When Ron Severns went to Oloombokishi in Kenya, East Africa, he found the church struggling with a problem. Less than ten years old, the church had grown up in a polygamous culture, the Masai. Most of the church’s male leaders had been converted as adults, already having two or more wives.
Missionaries to Africa in the nineteenth century, struggling to find an appropriate response to such plural marriages, had usually concluded that only one of the marriages could be valid. In nearly all churches, the rule had been laid down for new Christians: One wife—usually the first—could be kept, and the others had to be sent away.
This position always had its problems, however. The church might not consider a second or third marriage to be “real,” but the marriages often had been in existence for decades. Were the children to be deprived of one of their parents?
And what of the wife who was sent away? She often could not earn a living. Where was she to go? In some cultures, it was unacceptable for her to return to her parents; neither was another “proper” marriage a possibility after she had been married once. Dissolving second or third marriages put the church in the situation of causing pain and injustice rather than healing it.
The church at Oloombokishi had been started through the evangelistic efforts of the Africa Inland Church (AIC), a denomination related historically to the Africa Inland Mission. The AIC, now independent of the mission, had maintained the mission’s historic stand against polygamy. However, at Oloombokishi as in many other places, polygamous husbands had not sent away their wives. Rather, they had continued to be actively involved in the church. In fact, they dominated ...1