By Jesse Jost
In the 1980s, many parents were appalled at the heartbreak and devastation of a culture that had lost its biblical moorings. The abuse of sex and drugs and education were creating a living hell. Adults who were saved out of this environment decided that they wanted to make climate change a reality. Their fierce and passionate love for their kids motivated them to act drastically: Take their kids out of their schools and surroundings and give them a new culture based on biblical principles. These brave pioneers set out on uncharted paths and experimented with new methods of education, discipline and romance.
Baggage from the parents’ previous relationships and painful memories from the past only intensified the desire to protect their children in the minefield of love. Having seen the dangers of the casual dating and easy sex model that was becoming the norm, parents were hungry for an alternative. Josh Harris, Elizabeth Elliott, Michael Phillips, Eric and Leslie Ludy and Jonathan Lindvall, were just a few of the thinkers suggesting alternative relationship models categorized under titles like courtship or betrothal. Some common themes running through these suggestions were: more parental involvement throughout the marriage process, replacing aimless “recreational” dating with a focused courtship process, and a renewed emphasis on “guarding and saving your heart” for your future spouse. It was a call back to the ideal of being a one-woman-man and a one-man-woman for life. But while Josh Harris and many others were “Kissing Dating Goodbye,” others saw warning signs and wrote rebuttals such as “I Gave Dating a Chance” by Jeremy Clark.
There has been a lot of theorizing about the best model for finding a spouse but the test tube of life can reveal unexpected consequences. Now, a full generation after this movement started, we have plenty of real life data to compare with the theories. In the rest of this article I want to look at what I think have been the benefits of this movement and some unseen consequences that still need ironing out. I should admit upfront that I am a child of courtship culture. My teen years were filled with all of the authors mentioned above getting a chance to shape my thinking and my choices. I know this movement from the inside out and also married within it.
It identified sabotaging effects of casual dating
With a divorce rate spiraling upward the whole marriage process needed to be reexamined. I think this movement rightly identified some ways in which the current relationship practices were sabotaging marriage.
God made marriage to be exclusive. His divine equation for red hot romance is one man and woman. This is not controversial. It is readily acknowledged, even in our promiscuous culture, that to be in a romantic relationship is to have certain obligations to be romantic with that person alone. If romantic indulgence is shared with a third party several contaminating agents enter the picture: Insecurity, lack of trust, feelings of being compared, etc. Once you become physically involved with someone those actions become part of who you are. To end a physically involved relationship is to bring part of that person with you into your next relationship. The sacred equation has been violated. You now have memories of that person that you will be tempted to compare your next partner to. Trust will become more difficult because you have been betrayed in the past. You will become more guarded and more reluctant to open up because you don’t want to be burned again. The more partners that you become intimate with, the worse these consequences become.
Romantic physical affection is a powerful superglue; the more it is expressed the more the couple is joined in a permanent way. Even neuroscience is confirming this. The first time you become romantically active with a person, your brain becomes wired to be addicted to that person. But when you bond to a different person afterward, you scramble the wiring and the addiction becomes less strong the next time (please excuse my highly technical, scientifically exact language).
Courtship thinkers gave us an ideal vision of saving all your hugs and kisses and love letters for one person. Belonging exclusively to another person and having that person belong exclusively to you was a very romantic thought and an inspiring ideal. I married another person who had saved all of herself for me and it is a fact that I cherish almost daily. I love knowing that I am the only man she has ever kissed romantically. I also love the exclusiveness of our sexual relationship. Neither of us is plagued by thoughts of comparison. None of this makes us “better” than those around us. It’s just a gift that we are both truly grateful for.
Sexual attraction is also a consuming fire. Love is blind and many young people who have dabbled with sexual affection find themselves in a consuming whirlwind. They abandon everything for a person who often turns out to be very different than they thought. Your parents are free from the blinding effect of raging hormones and want a satisfying marriage for you even more than you do. Because of this, parents can be ideal partners in the pursuit of a lifelong mate. I think there was so much wisdom in inviting the parents into the process. I say this as a man who had chosen to get the father’s permission before winning a young woman’s heart. This resulted in my being turned down by two different fathers. But when I consider how madly in love I am with my wife today, I am so grateful for how God led through fathers who were diligent to protect their daughters. ..(You know, from rabid wolves such as myself). I am also so grateful for the prayers and clear guidance I received from my parents as I navigated the enchanted forests of infatuation.
