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Dowry: To Be or Not to Be?

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

Two Truths and a Lie:

As image bearers, we are marked in such a way, i.e., sensus divinitatis, that the outflow of our engagement finds glimpses of the Creator God. “The close relationship between humans and God,” according to Stephen G. Dempster, “makes all of human life sacred.”[1] Not that we are divine in and of ourselves, rather the emergence of human affairs is saturated amid a divine warrant. Christian theologians call this the cultural mandate. As agents who hold to a priestly and, simultaneously, kingly task, humanity functions within the created sphere as one who represents—vice-regents—the Lordship of God to the world.[2] This, then, informs our responsibility to establish culture that is indicative of Godly character found within our Creator.


Yet, as the narrative goes, the fall has marred humanity’s aim in satisfying her anointed endorsement. Though much of the world continues to display the marvelous truths of God, creation—along with the organic nature of culture—remains tainted with iniquity and sin. Meaning, amid such wonder and beauty which encapsulates the nuance of cultural diversity, each unique depiction of human expression is bruised by transgression. Gregg R. Allison comments on the depth and scope of sinfulness in saying,

The consequences of sin impact all relationships and realities. As all sin is ultimately against God, it alienates from Him, produces enmity with Him, and brings guilt before Him. Its impact on oneself is seen in self-centeredness, self-deception, and enslavement to sin. In regard to others, sin breaks relationships, brings shame, fosters competition rather than cooperation, and destroys empathy for others. Sin’s impact on the creation is seen in hardship in work, natural disaster like hurricanes and tsunamis, human sickness, and generic problems. Sin is a very serious matter, with devastating consequences.[3]

To this end, what could be assessed, at least for our initial purposes, is the notion that every culture displays beautiful reflections of the truths of God while simultaneously bearing the scares and infirmities of sin. Thus, it is vitally clear that the church must discern acutely and biblically the differing expressions which seek to convey the mysteries of the Gospel in our broken and depraved world (cf. Eph. 5:32).


Dowry:


Marriage is a universal expression spreading across the cultural terrain of the created order. Though modern secularism has sought to cement its origins amid social means, the Christian church has countered by defending the institution within divine causality. As Ray Ortlund rightly contends, “The first claim of the Bible, then, setting the stage for marriage, is that manhood and womanhood are not our own cultural constructs. . . . Manhood and womanhood find their true meaning in the context of nothing less than the heavens and the earth, the cosmos, the universe, the entire creation.”[4] Hence, the expression of marriage does not ultimately terminate upon the subjective preferences of the culture, but rather must answer to the biblical witness—God’s infallible and inerrant Word—which has been graciously given to the covenantal community.

Thus, as we navigate through the multiplicity of cultures that are diverging upon our second and third generation Hmong, there must be—at least within the Christian sphere—a dialogue that is developed for the common and sacred practice of communal living. How will we move forward in marital union? What is the biblical expression of marriage? Meaning, what is marriage ultimately pointing to? Is the dowry system a faithful representation of Gospel union? Does it need to be redeemed? How should believers begin to think and, thus, practice these cultural customs in biblical fashion? Or should we rid ourselves of Hmong cultural customs altogether?


Though I do not pretend to possess definitive answers to complicated questions, I do believe that it is vital to begin dialoguing upon the differing nuances that are ever present within our Hmong Christian context and, simultaneously, seek to better articulate a faithful representation of our Christian beliefs. Applying a theological framework effectively into a culture, then, is contingent upon understanding the questions that derive from that particular culture itself. Though different cultures ask different questions, this does not necessarily mean that the “differences” are essentially contrary. Biblical truth entails timeless truth. The “differences” may pertain to blind spots and/or depth in regards to comprehension. For this reason, Gospel ministers must engage in culture through a Gospel lens.[5] Thus, I will argue from the position that the dowry system, though in need of severe reform, is better to have than forfeit altogether. In so doing, I believe, fundamentally, that we must examine, first, the purpose of the dowry system from the vantage point of our Hmong culture, and, in turn, ask the question: how can we redeem and revise the cultural expression through the Gospel lens?


The Hmong Cultural Norm. Gauging the cultural motivations surrounding the dowry system, there are multiple reasons that drive its current and ongoing practice. In saying this, we must consider and realize that Hmong cultural practices do not function nor follow a single monolithic stream. Thus, we will take a broad stroke perspective in approaching our respective subject matter. Consequently, we will consider two cultural components.


First, the dowry that is collected by the family of the bride is intrinsically tied to the notion that the product of labor, which assumes time taken in training the daughter to be wedded, will be lost and forfeited to the family of the groom. In this sense, there is an economical element that drives and perpetuates the cultural practice. Families have invested and primed (Hmong; tu thiab cob qhia) their daughters to become an asset for their respective future family. Thus, the dowry functions as a ploy to balance those loses. Secondly, social status plays a considerable amount of influence in the ruse of martial discourse. From one perspective, it speaks to the groom’s promising stature and/or prestige found within his respective family. On the other, it can be attributed to the bride’s quality and caliber due to educational prominence and/or career advancement, especially within the Western-American context. Without seeming too cold and disjointed, the dowry can be conceded amid a transactional framework that leaves both parties on equal footing.


