COURTSHIP PRINCIPLES VS. RULES
Much has been written and taught in recent years about the problems of modern dating and the alternatives of Christian courtship or betrothal. Though this seems to be a very new and recent idea, its roots go back much earlier. In the early 1970s, Bill Gothard was teaching principles of dating that were forerunners of today’s courtship teachings.
Jonathan Lindvall, influenced by Gothard’s teachings, began teaching what he called “courtship” as an alternative to dating (later began teaching “betrothal” as a better/improved alternative). Bill Gothard also adopted the term and further defined what it meant. By the early 1990s several Christian teachers were spreading the word, particularly within the homeschooling community. Then in 1997 Joshua Harris' book, "I Kissed Dating Goodbye", popularized the concept of courtship to the larger Christian community.
Over the last ten or so years, books on courtship/betrothal have been written by Jeff Barth, Doug Wilson, Don Raunikar, and others. Fictional novels encouraging courtship have been written by the Castleberrys. Seminars and audio tapes have been offered by Lindvall, Reb Bradley and others. Numerous magazine articles have been published.
What do we find when comparing these many and various teachings? There is substantial agreement on many points. All point out the dangers and poor outcomes of modern dating. Many contribute useful ideas, concepts and illustrations. Although agreeing in many areas, there remain disagreements - some significant, many minor.
Why are there many differences? This is not an area where there is direct Biblical instruction on how we should go about finding a wife or husband. Now there are many useful principles that can be drawn from related Biblical teachings (avoiding fornication, O.T. laws concerning marriage, etc.), there are points of wisdom from Proverbs, and we have a few Biblical examples of courtships God seemed to bless (i.e. Isaac & Rebekah, Ruth & Boaz). Yet the examples have certain limitations, due to unique circumstances and the uncertainty that these examples in all aspects pleased God. Some aspects may have been cultural patterns of that time and place, which fell short of God’s best. So it is no wonder that Christians will not entirely agree on these matters.
It is easy to see that modern dating practices are resulting in a great deal of fornication, emotional hurts, poor marriage choices and divorce. Historically, a good case can be made that modern practices are inherently foolish. Though practices differ from age to age and culture to culture, ours are very different from most in their: 1) lack of concern with protecting the virginity of daughters; 2) removing the parents from the marriage decision; and 3) basing the marriage decision primarily on emotional love rather than a wise and suitable choice.
However, we must remember that what is taught today as courtship and/or betrothal are the ideas and creations of men. These men are drawing upon Biblical principles, practices of the past, their own experiences, and whatever wisdom they have from God. Men will make mistakes!
RULES VS. PRINCIPLES
There are many Christian parents who know first hand the shortcomings of dating and who are anxious to learn about a better way for their children. We want step by step details, even guidebooks of all the dos and don'ts of courtship/betrothal. As teachers strive to meet this need, they can fall into the trap of believing it is really possible to provide such a detailed guide - a guide that will address most every situation and problem that can arise. We end up with detailed rules drawn from principles that were drawn from still other principles. Good suggestions and wise advice for many circumstances become cast in stone as rules for all situations. As teachers, we need to be careful to remind our listeners and readers how much is just suggestions, advice, and hopefully, good ideas. You should not come away from a courtship teaching with the impression that you will be doing it all wrong unless you follow this set of 37 rules!
There are just too many situations, too many variables! Guiding principles work, long lists of rules do not. Though God gave the Jews many detailed laws, He made no attempt to cover every contingency or answer every question. Jesus, while teaching on many topics, often focused his hearers on a few basic principles (loving God and your neighbor, etc.) and urged His hearers to understand the spirit of the laws rather than mechanically following the letter.
I believe it is a mistake to make long lists of rules of what to do and not to do in this matter. There are many good ideas, advice and practical examples that can be given, but these should not be taken as rules! A focus on some general principles seems much more productive than many rules. Principles offer the advantage of being adaptable to different circumstances. They are more flexible for dealing with the unanticipated.
Consider just a few of the different situations one may face:
1. The young woman's father may be deceased, she may even be an orphan. Or her father may be an unbeliever who refuses to play any role in courtship. How will the parents' role in courtship be fulfilled?
2. The young man may be a missionary living far home, thousands of miles away. He needs a wife with similar commitment from his own culture but there are few if any that he has any direct contact with. How can he participate in family activities with the girl's family or effectively get to know them?
3. The young woman is no longer so young (i.e. 35) and living on her own far away from home. How does this impact the parents' role?
4. The other family involved may not hold to exactly the same courtship process as you do. Perhaps one set of parents only wants to be minimally involved. What do you do?
5. The two families have been friends and together in church for years. The young couple have been friends for years. There may be little need to "get to know one another" beyond a very few very serious discussions. They may quickly be ready to proceed to betrothal/engagement.
6. The young man and woman may have never even met each other. All they know is third hand information. Even the parents may only have third hand information about each others’ family. Much more time and a more gradual process may be needed than in situation #5 above. It may be slow and a little awkward for the young man and woman to initially become acquainted. It may be a while before either knows enough to commit to a courtship.
