Written by Rachel Ramey
We’ve talked about what courtship isn’t (usually) and why those who have embraced a courtship mindset have chosen to skip traditional dating. Now let’s talk about what courtship is and what it can look like when not taken to foolish extremes.
“Realize that many of their rules were created out of fear.”
The above quote is taken from the original blog post’s instructions to young adults with regard to their parents. I have a problem with the statement, in that it makes an assumption about everyone’s parents that may or may not be true. But it brings up a very, very important point.
I have said it before, and I’ll reiterate it here: everything we do is likely to cause us problems if we do it out of fear instead of faith. Even things that are good things when done in faith. There are subtle shifts in the way we respond to things and in the messages we communicate – even through the very same actions – when the underlying motive is different.
The other key thing I would point out is that courtship’s early 20th-century proponents (not “early 20th century”; early “20th century proponents”) – the ones who are being blamed for having created a flawed concept – never put forth some step-by-step formula that everyone was supposed to follow with a checklist, ensuring everything would turn out perfectly. Courtship – as understood by these pioneers, and by most of the sane people who came after – is a mindset based on principles.
Reasonable people recognize that every implementation of it will look different. Even within the same household it will look different, because the exact situations are all different. How old is he? How old is she? Where do they know each other from? What kind of job does he have (or is he looking for)? What are each of their plans for what comes next? Who else is in their families? All of these things – and others – can affect the options that are available to them and what is or isn’t wise as they pursue their relationship.
(Here’s a little hint for you: If you’re a parent, you will do something wrong. Because we’re all human, we will all, at some point, mess up this most-important job of “parent.” If your whole goal in life is to avoid ever doing something wrong, that will end in complete disaster. If your goal is to please God as best you can, you’ll dust yourself off (or, rather, let Him dust you off) and keep going.)
I don’t want to get into too much depth here, simply because there are already great books that have been written on the subject. There’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel. But for the sake of being able to move on with this series with us all on the same page (understanding-wise, even if we don’t all agree), I’d like to at least touch on some of the principles and/or passages that are understood by those within the courtship community to be relevant.
As with everything on this subject, the details vary from family to family. Not every verse here may be significant in this context to every family who’s chosen courtship. But it should give a general idea.
The Bible Teaches, Through Principle if Not Through Precept, That Fathers Are Responsible for Their Unmarried Daughters.
1 Corinthians 11 indicates that women are to be under authority.
1 Corinthians 7: 36-38 is rather ambiguous. Some take it to refer to a father and a daughter and specify his giving her in marriage. Others do not.
Numbers may seem like an unlikely place to draw from, but Numbers 30 draws a clear distinction between widows and those women who are married, or unmarried in their father’s houses. In this passage, men clearly have authority (and “veto power,” as it were) over their wives and unmarried daughters. Widows, however, are their own “heads of household.” (My phrasing, not the Bible’s.)
The Law in Deuteronomy (22:13-21) speaks of a father’s having given his daughter to a man as wife. If she is found to have been unfaithful prior to marriage, she is held responsible, but her punishment is meted out at her father’s door. Likewise, when crimes are committed against unmarried women, the fathers have the right to accept or refuse the offenders’ marriage of their daughters as restitution.
If we look at precedent, we see the same thing. For instance, Jesus alludes to marrying and being “given in marriage” in His discussion with the Sadducees regarding the resurrection. (Matt. 22:30) The norm throughout Scripture (although there are a few exceptions) is that households have male heads and that women are under the oversight of men – first their fathers, then their husbands.
Ceasing to Be a “Minor” at 18 is Not a Biblical Concept
On the other hand, the idea that a young person turns eighteen and “becomes an adult,” independent of his household of origin, is not a concept found in Scripture. The Bible says that a man will leave his father and mother for the reason of cleaving to his wife. And at 20, young men were considered of age to go to war.
Apart from that, we have no Scriptural precept, principle, or precedent for the idea of young people striking out on their own.
This idea of “independence” from a family is one created by our culture. The Scriptural pattern is that we split off from family to form new families. Are there occasional exceptions? Yes. But it’s never wise to build a whole teaching around the exceptions to something, rather than the norms.
Other Biblical Teachings of Relevance
Scripture speaks of guarding our hearts, avoiding opportunity for lust, not wakening love before its time, and the like.
(I’m aware that there is a difference of opinion about how best to do so, and that this is not definitive “proof” in favor of courtship. But the allegation was that courtship is not based on Scripture, and this is one of the relevant themes of Scripture that courtship proponents do view as foundational.)
It tells us how to interact with/treat each other.
It tells us what to value – and what not to value.
So, no, there’s no verse that says, “This is the step-by-step process you have to go through” (in part because there is no single step-by-step process!) But it does speak to things that are relevant, and courtship proponents have arrived at their conclusions by deciding that the courtship framework is the most effective way to put those teachings into practice – not simply by making something up off the tops of their heads.
So What Does that Look Like?
Umstattd writes that:
“After 20 years there still is no general consensus as to what courtship is. But here are the elements most conservative communities have in common:
- The man must ask the woman’s father’s permission before pursuing the woman romantically.
- High accountability (chaperones, monitored correspondence, etc).
- Rules about physical contact and purity. (The specific rules vary from community to community).
- The purpose of the courtship is marriage
- High relational intentionality and intensity
- High parental involvement. Fathers typically hold a “permission and control” role rather than the traditional “advice and blessing” role held by their fathers.”
For the most part, this is pretty accurate. However, not only does the “nitty-gritty” of these vary from situation to situation (as alluded to in his third list item); the wording of some of these is such that they may be subtly – but significantly – different from the way many courtship proponents perceive them. So let’s touch briefly on each one and make sure we’re clear.
“The man must ask the woman’s father’s permission before pursuing the woman romantically.”
