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52. One or several wives?

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Sven speaks: In our work as missionaries we often had to face tricky questions. One such question was what to do when a man with several wives became a believer. In the Bible, we read that "the two shall be one flesh", in other words two persons form a marriage. Well, what do you do when a man with four wives becomes a believer? Most missionary societies in Papua New Guinea told the man that if he wanted to be baptized and join the church, he would have to send away three of his wives and only keep the first one. Marianne and I felt that it was not the right way to handle the problem, and that was before we fully understood the consequences of sending away his other wives.

There is a frightening story that is supposedly true, but of course I cannot guarantee that it is. A man with five wives became a believer and wanted to be baptized. When the Missionary heard that he had five wives, he told the new believer that he must send away his four last wives and keep only his first wife and then come back to be baptized. After a few weeks, the man came back to the missionary and said that he now only had one wife, and now he wanted to be baptized. "Naturally now you can be baptized" the missionary replied and continued: "But what did you do with your other wives?" "I killed them," the man replied.

I soon realized that we could not prevent the men with multiple wives from being baptized and joining the church. It was not a good solution to ask these men to send away their wives because it would put these women in a very difficult social situation.

As in so many other difficult questions we went to the Word of God for guidance. I am absolutely convinced that God's ideal of a marriage is one man and one woman joined together in matrimony, and this was taught in the Pentecostal Churches in Papua New Guinea. But when you study the Bible, there are no examples of men who had multiple wives, and repented, where God asked them to get rid of some of their wives to come right with Him. We mostly read about men with multiple wives in the Old Testament, but in at least one context it is mentioned even in the New Testament. Here the Bible says that the Elders in a church must be just one woman's husband. This must surely be understood that polygamy in Jesus’ time existed otherwise the Bible would not have had to point out that the Elders of the church were only allowed to have one wife.

We can also look at King David in the Old Testament who had got his wife Bathsheba in a terrible way. When David eventually came to realize how wrong he acted, God did not force him to divorce Bathsheba in order to be forgiven by God. On the contrary, God used her to create the family in which Jesus was eventually born. Solomon was the first in this generation, and he was the son of David and Bathsheba. What I am saying is, to my knowledge there is no example in the Bible where God tells someone that because you wrongly got a wife, you have to get rid of her before I can forgive you. An error is not corrected by doing yet another wrong thing.

Based on the above, we decided very early that a man who had several wives was allowed to get baptized but he could not hold any leadership roles in the church. You could not marry yet another wife after having been saved and baptized. If a pastor sinned and took another wife, he was dismissed from his service. They were also expelled from the church, and sometimes I thought the leaders were too hard on them by making it impossible for these people to come back to church. The native church leaders referred to the Gospel of Matthew 18:15-17 which talks about how to deal with a brother who sins. The passage ends with: "if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would treat a pagan or a tax collector." So I would therefore ask them "How do you treat a pagan? If a pagan came to the Church, would you throw him out? No, you would not. Instead, you would welcome him and show him love in the hope that he will repent and be saved. So we should treat the people who have sinned in the same way." My thought was that we should not just simply throw them out, but instead letting them be under the influence of God's Word so that they could yet again repent. But of course, they could not go back to being leaders in our churches.

But sometimes, tricky situations arose. Once I was called to settle a dispute relating to a man with five wives. His wives had begun fighting in the church. The reason for the fight was that four of the wives said that nowadays he only cared about his first wife. The congregation had huge problems with this man and his wives, and the pastor pleaded with me to come and help them.

When I got there, I sat down and talked with Kola and his five wives. He was a small man, not much taller than one and a half meter. His wives, however, were big and strong. They were each one able to express their particular feeling and the problem turned out to be that he only slept with his first wife. The younger wives wondered why he only slept with her and not with them. Since she was too old to bear children "It did not make any sense to them". Finally, when they had finished talking, I told the man: "The fact that you have got five wives is your problem, but now that you have done that, you must make sure that you treat them all equally and give them all the same privileges." The wives were very happy and wanted me to make a schedule for them. But I had reached the limit of my marriage settlement, thus I did not make any schedule. Yes, sometimes I got very strange tasks.


Another time when I met Kola, I joked with him and said: "I don’t understand how you can handle five wives. I find it difficult to cope with just one." "That is no problem for you. You have no pigs and no garden to be looked after so of course you can manage with one wife. I, on the other hand, have a lot of pigs and a large garden that needs to be cared for, thus I need more wives." he replied.

On another occasion, when we spoke, he said: "My first wife is good at planting vegetables in her garden, which she then harvests and sells on the market. Later on, she gives me some money. But", he said, and now he almost cried: "from the other four, you gain no profit at all ". I started to laugh but then I apologized for my sudden laughter and explained that in my culture, this way of thinking is so strange.

With these stories, I wanted to illustrate that you are faced with different problems to be resolved in a way that is acceptable both from the light of the Bible and the light of the prevailing culture. Having said all this I would like to emphasise that people growing up in the churches are taught that it is God´s plan and will that a marriage consists of one man and only one woman.

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