5 September 2022
The first time my mother stepped into a church was for my wedding, nearly four decades ago. It was a strange experience for her. My parents were migrants from China and were traditional Chinese religious believers who viewed Christianity as a foreign and Western religion. My mother’s experience at the church wedding confirmed her view.
Everything at the church wedding seemed so foreign and Western to her: the procession of the bride and her father, the presentation of the bride by her father, the exchange of vows and rings, the groom kissing the bride, etc. It was so different from the traditional Chinese wedding ceremony.
What was a stark contrast to her was the lack of involvement of the family in the church wedding. Except for the bride’s father, none of the immediate or extended family members were involved. They were seated in the church pews and witnessed the wedding as guests.
Moreover, the most important part of the traditional Chinese wedding ceremony was missing—the tea ceremony. This is the centrepiece of the Chinese wedding ceremony in Singapore. Prior to the enactment of the Women’s Charter, which requires all marriages in Singapore to be registered with the government, the tea ceremony was the evidence of a common law marriage for Chinese couples. Traditionally, the act of accepting the tea is a symbolic acceptance of the bride as a member of the groom’s family.
After my wedding, I reflected on the format of the church wedding service and wondered if it was possible to incorporate aspects of Chinese tradition and culture into the service. A marriage is a union between the bride and groom, but it also involves the two families (the bride’s and the groom’s). Why are the two families, especially the two sets of parents, not involved in the church wedding rites? Can we include the tea ceremony, especially the offering of tea to the parents, in the church wedding ceremony?
When I suggested to young couples planning to get married to consider including the tea ceremony in their church wedding service, most were not keen to do so. As for the handful who thought it was a good idea, their pastors did not agree to it. Some Christian couples arranged to have the tea ceremony held prior to or after the church wedding service, privately in a separate room. But wouldn’t it be more meaningful, both biblically and culturally, to have the tea ceremony during the wedding service, integrating the Chinese wedding rite and the church wedding service?
It is good that the parents of the bride and groom are usually involved in the signing of the marriage register during the church wedding service, as signatories or witnesses. It is also heartening that the bridal couple will usually express their thanks and gratitude, and sometimes present bouquets of flowers, to their parents at the church wedding service. But can we not involve the parents more? Both the bride’s mother and father can walk the bride together down the aisle and give her hand in marriage to the groom. The groom’s parents, and not just the best man and groomsmen, can stand beside him to welcome the bride and participate in the wedding rite too.
The church wedding rite expresses well the biblical teaching that God joins the husband and wife in marriage and the two shall become one (Gen 2:24, Matt 19:5-6, Mark 10:8, Eph 5:31). But I believe the church wedding rite does not fully express the familial aspects of the marriage union. In marriage, as the husband and wife become united as one, the husband becomes the son of the wife’s parents and the wife the daughter of the husband’s parents. They have become members of each other’s family. Incorporating the tea ceremony in the church wedding service will help to highlight this Scriptural understanding of marriage.
Admittedly, there are practical challenges. A full traditional tea ceremony involving both the bride’s and groom’s families will take up time and extend the duration of the wedding service. But I feel that we should at least include the offering of tea by the bridal couple to the groom’s parents and bride’s parents, signifying the acceptance of the bride and groom into each other’s family.
There is, of course, the possibility that the bride’s or groom’s parents may not wish to participate in the wedding rite and tea ceremony in church, due to their religious beliefs or discomfort in having these ceremonies performed in a Christian setting. We should respect them and not insist on their participation. However, I feel we should at least invite them to be involved, as an expression of the Christian view of marriage and the biblical value of filial piety.
Historically, the wedding rites and celebration took place in homes. For Christians, the wedding ceremony and rites moved eventually from homes to churches. The wedding service in churches also incorporated Christian teaching and symbolic expressions, like the reading of biblical texts and the exhortation, the exchange of vows and rings, the hand-fasting and partaking of communion, the prayer and blessing.
However, the wedding service also gradually shed some of the traditional cultural elements, like the involvement of the parents and families in the church ceremony and rite. We should prayerfully and wisely consider recovering what is biblical in our traditional cultural wedding rites, including the traditional wedding rites of the respective cultures of the wedding couple, and restoring them to be part of our church wedding.
From the biblical perspective, there is divine goodness in all human cultures, including our Singapore traditional cultures, since all humans are created in the image of God and declared very good by God (Gen 1:27, 31). However, all human cultures are also tainted, corrupted and contaminated with sin, since all have sinned and the image of God has been shattered and defaced in all of us (Rom 3:23, Gen 3). Yet, through the ministry, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, fallen people can be redeemed and human cultures can be transformed for good (Eph 2:8-10, 2 Cor 5:17).
So, we should seek to discern what is biblical and good in our traditional cultures. We should express and celebrate them in our Christian faith and practices, including our church weddings and, more importantly, our Christian marriages and family relationships. In so doing, we bear witness to the transforming power of our Lord Jesus Christ and the impact of our faith in Him in all of our life!
Kua Wee Seng is the former Director of United Bible Societies China Partnership. He has served the churches in China in Bible ministry for many years. He did his theological studies at Regent College, Vancouver, and has been involved in the Bible teaching ministry for a number of years, including teaching New Testament Greek on a part-time basis at Trinity Theological College. He and his wife and children worship at the Church of Good Shepherd.