Applied Theology: A Case Study of the Dagara & Polygamy

by Andy Johnson

Johnson explains why a recent movement-wide investigation into Dagara Christian marriage ceremonies is an example of a young church movement stretching and beginning to outgrow its missionaries.

 

 When our team moved to live among the Dagara of Burkina Faso, we boldly asked the Lord for the blessing of planting churches that would plant churches. Surprisingly enough (to us of little faith), God answered our prayers beyond what we thought to ask.  

From the time we told those first believers that they could indeed evangelize on their own, it wasn’t long before eager Dagara evangelists no longer even bothered to tell us of new church plants (much less ask for help) until a crowd of believers was ready to take on Christ in baptism.

At this point, however, I began to notice a change in my own attitude. This fledging church-planting movement began to feel as if it were spinning out of our control, as if things were happening too fast for us.

After voicing my concerns to a colleague who has travelled much farther down this missionary road than I, he responded with a gentle rebuke couched in encouragement: Congratulations that you’ve reached the point where you realize now that you aren’t in control and never really were. May the Lord grant you the grace never to go back to believing you are somehow in control of his mission.

 
I began to discover the ways in which God seemed to delight in proving repeatedly to our team that this mission was his mission. I’ve come to grips with the fact that “my” churches are his churches and that, while I might sow an occasional seed, he alone brings the harvest. Our team has gladly acknowledged that while we still have some perspectives and insights to offer, the Dagara Christians have long outpaced their missionaries when it comes to evangelism.

In fact, we’re beginning to realize that the Dagara are, by the grace of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, outpacing their missionaries in many areas. Powerful evangelists, gifted song writers, thoughtful preachers, zealous prayer-warriors, and humble servants abound. These active churches have even begun to turn out faithful, applied theologians—men and women capable of listening to the word and the Spirit and making appropriate decisions in areas where this newly-found truth intersects their traditional culture.

A recent movement-wide investigation into Christian marriage ceremonies is a pertinent example of a young church movement stretching and beginning to outgrow its missionaries.  

Traditional Marriage
This case study requires a bit of background on traditional Dagara marriage. Like most aspects of the non-Christian life, Dagara marriages desperately need redemption. Divorce is rampant; indeed, most of my wife’s (who is Dagara) girlfriends have been married and divorced at least once. Marriages are threatened not only from within by husband/wife conflicts and power struggles, but also from outside sources. Extended family members are given (and take) a free hand to work out their personal conflicts using the younger relatives’ marriages as bargaining chips.

Some of this is due to the structure of the traditional bride price. Marriage begins when the husband makes what is essentially a small down payment on his bride. They then begin living together as husband and wife and, hopefully, bearing children. Years later, when the man is more financially settled, he is expected to make a final expensive payment to his in-laws; at this time, his wife is finally his, and no one can meddle in their marriage.

Regretfully, during the years between the initial and final payments, any extended family member can end the marriage for any reason, leaving young families in a state of limbo, dependent upon the goodwill of other relatives to preserve their union.

Owing to this system, wives often come and go. My best friend has told me on several occasions that his marriage was finally over, only to have his wife returned to him in time. This actually contributes to the problem of polygamous marriages. In addition to the more common reasons of infertility, the death of a brother, or the first wife demanding more help around the home as she ages, many men take another wife while under the impression that their first wife has gone for good, only to have her returned to them.

All of this contributes to a traditional system of marriage in which divorce is expected and polygamy is not only pervasive, but a part of the fabric of society.

Breaking with Tradition
Within this first generation of Christian converts, both monogamists and polygamists have come to Christ with their wives and children. As these newly-born Christians reflect upon their lives, they naturally want to right some of the wrongs they committed before entering into a relationship with the Lord.
Often, men want to provide their wives with a religious wedding ceremony. These retroactive marriage ceremonies—in which long-time husbands and wives pledge themselves to each other in front of God and their church—have become a beautiful part of the early walk of some Christians.

The situation, however, became particularly interesting when polygamists began to want the same thing for their brides. A good friend of mine was particularly vocal about wanting to provide a wedding for his two Christian brides, one of whom he inherited through a levirate marriage when his older brother died. We, the ever-contextualizing missionaries, were intrigued by this possibility and immediately began exploring what this might look like. A number of other Christians, however, expressed some reservations. So began an in-depth look at what scripture has to say about polygamy.

