It is good to hear the stories of missionaries, and find out how people in the rest of the world do things differently.
A few years ago I was traveling and visiting another church (if you are a Christian, and traveling on Sunday, you should do this – I have never regretted it), and we heard a report from missionaries who worked among Muslim refugees somewhere in southern Europe. As these Muslims became Christians, the question came up. Was their Muslim marriage valid? Many of these marriages were arranged based on the desires of their parents, and the terms of Muslim marriages frequently give few rights to the woman. (For example, in many Muslim countries, the husband may take up to 4 wives. This is uncommon, because it is expensive, but it can happen.)
The solution arrived at by the missionaries was for the newly Christian couples to renew their vows in a Christian marriage ceremony. They did not deny the validity of the Muslim marriage, but they re-affirmed the marriage in new, Christian terms. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…”
A pastor I know teaches in Africa, and he reports on a strange (to us) marriage custom:
How many cows is she worth? The bride price is a culturally embedded practice that has prevented many in the church from marrying. Unless the uncles of the bride are given their determined amount of cows, or the equivalent value in cash and gifts, they do not grant permission for a young woman to marry. They receive these gifts and the couple makes promises to one another and to their families at the very colorful event called the Kwanjula. The Christian churches have added to this by requiring that the couple then have a “white wedding” in the church building to bind the couple before God. This, too, is a very costly and extravagant event. Many couples put off this white wedding, but they live together without rings on their fingers, having children and grandchildren.
We have the custom of giving gifts to the new couple. In Africa, somehow the uncles have managed to make marriage into a way for THEM to profit. (If anything, the cows ought to go to the bride’s father, to be held in trust for the bride.) Some churches, unfortunately, have added another layer of expense, so that many couples want to be married, and they live as married couples, but they have a load of guilt because they are not certain of their real status.
This pastor recognizes that these couples are married before God once they have taken their vows, and that they should wear rings and feel no shame. But to make matters clear, and put their fears to rest, he presided over a simple church wedding service for some couples in this situation, with a simple party.
We Americans may be tempted to look at other customs and feel superior, but how would other nations look at our customs? Undoubtedly, our super-expensive wedding customs deter some people from marrying.