We have experienced a lot of joy in discipling a couple who recently became Christians. They have been together for a few years now and have a son who will be 1 year old in May. When they were baptized they decided that they should not live together until they could be married. We have spent the last few months watching them prepare for the wedding, and they have been giddy!
Throughout the whole process it was acknowledged that before they could be officially married the man would have to pay a bride price. A bride price is when the groom and his family give money or goods to the family of the bride. I will talk a bit about how I feel about it in a second, but I want you to know that for our friend, there was no complaining. He went to the bride’s family, he negotiated with them, and they worked out a deal. This particular bride price included: machetes, files, rice, pots, blankets, cloth, soda, and salt.
The total cost of the bride price was equivalent to around $300. This might not sound like too much, but paid jobs are very hard to find here. At one point he found work cutting down trees in the forest, worked hard for a month, but was never paid. Because of this difficulty I decided to hire him to do gardening work for a few months. He worked hard every day, often asking for extra chores. In the midst of all that labor, his giddiness did not wear off. He was not just working, he was working for something. The goal of marriage made it so that he could be joyful even in tough manual labor.
After a few months, with the work I gave him and other jobs he was able to find, he was finally able to present her family with the bride price. The day arrived and I could tell he was nervous. It was a Sunday, and on the way home from church we stopped so he could let her family know he was coming. Then, he gathered up all that he had worked for and brought it to the bride’s family. He had probably never had so many items in his possession at one time. I don’t know all the details, but I do know that the family’s response was…immediate rejection.
In spite of the fact that these items had been decided on ahead of time, the family acted insulted. These items were clearly not enough. How dare he try to get away with paying so little? When they came back to our village, all the joy, all the months of giddy preparation were robbed from our friend. He had pleaded with them, negotiated, but they sent him away. They said they wanted more and there was nothing he could do to avoid it.
When you go into missions you are taught to chant the mantra: “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just different.” In missions we often encounter practices the rub us the wrong way and the first reaction is to reject what we don’t like. However, the reality is that many of these practices aren’t bad, even though they feel that way.
For instance, it is extremely common to see very young children (think 3 years old) using knives and machetes. When I first saw this I wanted to run to the child, wrest the knife from their hands and alert their parents. However, I found over time that the parents know. In fact, they give them the knives and teach them how to use them. Is that good? No, I don’t think it is good. Is it bad? No, I don’t think it is bad. I feel like it is bad, but at the end of the day, these kids are not stabbing anyone. They cut themselves sometimes, but I have never seen a major injury. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just different.
The Bride Price is not Bad
So, what about the bride price? Can we just say it’s bad? Honestly, the bride price offends my modern sensibilities. It seems too much like human trafficking (and in some cases it certainly is just that). But it seems clear to me that it does not have to be that. Like many aspects of the various biblical cultures, the bride price is mentioned in the Bible but not explicitly condemned or condoned. The first thing that comes to mind for me when I think of the bride price and the Bible is Jacob and Rachel in Genesis 29:
Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. (Genesis 29:15-20)
I cannot deny that here, though not directly addressed morally, the bride price seems positive. You don’t get the idea that Jacob thinks he is buying Rachel. Instead, his work is an expression of his love. Usually in the US we expect the man to buy his fiancée an engagement ring when he asks to marry her. This ring is usually expensive, but he joyfully buys it because of his love. I am not sure why we would avoid that. The difference seems to be just cultural.
The Bride Price Can Be Bad
However, even within the Bible we see that this practice can be abused. Laban originally accepted 7 years of service for the hand of his daughter Rachel. He then deceived Jacob, gave him Leah as a wife instead and then demanded 7 more years of labor. So, Jacob labored for 14 years for Rachel rather than 7. He was unjustly forced to pay a higher bride price (Genesis 29:21-30).
What Laban did seems very similar to the experience I detailed above. The family agreed on and wrote down a list of items. Then, when it came time to celebrate, they chose to demand more. Why would they do that? I don’t think it was some sort of belief that the bride was “worth” more. The family is actually extended family, as the woman’s parents are no longer living. They are not invested in her life at all. There was no older sister, like in Rachel’s case. No, as far as I can tell this is a situation of simple greed. The woman’s family just wants more stuff and they are going to demand it from this poor couple. I believe that abuse of bride prices are a major reason that I have never (literally never) seen a wedding among the Kwakum people.
The Kwakum are in the poorest region in Cameroon, and among some of the poorest people on Earth. Sex is casual, and most girls and boys start sleeping together around 13. When a man/boy gets a woman/girl pregnant, they often start living together and even calling each other husband and wife. However, there is no expectation of fidelity in this relationship. When talking to one young woman, Stacey asked if she ever expected to marry her boyfriend (with which she had a child). She said “no” because then it would be very hard to separate from him if she decided she didn’t want to be with him anymore. Common advice here to young women is not to get frustrated when their ‘husbands’ sleep with other women, but to just go and sleep with other men. Relationships begin and end all the time, with children hanging in limbo.
In Cameroon, the consequence of high and escalating bride prices is avoidance of marriage and responsibility. This is bad for these people, their communities, and the nation as a whole. In other places, high bride prices are even linked to terrorism. When the bride price is abused it is not “just different.” When someone agrees to a bride price, and then changes the terms, that is wrong. It is bad; it is sin; and it leads to more sin.
What Should We Do?
We are still wrestling through this issue with this couple. I am not sure exactly what we should do in this instance. However, there are a few things I think we can affirm as Christians:
- The bride price cannot be ignored. We should encourage people to get married, rather than live in many sexual relationships. And in many cultures marriage is not valid without a bride price. I would much rather just ignore it, tell them to get married, come what may. But Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Because the bride price is not a sin, is expected, and will create strife if not paid, I believe we should encourage men to pay the price.
- We should encourage fathers to be reasonable. Christian fathers should be encouraged to demand reasonable bride prices. Apparently in the biblical economy 7 years labor is reasonable. But I would encourage Christian fathers to demand much less. Especially in cultures where sexual immorality is rampant.
- We should hold people to their word. I am not 100% on this one, but this is where I lean. If a bride price is agreed upon up front, then changed when the price is being paid, I think we should encourage couples to get married after it has been paid. It is wrong for families to demand more after agreeing on a price. I think this falls into the “so far as it depends on you” part in Romans 12. If the agreed price is paid, I believe the couple is free to get married. If the family is angry, that is no longer on the couple. The family should be confronted for greed and dishonestly.
Those are my takeaways. I would love to hear from people with more experience. Like I said, I would prefer to live in a world with no bride prices, but that is not going to happen any time soon. Until then, we can take it as a cultural practice that is not bad, but can be abused. And I think that if we see it that way, it can be an exciting and emotionally connecting part of the marriage process.
*the image at the top of this blog is from armypress.army.mil and depicts the paying of a bride price in Nigeria.