This is a key component of courtship, I think. I’m not aware of anyone living out what they would consider “courtship” and not including this element. But what it looks like to obtain permission from her father may vary drastically from family to family. (And chances are this will have a lot to do with their overall idea of how serious and committed a courtship is or isn’t.) Although this may be intimidating, a godly father will handle this with gentleness, grace, and tact, whether he ultimately says yes or no.
“High accountability (chaperones, monitored correspondence, etc).”
High accountability is a fair generalization. Everyone’s idea of “high accountability” is different, though.
Just to use myself as one example, when Michael and I were courting, we weren’t meant to go to any “destinations” where we’d be “just the two of us.” (That would include a public place where no one else present knew us.) So we weren’t going on your typical “dates.” But our “correspondence” was not “monitored.” No one was reading my mail or listening in on my telephone calls via extension. And Michael regularly picked me up to take me to church services with him. We did not have someone riding along in the car with us; it was assumed that if we didn’t show up where we were supposed to show up, someone would notice we never got there! (We also spent time together with our families and within our Bible study group, but that’s not particularly relevant to the concern that “high accountability” means constantly having a third wheel or being “watched.”)
“Rules about physical contact and purity. (The specific rules vary from community to community).”
I have to confess I find this list entry a little odd. It’s the one where the author is careful to point out that the details vary. And the one I would think would be least in question – especially with the disclaimer that details vary. I’m a little concerned that he would suggest that this might be an element that sets courtship apart from his own proposed solution.
Let me be very, very clear: If you are a believer, you should have rules about physical contact and purity. Period. I don’t care if you date, court, or find your spouse on Mars; there is no question that the Bible has rules about physical contact and purity, so we’d better, too.
And, yes, the specifics here do vary. I would venture to suggest that, if nothing else, they should vary some based simply on varying understandings of how serious a relationship courtship really is. It just makes sense to be less willing to get physically involved with someone if your understanding is, “This is a nice guy/girl; I might like to get to know him/her better,” than if your understanding is, “This is it. This is THE ONE.”
You can’t go back.
“The purpose of the courtship is marriage.”
More-or-less true. But again, there are some subtle – yet significant – variations on this. For some, “the purpose of courtship is marriage” means “you’ve already committed to marry this person, so unless you find out he’s secretly selling national secrets to terrorist organizations, you’re going through with this.” For others it means, “Going into this, I don’t know of any reason I would/could not marry this person.” That doesn’t sound very different, but it is very different.
“High relational intentionality and intensity.”
This is probably the one I have the biggest issue with. I think high relational intentionality is pretty non-debatable. Without it, I’m not sure you could have something that falls under the “courtship” umbrella. High relational intensity, however…well, that depends. I’m not really sure why anyone would think it’s a good idea to get romantically involved with someone when:
A) they know full well they wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – marry him/her, or
B) they know full well they won’t be in a position to marry anyone (or that other person wouldn’t be) either now or in the very near future.
That’s either a setup for disaster, a waste of time, or both. But saying, “I don’t know of any legitimate objections to this leading to a lasting relationship,” and saying, “I believe this already is a lasting relationship,” are not the same thing. I don’t doubt that the second occurs (actually, in our case it did happen, but it wasn’t because it was required; it was because that’s just how God worked it out), but it’s not a fair argument to see the first and assume it’s always the second.
“High parental involvement. Fathers typically hold a ‘permission and control’ role rather than the traditional ‘advice and blessing’ role held by their fathers.”
True. BUT. I can’t quite articulate what I have to say about this one, but a close approximation is this: this is all about semantics and attitude. It’s not a true difference in method.
Think about it. If your daughter is underage, it’s appropriate for you as a parent to “put your foot down” if you feel you need to, regardless. No one is asking if she dates or courts before making that call. She’s the minor; you’re the parent, so you have the right to tell her what to do. (That’s overly blunt, which makes it sound harsh, but it’s the basic principle.)
If your daughter is of age, then it’s not as if you can legally force her to do anything, anyway. The only way you can exercise a “permission and control” role at that point is if she allows it to happen. Which means that really your “permission and control” role is an “advice and blessing” role.
Can a truly manipulative and controlling father compel his daughter’s subservience? Well, yeah. But then it’s not legitimately courtship we’re talking about. It’s an abusive household, not a godly father, and not anything a legitimate, sane proponent of courtship would condone.
A Few Pointers
1. Recognize that courtship is not a method; it’s a mindset. You’re not enslaved to some step-by-step checklist. You’re responsible to carry out the principles you’ve deemed valuable in the best way you know to do, give the circumstances presented by the relationship in question.
2. Pray for wisdom and guidance. I’m disappointed by how many discussions of courtship (or dating) lately have this, “I have to try and fail,” mindset. Why? Do we not believe that God can direct us? We start by seeking His will for our underlying lifestyle choices. And then we ask for His wisdom and guidance as specific situations arise. God knows if you should be in a relationship with that person or not! (Or if your children should be.)
3. Emphasize your responsibility rather than your wants. This goes for the parents and the single young people. Parents, if you believe it’s your responsibility to cherish and protect your kids, cherish and protect your kids! Don’t get tied up in whether you want your kids married now or don’t, whether you want grandkids, what kind of in-laws you want, etc. Young people, focus more on being someone a member of the opposite sex would want to marry than you do on wanting “Mr(s). Right.”
4. Know your children! As with everything else in life, our children’s varying personalities, passions, and purposes make them susceptible to different temptations and immune (relatively speaking) to others. Know what’s important to each of your kids. Know what’s a good fit for each of your kids. And have an idea of what each one can or can’t handle. Where they need a longer or shorter “leash” as they grow is likely to be different for each of your children.
Next: Legitimate Concerns - Part 7