Courtship: Sacred Cow of Conservative Evangelicals
I believe some will hear this title and think that a message rebuking the practice of courtship is heresy. Courtship is something considered to be sacred gospel truth- when (as it is commonly practiced) it has no solid foundation in the Word of God in reality. The manner in which it is commonly practiced in conservative evangelical circles now is actually very improper, and the common assumption that it is God’s prescribed way to produce godly marriages, practically makes it an addition to God’s Word. However, it is something which is not only foreign to the Bible, but also contrary to common sense and decency. It is an example proving that many who think they are zealous for pure Christianity are zealous instead for the traditions of men.
If you are listening to this and you aren’t familiar with the common conservative evangelical environments where courtship is practiced, I mean what I ‘ve seen and understand to be the norm in modern conservative evangelical environments: Single males and females barely interact, yet are highly pressured to get married, and for that to happen they have no way in general of getting to know each other except by entering into this highly binding, highly public arrangement termed as courtship, which isn’t officially engagement to marriage, but practically it is, as it is commonly highly emotionally involved, time consuming, and the assumption of a future marriage is virtually present from the moment that the courtship is announced. Such courtship cannot be proven to be something good nor right from the Bible. Indeed, it cannot even appear to be a good thing unless it is compared to modern dating, something which I am not advocating either. Putting modern dating in opposition to this courtship is a strawman argument technique, since it does not prove this courtship good in and of itself. It assumes modern dating is the only other choice once courtship is rejected; and I will show in continuing here that it is not.
Some words are never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, yet the concept behind the word is easy to see for anyone who is honest. A common example of this would be the doctrine of the Trinity. Trinity as a specific word is never found in the Bible, yet the concept of one God existing in three persons is easy to prove when you combine the obvious Bible teachings related to this matter. This cannot be said of courtship. To then make this the standard practice for producing marriages, as modern conservative evangelicals have done, is to essentially add to Scripture and create a sacred cow which is considered untouchable, when in reality, it ought to be called out as the man-made invention that it is. And I am amazed that this so rarely happens.
The common way in which courtship is practiced essentially makes courtship virtually equivalent to engagement, with the following official engagement basically being considered a formality and a foregone conclusion from the beginning. It is actually just about as hard and painful to break off a courtship as it is an engagement. And then considering the serious nature of courtship, and how a courtship is practically an engagement in the conservative evangelical environment, there is no alternative in such an environment to perpetually being single. There is no way to get married in these courtship environments without, as the very first step, nearly binding oneself to marriage with someone they don’t know well, by entering into a courtship with them. And this confusion is labeled as “God’s way” of going about marriage.
Now if what you consider courtship is not this binding, and is more just getting to know each other in an informal way which doesn’t involve high commitment and emotional entanglement from the very beginning, then this message may not be a rebuke to you. By calling what you do courtship, many will interpret that as the type of courtship which I believe is the norm in conservative evangelical circles now. I’ve sure never seen nor heard anything else taught as being such.
So possibly some listening to this will accuse me now of promoting modern dating; and of enabling all the sin and mischief which often comes with that. Yet that would be a false accusation, because that is not what I am advocating at all. The Bible never gives a detailed prescription for how single adults should go about getting married. Many believe that courtship is the remedy for the errors of modern dating, but there is no Biblical basis for that belief. I don’t believe it is right for males and females to date as it is commonly done now either. Single people (and I say people; I don’t say young people; to limit this topic to young people is a mistake) of the opposite gender should not be left alone when there is any potential at all for sexual temptation. Modern dating usually fails in this way. And for males and females to just be together, getting to know each other unsupervised, is not good. To have a relationship with no definite plan to go forward eventually, or to end the relationship eventually, is not wise either. Dating often does great damage because one person thought marriage was a possibility; and the other had no such intention. In denouncing courtship as I am doing, I am not promoting dating, as it is commonly done now, at all.
