Sometimes in life an epiphany will fly out of left field and strike you with amazement. I had one of those moments recently. I realized something I never expected. I realized that Joshua Harris, the Courtship guru, and Thomas Umstattd Jr., the champion of Traditional Dating, actually agree in their perspectives of how romantic relationships should begin and progress!
“Um… That’s nice, Justin.”
Sigh. Okay, I know it may sound weird at first. But let me explain why this is big. If you’ve been following That Crazy Christian Romance for a while then you’re probably aware that Joshua Harris is the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a bestselling book in which he advocated for abandoning typical modern dating relationships in exchange for pursuing purposeful Courtship birthed out of friendship. You can read more details on this perspective in Courtship: When There’s a Judge and a Jury on Your Love Boat. Harris believed this path promoted the healthiest romantic relationships.
Thomas Umstattd Jr. picked up a copy of I Kissed Dating Goodbye as a teenager. He was thoroughly persuaded by the book’s message at the time and decided that he would never go on a single date until he began a Courtship with a woman he first got to know as a friend. However, his plan backfired when he went through an incredibly painful experience attempting to pursue a Courtship and engagement with a young woman. The experience opened Umstattd’s eyes to the reality that Courtship wasn’t panning out like he expected it to. As more time passed, Umstattd also saw numerous Courtship-based marriages end in divorce. After reconsidering the structure of Courtship, Umstattd decided that Courtship has serious flaws and it’s better to pursue Traditional Dating. Traditional Dating isn’t like the hookup culture dating of modern day. Traditional Dating is in the style of 1950’s dating, where even middle school kids would go on casual dates with multiple people (think the classic “soda shop” date). This caused the young people to get a sense of the kind of person they wanted to be with long term. When two individuals desired to become a long-term, exclusive couple they would “go steady” with each other and stop casually dating others. Umstattd describes all of this in his book Courtship in Crisis (read my review here).
So Joshua Harris taught that casual, directionless dating is bad and that committed Courtships should come out friendship. But Thomas Umstattd Jr. taught that godly casual dating is a good thing that naturally develops into committed relationships. Behold the Courtship guru and the champion of Traditional Dating! They couldn’t be more in disagreement, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought. But sometimes an epiphany will fly out of left field and strike you with amazement.
I was listening to a sermon by Joshua Harris titled “Courtship Shmourtship” that he delivered in 2005 to the congregation he used to pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD. You can hear it for yourself here. The point Harris tries to get across in the message is that we shouldn’t pursue godly matrimony through a set of structural rules (hence the poke at Courtship in the title) but as people of God, living in view of God’s mercy, with love for one another and wisdom guiding our behavior. About halfway through the sermon Harris discusses how Christian men and women should interact with each other with purity and care as brothers and sisters in Christ. He then pauses to address some behavioral issues that he and elders of the church had observed. In an effort to make sure they never seemed to communicate romantic interest (often considered taboo in Christian cultures that follow Courtship structure), some single men and women in the church had an awkward time even interacting as friends in the church. I’ve transcribed Harris’ words on this issue below. The transcribed comments begin at minute 25:00.
“And this leads to a specific area that I think we can grow in as a church. As we have talked as pastors, as we have communicated to different singles, asked them questions, and observed the way in which men and women who are single relate in Covenant Life church, we have observed – and this is not true of all the singles but some in our midst – a lack of freeness between men and women in cultivating friendships. You could describe this as a standoffishness, as being overly reserved, even a certain level of uptightness. And this just isn’t how relationships should work in God’s family. We have a desire as well for God to bless single men and women with the good gift of marriage in His good time. We want to have a singles ministry…in which godly friendships can lead to purposeful Courtships and God-glorifying relationships. And purposeful Courtships can only happen if mature men and women first feel the freedom to get to know each other in brother-sister friendships. See, I want mature men in this church not to feel scared about initiating friendship with women. I think there’s been some confusion in this regard, and so I’d like to clear it up. I want you to read my lips. Write this down. You are hearing this straight from the Courtship guru’s mouth. It is okay for brothers and sisters to go out to lunch together, to go out to dinner… It’s okay for brothers and sisters to grab coffee. It’s okay for a man and a woman to email one another. It’s okay, and it should be possible, for a man and a woman to stand talking in the church lobby without having ten people afterwards stop them and say, ‘when’s the wedding date?'”
