Here we go again. Another guy named Josh writing about courtship. The last time this happened it didn’t end well.
In 1997, a 23 year old Joshua Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye. The book became a bestseller and introduced a generation to the concept of “courtship” as an alternative to mainstream dating. Twenty-two years later, Harris has recanted his views on courtship, separated from his wife, and rejected the Christian faith altogether. Is this heartbreaking news a sign that it’s time to kiss courtship goodbye forever?
I for one am not ready to throw away all that courtship stands for just because one of its advocates has tragically abandoned his upbringing. My acceptance of courtship is not based on Harris’ teachings. Rather, I believe that the basic concept of courtship is based on solid biblical principles.
Before going any further, I want to quickly clear the air by defining what it is I’m talking about when I say “courtship”. It seems no two people define that word the same way. For me, courtship is not a list of rules or an exasperating formula, but an application of certain biblical principles. The exact application of these principles will vary from situation to situation. My view of courtship is flexible enough to allow for alterations, as long as the core biblical principles are present.
In my thinking, courtship is any relationship that has marriage as it’s goal (though not every courtship ends in marriage) and applies the following two biblical principles:
Active parental involvement in the selection of a spouse. Let the record show that this is not the same as an arranged marriage. This is simply parents obeying Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6. Parents shouldn’t stop shepherding their child’s hearts right when they reach one of the most important decisions of their life. Any child with a good relationship with their parents will not only tolerate but relish the advice and involvement of their parents. Both Old and New Testaments presume that parents would play a role in selecting their child’s spouse (Deuteronomy 7:3, Ezra 9:12, Nehemiah 13:25, Matthew 24:38, 1 Corinthians 7:36-38) . Was some of this cultural? Of course. But could it not also tell us something about God’s expectations for parents and children? Is it possible that our repulsion to parental participation in dating is a result of Western individualism and not orthodox Christianity? Furthermore, the lack of any rebuke makes parental involvement, at the very least, biblically acceptable.
Constructive safeguards against immorality. The Bible was talking about purity and modesty long before the “Purity movement” ever existed (1 Thessalonians 4:3, Hebrews 13:4, 1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Peter 3:4). For those principles to mean anything they must be applied to everyday situations. But no, I’m not going to give you a neat little list of dos and don’ts. This is a matter of wisdom and discernment, not rules and regulations. At the same time, a courting couple will be conscience of their own weakness and put healthy, objective safeguards in place.
These two principles are what I am advocating for. Beyond that, I have not partisan loyalty to the word “courtship” (though I will keep using it until someone can come up with a better term). If a person desires to apply these biblical principles but has irreparably negative associations with the word courtship then I will not object to them calling it something else.
Whenever the subject of courtship comes up there’s always someone with a horror story to tell. I’ve personally talked with people who have nothing good to say about their courtship experience. They feel duped, betrayed, misled, and violated. To these “survivors”, courtship means legalism, authoritarianism, and repression.
But that’s not what it means to me. I still remember nervously walking into Village Inn with a bouquet of flowers. Alissa’s dad (he was always my best wingman) had lured her to the location under some pretense. With no small amount of fear, I walked up to her table and handed her the bouquet. Trying my best to not sound like the excited, nervous, gitty, emotional wreck that I was, I asked her to begin a relationship with me. I knew she would say yes but something about hearing that word turned by heart into a puddle.
That was the beginning of a fun, sweet, exciting courtship. I have so many fond memories of getting to know Alissa during that time. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Seven years later we still celebrate our “courtship anniversary” and reminisce about the courting experience. By God’s grace, we have a loving, happy, imperfect-but-ever-maturing marriage.
The sorrowful news about Josh Harris has caused me to ponder why my courtship experience was so drastically different from others that I’ve talked to. Why does the word “courtship” give my wife and I warm fuzzies and others cold chills? I’ve come to the conclusion that it usually has nothing to do with the actual courtship procedures. It’s something much deeper than that. It’s the heart attitude behind courtship.
I do not pretend to know all the factors that led to Harris’ public fall. But I do know that the lack of certain attitudes has scarred many courting couples and at times propelled them to make the legalism-to-license pendulum swing. Here are five attitudes that I believe need to be embedded in the heart of a couple and their parents in order for a courtship to be most successful.
A desire to be ruled by grace and not law
I remember a phone conversation I had with my now father-in-law at the very beginning of my relationship with his daughter. I was new at this whole relationship thing and wanted to make sure I was doing it right. So I asked him what the rules were for Alissa and I. His response changed my whole conception about what courtship was. He chuckled and said that he wanted us to have a courtship that was governed by grace and not law.
Every time I tell that story, someone raises their hand and says, “But what does look like practically?” It’s a fair question. To be honest, it’s a little hard to explain. There definitely where things that we did and other things that we didn’t do. The same things could have been done (and not done) in a very legalistic way. But somehow, the motive behind it was different.
This difference is perhaps most evident in the questions that are asked, rather than the answers that are given. A law-governed courtship is defined by such questions as,
- “Is there a rule about this?”
