Approaches to Courtship / Betrothal
by David Crank
Disclaimer: Interpreting the teachings of many others has been necessary for comparison in this article. I have tried to be very careful to not misrepresent these teachings and to present them as fairly as possible. However, my interpretations and presentation will inevitably be imperfect. It was not feasible for me to validate my conclusions with the many teachers discussed here, so I apologize in advance for any possible misinterpretation or fault in my explanation. I will be glad to publish any corrections or clarifications from these teachers.
WHAT is Christian courtship? What is Betrothal? Well
it depends somewhat on whom you ask. Definitions and guidelines differ from
teacher to teacher. A lot of the same points are made, but significant
differences remain. The purpose of this article is to acquaint you with some of
the differences, so that you can better choose for your own family. I will
compare the teachings of nine different authors and speakers: Bill Gothard,
Jonathan Lindvall, Joshua Harris, John Thompson, Douglas Wilson, Jeff &
Marge Barth, Eric & Leslie Ludy, Jeff & Danielle Myers, and Dr. Don
Raunikar. This is not an exhaustive list of folks teaching in this area, but
these are some of the main ones and those whom I have had opportunity to
A Little History
Where did this teaching originate? I can only tell you what I have pieced together from brief mentions in a number of books and speaker presentations. Bill Gothard was teaching a "biblical" dating back in the early 1970s, that advocated all young men being approved by the girlís father before ever having a date, and again before marriage was ever discussed with the girl. Gothard indicates he was influenced in his early adulthood by a Christian speaker (perhaps even the same one Elisabeth Elliot mentions that influenced her during her Bible School days).
Jonathan Lindvall was influenced by Gothardís teachings and went a step further in defining something called "courtship", with which he challenged the youth group he was leading. Gothard then appears to have picked up some of Lindvallís ideas, and began teaching "courtship" as opposed to dating. From there I see many cross influences between the different teachers. Josh Harris, the Myers, and the Ludys appear to have all learned some from each other. Harris was also significantly influenced by Elisabeth Elliotís book (Passion & Purity) and by Michael Farrisí book (The Homeschooling Father) having a chapter devoted to courtship. Lindvall later revised his teachings to urge replacing courtship with betrothal, and some other teachers adopted at least part of this new teaching.
The following teachers have defined "courtship" or "betrothal" as follows:
Gothard: Courtship - "A fatherís agreeing to work with a qualified young man to win his daughter for marriage."
Lindvall: Courtship - "A romantic relationship between a young man and woman in which both were of marriageable age, had the full blessing of their parents, and were seriously contemplating marriage."
Thompson: Courtship - A stage/period in Scriptural Romance prior to Betrothal. Courtship constitutes the process of investigating a person with marriage in mind: evaluating character, values, beliefs, practices, interests & life purpose to ensure a godly match. There is to be no physical contact and no developing of romance/emotional ties during this period. Parents first investigate, followed by more detailed investigation by the young people themselves, generally within family settings.
Harris: Courtship Ė "Dating with a purpose; friendship plus possibility; and romance chaperoned by wisdom." A relationship with a clearly defined direction. "A reformed version of dating under the supervision of parents between a man and a woman who are ready for marriage in the near future."
Myers: Courtship - consists of three main elements: 1) accountability to parents and other trusted adults; 2) building each otherís character rather than focusing on physical attraction; and 3) waiting to develop serious relationships until you are ready to get married.
Raunikar: Courtship Ė a relationship / process begun with full approval of both sets of parents (or an accountability couple if not possible) with the intent to consider marriage, and to become acquainted through family and group activities.
Barth: Courtship - "a process by which a mature young man or young lady of marriageable age, along with their parents, seek to discern their God-given life partner. It involves the parents or authorities on both sides and yet allows for feelings and discernment from both of the young people involved."
Lindvall: Betrothal Ė An irrevocable and publicly announced commitment to marriage, only terminated for infidelity, during which the cultivation of a romantic relationship is permitted. Betrothal is instigated by the young man and woman with the full approval of parents. No physical contact occurs until after the wedding.
Thompson: Betrothal - A stage/period in Scriptural Romance, following the stage of Courtship. It is a binding commitment to marry, approved & supervised by the fathers, attested by a bridal provision (bride price / dowry) and by witnesses and/or a document. It follows a careful investigation that occurs during the Courtship period.
Note the above similarities and differences. Concerning courtship: Parental authorization and guidance appears in all to varying degrees. A purpose of considering marriage is present or implied in all. A degree of readiness for marriage is stated or implied. Some stress investigation while others stress the cultivation of romance. Lindvallís definition of betrothal defines a binding commitment to marry, without a period of courtship investigation or any romantic involvement preceding. In Thompsonís, betrothal is a stage that follows courtship.
Major Areas of Difference
There are numerous minor differences but only a few major ones. The most obvious major difference is that between "courtship" and "betrothal", yet even here the root of the difference comes down to the same few key areas that differentiate one courtship teaching from another. These include: (1) The degree and form of parental involvement; (2) How to choose whom to court/betroth; (3) the timing of romantic emotions; and (4) the timing of forms of physical contact.
(1) Parental Involvement
While universally acknowledging the importance of a parental role, the role advocated varies widely. Some present courtship / betrothal as primarily youth led with the advice and consent of parents (Harris, Ludy, Myers, Raunikar). Others see courtship/betrothal as more of a parent led process with parental approval being primary and parents significantly directing the courtship process (Thompson, Lindvall, Barth, Wilson, Gothard).
The more youth-led approaches are prone to treat parents as only one set of many counselors, who sometimes should be ignored in favor of other wiser, or more godly counselors. When parents are non-Christians, some argue that no parental approval should be required concerning either the person selected or the timing of marriage.
With the parent-led approaches, parental approval is usually sought whatever the spiritual condition of parents. Parents are encouraged to talk to other parents of "prospects," and sometimes initially propose a courtship to their son or daughter. However, none teach that a courtship or betrothal should take place without the agreement of the young people involved. Also, to the extend parents are able and willing, they are expected to do some initial investigation of the "candidate" and his or her family prior to agreeing to a courtship. Thereafter, they actively guide and supervise the courtship process, including ending the courtship when it seems advisable.
(2) Choosing Whom
to Court / Betroth
The differences in choosing relate to the degree to which one seeks direction from the Lord, versus makes the decision solely on the basis of careful investigation and wisdom. For example, the Barths put much emphasis on seeking to hear from the Lord, but also validating guidance through careful investigation and not rushing to a decision. On the other hand, Thompson does not believe God provides guidance in matters such as these, and so would have you solely rely on the teachings of Scripture and the application of Scriptural principles by wisdom.
Barth, Lindvall, Ludy, Gothard and Raunikar seem to envision that God has a best/perfect choice for your mate and encourage a lot of prayer and seeking Godís will in making this choice. Thompson, though advocating wisdom to make the best choice over the second best choice, doesnít seem to believe that God has picked a certain one for you (or at least not one that you need seek His will concerning). Wilsonís position is less clear, but seems to be somewhere between these two.
Those advocating more of a parent-directed courtship encourage looking for mates through other families the parents become acquainted with Ė families similar to your own with many of the same beliefs and convictions. Those teaching more of a youth-directed approach speak mostly of finding candidates at Bible school, at church groups for college or singles, or at work or ministry activities.
(3) Timing of Romance / Emotions
All of the teachers are concerned about emotional purity as well as physical purity. The ideal is to avoid giving yourself emotionally to someone other than your future spouse. The differences concern when and under what conditions emotional involvement should be allowed or even encouraged. Lindvall is very concerned about courtships where strong emotional bonds develop and then the courtship is broken, so his solution is betrothal Ė with absolutely no emotional involvement or even opportunity for emotional involvement, prior to an irrevocable commitment to marry.
Thompson similarly would restrict emotional involvement until betrothal, but would risk unapproved emotional involvement occurring during the courtship process. Though the intent is to guard hearts and hold back emotionally until after the decision is made, this does not always work.
Other teachers would allow or even encourage a gradually growing emotional involvement during courtship. They encourage great care to not allow emotions to become engaged too early in the process, both so that they will not cloud oneís judgment, and so that chances of defrauding (if the courtship is called off), are kept to a minimum. To avoid the risk of defrauding in a courtship relationship, they advise: 1) being very sure before starting a courtship or letting it get beyond a casual friendship; and 2) not letting emotions and expectations proceed ahead of the commitment level and the likelihood of marriage. Once the decision to marry is close, the young man may be encouraged, and helped by the girlís father, to "win her heart," prior to proposing marriage.
(4) Physical Contact
All are concerned about temptation in this realm and being careful not to stoke passions before their time. Also early physical involvement risks clouding ones judgment. Some, such as Thompson and Lindvall, urge absolutely no physical contact before marriage. Others seem to support the same but without so strong an insistence. Still others are more receptive to some physical shows of affection prior to marriage, while being careful not to encourage lust or temptation towards fornication.
Some allow the holding hands as early as the later stage of courtship, when a young man is seeking to win the young womanís heart. Josh & Shannon Harris decided that holding hands and light hugs would be all right before marriage, but to delay and kissing or cuddling until after marriage. Harris urges couples to set their own boundaries wisely, considering that some may be more or less affected by different physical shows of affection. The Myers did something similar but decided to kiss for the first time at their engagement. Dr. Raunikar, in dealing with older and previously married couples, is less strict in his advice in this area, mentioning some possible kissing even prior to engagement.
Jonathan Lindvall teaches an approach that he calls betrothal. He believes this is the Biblical pattern and a much better safeguard against defrauding than courtship - whether due to the young people or the parents breaking off the relationship. Other teachers have not accepted this approach nearly so well as his earlier courtship teaching. The major objection is the absence of a period for the young people to get to know each other well, to thoroughly investigate each others beliefs and convictions first hand, or to develop any emotional attachment prior to a firm commitment to marry.
Most will grant that there are cases when a true courtship period is unnecessary. For instance, if the young people and their families have been close for a long time, there may be little need for much further evaluation, or for concern over whether the two will quickly grow fond of each other. However many, if not most, situations are otherwise. The young people may have had very little and only superficial contact. The parents may also be new acquaintances. A betrothal without opportunity to become well acquainted might prove a foolish decision. Before marriage decisions, many seek the confirmation that comes from a prior period of growing friendship and the beginnings of affection.
Those not supporting Lindvallís Ďbetrothalí, also point to the problem of a so-called irrevocable marriage commitment. A betrothal remains very revocable in reality, as it is not supported either in law or by strong tradition and ostracism. Even marriage is easily revocable in this country. Betrothing couples have been known to not marry, how ever much the betrothal was spoken of as irrevocable.
Betrothal is considered by some to be an overreaction to occasional defrauding problems within courtship. When a courtship is carefully chosen and wisely managed by parents, the risk of a breakup after much emotional involvement should be very slight. No method or set of rules can perfectly protect against defrauding. Do we not need to place our faith more in God than in a particular set of man-made rules?
Other teachers also disagree with Lindvall that his version of betrothal is more biblically supported than other courtship teachings. Itís true that the term "betrothal" appears in the Bible while the term "courtship" does not. However, "betrothal" is purely an English word used to approximate Hebrew and Greek biblical terms. Neither does a mere name make one approach more biblical than another. Little biblical guidance is available for the Hebrew practice of betrothal or virtually any information about what preceded it. Much is inferred from what is not said, and from those who have written about ancient customs. Inferences are drawn from a very limited number of examples Ė we donít have guidance as to the full range of options God would approve.
John Thompson published an extensive series of eight articles entitled Godís Design for Scriptural Romance in Patriarch Magazine a few years ago. These are still available on the Internet at both Thompsonís site www.ChristianCourtship.com and at www.Patriarch.com). Thompson offers very complete lists of Biblical passages to consider, questions to ask potential suitors, and very detailed guidelines / rules for courtship and betrothal. His approach seems to be a synthesis between Lindvallís betrothal with the courtship teachings of others. Like Lindvall, all emotional bonding is to occur after a binding commitment to marriage (betrothal). Unlike Lindvall, his approach includes a pre-betrothal courtship period for the purpose of the young people carefully investigating each other to determine if this would be a wise match. Thus this approach seeks to overcome many of the criticisms of both courtship and Lindvallís betrothal.