Renewed emphasis on sexual purity
God says in Hebrews 13:4, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” (NKJV) Sex outside of marriage will receive God’s judgment. This goes against the cultural message that surrounds us. But this is your Creator’s standard! It doesn’t matter if it seems “unrealistic” or doesn’t make sense. This is what God requires of you. He is so quick to forgive when we fail, but he won’t let us wallow in self-destruction!
A challenge to be intentional and think long term
Growing up, I appreciated the reminders to think long term, to realize how my actions would affect my future spouse and to pray for her often. If you are aimless in your romantic involvement, you are at high risk for the devil’s sabotage. Purity does not happen by accident; it takes vigilance. Undirected dating can lead to being swept away in a tidal wave of desire that you are not prepared to handle. I think it is healthy for men to be challenged to take responsibility for their actions and not play with the affections of young women they have no desire to commit to.
As someone who had very loving and supportive parents, and found an incredible spouse the first time I entered a romantic relationship, it’s easy for me to have a very rosy picture of courtship culture. Sure, growing up I faced the embarrassment of not having a girlfriend and friendship with other girls had an element of awkwardness because there was awareness of not wanting to “defraud.” But those seem like such small sacrifices compared to the deep trust and delight my wife and I found through this culture.
But my experience is not universal. Talking with young people and observing others has led me to discover this movement has created a whole new set of difficulties that need addressing. Because of these challenges many young people are ditching purity principles altogether and letting the pendulum swing in the other direction, directly toward the path their parents wanted so much to protect them from. I want to explore the dark side of courtship culture next.
Confusion about emotional purity
Several times we were warned about the dangers of giving our heart away through crushes. We were told our heart was like a pie and every time we let a crush consume us we gave that person a piece of our heart, and if we did this too many times all we would have left is a little tiny sliver for our spouse. I can see how this can create guilt over normal infatuation. Conviction is healthy, but guilt can bring ruin. Because your feelings of attraction are making you feel guilty, your shame will cause you to repress these feelings and hide them. What you need is a safe place to express them and learn to process them in a healthy way.
I had my fair share of crushes and they were pretty serious but thankfully they were not communicated to the girls or mutually expressed. My mom never made me feel embarrassed for feeling these things. She acknowledged the power of these God-designed feelings and prayed with me through them. Having the freedom to discuss them broke much of spell these feelings created. Today, Heidi has my whole heart, although it is a daily decision I must make.
Attractions are normal and healthy. The key is to submit them to the authority of Christ rather than letting them consume us. But if all you feel is guilt and shame for your feelings, you will never learn how to deal with natural attraction.
On the other hand, expressed romantic love celebrated through physical affection is bonding and does create soul ties that will last a long time. These ties should be avoided outside of commitment. Not out of legalism or because you are bound to a formula, but because we are commanded to put others’ needs ahead of our own. You don’t want your involvement with someone to be a thorn in his or her future marriage or a source of insecurity to your future spouse.
It concerns me when I observe couples tying themselves together physically before they have fully decided to commit. Not because I don’t want them to have fun or I think things have to follow a set pattern, but because it will just hurt that much more if they break it off and will make trust that much harder next time. And recent studies have shown that you are more vulnerable to have an affair with an ex-flame than with someone new. At the same time, we should never forget that God’s power can more than compensate for and overcome the natural weaknesses our sins create.
Fear of friendship with the opposite gender
There are clear warnings in scripture against defrauding our brother or sister sexually (1 Thess. 4:1-5) and it is wise to not become physically romantic with a person you are not going to marry. But the healthy idea at the root of this advice has been clouded over by fear of any friendship with the opposite sex. I think some young people have lost confidence in themselves and other young people’s ability to control their emotions. Because of this there is a fear that to have one on one conversation with another young person of the opposite gender will be defrauding to that person or will be misinterpreted by others, and so should be avoided. Or there is a fear that if there is too much communication you will “give your heart away,” and be ruined for marriage. Not to mention younger siblings who can be very vigilant in their desire to not have their older siblings do anything that has even a whiff of flirting.