Don’t think though that courtships don’t ever fail like dating does. Courtships often do involve fornication and all manner of uncleanness just like modern dating often does. The chaperone is often a younger sibling who is literally like eight years old who is not going to stop bad things from happening even at a sanctioned get together. And those who aren’t godly and spiritual don’t become so because their relationship is called a courtship instead of dating. Related to that, when there’s a will to get alone to do forbidden things, there is a way. You might say you know of courtships where there was purity, and a marriage which resulted from the courtship which is working out well, where both the bride and the groom were also virgins on their wedding night. The same can also be said of some cases of modern dating. That doesn’t justify the practice though.
The following are some Scriptural principles which everyone needs to follow, whether they are single or married; and if single, whether they are in the process of perhaps getting married or not. The Bible doesn’t give a precise pattern for going about getting married, but these principles need to be followed at all times, no matter what. To not follow these is carnal and brings the wrath of God.
1 Corinthians 7:1-2: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”
1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.”
Ephesians 4:17-24: “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But ye have not so learned Christ; If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”
With these principles in mind, there is no reason to think that courtship is any better, or any less defrauding, than modern dating. Courtship in fact has the same fundamental problem as modern dating- only worse! Courtship (again, as it is commonly practiced) actually inherently involves romance before there is a commitment to marriage. By romance being inherent in courtship I do not mean sex, since obviously that needs to wait until after marriage; and courtship advocates in conservative evangelical environments will agree with that. By romance here I mean an emotional relationship, “I love you baby”, and things like that. That stuff is okay for a couple who is engaged to be married, but not beforehand. And that emotional romance stuff does promote fornication and all manner of uncleanness when there is not a scheduling of a wedding that is definite in the near future (if God permits of course, but I mean the spoken and definite intention of a scheduled wedding in the very near future).
I think courtship is especially defrauding because of the ambiguity of the officialness regarding whether the marriage is already on or not. I claim that courtship can sometimes actually be worse than dating because there are false assumptions in courtship no matter how you view it. If you view it as equal to an engagement (as some courtship advocates will basically admit to), then that is false advertising! And then if you don’t view a courtship as an engagement, then you still have strong pressure to marry and a strong assumption of marriage due to the public nature of courtship and the vast leap involved in courtship. That is deceitful too! You also then in that case have people who aren’t committed to marriage involved romantically. And in the other case, the couple will be unnecessarily tempted to take indecent liberties with each other due to the assumption involved in the courtship that there will eventually be a commitment to marriage. I wonder who the Einstein is that thought of such nonsense. It sure wasn’t the God of the Bible. Courtship can’t exist as it is commonly practiced, because it is dishonest. It would just be called engagement if it were branded honestly in most cases. Otherwise, you might as well just call it dating! But if you don’t want to confuse that with what the world commonly does, then the alternative or modified dating which I will advocate later on can help with that. But people who are virtually engaged should just be said to be engaged for honesty’s sake. And those who aren’t engaged to be married shouldn’t be emotionally given to each other and publicly promoted as a couple. That puts undue pressure on each party and it makes ending the relationship extremely difficult and emotionally scarring. Modern courtship is no better than modern dating in that regard! It is often actually worse.
Often people who meet online and get to know each other online and/or over the phone in a gradual way have a safer, better route to marriage than a couple in a courtship, as well as a much easier and much less detrimental way to back out if they come to see they are not really a good fit for each other. Regardless, you need to really be sure that you are a good fit for each other and that you really both want to marry each other, knowing what you are able to know about the other person, before there is both a commitment to marriage and emotional romance.
What is the solution then? Those yet in their father’s home should submit to his oversight in the process (unless you cannot be a faithful Christian without strong opposition in his home- in which case you should get out of his house anyways), as well as the leadership of any church you are in (and if you don’t trust their oversight in such a weighty matter then you should not be in their church). Parents and church leaders then need to find creative ways for the single males and females in their churches who are at, or near, an acceptable age to be married to interact with each other. An environment where there is some supervision, yet also not the stifling, highly restrictive ethos where a single man and woman can’t interact for 20 seconds (if that) without violating some stated or implicit rule. Besides, such interaction probably does happen already in the leader’s own family settings when they visit with other families (especially other families where there are potential marriage candidates for their own offspring). That same permission should be expressly granted to the rest of the church, at least occasionally at certain times and in certain situations. Proper boundaries should be set, along with express permission for interaction in a godly way, at appropriate times, with appropriate limits that are not unnecessarily stifling (both churches that practice courtship and dating often fail here in one way or another- and it is often big-time failure!).