However, it does not fully meet the objections to either of these. Those taking issue with Lindvallís betrothal still see: 1) a reliance on an irrevocable commitment to marriage that in actual practice remains very revocable; and 2) a requirement for an irrevocable commitment at a point when affection for one another has yet to develop. Those supporting Lindvallís approach will also point to the risk of emotional entanglement prior to betrothal due to the degree of interaction.
Thompsonís approach is also a bit unique in some other regards - that some support and others criticize. A key aspect of Thompsonís teaching is his approach to decision making, based on the teachings of Gary Friesen (Decision Making and the Will of God). Friesenís teachings in this regard are fairly controversial, being well accepted by some and adamantly opposed by many others. The essence of these is that there is no "individual" will of God, only a "moral" will of God and a "sovereign" will of God. Godís sovereign will is secret and Godís moral will is 100% contained within the Scriptures. Therefore we should not seek or expect any direction from God in our daily life decisions, including such ones as a choice of occupation or a spouse. We are simply to make the best choices possible using wisdom and complying with Biblical commands and principles.
This viewpoint permeates Thompsonís teachings, as demonstrated in: the emphasis given to an exhaustively thorough evaluation (sounding at times like a Fortune 500 executive search, with arranging interviews and carefully checking references with church elders, family members and long term family friends), his web site for matching up like-minded families searching for mates for their children, and the absence of appeals to prayer, spirit leading, or any divine guidance. So the extent of your agreement or disagreement with this issue will impact how much you agree with Thompson.
Thompsonís approach also comes across to some as very rigid and inflexible, and perhaps too idealistic. Few allowances seem to be made for common differing conditions, for less than perfect circumstances, or for God choosing to work in slightly different ways.
He believes it is almost impossible to do courtship unless both young people are still living in their fatherís home. Though it is a great advantage for both to still be at home, this has repeated been proven not to be a necessary condition Ė especially in the instance of a young man living and working away from his parentís home. (See the example of our son Samuelís courtship in Vol. 1 Issue 3.)
Thompson also appears to require chaperoning at all times, in every situation. Many other teachers encourage fathers to be reasonable, not making chaperoning an absolute requirement for every situation. Good judgment and a reasonable assessment of the young people and the relationship, might indicate chaperoning to be quite unnecessary for daytime trips running errands, traveling to a church ministry, etc. When the young people are clearly committed to purity and the risks of the situation appear very low, an inflexible chaperoning rule may be unnecessarily burdensome.
A less common aspect of Thompsonís teaching is the encouragement of a bride price/dowry. Douglas Wilson also teaches about this Biblical practice but applies it mainly to ascertaining the young manís financial stability and ability to support a wife. Thompson takes this a bit farther Ė encouraging the exchange of a "bride price" at the time of betrothal. Much of his teaching on this comes from extra-Biblical sources concerning Hebrew culture, as he himself says that the term only appears four times in Scripture and in some confusing contexts.
So you see the decision to "do courtship" also requires some thought and prayer concerning just how you plan to do so. There is no need to decide all the details in advance. Actually that could prove foolish as it is impossible to anticipate all future conditions that properly should impact your approach. Yet you should at least consider the key issues and the arguments for and against them, remembering particularly that with sons, the girlís father will likely have the final say as to the approach.
When parents speak to another family about courtship or betrothal, or when a young man and young woman speak of the same, they need to define just what they mean by these terms. Though certain principles are widely accepted as being a part of courtship or betrothal, the differences between teachings is still significant. Take the time to discuss the details before beginning on this road. Expect the other family to have a few different ideas than you may have. Normally the process is greatly defined by the girlís family due to the special protective role of a father towards his daughter. Yet both families should discuss these matters with a spirit of humility and accommodation towards one another.
Volume 4 Issue 2: March / April 2003, © Unless The Lord ... Magazine