Saving the Baby: An Alternative to Courtship
Bath time doesn’t always go like it should. Especially when little kids get excited. Bathwater is supposed to be pure, clean, and bubbly. But when you put real kids in there, the bathwater gets disgusting. Many parents, broken and bruised by the sexually charged dating scene, wanted a clean, fresh alternative to “dating” for their kids. So they poured a hot, fresh bubble bath called “courtship” that was free from the filthy contaminants of “recreational” dating. The plan was simple: Put the kids through this new system and the problems of promiscuity, broken hearts, and divorce would be washed away.
But as people settled into the suds, some of them began p**ping in the bathwater. Now, thanks to the filth and grime of human nature, the waters of courtship are dirty and murky. Single young people are looking at what has happened to their friends and older siblings, and they don’t want to get in the grungy water. I feel for them; they want something better.
I want to look at a few ways courtship has gone wrong, but I also want to spare the baby in the bathwater, by checking out some valuable contributions that courtship thinking offered. I’ll finish off with fresh clean bathwater.
I wrote a more in-depth critique of courtship culture (here), so for now I will only touch on what is mentioned there, while adding some new concerns.
Model and Method Idolatry
I think a lot of parents and young people thought that the perfect relationship model would guarantee a successful marriage. So much thought went into debating and perfecting the formula that the more important issues of character and purity were neglected. I also think a lot of people lost sight of how important God’s grace and empowering are for any marriage to work. Yes, many married people were hurting because of the baggage and promiscuity of their past, and they felt that if they could just spare their kids the heartache, and if their kids could just marry the first person they fell in love with, their kids would have a wonderful marriage. But it has been a harsh awakening to see that formulas and models fail us. We can follow the steps perfectly and still end up devastated. The reasons formulas fail is because they always include fallen humans. People fail, people change, people grow bitter. We are not automatons or predetermined by our environment to turn out a certain way. We are broken people in need of God’s saving grace and power! The answer to the courtship garbage is not to perfect a new model or return to traditional dating. It is to repent and cry out to God for his grace and guidance.
Not raising adults
I say this next part very carefully because I deeply respect the authority and responsibility that parents have! It is a serious and precious thing to be given a little one to protect and train for God’s glory. I think the goal of parenthood is to raise a responsible adult who is accountable to God for his choices. My kids are all under 8 years; they have not reached an age of accountability. They are too young to fully know the consequence of their actions, so they can’t always think for themselves. At this age there are times it is appropriate for Heidi and me to ask them to obey us “because we said so.” If we ask our kids to do something in error, God holds us accountable, not our kids. But someday that will change. Eventually our kids will be accountable to God for their own actions, and they will not be able to blame their parents for their wrong choices. When a child becomes an adult, he needs to take responsibility for his choices, because he will stand before God alone on judgment day. He or she needs to be convinced that every choice they make is surrendered to God. When my children are adults, I think it would horrible for me to interfere with what my child is sensing God calling them to do. Can you imagine how awful that would be to find out some day that you forced your kids to choose between you and God’s will!?
Now some parents will react and say that that could never happen. “It is a child’s duty to obey their parents their whole life.” I disagree. The command is for children to obey their parents (Eph 6:1) while the lifelong command is to honor their parents (Ex 20:12). Honoring involves listening sincerely to your parents’ wisdom and concern and always treating them with respect, but it does not mean that you have to obey them. Jesus said that our devotion to him must be so strong that it seems like hate to our parents in comparison (Luke 14:26). When we become adults we answer to God and the authorities he places in our lives.This involves a level of submission to our church elders and government officials, but only when they act in the capacity that God gives them. If any authority goes beyond the realm that God gives them by asking us to go against our duty to God, we must resist them. We are to treat everyone with humility and respect, but we answer to God for our actions and must give him our ultimate obedience. If you have adult kids that you are still trying to control as young kids, I firmly believe you have failed them as a parent.
