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Polygamy, dual career marriages, and African culture among topics at groundbreaking conference in Kenya

Three African Adventist regions come together to grapple with difficult subjects.

Polygamy, dual career marriages, and African culture among topics at groundbreaking conference in Kenya

[Photo courtesy of Adventist Review/Adventist World]

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In another first for the Family Ministries Department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, three African divisions, or world regions, came together from March 1-3, 2018 to discuss relevant and challenging subjects in the area of marriage and family.

The Adventist Pan-African Conference on Dynamic Family Relations, was organized by the world church Family Ministries department directors Willie and Elaine Oliver, together with Family Ministries departments from the East Central Africa (ECD), West Central Africa (WAD), and Southern Africa-Indian Ocean (SID) divisions. 

The conference was organized for several reasons, primarily to discuss the relationship between deeply embedded cultures and traditions throughout Africa and the biblical worldview as related to families. “We are becoming more like the world instead of being salt and light,” Willie Oliver explained to Adventist Review. “This is just an opportunity to slow down and take another look at the biblical message for families.” 

“This conference is important because culture is so important to all of us regardless of where we’re from,” adds Elaine Oliver. “Our culture usually drives what we do, how we behave, how we make decisions, how we live our lives. Specifically, we’re dealing with marriage and family so this conversation that we’re having here these few days is critical because most importantly we need our culture to be the culture of Christianity.” 

Africa Says Karibu!

The conference, hosted in ECD on the campus of Adventist University of Africa (AUA) kicked off with a lineup of memorable greetings. The Oliver’s greeted attendees in Swahili, saying karibu, which means welcome, while ECD president and AUA chancellor Blasious Ruguri encouraged participants to “feel the warmth, the love, the beauty of the East Central Africa Division!”

AUA vice chancellor, Delbert Baker, then transitioned to a welcoming challenge to all attendees. “When you come together over the next two days you have to opportunity to learn, to expand, and then you have the opportunity to interact with one another,” said Baker. “We believe that by the grace of God we will hear concepts and talk about family principles that ignite you and cause an explosion.” Ted Wilson, president of the Adventist world church, along with his wife Nancy also greeted attendees via video, encouraging them to “not let contemporary trends change the African heritage of protecting the family.” 

Marriage, Family and Scripture

The opening keynote was delivered by Ron du Preez, a pastor, scholar, and adjunct professor at several Adventist universities, including AUA. Du Preez spoke on the relevance of Scripture in relation to contemporary issues within the family. “While some view Scripture on marriage and family as irrelevant, as beneath ‘science,’ culture, or feelings, and as culturally conditioned and confusing,” explained du Preez, “others see the Bible as the revealed will of the Creator God.” 

Du Preez began by referencing a recent report in Time magazine, lauding the benefits of marriage. Those benefits include “better health, better wealth, better conjugal lives, dying happier, less mental illness, and fewer suicides,” shared du Preez. He then emphasized that marriage and family are “under siege.” Quoting an author on the subject he said, “ultimately, we as human beings, whether we realize it or not, are involved in a cosmic spiritual conflict that pits God against Satan, with marriage and the family serving as a key arena in which spiritual and cultural battles are fought.” 

Du Preez then illustrated how a deep understanding of Scripture can provide insights into challenging subjects affecting family and marriage. He concluded with the overarching question of the conference: “Which should be our standard, science or scripture, culture of Christ?” 

Christian Families in Africa

Another topic of import centered on defining basic characteristics of families, along with describing the importance of and challenges faced by African families. The seminar was presented by Sampson Nwaomah, dean of AUA’s theological seminary, along with his wife Angela Nwaomah, AUA registrar.

Sampson Nwaomah began by emphasizing that in Africa, the basic social unit is the extended family, or collective, in contrast to Western individualism. He emphasized that the family in Africa has the responsibility for the transmission of traditional norms, values, beliefs, knowledge, and practical skills. Because of this, “in Africa, families play important roles in the cultivation, maturation, and sustenance of personal identity and society cohesion.” 

However, explained Nwaomah, “contemporary Christian families in Africa are still located in the wider society, and exist within the tensions of biblical fidelity and societal accommodation.” There is clear agreement that the Christian family in Africa is one in which “the principles of family life are consciously guided and shaped by biblical values.” In the same breath, shared Nwaomah, African families are confronted by an array of cultural pressures and norms. 

Nwaomah shared a few, migration being the first. Often, one spouse will move to the city in search of financial stability and gain, while the other remains in a rural area. This, according to Nwaomah, tends to lead to “breakdown in communication, unfaithfulness, domestic violence and divorce.” 

An honor and shame culture is another challenge, tied closely to the concept of Ubuntu—the collective existence. The community highly values certain norms, including fertility. Thus “in the culture where children are highly valued…pressure on couples with [fertility] challenges have led to divorce or multiple marriages and even the cause of some domestic violence.” 

However, Nwaomah argued that Christian families have a distinct role. “In an era where family values are challenged and compromised by the ills of society,” Nwaomah concluded, “Christian families in Africa can still serve as models of God’s ideal for the families, and also testify of his love to a hurting world and generation.”