We somehow need to figure out a way for young people to develop healthy, non romantic friendships. They need to learn how to love and serve each other in a Christ-like way. For me, there was the temptation of being so obsessed with marriage that the purpose of friendship was reduced to being a way to evaluate which girls were good marriage material. Wow, this is embarrassing to admit. But my friendships would have been healthier if I could have been more focused on blessing and serving these girls as sisters in Christ rather than just selfishly evaluating their potential!
We also need to help young people see that there is a clear difference between a physically involved friendship and non-romantic friendship. I think young adults should feel free to form the latter kind without other people putting pressure on them to commit. They need to learn how to have a platonic friendship that is not riddled with angst about the “deeper implications” of their last encounter. Girls, you would make it easier for guys to have this kind of friendship with you if you don’t automatically assume that any interaction is him “pursuing” you. And Guys, just because she liked your facebook profile picture does not mean she has a major crush on you.
I think we can learn a lot about ourselves and the opposite sex through healthy friendships. It is possible to have a deep healthy friendship that does not ruin you for marriage to someone else! In fact, that friendship might make you a better spouse. So don’t be afraid to be friends. Don’t feel bad if you felt attracted to that person or find yourself thinking too much about them. You will feel attraction to different people for the rest of your life. The problem doesn’t disappear after marriage. The key is to not let it control you, and to redirect these thoughts in prayerful surrender to God.
However, friendships can cross the line to the romantic when you become physically involved, when you feel like an item, or have expectations of exclusivity. Before you light the flame, make sure you have commitment in place and before you start gluing physically, ensure that you are ready for the long haul.
For the sake of clarity, I do need to add that our hearts are deceitful when it comes to relationships. Married couples understand the need for safeguards to prevent emotional affairs. Because of this, many choose to not spend time alone in a building with a non-spouse or spend too much time alone in a vehicle. I think for the sake of safety and protection, single people would be wise to follow similar boundaries. Not out of legalism or fear, but a desire to glorify God. The situation can also change as single adults grow. I personally don’t think it would be wise for 15 year olds to spend hours alone, but I can also see where it might be fine for a 30 year old to take someone out for coffee without it needing to be a high pressure date, or to mean they are now romantically involved. In the end, though, the only real safeguard is a heart that is surrendered to God.
Too much pressure early in a relationship
Many within this culture see courtship as nearly synonymous with engagement. When a couple announces their courtship (which usually means they have just become boy friend and girl friend) they are flooded with congratulations with people being very excited for them. Sometimes the couple knows each other quite well and marriage is just a short step away (such as it was with Heidi and me). But other times the couple doesn’t know one another that well at all. As the relationship progresses, they may realize this person is not who they thought he or she was. All the public pressure puts them in an awkward position and creates a lot of embarrassment if it falls through.
We need to allow for a no commitment, non-romantic time that enables the couple to get to know each other deeply before they commit. This should be a time that is under the radar. Snoopy neighbors shouldn’t be asking if “something is going on.” It should be normal for friendships to develop that allow the couple to go separate ways without feeling like they’ve just been through a break up.
Committing too early
When you are in your early 20s and have never been in a romantic relationship, there is a lot of pent up emotion. The first possibility of romance can set off an avalanche of emotion, especially when a courtship is seen as a guaranteed path to marriage. You barely know this person but you feel because you started a relationship, you have to commit. Because you feel committed, it will be easy to throw caution to the wind and you’ll start recklessly bonding before you really know this person. Now the courtship process, which was designed to protect you, will actually accelerate the problem of moving the relationship along too fast – making a break up even more painful than it needed to be. Again, we need a time of no-pressure friendship that allows young adults to get to know each other.
Another problem within the courtship culture is that it can create the expectation that if you follow this model perfectly, you are guaranteed a perfect marriage and a great sex life. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to making a great marriage. It takes hard work and hours of tearful conversations. The key to a successful marriage is not found in a perfect courtship model, but in two people filled with the Holy Spirit and working, by His grace, to become the right person. It’s not enough to find the perfect person or follow the right formula. You have to be the right person! You have to have developed the basic relationship skills of servanthood and the ability to communicate with gentleness and respect. If you are not that type of person, no relationship process can give you a great marriage. If you think courtship provides a shortcut to amazing sex, or that God owes you an easy marriage because you have stayed “pure,” you are in for a rude awakening.