I think it is so sad how Satan has sabotaged the parent/adult child relationship because parents can be your best ally in choosing a spouse. In some ways they know you better than you know yourself and they will not be blinded by the hormones of infatuation. With their life experience they will be better equipped to spot potential dangers and mismatches.
If you feel like your relationship is stifled with your parents, be honest with your concerns and try to show them that you are accountable to God. Gentleness and respect will go a long way to opening their hearts. But if they still refuse, then remember your ultimate allegiance must be to God. However, going against your parents wishes should never be done lightly. You need to be dead sure you are in the path God has for you and that you have a healthy fear of God and are in submission to Him.
No room for non-romantic friendships.
Some of the biggest complaints with courtship seem to be related to the fact that in some homeschool communities the only stages of relationship seem to be little to no contact with the opposite gender and then a move to a high pressure, high commitment, engagement-like stage called courtship. This has worked well for some (again God works wonders even in flawed systems). But for others, the thought of getting engaged to someone you hardly know is rightly terrifying. On the other side, when brave couples do jump into this high commitment stage, they feel so much pressure to make it work, even when it is becoming clear that their partner is not who they thought he/she was. Understandably, this is causing a lot of adults to be stuck in singleness and others to feel pressured to stay in unhealthy relationships.
THE BABY IN THE BATHWATER
I want to briefly revisit some of the rationale behind courtship, back before the water got so filthy.
Emphasis on Purity
One of the biggest problems with traditional dating was how sexualized it was becoming. The problem hasn’t gotten any better. The expectation today (at least as portrayed in many films and TV shows) is that the dating relationship is for sexual release. You can get everything else from your other friendships, but for sex you need to go dating. It is for this reason that I’m concerned with those advocating a return to traditional dating. The goal of the courtship process was to protect the purity of singles. The problem is that true purity cannot be maintained by external rules and pressures. The conviction has to come from within. So even though courtship culture is crumbling, God’s call to holiness and purity remains.
The dangers of infatuation
God gave the gift of romance to couples to be a little oasis from the storms and pressures of life; he endowed this gift with hormonally charged reactions that delight the couple and strengthen their bonds of love. Romance is potent stuff, like super glue or a consuming flame. Through deep conversation and sensual touch, a powerful bond is formed between two souls. Within lifelong commitment, this is awesome, but when bonded couples are forced to separate, the pain is intense and the consequences long lasting. Sexual romance is also a flaming fire that can consume all you once believed about God, love and purity. Infatuation is one of the chief causes of rebellion to God and Christian convictions. A mind inflamed by love (lust) loses touch with reality and up becomes down and wrong becomes right. This blurring of reality has a place in marriage, when couples can forget about their trouble and enjoy an enchanted evening. But outside of commitment much can be lost to the flames. The courtship ideal was to save the flames of romance for a time when safe confines of commitment were in place.
I want to be clear that by proposing an alternative, I am not offering a way to fix all the problems. Where real life people are concerned, there will always be filth in the bathwater. We need to be focused on God’s grace and guidance and our responsibilities to be the right person. That being said, I do want to offer a possible corrective to the courtship model.
Any plan or strategy for finding a spouse has to deal with the problem: How do you get to know a person thoroughly enough to make a confident proposal (or accept one) without doing things that either of your future spouses will be hurt by should the relationship fall through? There needs to be room for a relationship that allows for quality time alone and deep conversation without the high pressure of romance and commitment. What we must add is a no romance, no commitment, friendship stage where adults are free to explore possible matches.
The purpose of this stage is not just to prevent pain, God can use pain. My conviction in this idea comes from the fact that God warns us very firmly to not defraud our brother (or sister) sexually, and that he who rejects this idea, doesn’t reject man, but God (See 1 Thess 4:1-9). In my opinion, sexual and romantic bonding are designed by God to be permanent (1 Cor. 6:15-16). To form physical and romantic bonds with a person outside of commitment is defrauding. It is offering and implying something that has not been given. It is selfishly putting your own needs for pleasure and gratification ahead of the person you are with, the opposite of the Christ like love we are commanded to exemplify (Phil 2:3-4)
By suggesting these two stages, I am not offering another formula that guarantees success, or offering legalistic guidelines. This is not another manmade model to be debated. I am simply attempting to apply the biblical commands for purity and holiness in our relationship decisions. God’s authority trumps all other methods and models. In light of that I ask you what to prayerfully consider what I have to say, and test it in light of God’s Word. (1 Thess 5:21)
Stage 1: A healthy exploratory relationship.
Ideally then, a healthy progression toward marriage would be a two stage process. Stage one would be a time of no commitment or pressure to be an exclusive couple. A time of casual “dating”: email, walks, coffee, dinner. Either party can be free to walk away. Don’t change your Facebook relationship status just yet. Not to save embarrassment if things don’t work out, but because there is nothing to announce yet. This time is for evaluation and asking the big questions and seeking the wisdom of your Heavenly Father. Your goal right now should be to discover who a person truly is, not just what his or her public image is. You want to see if you are on the same page spiritually and have compatible life callings, so that you are pulled together when you are both passionately pursuing what God made you to do, rather than pulled apart. You want to see how healthy this person’s other relationships are. The principles that make a marriage work are basically the same that make any relationship work: kindness, trustworthiness, affirmation, a quickness to forgive, a teachable spirit, a desire to serve, good listening skills. Someone with these qualities will be surrounded by close friends and have healthy relationships with his or her family members.
Look for deal breakers
Take time to make sure that there are not any hidden qualities either in this person or his or her family that will sabotage your marriage. Things like current sexual addictions or any form of dishonesty should be treated seriously! Also carefully watch this person’s interactions with their family. Don’t expect to be treated any differently.
During this no-commitment phase, you are not trying to see if you are compatible in every area. You are a man and a woman, after all. If you do get married, there will be areas of adjustment. This is the time for evaluating and asking, “can I live with this?” In the exploring process, you will naturally turn a critical gaze on the other person as you ask, “Is this person right for me?” (After marriage, that same thought is a poison. If you want to make your marriage work, you don’t have the luxury of blaming the problems in your relationship on the other person. You have to look in the mirror and ask, “What can I do to solve this problem?”, and “How can I change?”)
Keep your guard up physically
While in this no-commitment phase, I think there is wisdom in guarding the other person as still belonging to someone else, i.e. treating him or her the way you want others treating your future spouse. Or keeping your interactions, at least on the physical level, to what would be appropriate for your parent to do with someone they are not married to. Focus on getting to know this person in a way that is not clouded by the excitement of romantic affection. Kissing, hand holding, and fondling are going to stir the infatuation hormones, which have been clinically shown to impair judgment. Remember, the closer you get mentally, the stronger your physical desires will become. It will be so tempting to start enjoying each other romantically before you have really committed. Don’t start gluing yourself to a person you have not committed to. If it becomes clear that you are not right for each other, you want to be able to look that person’s future spouse in the eye, unashamed of what you did.
Define the relationship
In order for this first stage to work, it will take great effort on both sides to keep the lines of communication open about where each person is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If one person feels like this is a done deal, but the other still has doubts, you are asking for heartache.
Think with your mind and not your heart
Because the purpose of this stage is to explore carefully without being blinded by emotion, don’t judge how romantic the other person is, or be concerned if you are not feeling emotional fireworks. Those feelings of being swept away will all come with physical touch and romantic exchanges. If you are not feeling overwhelmed by love, don’t take that as a major warning sign. Instead be grateful that this person is seeking to guard your heart until the relationship is confirmed. I know this is so backward to the expectations that romantic comedies and novels create. The message there is look for the feeling first, think later. That is a recipe for disaster plastered all over our current divorce rates!
Don’t add pressure!
As bystanders, if you see a guy and girl in the first stage of getting to know each other (exploratory friendship), don’t flood them with congratulations. This puts pressure on them to see this as a done deal, when in reality they might need more time before they commit. They are not a couple just yet. And if they decide they are not right for each other, they shouldn’t feel like it was a “failed courtship,” or something to be ashamed of. You can learn so much from a close friendship with the opposite gender; lessons about true love and what it takes to make a relationship work. You will be a better spouse because of that relationship. If you have been in a relationship that did not end in marriage, please do not view yourself as damaged goods! You have not given away your heart. It is great when you get to marry the first person you were ever in love with. But the most important goal is to marry wisely and to see clearly how much you need God’s grace to make a relationship work. Even broken hearts can become chalices filled with God’s beauty.
Stage 2: Engagement
As a relationship progresses towards marriage, for a Christian, it reaches a point of no return. At the very least, this point will be the wedding vows. After marriage, it doesn’t matter what you discover about the other person, you commit, by God’s grace, to making this thing work. I think it is wise to have a “point of no return” that happens before the marriage. You are not married, but you are completely committed to marriage. While every sexual aspect of your relationship needs to be saved for marriage, this earlier stage of unbreakable commitment will allow for a time of mental and emotional bonding without fear of it falling through.
If during the friendship stage it becomes clear that you want to spend the rest of your life with this person, it is time for the next level: engagement, the point of no return. Your mindset has now shifted from “are we right for each other?” to, “no matter what, we will make this work.” The evaluation phase is over. From here on out, you are committed to becoming one. This second stage is the time to finally begin enjoying romance, but not sex. You are in a truly committed relationship and are free to let your hearts start bonding with the glue of romance. If you aren’t willing to make this unbreakable commitment, then in fairness to the person you are with, you aren’t ready for romance, either.
Marriage is a gift. Proverbs 18:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” (NKJV) If you have a desire to pursue marriage, pursue it and don’t feel guilty about it. However, the whole process must be surrendered to God. You must surrender your desire to God to be fulfilled in His timing. You must saturate your mind with what God has to say about what it means to love another in a Christ-like way. Every step of your relationship should be submitted to the biblical standard of purity. You must put the needs and desires of the person you are with, and their future spouse, ahead of your own desire for gratification. You need to think about how your actions are affecting your own future spouse as well. You do not want to leave a trail of brokenness in your pursuit of marriage. Enter an exploratory relationship with caution, but not fear. Go with confidence, because God loves marriage. Commit it to Him, and He will make it clear.
*Portions of this article were borrowed and adapted from my earlier article “How will I know it?”
Courtdate: A Generation of Courtship Culture on Trial
Kristin • August 16, 2014
Wonderful article! I would like to add that we now know the frontal cortex where reasoning, understanding consequences, planning, etc is not fully mature until age 25! I remember turning 26 and realizing “oh mom was right” about many things. LOL
Anyway, young adults need to understand how God wired their brains/bodies (for the hormonal part as well) to fully appreciate the wisdom of God’s design of family, that parents have experience and wisdom within that cortex (if no injury has occurred) that He ordained for the young adult’s protection.
Kristin • August 16, 2014
Of course, you may have already mentioned that in an article….I have not read thru your archives yet:)
Leila • August 17, 2014
Interesting thoughts. I like your advice at the end about surrendering the process to God. However, I think that your ideas about how “stage 1” should work may have a few flaws. Is it really necessary to try to use our human reasoning to figure out what a “deal breaker” is? If the person you are considering is matching up with Biblical requirements for someone you are allowed to marry, doesn’t he/she automatically qualify as a spouse? In my opinion it is better to spend your time asking God, “do you want me to marry this person, no matter what their “problems” are?” rather than wasting time “seeing if you are compatible in every area”. The person can and will change. We can’t hope to be able to see into the future, but God can. My husband and I pursued what we call a betrothal and have been happily married for 2 years now. We highly recommend just trying to be completely faith-led in pursuing a spouse. The website I linked to has the story of our betrothal.
Chris • August 18, 2014
Maybe it’s just me, but your solution to the problem looks an awful lot like “Dating” to me. To truly have a time when either person can walk out with no regrets or feelings that it was a “failed courtship” there are going to have to be a lot of folks walking in and out of relationships with regularity. These relationships, by your definition, are not courtships. That begs the question, what, exactly ARE these relationships? In practicality, you can’t have “exploratory relationships” that really work, unless they are a separate entity not tied in any way to the courtship process. If an exploratory relationship is the first step in the courtship process, then a failed exploratory relationship = a failed courtship, because it is the first step of the courtship process.
Jesse Jost • August 18, 2014
Chris, thanks for your comments. First, I have no problem if you call what I’m suggesting “dating.” The real issue is obedience to Christ in the area of love and purity. If that is front and center, any model can work, whether its betrothal, dating, or arranged marriage.
Secondly, the first stage I describe is really just Christ-honoring friendship. It shouldn’t even have to be spelled out as a stage, except for the fact that in some circles there is the unhelpful rule, perhaps unspoken, that any deeper friendship needs to be something official. This puts so much pressure on this first stage. I admit, though, that if you have no idea of what courtship-homeschool culture is like, my suggestions might seem strange, or too obvious.
I’ll end by saying that any exploratory relationship that abided by the biblical guidelines of purity, but did not end in marriage, should never be viewed as a failure, no matter what it was called. If the relationship did not honor God in its commitment to purity, we have tremendous grace and forgiveness available to us.
Lizzie • August 19, 2014
Are you saying that once you are engaged and someone feels they have a very valid reason to break off the engagement they can’t? Just to clarify. I’m not in any such situation but I have heard of others who have been. For example some even feel you are “divorced” if an engagement is broken off !!
Jesse Jost • August 19, 2014
Thanks for the question, Lizzie. I want to be clear, engagement is not marriage, which is why sex needs to be saved for after the ceremony. However, engagement should not be entered lightly, it is a promise and God considers a promise a serious thing. It is for this reason that I urge couples to do their homework before they get engaged!
God hates divorce. His kind heart hates the pain it brings his precious children. For most Christians, divorce is not an option, there is an unbreakable commitment in place. Because, I believe romantic involvement has a level of permanence to it, I think for a couple, the wise and loving thing to do would be to save that type of bonding for when there is an unbreakable commitment in place, what I call engagement, and in bible times was called betrothal. It is interesting to note that a divorce was needed to break a betrothal.
This why the first stage is so important, so that couples have a better idea of who they are committing to. All that being said, If a person had been through a broken engagement, they should not feel like they were divorced! But even the person who has been divorced, should not feel worthless. We are all filthy rags apart from Christ’s redeeming blood. But in His eyes, we are indescribably precious!
LM • August 28, 2014
Thanks for this healthy perspective. As someone who has never been involved in this homeschooling, courtship culture, but is observing it from outside… it is great to see there are sane and critical voices out there, who are challenging these norms and expectations.
While I’ve neber been married (hoping and praying for that day, yes!), godly friendships with genuine Christian brothers have been some of the foundational stones for my spiritual walk, and that is something I value much more than I would any ‘dating’ or even ‘courting’. All has to be based on agape and respect… without those elements, relationships are doomed, no matter what the model – dating, hanging out or strictly monitored parentally approved courting …
It’s a sad thing that church culture in many circles disourages genuine interaction between genders. I think we all were better off if we simply saw each other as bearers of the image of Christ, instead of ‘only’ potential spouses….
Ross Clark • August 31, 2014
A good thought on the matter, and esp in an environment where courtship’s “bugs” are coming to light.
You described marriage as a “gift”. That means, by definition, that it is not a “reward” – and one of the greatest flaws of the courtship movement is that it turned Christian marriage into a reward for good behaviour – not dating, avoiding p*rn (for men) or dressing immodestly (for women), avoiding feminism (for women, and sometimes metrosexual men) and so on. This was because people were so concerned to see the young adults and singles “behave”. Bad mistake.
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The Great Courtship Debate