The Christian Revision and Redemption. In evaluating our cultural expression of marriage (with our limited space), we now turn to formulating biblical concepts and, in turn, applying those truths to re-narrate our current bi-cultural context. In saying that, it is important to reiterate that marriage is not merely a cultural construct, but rather is the design and intent of the Creator God.


While the Hmong context may interpret the conjugal union fundamentally as transactional, the Christian worldview cements its premise amid a covenantal commitment. It hearkens to say that the martial union involves a faithful allegiance from each party to one another, and this is not unique to any one culture. Yet, covenant, though sharing qualities that are indicative of transactions, is ultimately different and distinct from such properties. Covenant, according to Thomas R. Schreiner, “is a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other.”[6] Thus, the dowry can be the initiatory agent, similar to the nature of the penal substitutionary atonement (which will be elaborate upon down below), that purchases the grounds for covenantal union. Meaning, marriage is not merely a business deal, but rather a relational commitment that is bound by a sacred and holy pact.


Thus, as I will continue to argue, the dowry system can be a significant sign in pointing to the greater narrative of the Gospel of Christ. As the Hebrew author expresses, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22b). Meaning, without payment of redemption, covenantal inclusion could not and would not be established. The nature of atonement, then, is a costly matter. In this sense, atonement can be understood, according to Wayne Grudem, as “the work Christ did in His life and death to earn our salvation.”[7] This is a payment scenario which makes conjugal union between God and His people possible through Christ Jesus. In this regard, the dowry system can be a marker within our cultural context that speaks to the costly nature of our redemptive reality. Leon Morris comments on this notion amid an OT context by saying,

Sometimes atonement was brought about with money. At the time the census was taken each of the Israelites was to pay the Lord ‘a ransom for his life at the time he is counted’ (Ex. 30:12). The money is expressly said to be ‘atonement money’ (verse 16) and twice it is said in set terms to make atonement (verse 15, 16). There are other such examples where there is no question of life or death and which accordingly do not help our inquiry very much. Except that both the payment of money and the killing of an animal may perhaps be thought of as kinds of price.[8]

The life and death component held within the covenantal and atonement ideology are found amid the marital commitments of conjugal union. These truisms convey the life-long engagement that covenantal allegiance is calling forth on behalf of those who vow to commit to such agreements. The Apostle Paul uses marriage as an illustration in saying, “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage” (Rom. 7:2, italics mine). Thus, the severity and depth of payment for the covenantal commitment is indicative of the price arrangement in dowry-form (though we have not, in this work, addressed the proper pricing in practical terms). These cultural practices speak to the costliness of redemptive realities, while conveying the free gift of grace given in the Person and work of Christ.


The “Love Story” of the Gospel:


The institution of marriage, prescribed and designed, has its ultimate telos geared toward the fame and renown of God’s Name. Thus, no one culture has the premium on the respective merger of covenantal union, while at the same time those same cultural expressions cannot and must not deviate from the timeless principles that are grounded amid the biblical documents of the Christian faith. In this since, our journey in analyzing the beauty and contours of the Hmong culture is not necessarily to deconstruct its foundational premise as to devour its expression. Rather, our charge is to see God’s goodness within the cultural frame and to re-narrate it amid the redemptive elements of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We should not be so naïve as to think that we can strip our Christianity to such an extent that an acultural element can be produced within our likings. Simultaneously, we should not be so careless as to assume that by rejecting the Hmong cultural norms we are, in a default sense, enveloping a Christian elucidation. To the contrary, we, Hmong Americans, should be ultra-careful not to unwittingly lapse into an American idealism which masks itself as biblical Christianity. Rather, we should identify with spiritual discernment—abiding in the Word of God—His common grace in the midst of our cultural binaries, and seek to erect from those truths a clearer picture into the depth and renown of the cross of Christ.


In doing so, what must be centralized is His love story in making much of Himself by redeeming a people for His glory. Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock rightly articulate, then, by saying, “This God-centered vision orients a husband and wife to the fact [that] their marriage doesn’t belong to them in order to serve their purposes. Marriage is for God.”[9] Thus, our attempts in revisioning weddings, dowries, and/or the likes are not charged by ultimately magnifying the love stories of our hearts. Rather our central aim is to use marriage as an agent in telling the greater love story of Christ Jesus Himself (cf. Eph. 5:32). As the Apostle Paul contends, “all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16, italics mine). To this end, our conversations as followers of Christ must never merely be about cultural expression, but, first and foremost, must be foundationally tethered to theological examination. For it is in the theological that the mind is informed, the heart is engaged, and our hands and feet are guided to walk in step with the truth and grace of the Gospel of Christ (cf. Jn. 1:14; Eph. 4:1). Soli Deo Gloria!

 

***footnotes***


[1] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, NSBT (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 59. [2] See Oren R. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land: The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan, NSBT (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 35-39. [3] Gregg R. Allison, 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith: A Guide to Understanding and Teaching Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018), 139. [4] Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel, SSBT (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 19. [5] See Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 119-121.

[6] Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World, SSBT (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 13. [7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction into Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan, 2000), 568. Italics mine. [8] Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning & Significance (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1983), 57-58. [9] Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock, The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them (Christian Focus, 2016), 96-97.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (10), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5).  He is a Teaching Pastors at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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