Weddings in a Multicultural Context
Is someone really married only if they were married in a church? Are they married only if a pastor marries them or if they have had a ‘white wedding’? This article will hopefully answer all such questions and provide a framework for understanding marriage within a multicultural African context.
What may be surprising to many Christians is that the Scripture nowhere prescribes or even describes the exact format of a wedding ceremony. Scripture certainly has much to say about marriage, including the fact that it is between a natural man and woman, the different roles and hierarchy within marriage but nothing about the specifics of the actual ceremony. We do learn from Song of Solomon and Psalm 45 that the ceremonies, ideally, would be glamorous. While from several Old Testament accounts and John 2 we see that feasting was normative Ancient Near East. While feasting and glamour at weddings is generally normative across all cultures in South Africa, I’m sure no one would say that it is prescriptive or that a couple is not truly married unless they have those components.
The clearest evidence we have that the form of the wedding ceremony is not vital can be seen in the fact that we do not find couples who convert to Judaism in the Old Testament, or those who convert to Christianity in the New Testament, having to undergo a prescriptive wedding ceremony in order to be truly married. The Apostles never tell married Graeco-Roman or pagan converts to remarry in a ‘Christian’ ceremony. This means that the Apostles accepted pagan marriages as real marriages. Whatever the ceremonies consisted of it was still seen as a binding union and was accepted by the Church no matter the background.
In a multicultural context such as ours we find the same thing, within every culture, from Afrikaner to Zulu, marriage is understood as a binding union. For this reason, it would be going beyond Scripture to say that one is not truly married until a pastor has married you or certain specific words are said.
So, how should we as a church respond? We are incredibly blessed to be a multicultural church that very closely represents the actual demographics of South Africa. We are also fortunate to have so many cross-cultural marriages. So, for those from more traditional cultures who are wanting to marry it would be wise to understand at what point you are considered married in your culture. Questions to consider are: Do your families consider you to be husband and wife after the lobola? Or is it a type of engagement waiting for a more formal ceremony? Make certain of these things so that premarital counselling can take place while it can still be called premarital.
Many from traditional African cultures in our midst have chosen to practice lobola but have made it clear to their family that they do not consider it their marriage. They will only be married once they have a formal ceremony where they say their vows publicly. This is perfectly fine if the respective families are informed before the time, and it is done with due consideration for the respective families interpretation of the culture
It is however important to note that there is no cultural homogeneity within South Africa so not all cultural actions are freighted with the same meaning. Not all lobolas mean that one is married, but some do. Each case will be dependent on the specific culture. On top of this we as Christians must seek to honour and obey the government in so far as they do not call us to sin against the Lord. Customary or traditional marriage is legally recognised by the South African Government (see https://www.bregmans.co.za/customary-marriage-divorce-work-required/ and http://www.justice.gov.za/services/getting-married-cusmar-law.html ).
Whatever the culture or traditions it is important that the Church, your spiritual family, can rejoice with you. Wedding ceremonies are also a great evangelistic opportunity. Many people never darken the door of a church but will attend weddings and if they attend a Heritage wedding, they will definitely hear the Gospel.
May God continue to bless us as a church with many more marriages. The nuclear family is under massive attack. Many in our cities are disillusioned with marriage, while others see it as a social construct designed to oppress. The more Christ-centred marriages there are that faithfully display the love of Christ for His church the brighter the Truth will shine.
On behalf of the Elders
 Certainly, the traditional Christian vows are a beautiful and succinct distillation of what the bible calls us to in marriage. They have been in use in some form or another in Latin and English for nearly 1500 years and have stood the test of time unlike many facile contemporary vows. For these reasons I would encourage Christians to continue to use them.