There should also be ways for potential mates to interact with each in a more in-depth way to decide whether they want to marry each other without becoming romantically involved (which is the case with courtship- in environments where courtship is practiced the norm is that there is virtually no relationship between a single male and female, unless it is romantic). These non-romantic means of interaction to get to know each other can happen in relative privacy compared to courtships, which tend to be accompanied by public announcements and are treated as a huge community matter. There should be a way out before you are in deep. There should be a way for both parties to make sure they want to go deep before they actually do so. Supervised, non-public, set times to interact at a church leader’s house, or in one of their homes, with some supervision, are appropriate to investigate further whether two people ought to get married (I’ll call this alternative or modified dating). After enough times like that, they could go straight to engagement- or they could just stop these sessions and peacefully continue on as before, without ever having to become romantically involved in order to arrive at such a decision, with none, or very little at least, of the emotional scarring resulting from a breakup from a relationship of a romantic nature; and also without having to be publicly stigmatized as having undergone a failed courtship. This modified form of dating is actually safer and involves much less pressure. There is no need to make a big commitment to someone you hardly know just to enter into it, it is much easier to get out if you see you are not right for each other, and it should be easier to exercise restraint when there is no assumption that the relationship will continue on to marriage as you get to know each other in a supervised and/or public environment. Couples who are in courtships also tend to spend inordinate amounts of time with each other. Avoiding this trap is much easier when there is no emotional romance and a healthier caution about whether the relationship will ever even progress further.
With that said, every now and then couples who enter into courtships do know each other well before. Most likely, because their families knew each other well. For conservative church members in well-connected families, the issues of the difficulty of entering into a courtship, and of barely knowing someone upon entering into a courtship, are not as likely to be major issues. Yet in that case, they have basically been doing what I am advocating before the courtship began (even though they will not admit to it often and would often throw a fit if you called it dating in any form). It is hypocritical for these courtship advocates to forbid others from what they practically do often anyways. And also, the two potential mates who already know each other well could, in that case, pretty much know already whether they want to marry each other or not. One or a few discussions in private would then be an adequate substitute for months of the “sacred” process of courtship.
An environment where there is total, or virtually total, separation of single males and females until a courtship begins is often considered better and highly spiritual. However, it is really a reflection of poor leadership when a church’s own single membership is not deemed trustworthy to interact with single members of the opposite gender in public and in homes (i.e. not alone together). If the members of a church are that unscrupulous and untrustworthy, then its leaders need to reconsider what they are accomplishing and the type of people which their environment is producing. Whatever the policy in bringing about marriages in their church is, the church obviously has much bigger problems in that case.
Courtship, as it is commonly known in the modern evangelical churches, is especially evil because it comes under the banner of Biblical holiness and the fathers involved are commonly thought to represent what Biblical patriarchy is. But this courtship, with its accompanying problems, does not well represent Biblical holiness nor Biblical patriarchy. Many hate these things, and they would only hate them more if they were to see them represented faithfully. Yet I wonder if some out there are uncomfortable with these concepts, not for what they are in their authenticity, but due to how they have seen them represented in modern conservative evangelical culture- perhaps especially in relation to its sacred cow of courtship and the insane confusion which it has brought about.
Another major problem in conservative evangelical environments, where courtship is commonly practiced, is that there tends to be extremes in one way or another which keep people, especially females, from marriage at an appropriate age. It is either implicitly expected that a father should give his daughter up to marriage as soon as she is legally old enough; or there is an overprotective attitude in the fathers which puts their daughters into situations where no guy is ever allowed to even get close enough to talk much to them, even after they’ve been about as ready as anyone can be for marriage for several years. The former situation leaves the daughters vulnerable to a marriage they are not ready for; and the latter provokes the daughters to extreme temptation as they are overprotected and shielded from potential marriage candidates due to the extreme all or nothing nature of the courtship arrangement. And both cases leave the daughters believing they need to accept the first guy their father lets make a courtship offer to them out of fear that, if they don’t, they will never get another chance to marry again. This often results in marriages which are often no better, and/or not any longer lasting, than the horrible marriages resulting from dating which are candidates to be used as cautionary tales against the practice.