Angela Nwaomah emphasized the critical role of the conference in better understanding these dynamics. “This conference has come to Africa just in time,” she later shared with Adventist Review. “The family is the nucleus of society and the family plays an import role in the church and in society.”

Polygamy, Scripture and Marriage

Du Preez next presented on the topic of polygamy, a cultural tradition and norm in some parts of Africa, which the church has historically grappled with. 

Du Preez argued from Scripture that monogamy is the original and ideal design of God. Beginning with Genesis, he said that “Bible commentators over the centuries, who believe in the historicity of the Genesis account, agree that [Genesis 1-2] reveals that monogamy was indeed God’s intention and will, His plan and design for humanity—to be the model for all future marriages.” Du Preez also pointed to excerpts from the writings of Adventist Church co-founder Ellen White, who also clearly advocated for the Scriptural support of monogamous marriages. 

Referencing several well-known biblical characters with multiple wives, du Preez argued that their choice to have more than one wife always led to familial challenges, and that “in Scripture when God called people into service, the person was either single or monogamous,” later falling away into polygamous relationships.

The question and answer period on this topic was noticeably longer. Several attendees, shared “the reality on the ground…where people are,” as an indication of how addressing deeply embedded culture in Africa is difficult. Challenges include men with multiple wives who wish to be baptized as Christians and Adventists, specifically. Ethical questions arise for instance, as to the impact on wives who are “let go” and who, according to those familiar with the scenario, may be cast off, marginalized in their society, and many times never allowed to marry again. 

“This is one of the most important topics we are dealing with here,” said Willie Oliver in acknowledging the length of discussion following the presentation. “We need to convene a summit on the topic of polygamy,” he suggested. “I hope we will grapple with the truth of Scripture and I hope that we will continue to study.”

Traditional African Religions

Intertwined with all of these topics is the history and influence of African Traditional Religions (ATR). Jongimpi Papu, ministerial secretary of the Cape Conference in South Africa began his presentation on the topic by saying, “in Africa, culture is very religious. Culture has serious religious presuppositions.”

Papu emphasized that Africans are “born into religion” and that they tend to have an “over spiritualized cosmology,” which strongly ties their culture with religious practice. As a result, Papu explained, when an African person’s culture is questioned or critiqued, the person receives it as intensely personal and perceives the critique to mean that “everything African is evil.”

Among the most commonly held beliefs within ATR is the centrality of passed away ancestors, which are believed to be “alive” and “closer to man than divinities.” If the family is the most important African social unit, ancestors are perhaps its most important members. “Ancestors are guardians of the family affairs, traditions and ethics,” says Papu. “Man’s strongest influences come from ancestors and [according to ATR] human beings are always in the presence of ancestors.”

This and many other religio-cultural beliefs inform many aspects of life for all Africans. “The African culture is embedded in me,” said one attendee, “even though I don’t practice ATR.” 

The crux of Papu’s presentation was an appeal to consider some aspects of culture both as valuable and as an opportunity. He made a clear distinction between cultural norms appropriate for Christians and those that are not, saying that “the fact that it’s natural does not mean that it’s right.” At the same time, Papu made a case for using cultural language to effectively reach people. “We can talk in African categories while explaining biblical principles.” he argued.

Godwin K. Lekundayo, president of the Northern Tanzania Union agreed. “Missiologically, we also need to understand and embrace elements of culture that are not out of line with Scripture,” he told Adventist Review, “and utilize those elements as bridges to reaching people in their context.”  

Dual Career Marriages in Africa

Closely related to African migration patterns is the increasing rate of dual career marriages. Kagelo and Boitumelo Rakwena, SID Family Ministries directors, shared that the trend has been on an upswing since 1985 and comes with both advantages and disadvantages. 

Among advantages, dual career marriages tend to contribute toward egalitarian marriages, where the woman spends less time on household chores and the man is encouraged to contribute more.  “Do you know that the best cooks in the world are men?” quipped Kagelo Rakwena. “They’ll cook for the whole world, but not for their families.” 

Dual career marriages also have the potential to create higher levels of marital satisfaction, personal well-being, or self-actualization, and in most cases dual careers increase the “economic potential of the family,” according to studies cited by the Rakwenas.

Disadvantages include the fact that in reality equal sharing of household responsibilities does not happen often. “In most cases, when both the husband and the wife are pursuing careers,” explained Kagelo Rakwena, “the wife still has two full-time jobs—the external career and the care of the home.” Additionally, there may be stress spill-over from work, increased tiredness and less intimacy within the family, producing marital strain. 

Finally, dual career marriage tend to contribute to less time spent with and around the extended family, leading to “independent lives, or individualistic tendencies,” encouraging couples to “create their own solutions to their problems such as childcare,” said the Rakwenas. 

A Significant Conference

The African divisions are conscious of the importance of the moment. “This conference is significant because it is the first time that we have come together as an entire continent to discuss these challenging topics openly,” Ruguri shared with Adventist Review. “And one thing we are discovering is that as we share both the blessings and challenges of our African families, we  are more alike throughout the continent than we have thought.”  

Elie Weick-Dido, president of the West Central Africa Division echoed Ruguri’s thoughts in an interview. “These kinds of conferences are not frequent here in Africa,” he explained. “But if Africa, with its three divisions comes together to think through family and marriage issues on the continent we can learn a lot.”