Tuesday, April 22, 2014

This is what the marriage debate looks like in Kenya

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

You've heard about the marriage debate, right?  The one that pits traditional marriage against more modern notions?  The one that's about whether marriage should be defined as one man and one women?  The one that involves complicated religious and cultural forces?  The one that's being played out in legislative chambers and on blogs?

If you're an American, you would identify that debate as the debate about gay marriage.  But if you are a Kenyan, you would identify that debate differently.  As this story reports, Kenya's parliament recently passed a bill legitimizing polygamy in the form of allowing men to take more than one wife, even without consulting existing their spouse(s).

This bill has sparked a lot of debate about the nature of marriage, but debate that's very different from the marriage debates in the US.  "Traditional marriage" is the term used not for the one man-one woman setup, but in defense of polygamy, seen as rooted in African cultures.  Monogamous marriage is sometimes seen as a modern, Western imposition.  Muslims often support polygamy, but there are those who make the argument that this should be the Christian view as well and cite biblical justifications.  Women are largely opposed to the bill, especially the provision that allows for the husband to not consult his wife about subsequent marriages, though not all women are necessarily opposed to polygamy, and one female blogger has even gone so far as to call for women to be allowed to marry multiple men (though perhaps with a bit of tongue-in-cheek).

What does this have to do with The United Methodist Church?  A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post suggesting that United Methodists from outside the United States might have other agendas (including evangelism, education, poverty and disease reduction, etc.) that get drowned out when the church focuses only on the American marriage debate.  This news from Kenya reminds us that, even if the UMC were to focus on defining marriage, there is more than one marriage debate we would need to engage.  The status of gay marriage in the church is an important debate for Americans, but we are victims of cultural blinders if we assume it has the same urgency for United Methodists everywhere.


  1. I don't quite understand. Are you saying that we shouldn't get worked up about "homosexual marriage," as if there is such a thing, in the American church because polygamy is an issue in Kenya? Or are you saying people can twist and pervert truth everywhere and the UMC ought to work for monogamous heterosexual marriages everywhere we happen to find ourselves? I think this is the calling for the Church. Whatever culture seeks to say we must stand and testify to God's way and his truth.

  2. Perhaps you didn't understand because I wasn't saying either of those things. Rather than take a stand on the American marriage debate, I was pointing out that views on what constitutes marriage, even what constitutes "biblical" marriage, vary by context, and, because the UMC is a global church, American United Methodists need to be aware that these other contexts exist, rather than narrowly reading everything through the lens of American issues.

  3. We SHOULD indeed be speaking as a global church about CHRISTIAN marriage. The New Testament has a clear standard (a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman) that the church should endorse no matter what the culture and "law of the land" says.. Christian marriage is an alternative lifestyle in many contexts.