Is Christian Marriage Succeeding in Africa?
FOR several centuries now, the churches of Christendom have been sending missionaries to Africa, and over the years thousands have been baptized. The 1968 estimated church membership was 42,056,000, or one in eight of the total population of Africa. But what is the situation as to Christian marriage?
Studies in various countries south of the Sahara reveal that the African has persistently held on to the traditional forms of marriage. Considering the church wedding or any contractual marriage too Western, most Africans who are nominal Christians are not going to the churches to get married. Moreover, in recent years industrialization and changing social patterns also are having their impact on traditional marriage customs. Many, especially among the young, are not bothering even to marry in the tribal way.
TRIBAL VERSUS CHURCH MARRIAGE
In a study commissioned by the All Africa (Anglican) Archbishops’ Conference and prepared by Adrian Hastings, it is reported that in five years in one area of Kenya, there was a yearly average of ten Anglican church marriages, as compared to 4,000 baptisms. One diocese in Uganda had only fourteen church marriages to 92,604 baptisms. The report shows that this is the trend throughout Africa.
A number of factors influence the African to marry according to tribal custom instead of in the church. ‘The paying of the bride price is usually necessary in any event, so why go to the extra expense of a church wedding?’ he reasons.
Discussing this situation, J. Henry Okulla reported the following from Africa to The Christian Century: “Church marriages are known to be expensive, not only because large demands for money are made [by the parents of the girl in the form of a dowry], but also because of the Western wedding customs which have been adopted—expensive wedding gowns, large receptions at which beer and other alcoholic beverages are served. Many are the poorer for having gotten married. Some young persons therefore simply agree to start living together; only later do they legitimize their vows before the parents of the girl and in the eyes of society. But even when their marriage has become fully accepted by society, the church still refuses to accord them this recognition, and they and their children are refused the sacraments.”
East African priest J. Labrèche recognized another highly influential factor: “Africans want a fruitful marriage and they are not easily convinced to engage themselves for life before having a guarantee that they will have children. Concubinage becomes the natural means for testing.” African custom is that the birth of a child puts a seal on the marriage. Before this the relationship is more of a “trial marriage,” in many instances.
According to G. E. Currens and R. J. Payne, cleric spokesmen for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Liberia, “Marriage is not regarded as the initiating of a socially sanctioned union between a man and woman, but rather as the culminating evidence of the success of such a union.”
It may start, as among the Taitas of Kenya, when a man, the “pater-elect,” gives a token, kifu, to a girl’s parents as evidence of his intent to secure final rights over the woman’s childbearing capacities. As such he acquires the tacit approval of the bride’s parents for the sexual relations that will lead to the realization of her reproductive powers. The actual establishment of the relationship as a marriage may come after the woman proves she is not barren.
CHURCH ACCOMMODATION TO TRIBAL CUSTOM
Faced with the strong resistance to what are considered Western or European marriage customs, many local clergymen have pressured the heads of their particular church to change church rules to accommodate their parishioners or new converts. The high command of their churches has been slow to make official changes that would allow baptized Africans to marry according to tribal custom and still remain in good standing. Yet the churches do not want to lose members.
The result has been that many churches on the local scene have been tolerant when church members marry according to tribal custom rather than in the church. Little or no church discipline is imposed. Some churches have gone so far as to adopt a “Service of Blessing” to be used for those who have entered into so-called “trial marriages,” even though this has no legality.
If new converts are already married according to tribal marriage, many churches agree to baptize them. Additional problems are presented if the African is a polygamist, having more than one wife. The Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1888 “was prepared in some cases to admit them [polygamists] to baptism and other Protestant churches from time to time did the same thing,” according to the Hastings report. Nevertheless, the official position of most churches has remained against polygamy, although being prone to consider the secondary wives of polygamists more leniently.
Early in 1972 the Vatican yielded to pressure and issued new rules for the initiating of adults, calling for a category of “sympathizers” for those who practice polygamy. These converts are able to share in many activities of the church, although officially they must give up polygamy before baptism.
In contrast to the official position of some churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Liberia has been baptizing polygamists for over twenty years on the stipulation that no more wives were to be acquired. In justification of this policy, Currens and Payne contend, in their joint paper: “This policy is a vivid witness to the gracious God who meets men where they are and accepts them as they are, and then by His Spirit transforms their lives. It is grace-in-action to the African of this generation.”
“THE VAST GREY AREA”
In the view of clerics Currens and Payne, “The real issue confronting the church is not the fact of plural marriage, but rather how to deal with the vast grey area of unresolved difficulties in the relationship between men and women who are unmarried or who are so-called monogamists.”
Their report continues: “It is highly questionable in fact whether 90 percent of the Lutheran Church in Liberia is ‘monogamous,’ if by that is meant a marriage union in which the husband and wife are faithful to each other. What does exist among the majority of members are varying degrees of extra-marital liaisons—from casual adultery, or the temporary taking of a lover while the wife is nursing a child, to covert but established concubinage. Such relationships are sanctioned by tribal culture and almost universally practiced in the Westernized segment of society.”
With what result? The same Lutheran report continues: “The church’s policy in effect has been most fertile ground for the flourishing of deception and hypocrisy. . . . Is there not something seriously wrong when Christians resort to deception in order to stay within the church?”
WHAT IS WRONG?
