while the men stand around and yell at the women to shut up. In Christian villages, men and women will mourn together. But they do not mourn like those around them who have no hope.

 

Doug Priest, who also ministered with the Maasai people, is the executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship.

 

You Might Also Like

1 Comment

  1. Terry Butler
    October 11, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    A very good article, Doug. Keep up the good work.
    Your brother in Nicaragua.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for Free!

Subscribe to gain free access to all of our digital content,
including our new digital magazine,
and we'll let you know when new digital issues are ready to view!