number 8, december 12, 1998

Select other issues: 

Polygamy no problem for African churches

By Noel Bryuns

The WCC is intellectually refined and theologically advanced but it is out of touch with real people. So it should stop quibbling over admitting the Celestial Church of Christ as a full member because polygamy is not a problem for local churches in Africa.

This was the blunt message from the general secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), Densen Mafinyani, when asked by Jubilee to comment on the issue of Celestial Church membership to the WCC.

The 8th assembly on Thursday night roundly rejected the Nigeria-based church’s bid for membership after delegates expressed concern that the church still has polygamous clergy.

According to a statement from the Celestial Church, whose founder the Rev SBJ Oshoffa died in 1986, the church admitted polygamous clergy only until the same year, although clergy who lived in polygamous unions before that might continue to do so. It did not condone divorce.

To underline his point, Mafinyani said that the general secretary of "Fambidzano", an umbrella body of about 100 African Instituted Churches (AIC) attends the annual general meeting of the ZCC as an associate member. (In some parts of the continent, they are referred to as African Independent Churches).

"Many of the church leaders are polygamous," he said.

"This is not a problem for the local churches. These leaders are accepted in their churches, their followers accept the cultural dimension where the tribal headman had more than one wife. The local churches see nothing wrong with this."

Mafinyani said the WCC is very articulate and professional, intellectually refined and theologically advanced, very professional — but out of touch with ordinary people.

"The new central committee must form a space where real people can speak. Otherwise, the WCC is just like the UN — very organised but cannot to relate to simple people.

"Can the WCC please open a door where the African spirituality can be rediscovered?" he pleaded.

"We don’t want our Christian faith to be limited by the mindset of Europe, where it came from, a theology too narrow to accommodate what God has done with Africans long before the missionaries came — those missionaries who threw out our ancient religious experiences and sacred beliefs as pagan."

This gave the impression that God does not speak in Africa, but only through Western theology.

"I, personally and speaking on behalf of the ZCC, appreciate very much what the WCC has done and is doing, but it must please create more space so that our faith can be enriched (by African contributions)," Mafinyani said.

He asked assembly delegates the same question which AIC members posed to him when questioning the WCC criterion of monogamy for membership.

"They ask me: if we who have several wives die and face God, and next to us is a man who had one wife while he was alive, who of us will be justified?"

They also argued that if they had several wives because they did not want to have loose relations with other women, "is this not a way to contain the Aids epidemic that is so prevalent in Africa?"

Mafinyani also questioned whether some of those non-African clergy who condemned African polygamy were not "polygamists" in a more discreet way — being married to one wife but seeing other women in secret.

Professor Frans Verstraelen of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, told Jubilee the first pioneering missionaries told those wanting to be baptised they had to choose one wife and send the rest away.

"This, of course, was unjust. Often a young wife was kept and the first wife and the older wives were chased away. This was a subject of intense debate in the seventies, and today many churches are not forcing polygamous marriages to be dissolved if people want to become Christians.

"Polygamy in the African mindset can reflect status and is not something wrong or evil. And if the ZCC accepts the AIC, it is probably because it has a better idea of what is acceptable in the African context than someone from, say, Sweden," Verstraelen said.

Back to top

Read other articles in this issue:

Polygamy no problem for African churches
Mandela to attend assembly tomorrow
Catholic Church doesn't want to 'dwarf' WCC
Evangelicals work the stream at WCC
Orthodox find the space for dialogue
Padare, the assembly energizer
Unmasking Orthodox claims
Amsterdam had a Message
50 million members, and growing fast
Some quiet nourishment

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor