Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Rethinking Marriage on the eve of World AIDS Day

On the day before World AIDS day, it is appropriate to blog about something related to this topic. UNAIDS recently published their latest epidemiology report on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. You can download the full report here.
While, for most of the readers of this blog, this report contains statistics, for every person personally involved in the fight against the AIDS pandemic, these numbers and percentages represent people. There are some positive things included in the report. It is clear that ART (anti-retroviral therapy) is helping many people to live longer. According to the report the number of new infections are coming down slightly. But in a country like Swaziland with a population of less than 1 million and with the highest infection rate in the world (according to the report Swaziland had an estimated adult HIV prevalence of 26% in 2007, but antenatal surveillance found an increase in HIV prevalence, from 39.2% in 2006 to 42% in 2008, among female clinic attendees), I wonder if it isn’t a matter of “too little too late.”
In a newspaper in South Africa it was reported that the Dutch Reformed Church (N G Kerk) which is also the church that sent me as missionary to Swaziland in 1985, might be rethinking it’s attitude towards cohabitation as an alternative for marriage. The irony was that the immediate following report told of the alarming increase in HIV infections amongst the white, the rich and students in South Africa (three groups that form a large part of the membership of the Dutch Reformed Church.) In the report it says that the South African Blood Transfusion Service had to reject 25% of blood donated by students at a specific university, due to it being HIV-positive.
One of the reasons, I believe, why Swaziland has such a high rate of HIV infections, is because marriage has to be postponed. Swaziland has a lobola system, where a man who wants to get married, has to discuss a form of bride’s price which needs to be paid before they can get married. One of our church members was involved in such a discussion over the weekend and eventually it was determined that the young man had to give his future father-in-law fourteen head of cattle! Keep in mind that this man and the girl are deeply in love. They are emotionally and physically ready to get married. But they can’t, not unless the man can find a way to pay at least part of the lobola. It is no wonder that very few Swazi girls (or men, for that matter) enter into marriage as virgins.
In 2005 I was in the Netherlands at a meeting of the Reformed Ecumenical Council and was chairperson of a committee that had to write a document on the church’s response to HIV and AIDS. I am extremely proud of the product that we presented to the meeting. (You are welcome to download a copy of this document with the title Towards a Theology of Hope in a Time of HIV/AIDS.) As we worked on the document, thinking and rethinking through every sentence, I was challenged by a young woman from the Netherlands. She asked me whether I wanted the document to be accepted by the Reformed churches all over the world, or only in Swaziland? I had felt for a more conservative approach, but was eventually convinced that this would lead to the document never being acceptable in churches in Europe, where sex before marriage and homosexuality are issues which are totally acceptable in most churches. (Once we had agreed on our approach and reformulated one or two sentences, I came under strong attack, especially from churches in Nigeria, when I had to defend the document.)
But I then wanted to know from some of the people in the Netherlands, why cohabitation was so acceptable to them. The answer I got from some church members, was that people had to wait until they were older before they could get married. Typically, they would wait until they were around thirty before they got married, regardless of when they started dating. And when I asked why they waited so long, the answer was that they had to collect money first before they could get married.
And this is where the link with the lobola system in Swaziland comes in. In South Africa people also tend to get married at an older age. The arguments I hear is that they have to buy a house and furnish the house before they can get married. In other words, the problem in Swaziland and the problem in South Africa (and Europe) boils down to the same thing: a materialistic approach towards life. And this is where I feel that the church is failing it’s young members. Instead of giving the go-ahead for cohabitation, shouldn’t the church rather address the problems that are causing young people to opt for cohabitation instead of getting married? Shouldn’t the church rather speak out against the ridiculous extravagance of wedding ceremonies? (I recently heard of someone we know planning to get married, who’s invitation cards costs more than my son’s entire wedding had cost!) Shouldn’t the church say to young couples that it’s fine to rent a cheap apartment with only the most basic things to survive (which they need in any case, even if they live together). Shouldn’t the church say to young people that it’s really not necessary to buy a five carat diamond ring in order to get engaged?
I remember a story which was once told to me of a town high up in a mountain with an extremely dangerous road leading up to the town which frequently led to accidents and severe injuries. As the authorities debated a solution for the problem, they eventually decided to build a new hospital in the town in order to treat the victims of the accidents.
Is this perhaps what the church is doing?