A Brief Survey
Anyone taking an honest look at scripture will readily agree that one man with one woman is God’s original intent for marriage. In the beginning, this is how we were made—to be united as one flesh without shame. Relatively quickly, however, we find God’s original plan twisted into polygamy with Lamech marrying two women (Gen. 4:19; by my count, it took only six generations from Adam).

We soon find our perfect God choosing to work through imperfect men, many of whom were polygamists, to accomplish his plans for the world. Of the three patriarchs, Abraham took Hagar in addition to Sarah (Gen. 16:3), and Jacob took four wives (Gen. 29-30). The lone monogamist in the bunch, Isaac, was hardly the model of the perfect husband (Gen. 26:7). Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, David, Solomon, and Joash were all polygamists God chose to use.



Polygamy is a problem that, Lord willing,
will be rooted out of Dagara society.

 Clearly, polygamy is not God’s plan; virtually every polygamous marriage in scripture results in some kind of problem (something with which most Dagara men would readily agree!). That said, polygamy is never explicitly labeled a sin. Although the kings of Israel were warned not to take “many wives” (Deut. 17:17), it’s unclear whether this was a strict prohibition of polygamy or only a warning against taking too many wives.

In Malachi 2:15-16, the prophet makes it clear that one should not “break faith with the wife of your youth,” but reserves much stronger language specifically for divorce. While God hates divorce, he seems somewhat tolerant of polygamy as his people work out what it means to be holy in this fallen world, even at times commanding it of the Israelites (Deut. 25:5-10).

Let me reiterate—I am not making an argument in favor of polygamy as the norm for Christian marriage. As Christ has one bride, the Church, so the sons of Adam are to have but one bride. God is clearly honored when one man takes one woman to be his bride; the question these new Dagara Christians are asking is whether or not he can still be honored in a marriage ceremony between one man and his wives.

A Decision
The Dagara church leadership recently met to discuss this rather emotional issue. Representatives from most churches were present as they talked through and prayed over whether or not polygamist Christians should have marriage ceremonies honoring their wives.

Having already shared my opinion on the question with several friends (that is, that I was in favor of fleshing out what this might look like), I was not present at the actual meeting. The leaders arrived at the following conclusions:

• They reaffirmed their decision that polygamists can come to Christ and be baptized along with their wives and children. Given that we are to remain as we are when called to Christ (1 Cor. 7:17-24) and that God hates divorce (Mal. 2:15-16), couples are to live together as husband and wife within each relationship, but are never to take more wives. Also, each polygamist Christian has his work cut out for him. Christ, our example, died for his bride, the Church; polygamists are to die to every one of their brides.

• All Christian men should work to pay off their bride prices as soon as possible to protect their families from outside attack.

• Christians are to teach their  sons to take only one wife, which is God’s plan. Christians are to give their daughters in marriage to men who will take only one wife—preferably to Christian men.

• Finally, although polygamists and their families are welcome in the family of God, the leaders should not perform multiple-wife marriage ceremonies, as this is not the example they want to hold up to future generations of Christians.

Although I was somewhat surprised when I heard the final decision, I have come to see that God’s hand actively guided his people. Polygamy is a problem that, Lord willing, will be rooted out of Dagara society in the coming generations as polygamists train up their sons to be followers of God’s design for marriage. There is no need for polygamist Christians of today to perform controversial retroactive marriage ceremonies (something not found in scripture) that might cause problems for Christians tomorrow.  

If I had any lingering doubts about this decision on the part of the churches, they were erased at a recent marriage ceremony I attended. My friend mentioned earlier in this article is a humble, yet compelling Christian leader, active both in his church and in two other church plants.

He is also a polygamist. His son, also a Christian, invited me to his wedding ceremony with his first (and hopefully only!) bride. My friend, a polygamist who will never have his own marriage ceremony, was essentially his son’s best man as he promised to take but one bride for all his life. By the grace of God, we are getting to watch as a younger generation of believers reclaims the beautiful union that is one man with one woman from the tangles of polygamy.

I am thankful that the leadership of these young churches had the courage to stand up and lovingly tell me I was wrong. I am thankful that God’s Spirit is actively raising up theologians among the Dagara. I am thankful for God’s patience with our team and with the Dagara.

Finally, I am thankful that I’m making progress. While it took me five years on the field to realize that evangelism wasn’t about me, it only took three to come to the same realization about applied theology!  

….

Andy Johnson has been planting churches and training leaders among the Dagara of Burkina Faso since 2002. He is married with three children. Andy received his MA in missions from Abilene Christian University.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 350-354. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

 


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