I read an interesting article from World News Daily this past weekend titled: “Dating is Dangerous, Christian Leaders Say.” The title alone is eye-catching, and my reasons for looking at it are multifaceted, some of which the observant reader will glean from what follows.
For starters, I’m well aware of the current existence of what we might call a movement of many Christians away from using the term “dating” and towards the term “courting” when it comes to ostensibly romantic pre-marital interactions between individuals of opposite sex. This movement has its own distinct literature (think “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Josh McDowell) and leaders (many named in the article), and has certainly amassed quite a following over the past decade or so since I first learned of it. Having been homeschooled through my primary education, I’ve floated in the circles more likely to grab on to so-called “courting” as the way to go for people, and have even been engaged in it myself in the past (more on this later), so it continues to be a topic that rises slightly above casual interest for me.
Now, let me say that, while I do understand what the “courting movement” (hereafter CM) is reacting against,* I am not particularly fond of the movement’s alternative or their general approach. I want to be clear that I am not at this time seeking to provide a positive apologetic for dating** other than to note that the CM tends to paint it with a broad brush and ends up demonizing a lot of good people with their hearts and minds in the right place who do date in some form (I chalk this up to carelessness in many CM proponents’ use of terms and consistent inability to give a fair definition of the word “dating”). What I do want to argue, however, is that in its overreaction against “dating,” the CM often ends up overreaching in its theory and practice, commits the Pendulum Error, and can have its own troublesome problems.
First, I want to show how the spokespersons of the CM mischaracterize dating. What tends to happen is that the CM proponents engage in what is effectively a misleading ad hominem against the word dating, applying definitions to it that we can all agree as Christians are bad and better off avoided, without recognition of the great many (majority of?) dating relationships in existence that in no way match those definitions.
Take this excerpt from the article, for instance:
SaveCalifornia.com President Randy Thomasson cites family expert Stacey McDonald when contrasting [dating and courtship]: “Dating is random, while courtship is deliberate; in dating, the goal is romance, while with courtship, the goal is marriage; dating leaves the couple unprotected, while courtship protects the young couple; dating is an unnatural setting of perpetual recreation, but courtship creates a natural setting of real life and family; and finally, dating gives the couple rose-colored glasses, but courtship brings in a magnifying glass.”
Let me ask the obvious question here: doesn’t this establish somewhat of a false dichotomy? That is:
- In addition to falsely characterizing all dating as random (I have personally never dated someone for any reason other than to evaluate them as a potential spouse, and that far from randomly)…
- …it absolutely ignores any type of continuum of dating behaviors (e.g. some daters spend a lot of time with one another’s families, esp. if they are close by, while some may lack the opportunity, such as if they are far away)…
- …and makes arbitrary characterizations where none naturally exist (dating gives rose colored glasses and courtship brings a magnifying glass? Really? As if no dater ever considers a person’s warts? And no courter allows themselves to be swept away by pure romantic idealism?).
Thomasson and McDonald speak as though something as organic as a real relationship between real people can only fall into one category at one time, but the reader will recognize this as hardly an honest representation of the complexities of relationship reality.
The article goes on from this point to cite Thomasson’s extolling of the virtues of courtship over and against dating, and falling into a briar patch of non-sequitors. Take this jewel, for instance:
“…when you look at it closely, the dating culture has led to widespread heartbreak, sexual immorality, STDs, abortion, abuse, and divorce,” Thomasson points out. “All of these ills are much more likely to come from dating than courtship.”
This is an example of the logical fallacies post hoc ergo propter hoc and cum hoc ergo propter hoc. That is, “after this, therefore because of this” and “with this, therefore because of this,” respectively. It is simply not reasonable to assume that if two behaviors appear one-after-the-other or even simultaneously (in this case dating and sexual immorality, etc.) it automatically means there is a cause and effect relationship, or even a relationship at all. I can cook dinner at the same time my pet fish is dying, but that does not mean I am cooking my pet fish. Thomasson doesn’t seem to realize that sexual immorality et al come from out of a heart in rebellion towards God, and that the dating can be only incidental to this (i.e., so-called “friends with benefits” can be sexually immoral without dating, and my parents dated for years in high school and college without falling into sexual immorality). But perhaps the argument is that dating puts a greater strain on a couple trying to avoid these ills? Maybe, but if it is Thomasson’s point that dating tends towards these things then he needs to make it without painting with the broad brush and treating it like it’s inevitable. And anyway, I’d like to see the studies he’s using to back up these claims, because I doubt very much they exist. I think more likely these are just bare assertions (another fallacy) on his part, though I’m open to being proven wrong.
