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51. Bride price

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Sven speaks: From the very beginning of Marianne's and my mission work in Papua New Guinea, we realized the importance of understanding the national culture and how to relate to it in the light of the word of God. There is always a risk that the missionary regards his or her culture as superior to that of the nationals’, but this is not necessarily so. On the contrary, to the nationals their culture is quite often better, as long as it is not in conflict with the Word of God.

In the traditional Papuan society, marriage was something that was arranged by the parents and other relatives, and this is still the case in the villages. They never marry someone from their own tribe. In connection with the wedding, the groom's parents paid a bride price to the bride's parents. Traditionally, this consisted mostly of pigs, but since money started being used in Papua New Guinea, bride prices have been a combination of pigs and money. Often the entire tribe had to help paying the bride price as sometimes a lot of money and pigs were involved. Sometimes you also paid with possums, kasawari birds, vegetables, fruits and bags of rice.


Over the years, I have met many missionaries who wondered why we allowed the bride price to continue being practiced in our churches. Some have even asked themselves what the difference between buying a pig and giving the bride's family a payment is. It is the Papuan culture that makes the whole difference, for externally, there are of course similarities with buying and selling something. When a woman marries, she leaves her tribe and the bride price is a compensation for the labor her tribe loses. The better educated a woman is, the higher the bride price is. So, of course it is understandable that Westerners see this as buying a wife. But this is not how Papuans look at it and because no one has been able to prove that this practice is contrary to God's Word, we have not worked against this tradition.

From a Christian aspect, it is important that the marriage is celebrated in a way that is consistent with God's word. But it is also important that it is done in a way that is accepted by the culture you live in, as long as the culture's practice does not conflict with what the Bible says. In Papua New Guinea, if a couple was married in the church, it was not considered a real marriage until the bride price was paid. It is even believed that the man had stolen his wife if the tribe had not paid this compensation.

I remember on one occasion that some national pastors discussed a bride price. They expressed that for many it was hard to collect enough pigs and money when their sons would get married. They were therefore going to set a good example for others to follow, and give away their daughters to a fine Christian man without any payment when it was time for marriage. But then the pastors' wives told them that such a thing could not be considered. What kind of marriage life and social position would their daughters have in society?

In the traditional Papuan marriages, the parents were the ones who decided who their sons and daughters would marry. For most Westerners, this is nowadays a strange idea. But one does not have to travel too far back in time to observe that in former days it was not uncommon for marriages to be based on more reasons than that of love.

In the Bible, we read about Abraham saying to his servant, "Go to my own land and my own family and find a wife for my son Isaac there." Isaac had nothing to say about this but it was the servant who on his father's behalf selected a wife, but as both Abraham and the servant feared God, they prayed to God for his guidance in order for the right woman to be chosen. It was certainly what we call an arranged marriage, but even in these circumstances God may lead us if everyone involved is sensitive to His voice.

In the Papua culture, it is important that it is the elderly, with life experience, who make the choice in regards to whom their children are to marry. They think that this increases the chances of a stable and good marriage, but that is obviously not always the case. One must naturally ask whether our Western society, where emotions and feelings often control more, is so much better than plain reasoning.


The wind of changes blows in Papua New Guinea as well, although it is relatively weak on the marriage front. But yes, more and more frequently the young people chose their partner themselves nowadays. Previously, married girls could not continue with any type of higher education but rather take care of the garden and animals. But today, more and more girls are studying at boarding schools and universities. In these places it is not unusual to meet someone to fall in love with. But still the custom is that if you want it to be a marriage accepted by the people, the son must turn to his father and ask him to arrange the marriage.

"You must surely conclude that the Western culture, for better or worse, is infiltrating the Papuan community." I, Leif, say to Sven, and continue: "Doesn’t this mean that the practice of bride price will disappear eventually? Will it be gone in 50 years?"

"Well," Sven replies, "it may disappear with time but I do not think it will take place within the next 50 years. This is partly due to the marriage of the Papuan society not just being a matter between two people but rather something that affects the entire tribe. The bride price will do the woman’s tribe good, and all tribal members of the man's family have to come together and help when the bride price is due to be paid. The personal ownership has traditionally not had the same impact on Papua New Guinea, as it has for us Westerners. A rich person's wealth is seen as an asset for the whole tribe. Therefore, if a change is to take place in an area, the entire social collective thinking has to change and this is quite a slow process. Moreover, from the biblical point of view, ask yourself whether it is just our Western way of looking at those things that are right. In many countries, family ties still play a bigger part than our individual way of looking at marriage."

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