Yes, there is no doubt about it, something is seriously wrong! There is a reaping of what has been sown. A hypocritical church produces hypocritical members. Rather than teaching the African converts deep respect for God and his principles that must be observed impartially the world around, compromise and accommodation have become the policy. The making of converts and the keeping of them at any price is the apparent objective. Seldom is a member excommunicated because of adultery or “trial marriage.” Polygamy is tolerated and excused.
Christendom has furnished no stabilizing force in marriage as social change sweeps the continent, setting increasing numbers morally adrift. Commenting on the sad results in his report on marriage in South Africa, D. W. T. Shropshire stated: “Our Native townships are full of men and women who are not married by either Christian rites or Native custom and are not subject to the discipline of either code.”
WHERE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE IS SUCCEEDING
Christendom has admittedly failed to help the African to adopt Christian standards in marriage. But does this mean that Christian marriage cannot be successful in Africa? No, for there is a big difference between what is taught or allowed in the churches of Christendom and what the Bible teaches and prompts genuine Christians to do.
Conclusive proof is offered in the lives of Jehovah’s Christian witnesses, now numbering over one quarter of a million in Africa. They have learned God’s standards as set forth in the Bible and are happily enjoying within their families the benefits and blessings that result. Africans are showing themselves quite capable of upholding God’s lofty marital standards without the need for special concessions.
“Trial marriage” is rejected for what it is: fornication. Heeding the Bible’s advice to marry “only in the Lord” gives assurance that one will have a fellow believer as a mate. (1 Cor. 7:39) Truly Christian parents do not make dowries unreasonable, if they are asked for at all. A chance is taken that barrenness will result, but if this does occur when children are wanted, the couple is comforted in knowing that God can correct such condition in his perfect new system. Meanwhile they can enjoy to the full the producing of ‘spiritual children’ by helping others into the way of salvation.
True Christians in Africa have no hesitation in going to their Kingdom Halls for their marriage ceremonies and to receive good advice from an elder on marriage responsibilities and privileges. There is no charge for this service. Afterward they make sure their marriages are properly registered.
Love and respect help to keep the Christian couple devoted to God and to one another, letting no others come within this marriage bond to create jealousy or to sully the marriage bed. (1 Cor. 7:1-5) The marriage is elevated and takes on true dignity as the man is encouraged to assume his headship and ‘love his wife as he does himself.’ Christ becomes the model in the way he loves the congregation. The wife, in turn, is taught to show “deep respect for her husband.” Together they make it their objective to train their children in the loving atmosphere of a Christian home.—Eph. 5:21-33; 6:1-4.
One who is now a Witness was formerly baptized a Catholic though still a polygamist and a practicer of fetish religion. As one of Jehovah’s witnesses, he is no longer a polygamist. Two of his former wives are also Witnesses now. One of them has since remarried and is serving as a full-time evangelizer. In his now jealousy-free home, this former polygamist declares: “My conscience is clear because I am following Jesus’ counsel to have only one wife. I know that I am conforming to the Lord’s arrangement for responsible Christians.”
MOVED TO MAKE ADJUSTMENTS
Sincere, God-fearing Africans by the thousands are making adjustments in their personal lives every year in order to meet the Bible’s standards and to qualify for Christian baptism by Jehovah’s witnesses. If one is living in a “trial marriage” or if married according to tribal custom, assistance is given to have the marriage registered, impressing upon all concerned that the couple assumes full marital responsibilities and privileges.
If one is already a polygamist when learning God’s truth, there is naturally an emotional struggle in mind and heart. There are economic factors, too, as such additional wives and children were useful formerly in planting and harvesting crops. But when a person truly loves God, this motivates him to put away all but the one that is truly his wife, the senior one. This he is willing to do even though he may have built up greater affection for a younger second wife, or perhaps the senior wife is not as interested in studying the Bible as one of the secondary wives.—Prov. 5:18.
Provision is made for all the secondary wives to be sent away, either to return to their parents’ homes, if this is satisfactory, or to live in separate homes. Matters are handled honorably. Adequate provision is made for the care of the children too. And the fields are not neglected, for the Witnesses help one another according to the need, moving from farm to farm until the heavy work of planting and harvesting is done.
As they study the Bible sincere Africans do observe that polygamy was practiced in patriarchal times and not proscribed under the Mosaic law. However, rather than endeavoring to reach back to this pre-Christian time for a precedent to excuse polygamy or unscriptural divorce, true worshipers look closer to see what God’s will is for Christians today.
Jesus said that the pre-Christian provisions for divorce on varied grounds were made ‘because of the hardheartedness of the people.’ If one argues for divorce on any ground, or for having more than one wife as a polygamist, he is, in effect, saying to God, ‘I would like for an allowance to be made in view of my hardheartedness.’ Jesus upheld God’s standard of monogamy that prevailed in Eden wherein only “two will be one flesh.” This will be the standard in his new system of things; therefore, it is fitting now that this be the practice in the Christian congregation.—Matt. 19:3-8.
Christian marriage is succeeding in Africa. Despite the miserable failure of Christendom to teach the African population how to live a Christian life and to resist the moral decay that is undermining marriage, Jehovah’s Christian witnesses provide the proof that Christian marriage is successful. They are teaching their fellow Africans how to live happily in Christian marriage too. They are heeding the Bible’s admonition: “Let marriage be honorable among all, and the marriage bed be without defilement, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.”—Heb. 13:4.