Thomasson then adds, “For God did not intend for parents to cut their teenagers loose to follow their own foolish feelings.”
Here I can actually agree with him (putting aside for the moment that teenagers are not the only ones who date, which the CM as a whole – and especially this article – tends to assume) in that the younger the person, the more parental supervision is necessary in any venture, not just dating. I don’t think this rules out dating, generically defined, but merely sets some additional parameters for those who engage in it at younger ages. However, if the parents have not cut their child loose to some degree at, say, 20 years old (i.e. no longer a teenager) and still demand to be intimately involved in their child’s romantic life, I think we have a problem. To be sure, children of all ages should honor their parents and their council – even and especially when it comes to romantic engagements – throughout their lives, but this hardly needs to mean letting them run the show, least of all once you’ve become an adult.
I think the next line of the article was my favorite:
The dating mentality, reports Thomasson, is responsible for many of the social ills witnessed throughout America…
I mean, I guess you’d expect an article titled “Dating is Dangerous, Christian Leaders Say” to be somewhat alarmist (not to mention it came from WND, which has something of an alarmist vibe itself), but that’s actually quite a statement! The next paragraph elaborates on this claim.
“Where does abortion come from? Primarily sex out of wedlock. Sexually transmitted diseases? The same. What has the highest domestic violence rates? Unmarried relationships. What reinforces a divorce mentality? The constant breakups of dating.”
Which is of course another example of correlation not proving causation as discussed above. And even if one accepts that having unmarried sex and being divorced does cause abortions, STDs, and domestic violence (and I would object in the case of domestic violence, as abusers are more likely not to be married or to get divorced due to their actions, which flips the causation scheme on its head, at least in that case), it still does not follow that dating, generically defined, is to blame for the unmarried sex and divorce in the first place. Besides which, people who are courting can still succumb to temptation – there is nothing magically effective about courting that makes lust vanish – and people who are married after having courted can still have problems that lead to divorce – even including domestic violence. I’m willing to bet the incidence of both of these is not as low as the CM proponents would like to believe.
To his credit, Thomasson does stress that courting is not a panacea. But then the article continues apace, caveat forgotten, blasting away at “dating” as it is characterized and extolling the virtues of courtship. I won’t go into that more (although certainly more could be said) since I think my point has been made. Indeed, just reading what these folks have to say about “dating” speaks volumes already to anyone with the critical thinking capacity to see the over-generalizations inherent in every one of them, where they take the actions of a segment of the dating population and act as though they are representative of dating itself on a generic level. Instead, let me turn to my second point, regarding the overreaching that – at least to my mind – takes place in the theory and practice of courting.
What I will note here is that down a bit in the article we have an equivocation. All of a sudden “courtship” becomes “Biblical dating.” This is the only time in the article the word “dating” is used in a favorable way. If the author is all of a sudden going to grant that there are different types of dating (I would argue there is a spectrum), I wonder why the earlier use of the term wasn’t modified by some other word or phrase such as “pop-culture” or, even more bluntly, “anti-Biblical” dating, for the sake of clarity and to avoid over-generalization. I would chalk it up to oversight or poor writing if not for the fact that I’ve seen the same thing in the majority of the CM material I’ve read. Ah, the joys of semantics.
Anyway, what I really want to key in on in this phrase is the term “Biblical.” The article never makes clear why courting is a “Biblical” method of dating. Certainly there is no dating method prescribed in Scripture (i.e. set forth as the standard by God or one He has sent) that I am aware of – or else I would expect a chapter and verse from the author of the article. More likely, I should think, by Biblical dating is meant a method of interacting with a prospective spouse that takes Biblical values and principles and applies them towards that specific type of relationship. Things like “love your neighbor as yourself” or, perhaps more pointedly, the prohibitions against things such as fornication found in both Old and New Testaments. And if that’s all it means, what Christian wouldn’t want to do that kind of dating?
However, when examining what this so-called “Biblical dating” or “courting” looks like as set forth in the article, it becomes clear that, while that is included: just as in most all of the other CM literature I have come into contact with, more is meant.
“We may define biblical dating as a method of introduction and carrying out of a pre-marital relationship between a single man and a single woman that [typically] begins with the man approaching and going through the woman’s father or family; that is conducted under the authority of the woman’s father or family or church; and that always has marriage (or at least a determination regarding marriage to a specific person) as its direct goal,” Scott Croft[, an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.,] explains.