Our culture has exalted romantic love to be above all. "Love" is often the sole reason given for marriage. All other considerations are often brushed aside. With courtship, perhaps the overriding principle is “wisdom.” What is the wise way to make marriage decisions and avoid sin? Biblical wisdom includes: 1) Understanding human nature including the power of attraction, the effects of infatuation, and the temptations of intimacy - and thus seeing the risks in most dating; and 2) Understanding marriage in terms of God's roles for husbands and wives and what things are most important in this relationship. This includes seeing the need for maturity and preparedness, seeing what things make marriage more difficult and the things that are really important long term.
Courtship does not need to be a highly complex process. The basics are really very simple. They grow directly out of the roles in the parent child relationship. A father naturally (and Biblically) should protect his daughter from: 1) those who might take advantage of her; or 2) temptations to sin; or 3) from marriage before she (or the young man) is prepared; or 4) from those who would bring her much grief in marriage. Parents protect and advise children, particularly where they have little experience or wisdom yet. Children respect and honor their parents, listen to their advice and seek their approval for such an important decision. Marriage requires a lifetime commitment on the part of the marrying couple, so the final decision must be theirs. Courtship is simply parents applying wisdom to help their child make a good marriage decision - and a child wisely listening to parental advice in an area where he or she has little experience.
The courtship process should be reasonable. Beware slavish devotion to a detailed rule of men (not of God) that is to the detriment of the young people involved. If the rule or advice doesn't fit in the given situation or creates unnecessary obstacles, discard it! For example: You may hear varying advice concerning the proper length of either a courtship or engagement. No set time frame fits every situation. If it is clear that the couple has reached the point of making a fully informed decision and are ready for marriage, does it serve a good purpose to make them wait longer? Requiring further waiting when God has prepared them to go ahead may create more temptations, more frustrations and strain your relationship with them. Don't force your child's courtship into somebody else's mold. It may not be a good fit!
As parents, don't be unfair or unreasonable with the young couple. Give liberty as appropriate to the time, with prudence, considering all factors. Don't create unnecessary hardships or frustrations by being too concerned with temptation in situations where risks are low and both are on their guard. Be prudent, but not ridiculous!
Fathers of daughters, be considerate of young men courting your daughters. Don't expect or require commitment without knowledge. Though what he has heard and seen may have aroused serious interest, he should not be expected to commit beyond what he can in good conscience do. An opportunity to gain more first hand knowledge may be needed.
Be fair and reasonable, concerned for the young man's best as well as your daughter's. Don't create obstacles that serve no good purpose. Treat him even as you would wish another man to treat your son in similar circumstances. Part of your role is to advise him and to help him get to know your daughter so he can make a wise and informed decision. Don't damage your relationship with a likely son-in-law!
Don't leave God out of the picture. Pray for wisdom and for guidance. Seek His confirmation of decisions and directions. Don't proceed far without conviction that God is in this and is leading.
This is the principle of not beginning a courtship until reasonably prepared for marriage (by parents' estimation). It also implies refraining from recreational dating or any romantic involvement prior to the time for marriage. Does this mean perfect preparedness? Of course not! When are we ever perfectly prepared? A few final preparations may be best left until the period of engagement just prior to marriage. The issue is one of substantial and adequate preparation. Inadequate preparation may not spell disaster, but can create hardships for the new marriage that would be better avoided. The point is not to begin a courtship until the proper time - when the relationship can proceed fairly rapidly towards marriage without unreasonable delays and without entering marriage woefully unprepared.
Parents should assume their God given responsibility to assist their children in wise marriage choices. This may sometimes include suggesting suitable candidates for marriage. It may include turning away some suitors and ruling out others as not being good choices. It should include much advice to assist in making a wise choice, not one based primarily on emotion. Children should respect the wisdom of their parents, listen to their advice and not consider those not approved by their parents. In instances where there is no parent able or willing to perform this role, another trusted relative, pastor or Christian mentor might help.
Parents should reasonably protect their sons and daughters from temptations and dangers (including infatuation). This might include not allowing young men free and easy access to your daughter without your prior approval. Parents might also establish guidelines for the courtship, in consultation with the young couple, in order to reduce the risks both of temptation and early emotional attachment. Parents may plan a number of family activities where the young couple can comfortably interact with parental supervision. Parents (and sometimes siblings) also assist with assessing character, beliefs, convictions, goals and life direction, compatibility of temperaments, etc. Parents and siblings may discern possible problems that may be easily overlooked by the young man or woman. Again, others can help with protection if there is no parent to do so.
Lastly there needs to be a firm decision to marry by the young couple, without pressure from parents, but having already received parental blessing to marry if they choose.
Let’s not become absorbed with either creating or following a myriad of rules for courtship. We would all be better served by focusing on a few key principles, while remaining flexible to the situation and seeking the Lord’s leading and wisdom. Suggestions and examples of other courtships can be very helpful, as long as we use them properly. We must not try to force every courtship into one narrow mold. Extend some grace to your brethren in Christ. You may not see the wisdom in some of the courtship decisions of others, but don’t be quick to criticize or find fault.
Volume 2 Issue 3: May / June 2002, © Unless The Lord ... Magazine