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“Date to the glory of God.”
“We teach our kids to Court instead of date.”
“I kissed dating goodbye.”
“Modern dating is broken.”
“Courtship is God’s way for romance.”
“Courtship is in crisis.”
Such are some of the one-liners that mark the complex social arena of modern American Christians and their pursuit of romance and matrimony. For such a normal and age-old activity, finding a matrimonial partner has become a rather convoluted process for modern American Christians. One has only to survey the many books that have been written on the subject and their differing opinions to realize there’s a wide spectrum of persuasions on how romance and matrimony should be pursued as a Christian. The conflicting perspectives and expectations collide to produce a Christian matrimonial culture that can be confusing, awkward, and discouraging. Most of the conflict comes from a debate between dating and Courtship social structures.
For decades, dating has been the accepted social structure in America to be used for the pursuit of romance and marriage. However, in the early nineties, some Christians began to push back against dating after seeing harm produced in the lives of Christians through bad dating experiences. Some realized that Christian young people were falling into the same hazards secular individuals were, such as sexual immorality, emotional over-extension, false self-representation, misplaced priorities, and directionless relationships. In response, Courtship was born.
Courtship is an alternate social structure for the pursuit of romance and matrimony that emphasizes (1) intentional consideration of marriage, (2) romantic relationships that begin as friendships, (3) the authority and oversight of the father of the young woman, and (4) the pursuit of the relationship in the context of family and church community. It was hoped that Courtship would reinforce biblical values and better guide young Christian adults into healthy marriages. Popularized chiefly by author Joshua Harris at the turn on the 21st century, Courtship has been accepted and practiced by many Christian families and church communities.
Within the last several years, however, criticism has been aimed at Courtship much like criticism was aimed at dating. Critics of Courtship say the weaknesses of Courtship include overbearing fathers, overly intense relationships, lack of social skills development, suppressed attraction, lack of perspective for mate selection, and perpetuation of singleness on a wide scale.
The debate between dating and Courtship has come full circle with each side thinking the opposing social structure is flawed and potentially harmful. What is a Christian who wants to find wholesome, godly romance to do? What really matters for the pursuit of godly romance?
In studying the writings of both Dating and Courtship proponents, I’ve noticed something significant. Proponents on both sides often grant that the social structure they support isn’t absolute. Not only that, they point to a principle that’s both beyond the social structure and informs the social structure.
Jeremy and Jerusha Clark, dating proponents, grant that they don’t think Christians should blindly adhere to the modern American mode of dating.
“We neither believe that people must return to the way men and women interacted a hundred years ago, nor do we claim that Christians should throw caution to the wind and adopt the modern practice of dating.” 1
They state that they believe dating can be useful for the pursuit of godly romance, with one provision.
“Dating can be an acceptable, God-honoring option for single Christians, provided they apply the foundational truths of Scripture to the specific circumstances of their relationships with the opposite sex.” 2
Courtship proponent Joshua Harris speaks even more strikingly about this principle that is greater than social structure.
“‘Dating versus courtship’ isn’t the point. I’ve known ‘serial courters’ who lived like the devil and ‘saintly daters’ guided by integrity and holiness. In and of themselves, the terms they used to describe their relationships were meaningless. The way they lived is what really mattered.” 3
What is this principle that causes Harris to grant that there’s a scenario where the couple that dates is better off than the couple that Courts? It’s the principle that really matters when it comes to finding wholesome, godly romance. It’s the principle that every Christian dating and Courtship proponent actually agrees on, in spite of more than two decades of debate over social structure. I would express this principle like this:
The success of an individual in experiencing godly romance and matrimony is determined by his or her personal character as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Put another way, who you are and how you live, rather than what social structure you utilize, is what determines how successful you are in finding godly romance and matrimony. I fully believe that every Christian who has authored a book on Christian romance agrees with this. Sadly, the books that mention this essential principle often also imply that the best way to pursue the principle is through the social structure of the author’s preference. I’m grieved that this essential principle, this thing that really matters, has been eclipsed by the misguided debate between dating and Courtship.
The creation of Courtship tried to remedy, through a change of social structure, problems that can only be remedied through a change of heart. Since Courtship is only a different social structure, and every social structure has weaknesses, Courtship naturally produced a different set of problems than dating. Since dating has some strengths in places where Courtship has weaknesses, critics of Courtship argue for sticking with dating. But both social structures have inherent strengths and weaknesses. All the attention to social structure misses what really matters.
We need to stop saying, “dating is flawed, use Courtship to pursue godly romance,” or “Courtship is flawed, use dating to pursue godly romance.” Instead we should say, “a person who lives with character as a disciple of Jesus Christ will succeed in pursuing godly romance through both dating and Courtship, and he or she should choose whichever social structure best serves his or her unique circumstances.” It’s time for American Christians to lay down the debate over social structure and recognize that who you are in Christ is what really matters for godly romance and matrimony. Dating and Courtship are just details.
- Jeremy and Jerusha Clark, “The Purposeful Path,” 5 Paths to the Love of Your Life, ed. Alex Chediak (NavPress, 2005), 154
- Jeremy and Jerusha Clark, “The Purposeful Path,” 5 Paths to the Love of Your Life, ed. Alex Chediak (NavPress, 2005), 156
- Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship (Multnomah, 2000), 32
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