I don’t know about others reading this, but I do not find in Scripture where the relationship beginning “with the man approaching and going through the woman’s father or family” or being “conducted under the authority of the woman’s father or family or church” is explicitly advocated. Anywhere. At all. Is it a bad idea? Not necessarily. However, I find it rather duplicitous to claim the label “Biblical” for this when it is in fact nowhere held up as the ideal by God or His agents. I think this is where the theory of courting overreaches, in claiming a title that insinuates it is prescribed, which it is not.
But… it is DEscribed. And I think it would be instructive to take a look at the places in Scripture where something resembling this method is present in the Biblical narrative and see if we can come away with any themes.
So let’s go through some of the marriages we see in the Scriptures and evaluate, starting at the beginning:
Did Adam and Eve practice the “Biblical dating/courtship” model? Not in any meaningful way; there was no need. They were the only people on earth, literally made for one another. They don’t fit.
We aren’t really given another description of any type of courting situation until Isaac and Rebekah, so we turn to them next. In this case there is no approaching of the father or family by the party to the first part, that is Isaac, but rather by his own father’s servant. And it’s kind of a whirlwind deal, which defies Tracey Bartolomei’s description of “courtship” in the article as taking “a more thoughtful, long- term approach to a premarital relationship. The emphasis is on developing friendships and seeking compatibility in ones [sic] future mate. Courtship doesn’t actually begin until each feels that the other person could be a perspective [sic] marriage partner. Their time together is spent getting to know each other better through conversation and group socialization, rather than sexual intimacy.” Wow! Hardly a description of Isaac and Rebekah who, as far as the text would indicate, immediately upon meeting secluded themselves from others and consummated their marriage within the day. They don’t fit either.
Next we come to Jacob and Rachel. Now then, here surely is an example of Biblical dating/courtship. Jacob makes his desire for Rachel known to her father first and promises to work for him for 7 years in order to marry her. Yep, that all fits – you’ve got the suitor going through the woman’s father, the entire courtship is to take place as Jacob works for Laban, so it will certainly all be conducted under the authority of the woman’s father, not to mention it will take 7 years. Surely that’s enough time for Bartolomei’s “long-term approach!” And what happens? The girl’s father cheats him, and manipulates him into 7 more years of servitude to get what he’d already been promised in the first place.
Hmm, ok, so maybe not a shining example of a successful and happy courtship. Avert your eyes. Nothing to see here. And we’re walking… we’re walking…
Next up are the sons of Jacob, but there’s really no detailed information for us here. We come to Moses next, and though there is a bit more detail, it’s not enough information to give us any kind of solid picture. Samson is the next person for whom a substantial portion of the narrative is given to his finding a wife, but it does not meet the Biblical dating/courtship criteria either. Nor do Ruth and Boaz, to be sure. That is, unless uncovering and laying at the feet of a drunken man is some kinda courting ritual, like a secret handshake or something.
But then we come to David, who technically went through the girl’s father when Saul offered him his daughter Merab. And like with Jacob, things were conducted under the authority of the girl’s father and time passed, yet David was double-crossed as Merab was given to another man. Then, Saul offers David his other daughter, Michal, but in order to get her, David has to round up 200 Philistine foreskins. Saul was trying to use his authority in the relationship (not his authority as king, but as Michal’s father) to get David killed!
Right then, there are other marriages we could examine later in Scripture (though not a great many), but we will let this suffice. What I’m demonstrating here is that there are few enough examples in Scripture of a “Biblical dating”/”courting” model in practice, for one thing. Clearly it’s not just grossly pervasive or even normative, at least in the narrative if not in the culture. And besides, just because you see it described does not mean it is prescribed. If that were the case, the Hosea model would probably be the way to go; after all, unlike the “Biblical dating”/”courtship” approach of those we’ve identified above as descriptive, Hosea’s act of taking a prostitute for a wife has the additional boon of having been demanded of him by God, so there you have it! We have a winner!
But beyond that, I also want my readers to notice that the times when the so-called “Biblical dating”/”courtship” method (as laid out in the article and other CM literature) is most closely followed in Scripture, each time it ends up with the suitor being taken advantage of by his prospective father-in-law. In other words, far from being protective of the couple as Thomasson claims “Biblical dating”/”courtship” is in the my first citation of the article above, the Biblical accounts give us the picture of fathers abusing their authority by manipulating the man, taking advantage of the suitor’s interest in his daughter to string him along towards some other end. If the CM folks have a problem with this, don’t argue with me, argue with the text.