It is too bad that Biblical purity and Biblical patriarchy are vilified so much, but the unbiblical practice of courtship and the bad fruits of it that are common in the environments which it is practiced, don’t help at all. If you have a horror story related to an environment where courtship is practiced, do consider that if God’s ways had actually been followed in your case, things may very well have gone a lot better. If you hate the thought that God has put the man as the head over the woman and/or the concept that sex is only proper in marriage, then I offer you no mercies nor comfort. Yet as I’ve said, I suspect some are disillusioned for other reasons related to the failure of male leadership to actually exercise godly wisdom in implementing practical and safe ways for those affected by their policies to find proper mates, in a pure way, that is also reasonable and very practical.
I would never enter into a courtship. I would rather stay single my whole life than to take such a silly risk under authority that, due to the fact that such courtship is their prescribed way of navigating the marriage process, is incompetent at the very best. I trust such authority little more than I’d trust a man who let his daughter take a ride out in the country in the dark on a date with some guy they barely knew. And why enter into a practical engagement with someone you don’t even know too well? That is asking for disaster. As has been said, with modern courtship in conservative evangelical environments, if you know each well enough to start a courtship without that being a foolish decision, you might as well just get engaged. I’ve been in several different environments where courtship was the norm; and I am glad I was never foolish enough to even attempt to experience courtship first-hand. It always seemed somewhat odd to me, but I didn’t question it for a long time because it seemed better than going out on casual dates (the norm of the world- which I haven’t been foolish enough to do either, by the way). Courtship seemed at least decent, even though I wanted no part in it myself.
Yet analyzing everything I’ve seen and heard about courtship, comparing it to the Bible’s instruction, and thinking outside the box of typical modern methods, both modern dating and modern courtship are insane and invite disaster in both the spiritual and the natural realm! There are common sense ways to avoid the insanity of both. You say “My spouse and I went through the courtship process, we were virgins on our wedding night, and our marriage is great.” Good, I hope it is. Yet there are people who dated, even some people who dated somewhat irresponsibly, who say that too. In both cases, disaster was likely invited, it just may have been averted anyways. No one would claim that a group of parachutes, which had been proven to be produced defectively, should continue to be used because some people who had used them didn’t have a deadly or highly injurious fall. There is a bigger issue anyways here which we’re about to tackle. There are certainly notable improprieties involved in both modern dating and courtship which make it obvious that neither of them is good, that there must be better methods than both of these, and the biggest issue for me in doing this study is that courtship is an addition to God’s Word and a sacred cow of modern conservative evangelicals which is long overdue for the just criticism it deserves and warrants.
Are you really living by every Word of God? Or are you perhaps resting in a format or lifestyle which is a counterfeit or mere form of a life that is actually a holy and righteous walk before God? Are you perhaps resting in conformity to a culture that isn’t a faithful representation of authentic Christianity, even though it may claim to be? Those who accept flagrant additions to God’s Word need to repent of the lack of exercise of their God-given intellectual faculties and any intellectual dishonesty in that acceptance, at the very least. The Bible says in Ephesians 5:15-17: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.”
And those who promote concepts as representing the principles of God’s Word, when they evidently don’t, are essentially adding to the Word of God. Those who so promote this common way in which courtship is practiced need to repent of that. Proverbs 30:5-6 says: “Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.”
And when there are things which are not right and true which someone regards as Gospel truth, there is reason to believe then that there is actual Gospel truth which they are not pursuing and following, that such additions have been used as a substitute for. It is common sense that this is typically how things go. I believe that people in the realm of professing Christianity are often drawn to courtship because it gives them a sense of believing that they are really living holy and abandoned to truth because they are different in their practice from most of the rest of society (which is obviously corrupt). Yet when additions to God’s Word are readily accepted, no matter how holy they may seem and/or feel, then it is a virtual certainty that there are actual elements of gospel truth, which in totality compose and define genuine holiness and actual abandonment to the truth of God, that are being neglected and missed out on. And there is thus some evidence that one’s feeling of having these things is really not anything more than a feeling.
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