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When I was twelve, my parents came home and said, “Just so you know, you’re never going to be allowed to date.” This was fine by me; I was more into books than socializing. In fact, although I had a speech prepared on why I didn’t date, I never did get to use it. Still I paid some attention to the lessons on courtship, just in case it ever came up.
According to Mr. Gothard, since the unmarried are supposed to focus on pleasing the Lord, and the married on pleasing each other, the courting should focus on pleasing their parents. I’m not sure how he found out that part, since Paul failed to mention it. The materials explaining courtship and testimonies of successful courtships painted a clear picture of what was expected. A proper, godly courtship went as follows:
Step 1: God reveals to a young man whom he is to marry. Bonus points if he is not attracted to her and/or her existence is pointed out to him by an authority. He cannot, of course, know her well since anything more than a nodding acquaintance with a member of the opposite sex is dangerous. So any confidence he has in proceeding can only come from direct revelation.
Step 2: He seeks his parents’ permission to proceed. They may resort to various stratagems to get to know the girl without arousing her suspicion. Deception is a far less serious crime than arousing improper emotional attachments.
Step 3: He asks her father for permission to court. This begins a months-long vetting process combining techniques used by the Secret Service and the Spanish Inquisition to verify the young man’s impeccable personal history, financial credentials and doctrinal purity.
Step 4: He is given permission by the father to “win his daughter’s heart.” Bonus points if she has no clue that anything is going on until now. Double bonus if she initially thinks he’s icky.
Step 5: The young man tries to “win the girl’s heart,” under close supervision and advisement by her father. The girl receives a divine revelation that she is to marry him, and lets her father know, who then tells the young man. At no time during this process are they without supervision.
Step 6: The parties are now allowed to become emotionally attached, but must still avoid physical contact. (Not kissing is obligatory; not holding hands gets you bonus points.) They also must still never be alone together.
Step 7: They get married, have their first kiss, and waltz off into the blissful life reserved for those who wait for “God’s best.” (At this point they may be alone together, although they still had better be following those rules from the Advanced Seminar.)
As I grew older and watched others try to follow this procedure, I began to have my doubts. Sometimes parents would be gung ho about “God’s leading” and then a few months later would “no longer have peace” and call it off. Did God really change His mind, or were the parents not quite infallible? Either way, it was harsh for those who had been taught to save themselves emotionally as well as physically for the one-and-only and then saw the whole thing blow up in their face.
Plus, children were supposed to defer to parents because parents were older and wiser and not likely to be moved by such unspiritual, changeable factors as physical attractiveness. But it seemed like parents themselves were often concerned with unspiritual, changeable factors like money or social standing or doctrinal minutiae or losing control.
The more I thought about it, the weirder courtship seemed. It was pretty unlikely a nice ATI guy would ever want to marry a girl most noted for bad hair and ferocious arguing. But if one did, how could I ever get to know him in such an unnatural setting, under so much pressure? What if it didn’t work out?
Why couldn’t there just be a friend—someone I already liked and trusted—and why couldn’t we just get to know each other gradually and take things as they came? What was so ungodly about that?
It turned out there was such a friend, one who liked arguing and maybe even the hair. Under the courtship rules it was sinful to like someone pre-courtship, of course, even though it happened all the time. Regardless, we had to go back to step 1 and jump through the courtship hoops.
Our parents meant well. They were trying to help. But looking back over several years now I can see problems that courtship contributed to the early years of our marriage.
Just at the point in our lives when we were supposed to be leaving our old families and forging a new one—just when we should have been treated as full adults—we were treated as young children again. We had rules we had to follow. Parental approval to win. We could have fought it, but we didn’t. We just complied.
In the process, we learned not to talk to God and each other to make decisions. Instead of finding out how we wanted to do things, we just did as we’d been told. It took us years of marriage to learn to actually talk to each other about major decisions.
The Bible says the goal is to leave the old family and cleave to each other. Courtship taught us that the goal was to please our old families and hold back from each other. The wedding didn’t flip a magic switch that changed that dynamic.
I suspect this is why we never really learned to place a priority on us. On just being together, enjoying each other. Until the wedding there was generally a nosy sibling in the back seat. Nine months of misery later, there was a baby in the back seat. But what was really always in the back seat was our relationship.
Deep down, though, we knew we had something special together and we wanted to make it work. It took many years and much conflict, but we finally cast off the rules and the roles and began to listen to each other and build our own relationship the way we liked it. We ditched the mental chaperones and the checklists of proper responses and started being honest with each other.
The ironic thing was that all those things that the courtship pamphlets said would be a solid basis for marriage—a shared spiritual identity, common convictions, a sense of divine leading, parental approval—had evaporated or become irrelevant. But what held us together, through doubt and change, and helped us forge a new life that worked for both of us, was that flimsy thing courtship had told us to ignore: our attraction to each other, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Certainly current culture has serious problems with the way it handles relationships. But courtship proved not to be a spiritual cure to all ills as advertised, but simply a different human procedure with a different set of problems. It was no more Biblical than what it replaced.
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