Now, does that mean anything at a broader level, such as its application as a model for us today? In other words, will the father always abuse the authority that the “Biblical dating”/”courtship” method gives him so brashly? Maybe not (although that’s just how it happened with me), but isn’t it incumbent upon the proponents of a method they call by the name “Biblical” to explain why every time we see their approach as they describe it put to practical use in that Bible it ends up badly for the suitor, not to mention the women that end up hurt as well? I think that it is.
The point I am trying to make here is not that every father who makes use of this method engages in bullying, abuse, or manipulation, so please don’t misunderstand. My concern with what I perceive to be an almost militant push from the CM towards embracing this method of premarital relations between prospective spouses is not without its blind spots and its weaknesses. I understand that this is a tough issue for many (though I think we tend to make it much more difficult than it needs to be), and that there are very real fears associated with the idea of one’s children growing up and getting married, and that the protective impulse brought on by that thought is not a bad one.
On the other hand, the drive to protect one’s child needs to be tempered with the understanding that children do grow up, and that there comes a time when it may even be better to allow something that is potentially painful (i.e. forming a romantic relationship) and take a step back from the situation, so that something better can come of it. I think of a child who must go under the knife for appendicitis; yes, surgery may not be ideal, yes, the child may bear a lifelong scar, but if the parent does not take a backseat, sit in the waiting room for a while, and chill out, but instead decides to not allow the surgery because of the potential for complications – or worse, tries to take the surgery into his own hands – that child will have far from an abundant life, if they have one at all.
Another element to this, from personal experience, and then I promise I’ll shut up:
I courted a young woman when in college, and I have dated several since then, and honestly I was more hurt by the failure of the courting relationship than the dating one, in several senses of the word. One reason for this is that, as the CM proponents note, courting is very marriage driven, almost singularly so. The effect of this is that once a courting relationship commences, the pressure to reach a decision about one another and your potential for starting a life together is immense.
This is made all the more burdensome by the fact that the entire family of one or both parties (usually the woman’s) is by definition intricately involved with the entire process, which multiplies the pressure exponentially. We’ve all heard the jokes about overeager men or women who want the person they are interested in to meet mom on the first or second date. The reason it’s funny is that we can all relate to and understand the embarrassment that comes secondary to the pressure it places on a relationship in its early stages, and in particular for the person meeting the parents (heck, entire movies are based on this premise). Now, add to that the fact that parents are encouraged by the leaders of the CM to bring a magnifying glass (and I can tell you from experience that it’s often more like a very large, very oppressive microscope), and you have a recipe making for a very tense situation, if not an outright smothering of the relationship under the weight of expectations and assumptions.
Is it any wonder why a simple one-on-one Coke date at the local food court is more appealing to so many? Not only is the pressure significantly diminished, but the distractions of the family and their expectations are avoided so that the two persons can investigate one another and determine their level of interest, or lack thereof, before getting little sister Suzie’s hopes up. Unfortunately, in a courting scenario, your attention is divided and more time is spent interacting with mom, dad, and X number of siblings than with the person you are actually trying to decide your degree of interest in. I know some will throw the old saying in my face, “you don’t just marry the girl, you marry her family,” and that’s all fine and stuff, but I don’t plan on living with them. I want to have some one-on-one time with the girl, preferably early on, to get a basic feel for chemistry and compatibility sooner than later instead of investing untold hours getting to know and love the family, and then finding that you can’t stand each other when it’s just the two of you.
Another reason that the end of the courting relationship hurt was that, while the CM proponents like to pretend that their method avoids emotional attachments (you’ll hear the mantra about “guarding your heart”) until the proper time, much down the road, the fact is is that this kind of emotional lock-box approach has no basis in reality. Ladies, let me ask you: can you honestly tell me that, if a young man (assuming he’s one you think well of) has approached your father about courting you, spends much of his free time coming over to your house to spend time with your family, and is clearly oriented towards pursuing you as a possible or even likely spouse, you will be able to maintain an inner stoicism until your emotions are given the father-sanctioned go-ahead? Because I guarantee that if the young man is doing all of those things, he for his part is already emotionally invested in you. To pretend otherwise is to ignore human nature at its most basic levels.
