A missionary planting a church in a new culture is faced with decisions concerning which native practices can stay and which ones must go. The truth of the matter is, there are three cultures involved in missionary work: the culture of the missionary, the culture of the people, and the culture of God. May the Holy Spirit give the missionary discernment to know the difference! There will be practices on the field that the missionary does not like. These practices may be wrong in American culture, but he must determine if they are also contrary to the Word of God. The bride price is one example.
In many places in the world, a young man must pay a certain price—often a high price—for his bride. (A dowry system, in which the groom and his family receive money or things of value from the bride and her family, is probably less common.) Is this practice of buying a wife a bad thing? Perhaps greedy men are abusing it. Should the missionary try to outlaw it among the people he reaches for Christ? Does it not seem something like slavery or buying cattle? Does it not denigrate the woman, making her like property?
Suppose an American missionary has a group of new converts, and he learns that the people have the bride price system. To him it seems un-Christian and degrading to the woman. He demands that his group stop this practice, and he succeeds in forcing the people to conform. Perhaps they adopt the missionary’s conviction, but more likely it’s because of the strong influence of the American. They might think their salvation depends on conformity to the rules of this new God. Just as they lived before trying to please and appease the spirits, they now want to please this new God. Or maybe they see obedience to the missionary’s rules as the way to receive the blessings (stuff) from the missionary’s God. But whatever the motive, they stop paying the bride price. The young man might be happy because now he gets his wife free, and the missionary sees it as real spiritual growth.
Now let’s consider some possible results that the missionary didn’t foresee. The new wife becomes the brunt of gossip, ridicule, and perhaps ostracism by the women because she was not worth anything as a bride. The other women feel valuable because their husbands paid a great price for them. This Christian bride feels cheated and devalued. She may even despise this new religion she felt forced into. The status of a woman in her village has always depended on the price that a man was willing to pay for her. Even worse, this new Christian marriage may be looked upon by the community as no marriage at all. In the culture of the missionary, a marriage is legitimate because of a piece of paper called a marriage license. Here laying down the bride price in a public ceremony may constitute a marriage; thus the union promoted by this new, little group called “Christians” is seen as nothing more than fornication. Then what does this make the children born of the “Christian” union? Bastards! Another problem may also arise. Usually, if the bride is unhappy and goes home to mama, the groom’s family must repay the price paid for her. They certainly do not want to do that! Therefore, they will help the couple stay together, even pressuring the man to treat his wife better so that she will stay. Without the bride price, would new Christian marriages last?
Any missionary will be faced with questions of right or wrong. The problem is that he thinks his answer must be either “yes” or “no.” But there is one other possible answer: “I don’t know.” None of us like this answer. We want it to be yes or no, right or wrong, black or white. We Americans believe that our cultural rules are biblical, and many of them are. However, when confronted with another culture and its rules, we are quick to judge the new culture in light of ours. If things are different, we tend to judge them to be wrong. On deputation, every American missionary will say, “I’m not going there to make the people Americans but Christians.” But he proceeds to do everything in an American way and oppose all that does not seem right according to his culture.
Is the bride price wrong according to the Bible? Its practice was not condemned in the Old Testament. Perhaps the coins in the story in Luke 15 were a type of bride price. But there is one very important bride price that was paid in the New Testament. Jesus bought His Bride! “For ye are bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Obviously, the missionary is confronted with practices that are evil and must be opposed. But in questionable cases, like the bride price, it would be wise for him to gather more information. Here are a few suggestions: 1) Obtain pre-field training in linguistics so he can learn the heart language of the people. That’s where the culture resides and is discussed. 2) Study cultural anthropology before going to the field, and then dig deep into the cultural norms of the group. 3) Refrain from speaking against questionable practices until he thoroughly understands them and what the Bible says—or doesn’t say. 4) Consider that he might be doing serious damage by removing important cultural practices. 5) Do not remove anything from the culture until it can be replaced with something better.