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Jacob Zuma's recent election as South Africa's fourth president since the end of apartheid was a foregone conclusion. The question that captivated observers has been which of the Zulu traditionalist's several wives would be first lady: The media-shy senior wife? Or the middle wife who responds to reporters' questions with "Jesus is Lord"?

Zuma's election has raised the profile of polygamy, a mostly rural practice that has long been a challenge for Christians in Muslim nations, some parts of India, and many parts of Africa. Traditionally the practice of rich men with the land and money to support a large family, polygamy is now practiced by middle-class and poor men, said Isabel Phiri, a theology professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Experts say the African church isn't united on what should be required when polygamists convert.

"African-initiated types of churches will be more welcoming, and you'd probably find a number of [polygamous families] in their churches," said James O. Kombo, a senior lecturer at Daystar University in Kenya. "The mission-founded types of churches will tend to have none of that."

Earlier Western missionaries felt a need to confront polygamy at the point of conversion. During colonial days in mission churches, Christians in good standing would give up the status symbol and send away all but one wife, said Kombo. Such a painful decision often meant that men would choose family or social standing over church. Medical missionary David Livingstone's single convert abandoned the faith to return to polygamy.

Many African church leaders regret zero-tolerance policies for polygamous families of converts, saying that treating those marriages as invalid raises a number of problems. Besides ...

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July 2009

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