Guest / Limited Access /

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 ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Read These NextSee Our Latest
Also in this Issue
Subscriber Access Only Hard Times
Quotations to stir heart and mind.
RecommendedUnderstanding the Transgender Phenomenon
Subscriber Access Only Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon
The leading Christian scholar on gender dysphoria defines the terms—and gives the church a way forward.
TrendingOld Hollywood’s Abortion Secret
Old Hollywood’s Abortion Secret
What a culture of death tells us about a culture of life.
Editor's PickWhy the Whole Church Needs Psalm 137, Violent Imagery and All
Why the Whole Church Needs Psalm 137, Violent Imagery and All
A protest song for Syrian refugees and suburban soccer moms.
Christianity Today
What to Do about Unbiblical Unions
hide thisJuly July

In the Magazine

July 2009

To continue reading, subscribe now for full print and digital access.