Monday, November 30, 2009 - Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Church, Culture, HIV, HIV & AIDS, HIV/AIDS Documents, Swaziland, Theology


  1. Great post!

    Comment by Michelle | Monday, November 30, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thank you for the way you have sensitively addressed some of the root problems leading to increased cohabitation as opposed to marriage. It would be good to hear others’ input on this topic as I hear similar stories in other countries of Africa. The church can make a difference if they would seriously look at the contributing factors. Let’s pray so.

    Comment by Jane Rhoades | Tuesday, December 1, 2009 | Reply

  3. I think everone’s thinking about this issue is wrong.

    The two people involved in a situation where they “love” each other and decide to have sex before marriage will not contract AIDS IF they do not have the AIDS virus already. The only way they could contract the AIDS virus is through having sex with multiple partners and one of them has the AIDS virus, either from a homosexual exploit they had at one time or several, from a dirty needle using drugs. Sex between a man and a woman, whether married or not, does not lead to AIDS unless it was contracted in one of these ways. AIDS does not happen within a heterosexual relationship where both partners have been celebate and drug free whether they are married or not. It is not marriage or the lack of it that is the problem, it is promiscuos sex relationships or intraveinous drug use using dirty needles. Sex without marriage can lead to pregnancy, but that is all. Now if the partners become sexually promiscuos or use dirty drug needles they will likely come down with AIDS or some other kind of STD’s.

    Comment by Glenda Smith | Tuesday, December 1, 2009 | Reply

  4. Glenda, of course it is not a wedding contract as such that will prevent us from getting AIDS. For that matter, if you have five men and five women living together in a house and they are all HIV-negative and swap partners within the group, without using dirty needles for drugs, then they will also remain HIV-negative – even if some of the men choose for sex with each other from time to time. This sounds like an orgy, but as long as the people in the group remain faithful towards each other, they will be safe. But I think you will agree that this life-style is not what God intended.
    If people see themselves committed to each other to such an extent that both of them agree to a life-long relationship where they will never have sex with anyone else, then obviously they cannot contract AIDS. But why don’t they just get married?

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Tuesday, December 1, 2009 | Reply

  5. Why don’t they just get married?
    Arnau, I think this is really the question…and if we honestly and patiently spend time with these young (and older) people we might get answers that we do not like. I agree that materialistic expectations play a role – in the North and in Africa- but I think there is maybe something more.
    I think people do not see enough of what a true God-inspired marriage can be like. We hear that Christians have as many divorces, marital infidelities and intimate partner violence as non-Christians; we see as many loveless and non-live-giving marriages in church as outside…people do not see the ‘benefit’ of marriage, or of a marriage sanctified in faith communities.So to add to your “shouldn’t” list…shouldn’t the church do more to show what a mature, mutual life-giving relationship looks like; shouldn’t mature Christians think more about their marriages, and what they convey about being married; shouldn’t all of us in the church put relationships, also physical relationships on the agenda more etc etc. The fastest growing group of people newly infected with HIV in many communities are married people older than 40 – so, why don’t they just get married?

    Comment by Lyn van Rooyen | Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | Reply

  6. Lyn, indeed you are correct. I’ve got nothing to add, other than I know, unfortunately, that you are right. This is something that we have to confess before the Lord with tears in our eyes!

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | Reply

  7. I am still thinking and listening to all, but what I hear is: Marriage is outdated because:
    1. State and Church relationship (Maybe a state of affairs).
    2. Finances (Wedding prices, houses, pensions, etc).
    3. Real love.
    But what I’m not hearing is “real commitment”.

    I hear:
    1. “We love each other and have a real love relationship, so why do we need a state affair to “legalize” it?”
    2. “We want to have enough money to get married”.
    3. Or one of the best: “We want to see if we can stay together.”
    4. The pension thing I can understand in a way, but I also believe that if we choose God we have to give up some things in life. (I don’t believe it will be easy).

    My question:
    Are we getting into humane issues or are we really seeking Gods will in this matter?

    Comment by Sam | Thursday, December 10, 2009 | Reply

  8. Sam, thanks for your comments. I think you are absolutely right. People want to live together, to give it a try, without having to make a commitment. What Lyn said is that kids are not seeing the benefits of getting married in the lives of their parents. And this may be the reason why they wnat to try it first.
    What is the issue about pension in South Africa?

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Thursday, December 10, 2009 | Reply

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