Feeling worthless after a break up
Possibly the darkest downfall of the courtship culture is the idea that the only way to have a great marriage is to marry the first person you fall in love with. You only have one shot at this. So if you fall in love or start courting and it falls through, then you are somehow damaged goods. You are no longer pristine. Your marriage will never be as good as it could have been.
A similar fallout is when young women feel like their value is found in their virginity or the fact that they have never been kissed. That they have something precious to offer their husband only if they have never been in a previous relationship. This is a demonic twisting of beautiful truths that can lead to devastating results. A relationship falls through; a night of indiscretion, or even a forced assault, and suddenly that young woman feels worthless. The inspiring vision of a godly marriage is gone. “What pure godly man would want a piece of trash like me?” As the self-loathing builds the woman spirals into self-destruction. A woman in this state of mind is ripe for exploitation. I am on the verge of tears for the women I know who have been led down this path.
If this is you right now, I hurt for you and I apologize if I have somehow contributed to this mess. I want to try to make some things clear. Your true worth is not found in your “purity.” Your value is not based on your track record of behavior. You are precious because you are sacred art work, lovingly and tenderly knit together by the Creator of the universe. He treasures you no matter what mistakes you make. God loves sinners with a holy passion. The sight of your bruises and scars fills His great heart with compassion! You are no less precious then the virgin in white! It was a prostitute, a woman dragged through the lowest dredges of human behavior, who melted Jesus’ heart when she gave all she had to him. He saw the gift of her love as exceedingly precious. He didn’t see scum washing his feet. He saw a treasure. He saw a beautiful woman with a worth above measure.
The only track record of purity that matters to God is the perfect record of Jesus. You can acknowledge that you are a sinner and drop the rags of your own attempts at purity and put on the purity of Christ. You now no longer need to fear any condemnation because the only One’s opinion that matters sees you as a pure and spotless virgin. Sexual sin is still destructive and God still requires us to aim for holiness. But now He will empower you. He is ready to give you a fresh slate every day.
What makes a marriage beautiful is when it is filled with God’s grace. Before you can have a great marriage, you have to have tasted grace and be so overwhelmed by it that you can shower your spouse with grace. A broken and a contrite heart is what God desires and it is also what will make you truly attractive to your spouse. Conversely, pride is repulsive, to God and your spouse. If you enter a relationship with arrogance that you have fought the battle for purity and then feel a sense of entitlement, you know nothing about true purity. Any man who will only love you because you are a virgin or never been kissed is not worthy of you! The kind of man you want is not the one who is worried about your past, but the man who earnestly loves you today because he sees in you a reflection of the God he loves so much already.
Those who have truly tasted God’s goodness and beauty know full well their own worthlessness in comparison. You will be overcome with a sense of gratitude for all God has showered upon you even though you don’t deserve it. If a broken relationship has shattered your self-righteous image of purity and you now feel dirty and in need of grace…Hallelujah! That is where the magic is! That is where God meets you and restores your soul and fills you with awe and wonder and gives you a purity that can never be taken away.
God has an amazing ability to restore what our sin has broken. But God still loves his design for romance. He created it to be a picture of the kind of intimacy He wants with us. So God can heal you, but He won’t change the design. He still wants romance to be exclusive and sex kept within the safe confines of marriage. If you have been part of a legalistic courtship culture that added burdens and rules that went beyond the Scriptures, you should feel free to abandon those. But if you still call yourself a Christian, then you have an obligation to put others’ needs ahead of your own and to seek to glorify God in every area of your life – including romance. God does want what’s best for you. His rules are for your pleasure! When you throw out your man-made rules, don’t throw out His life giving truth at the same time! Don’t act out of fear! All attempts at love include risk. There is no fail-proof way to achieve true love that does not also involve risk of pain. But don’t fear the pain. God can use it to refine you and shape you into spouse He intends you to be.