The last thing I thought I needed in the fall of 1986 was a girlfriend. When the Army had assigned me to Germany three years earlier, I half expected that I might find the woman of my dreams there. A few fun-but-fruitless relationships later, I realized that this process was more complicated that I thought, and far more difficult. And so, when I made my way to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, at the beginning of November for the next phase of my military career, I determined that it would be better to get a dog than find a girlfriend. Oddly enough (seeing that God has quite the sense of humor), it was nearly thirty more years before I would get a dog, but the woman of my dreams was only days away from walking into my life.
It happened on Sunday, November 9, 1986, at the First Baptist Church of Sierra Vista, Arizona. Charlayne was among the single young adults in the Sunday School class that morning, but her presence didn’t register with me until that evening, when I joined the church at the evening worship service. That’s when this vision of loveliness came bounding down the aisle to give me a hug and welcome me into the congregation. She also invited me to go out with all the singles to the Village Inn for pie. It was an unexpected, but very agreeable, invitation. What was more unexpected, and even more agreeable, was how quickly we became good friends. Within days we were dating, and within six weeks we were engaged.
I tell people that we were engaged by decree of my mother-in-law, and it’s true. Both of us had plans for our lives that a serious relationship would disrupt. As we grew closer and closer, the thought of those disruptions caused us no end of distress, until one Sunday afternoon they brought us to the brink of panic. We asked her parents to come over and talk with us. They sat in her apartment listening to us talk things out for about an hour and a half, and then her mother said the last thing I expected: “Well, it seems to me you kids need to get married.”
Many times in my life, a sense of peace has settled over me, indicating that God’s answer in the present predicament had been revealed. That moment in Charlayne’s apartment was one of the first, and is still one of the most profound, of those occasions. When her mother said the one thing we had dared not consider, we knew it was right, and it was holy. We were married some months later, and after 31 years we remain true to the covenant that established our household when we were young.
I do not recall whether any woman other than Char has ever captured my attention in any way that might cause her to be a rival to the wife of my youth. I have had many female friends and coworkers, some of whom have been quite attractive, but in all those years, I cannot remember a time when any of them attracted me in any inappropriate way. Perhaps I am peculiar in that regard; I have known many situations when such attractions severely damaged and even ended the marriages of people I knew. In our culture, we do not look favorably on unfaithfulness to the marriage covenant. For reasons grounded in Scripture, we in the West have, since time immemorial, taken seriously and literally the words of Moses and Yeshua (Jesus) that a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife as one flesh. Even King Henry VIII of England could not get around those words. When his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, could not produce a male heir, he annulled the marriage and took Anne Boleyn. When she produced no male heir, he found a reason to have her executed (one can do that if one is a king), and replaced her with Jane Seymour. She became mother to his only son, but died only days later. Henry’s next wife, Anne of Cleves, was so young and innocent that he chose to annul the marriage rather than consummate it. In her place, he married Catherine Howard, a young-but-not-so-innocent woman whose flirtatious behavior eventually cost her her head. That left Catherine Parr, the wife who outlived the old king.
I learned the tale of Henry VIII as a boy, thanks to a classic BBC miniseries about his life. It struck me as odd that Martin Luther himself had stated his preference that the king commit bigamy and marry Anne Boleyn rather than divorce the first Catherine. Henry did not adopt Luther’s prescription as far as I can tell, but chose annulment instead. It helped that Catherine was Spanish and Catholic; in one stroke, he ended a cumbersome political entanglement and its attendant religious fetters. When the Roman Church refused to grant the annulment (perhaps because the reigning pope was at that time a prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V), Henry simply declared England separate from Rome and established the Anglican Church.
It is the stuff of soap operas, but it is our history. So also are the tales of the patriarchs and many great men of the Bible. Abraham, Jacob, Elkanah, David, Solomon, and the kings of Judah and Israel seemed to have no trouble taking multiple wives. After all, there is no Scriptural prohibition against polygamy. The closest thing to a prohibition that appears in the Bible is Paul’s advice to Titus and Timothy that congregational elders should have but one wife. I surmise that Paul’s wise counsel came not merely from his extensive knowledge of the Torah and the traditions of the elders, but his experience in guiding the many congregations forming in the Mediterranean world of his day. Perhaps that experience is what motivated him to write what I believe is the best word on this matter:
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12 NASB)
Lawful, but not profitable. Is that not the lesson of the Patriarchs? King Henry VIII may have been thinking about the woeful consequences in the households of those men – consequences that included incest, murder, extreme sibling rivalry, jealousy, and all manner of dysfunction. I saw the same phenomenon when I studied the Ottoman Empire. No prince who attained the sultanate was safe as long as his half brothers from his father’s other wives were still alive. King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia understood this quite well, which is why he arranged for his sons from his many wives to rule sequentially so that none of them would be the father of a new dynasty. The last of those sons is on the throne in Riyadh today, sixty-five years after his father’s death.
I do not know much about the wives of these polygamous kings, whether of ancient Israel, Ottoman Turkey, or modern Saudi Arabia. The best commentary I heard came from a Saudi amir whose hospitality I enjoyed in 1990, while I served with the army deployed there to defend his country from Iraqi aggression. Over the course of our conversation, the question of Muslim views on marriage came up. Multiple wives entered into the religious culture of Islam because it was already a cultural institution in Arabia. Muhammad seems to have endeavored to regulate the practice, which is why the custom is to limit a man to four wives. What the life of those wives is like, I do not know, but I have heard some terrible things. What I do know is that this kindly amir who had invited us into his home told us that, for some reason which he confessed he did not understand, his sons wanted to depart from the precedent of his household. They believed, he said, that it would be better to marry only one wife, and that only for love.
This is an interesting perspective when compared with something I heard from an American friend of mine. He lives in close proximity to polygamous families of the Mormon faith. They are nice people, he says, but the practice of polygamy has served only to oppress the women and disrupt the families. Is that a consistent result of multiple wives in one family? Or is it the result of imposing such a model on a culture that is accustomed to one man marrying one woman for life? This I cannot say.
What I can say is that many cultures do have marriage practices that differ from my own. This came to my attention in an unusual way in 2009 upon the election of former president Jacob Zuma of South Africa. Another friend of mine, founder of an influential prayer ministry, sent out a notice asking prayer for Mr. Zuma and his wives (four at the time). She did not issue that notice in a judgmental way, but rather in the same way as she had done when asking prayer for other heads of state. It just so happened that this one was polygamous. It was merely a statement of fact: this particular president of this particular country needed prayer for himself in his new role, and for his family, which happened to include several wives and children by them.
I think my friend did well in asking for such prayer in the usual way. Another friend of mine tells me that we will encounter many followers of Yeshua in Africa and other places who genuinely love God and love their many wives. It is their culture. He, himself, comes from a native culture in America that is matrilineal, and whose marriage norms are different from those of my Scottish, Irish, and English ancestors. I do not understand such a culture, nor do I desire to adopt it, nor is there a need to do so. At the same time, there is no need to impose my culture on his. Such a thing would be unhealthy at best, and genocidal at worst (another sad fact I cannot ignore from our history).
Where, then, does this leave me? It leaves me with the wife of my youth. Charlayne has satisfied me in every way. Why would I seek another to take her place, or to share me with her? It is not my culture. It is not right to her, to our children, and to the many people whom we have enriched through our example as man and wife. Neither is it consistent with the vows we both took to establish our marriage covenant. When I married her, my father said to me, “We McCarns marry for keeps.” Now, over 30 years later, I know the great wisdom of his words.