And yet CM proponents fill our ears with platitudes like this quote from Thomasson in the article: “Courtship produces a deeper love because the young couple gets to study each others’ character and mind without their judgment being clouded by emotional rushes and premature attachments.” Frankly, this is abject drivel. Any two young people engaged in studying “each others’ character and mind” is going to be subject to quite a lot of emotional rushes and attachments. Heck, even older people work this way, which is why many marriage counselors recommend avoiding doing this with members of the opposite sex other than your spouse, due to the fact that it can lead even otherwise happily married people into an adulterous relationship. To pretend that investigating someone of the opposite sex is or can be an emotionally sterile activity is sheer denial on the part of CM proponents and many of the practitioners.
And the final reason I will mention here for being so hurt by my failed courtship (and this feels entirely too personal to blog, but it is ever so relevant and, I feel, important in understanding the depth of my concerns) is this: the entirely eerie devotion and control demanded by the parents, particularly the father. That is to say, within the context of my courtship in particular, the function of the father of the girl was not as a source of earthly wisdom and experience, as it should be, nor a help and an aide who could help us in our investigation of one another, also as it should be, nor really even a fallible human being at all. Instead, his role was as ruler and arbiter who would judge our relationship and its progression, had ultimate say in where we would go and who we were with during the rare days we were permitted time away from her family, and for all intents and purposes possessed and exercised all power over both her behavior and mine, not to mention – it would seem – her thinking, though he tried and did not succeed with mine. Our relationship in every facet was subject to his whim, and the reason the relationship ended was that he also tried to subject my will to his… and I walked away.
Maybe this was unique to my experience, and perhaps cannot be taken to be representative of other courting relationships, but when I read the Biblical accounts that present an actual courtship following the guidelines proposed by the CM (as discussed above), I for myself conclude that my experience is not unique at all. And when I hear stories from other young men trying to make headway in a CM system, this is a theme that continues to appear.*** And it does grieve me.
That said, were I to judge all of “Biblical dating”/”courting” based off of this experience, I would be doing exactly what I chide the CM folks for doing: painting with a broad brush. I am perfectly content to accept courting as one method among many for establishing and moving forward a relationship, and completely understand why it is the preferred route for an increasing number of people today. However, in the same way as the CM folks have recognized the pitfalls of dating and done their due diligence to bring them to light, so too I have here sought to honestly identify what I see as potential issues with courting and expose them as well.
At the end of the day, there is no perfect “method.” Least of all one which will work for every couple in every individual situation. I think the body of believers is served far better when we allow iron to sharpen iron, helping to build one another up by pointing out the flaws in different approaches honestly (instead of overgeneralizing) and with compassion and understanding, and allowing one another to live in Christian freedom to choose the approach most suited to the unique situations different folks find themselves in. And it must be recognized by the CMs that when you start calling your method the “Biblical” one (implication: the others are not Biblical) without a lot more Biblical capitol than you seem to have, you deserve to be called out a little more harshly for binding the consciences of believers to your traditions (in this case, funnily enough, more of an antebellum or Victorian tradition than a Biblical one) when the Word is silent on the matter.
In any event, this is a big subject, but for now, in the words of the immortal Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
*Let me stress again that I do understand what the CM is reacting against. Certainly “dating” as a term has come to carry a lot of baggage – not all of it deserved, I think – and the practice of young people going out by themselves with zero parental guidance starting at a fairly young age (I had non-homeschooled friends who were going on non-supervised dates at 11 years old) is certainly harmful for many and varied reasons. Beyond that, dating can (though not must) certainly lead to the broken hearts and crossed physical boundaries that the CM crowd cites as their main areas of contention with dating; that is, the possibility exists that some folks could be hurt for the rest of their lives by carelessly and thoughtlessly conducting themselves when dating. I understand this and I understand the strong reaction away from it. However, dating is a tool, and like any tool, its use or misuse is largely in the hands of the wielder, as opposed to any inherent defect in the tool itself. I think there is a right way to date that is more successful at avoiding these cons than most in the CM will want to give it credit for, and maybe in a future post I will turn to elaborating on that subject.
**By dating this author refers simply to the condition of someone engaged in setting up and attending ostensibly romantic appointments with another individual, whether with a group (possibly including family) or as a couple alone. That is, the action of going on dates. It is also worth noting here that where “dating” appears in quotations I am referring to dating as (mis)characterized by the CM.
***Usually in circles where there is also a strong Patriarchal/Patriocentric Movement (PM) presence. To be sure, there tends to be a good deal of overlap between the CM and the PM. Indeed, one could say that most PMs are CMs (not all of course, for some are moving into arranged marriage according to word on the street), but most CMs are not, to my knowledge, necessarily PMs.