One practical application of the polygamy issue relates to the preaching of the gospel in foreign missions where polygamy is practiced. If a missionary is expected to preach the gospel effectively to a polygamist, he should not be confused about whether or not polygamy is a sin. After all, a convert to Christ must first acknowledge his sins and repent of those sins before accepting Christ to save him from those sins. This, of course, does not mean a convert has to become totally perfect prior to conversion. If it did, nobody could ever get baptized. Furthermore, it does not mean a potential convert must have a full, comprehensive understanding of what sin is and why it is wrong.
Nevertheless, if someone wants to come to Christ, it is the duty of the missionary to point out the candidate's sins. So for example, if a candidate for baptism is involved in behavior that is obviously sinful, such as robbing banks or murdering innocent people, and he has no remorse whatsoever for his actions, plus no intentions of changing, then obviously it is the duty of the missionary to point out his sins and withhold baptism until there is a genuine change in both actions and attitudes. After all, what missionary would baptize cannibals that persist in eating people?
The same seems to be true when a missionary is ministering to polygamists. Should the polygamist be required to divorce all of his wives except one prior to receiving Christ as Lord and Savior? Some say yes, some say no. A web article from Christianity Today, August, 2000 entitled: A Marriage Counterculture: An update on the state of unions in America by David Seamands illustrates the complexity of preaching the gospel in polygamous societies:
When I was a missionary in India, the most complex problem was polygamy — what to do with a man who sought baptism but had more than one wife. I shall never forget the first time I baptized a man and his two wives. Even though Silas was the first convert from Hinduism and the one most responsible for winning almost the entire village to Christ, it was still a spiritual trauma to my biblically trained, evangelical, and—I now realize—culturally conditioned American conscience. I wrestled with how to proclaim the Christian gospel amidst a non-Christian culture while also lifting the patterns of the culture to Christian standards.Shouldn't such a drastic decision like requiring polygamists to divorce all of their wives but one hinge on whether or not polygamy is a sin; not what is expedient? Let's face it, if we told everyone they could become Christians but didn't need to repent of anything, we'd be converting a lot more people.
If the church insisted on the Christian ideal of monogamy and required Silas to "get rid of" all but one wife, the only option in that culture for the other wives would be prostitution. In addition, destroying relationships with children, in-laws, and a whole social network seemed to nullify the gospel message. The sanctified wisdom of the early missionaries in India had led almost all denominations to agree on a policy: They would take an absolutist stand against adultery, but would make a concession to existing polygamy by baptizing the husband along with his wives.
This was only for first-generation Christians, however. Strict monogamous standards were applied to the next generation of believers. As a result, polygamy among Christians in India was almost wiped out in a relatively short time. Contrast this with Africa, where the majority of churches insisted that the man choose one wife and get rid of the rest. Many sincere believers were kept from seeking baptism, church growth was impeded, and little impact was made on the evils of polygamy. Only later did some groups (such as the Lutherans in Liberia) change their policies.
Isn't God more interested in quality than quantity? The logical conclusion is inevitable. If polygamy really is a sin, the polygamist must divorce all of his wives except one. If polygamy is not a sin, then he probably should not take such drastic measures. After all, God hates divorce. Plus, as the above article conveys, one needs to consider the welfare of the estranged ex-wives and children effected by such a radical decision. Seamands mentions that polygamy among Christians in India was almost wiped out in a relatively short time. Why? To requote Seamands:
The sanctified wisdom of the early missionaries in India had led almost all denominations to agree on a policy: They would take an absolutist stand against adultery, but would make a concession to existing polygamy by baptizing the husband along with his wives. This was only for first-generation Christians, however. Strict monogamous standards were applied to the next generation of believers.So on the one hand, if we conclude that polygamy is a sin, then many new polygamist converts are forced to abandon their wives and children, resulting in enormous repercussions to both family and society. On the other hand, if we acknowledge that polygamy is not a sin, then we obliterate a cherished building block of Christian ethics, which states that "all sex outside of a monogamous heterosexual marriage is a sin." No wonder polygamy is such a hot potato!
It seems that the decision to require polygamists to divorce all of their wives but one should hinge on whether or not polygamy is a sin; not what is expedient. Let's face it, if we told everyone they could become Christians but didn't need to repent of anything, we'd be converting a lot more people. But I believe God is much more interested in quality than quantity.
I don't wish to undermine the motives of the aforementioned missionaries. I simply wish to underscore just how complex, yet also how important the polygamy question is as it pertains to missionary work. But consider this: Few would question whether or not Abraham, Jacob, or David were men of God. All three of those men were polygamists. Did God require them to divorce all their wives except one before they could become believers? Did God even hint that such a radical pre-screening process was a pre-requisite? Of course not.