- “Can we get by with that?”
- “Are we allowed to _______?”
A grace-governed courtship instead asks,
- “How do I love God in this situation?”
- “What would best protect my partner?”
- “Could this cause me to stumble?”
For courtship to be God-honoring, it must have love for God and love for others at its foundation. If it does not, it will either lead to legalism and self-righteousness or bitterness and resentment (or both).
An affection for parents
In too many cases, a courtship is conceived this way: A father spends thirteen to twenty years neglecting his duties toward his daughter. He’s not built a relationship or established trust. Then she reaches puberty and he suddenly panics. He scrambles to instantly take back all the authority that he’s been giving up for over a decade. He lays down some tough rules and makes her abide by them. That’s a good way to provoke your children to anger (Colossians 3:21).
For courtship to be successful it must be built on a well established relationship. The courtship mentality does not begin when “boy meets girl”. It begins when “parent meets child”. It must be built on a lifestyle of patient, daily, deliberate, loving, humble discipleship in the home. This is the very sort of parent-child relationship that the Scripture mandates.
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 NASB)
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
I’m very grateful that both my parents and in-laws did the hard work in those early years of parenting to ensure that their children had a good relationship with them. As a result, it was the most natural thing in the world to involve them in my courting relationship. They never had to force it upon me. I wanted to their advice, protection, and support. If they hadn’t volunteered it, I would have asked for it.
Parents who do not have this relational foundation should be very careful in moving forward with courtship. It’s not impossible for them to restore the relationship and play a more involved role in their child’s life. But they need to take the time to gain trust, beginning with a transparent conversation that includes the phrase, “Please forgive me for…”
An eagerness to court
This is related to the previous point. Forcing, manipulating, or coercing your children into doing courtship is one of the best ways to foster bitterness and resentment. All the parties involved in a courtship should want to be involved in a courtship.
To accomplish this, parents must begin teaching about courtship before the first time they have a crush on a member of the opposite sex. A couple should go into the relationship knowing what courtship is, why it is done, and excited about all of it They need to understand the orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy of courtship right from the beginning.
A consistent pursuit of purity
Laws have loopholes. No one knew this better than the Pharisees (Matthew 23:16-22, Mark 7:9-13). A law-governed courtship will create an extensive list of dos and don’ts. But if there is no heart to glorify God, there will be a temptation to indulge in anything not on the “list”.
I know too many young men who followed all the courtship rules (per se) but were enslaved to pornagrophy the entire time. This inconsistency carries over into the marriage and creates innumerable problems. Often times, courtship takes the blame for these problems. But the bigger issue was hypocrisy.
A courtship governed by grace and love will go beyond any list. A heart that desires purity will protect itself in both public and private. Courtship must never be used as a mask to cover deeper issues of immorality. It’s merely a tool to be used for the glory of God.
A realistic expectation of courtship’s purpose
Courtship is often sold to young people and their parents as a way to ensure marital and sexual bliss, free from the problems that plague dating relationships. Experience soon teaches that courtship does not deliver on those kind of promises. Disillusionment sets in and before long the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.
The fact is that marriage takes work. There’s nothing that can be done on the front end of marriage to make that not the case. Courtship does not and cannot prevent marriages from having difficulties and struggles. Some marriages that were brought about by courtship (like the one between Josh and Shannon Harris) end in disaster. Some marriages brought about dating (like most marriages in this country) also end in disaster. The method used to find a spouse is not necessarily to be blamed in either case.
So what then is the point of courtship? If it won’t ensure an automatically perfect marriage than why do it? The goal of courtship is not to eliminate all marital problems. It’s to put the couple in the best position possible to biblically and effectively deal with all marital problems. Advocates of courtship, like myself, believe that having wise parental counsel and protection from relationship-harming sins helps equip couples do the hard work of loving their spouse and working through problems.
I’m saddened by the news about Josh Harris and my heart breaks for all those affected by his rejection of Christianity. But my commitment to grace-governed courtship is completely unshaken. All forms of finding a mate (yes, that includes traditional dating) can become legalistic and problematic. But I believe that when done with a correct heart of love for God and others, courtship (as I’ve previously defined it) best fits the teachings and principles of God’s Word.
For those who have been critical of courtship, I would ask you to look beyond the Josh Harrises of the world and examine the concept of courtship on its own merits. Yes, I know that there is legalism and hypocrisy in the courtship movement. But that doesn’t change the biblical principles behind courtship. Does the Bible encourage parental involvement in the lives of children? Does God’s Word promote sexual holiness? What would that look like practically? These are the questions that need to be asked.
For those in the courtship movement, I would ask you to kiss hypocrisy, not courtship, goodbye. Look beyond laws and lists and see the heart of God. Make sure you are not merely conforming to a list of external standards but are exemplifying a passionate desire to honor God in your search for a spouse. Our desire must be to please Him in our parental, courtship, and marital relationships.
By God’s grace, let’s take courtship beyond the law and beyond Josh Harris.