BOOM. Right there.
Do you see it? How Harris and Umstattd actually agree? Harris said that it’s okay – good – for single Christian men and women to get coffee or go to lunch as brother and sister in Christ…as FRIENDS. Harris and Umstattd agree!
“Uh, Justin, not to burst your bubble, but I have to point out that Harris wants single men and women to go to dinner as friends. He wasn’t saying it should be a romantic outing, just two friends enjoying each other’s company. But Umstattd is saying that single men and women should go on dates. Those are two completely different things!”
Of course. But forget about the whole “dating vs. Courtship” thing for a moment. Think about the social exchange that takes place between the people who are going to get coffee or dinner. Thomas Umstattd Jr. is saying that singles should go on casual dates in order to get to know each other (and even get to know themselves) with a view toward the ultimate hope of discovering who they want to commit to in a long-term relationship. The pattern is that casual, low-romance interaction allows people to learn who they should commit to. That’s the social exchange.
Now consider what Harris is saying. He’s saying it’s fine for single men and women to interact one-on-one as friends. In fact, he explicitly says that single men and women NEED to get to know each other through friendships developed through such interactions in order for Courtships to begin. Harris is instructing singles to build friendships, even through one-on-one interactions, with the intention that, out of those friendships Courtships, will emerge. The pattern is that casual, low-romance interaction allows people to learn who they should commit to. And that’s the same exact social exchange that happens in Traditional Dating!
Harris and Umstattd both agree that people need to interact with many different people at a level of low romantic expectation in order to learn what sort of person to whom they should commit at a higher level of romantic engagement!
JOSHUA HARRIS AND THOMAS UMSTATTD JR. ACTUALLY AGREE IN THEIR PERSPECTIVES OF HOW ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS SHOULD BEGIN AND PROGRESS!
I was astounded when this realization hit me. My jaw dropped. And I was struck by the INCREDIBLE IDIOCY that so often characterizes the discussions (and arguments) within our Christian culture on how godly matrimony should be pursued. The “dating vs. Courtship” debate continues to exist in our Christian culture after decades of discussion. Yet here we find the Courtship guru and the champion of Traditional Dating, two people who could be thought of as ideological opposites, actually are in complete agreement as to the fundamental social exchange that needs to happen for healthy romantic relationships to grow. Why so much debate and disagreement if even these two are agreed? Why are there two competing ideologies when at the base of each is the same social exchange? Am I the only one who finds the “dating vs. Courtship” debate ridiculous?
So what do we do with this? I think there’s one very clear, immediate lesson. Joshua Harris preached the sermon Courtship Shmourtship in great part to correct constricted behaviors that threatened to undermine the healthy relational development of people in his congregation. Shortly after the above quote he goes on to say,
“One member of the church came up and told me after he heard me say [single men and women can interact one-on-one]… he said, ‘You know what? I think this is so good because it’s easier to counsel the living than it is to raise the dead.’ We would rather have the problem of bringing adjustment to a man who is unwisely and unhelpfully just pursuing ladies without bringing definition. We would rather have that problem than to have the problem that no man is talking to any woman. Amen.”
And Thomas Umstattd Jr. wrote Courtship in Crisis because he saw in his own life and the lives of others that well-intentioned, Courtship-oriented behaviors were squelching the growth of healthy romantic relationships. The common denominator is that both Harris and Umstattd recognize that a casual level of relational interaction is an integral tool to enable you to understand what sort of person you should commit to.
So for you who choose to Court, understand that the structure and rules of Courtship can’t provide you with a healthy love life. Instead of being afraid of talking with single members of the opposite sex for fear of “doing something wrong,” you actually need to be intentionally pursuing casual relational interactions that have the capacity to yield a long-term commitment. Don’t squelch yourself. Consider whether you may actually need to open yourself to going on some (righteously conducted) casual dates.
And for you who choose to date, be sure you never use casual dating to serve fleshly desire. Casual dating, when used properly, is a wonderful tool for discovering who you want to walk with for the long-term. But make sure that you don’t follow the habits of the worldly dating. That will ruin healthy relationships. See that you always glorify God and serve the person you’re with in everything.
All of you, take the steps necessary to discover who you should be with long-term. And above all, pursue matrimony out of genuine love for God and others, as people living in light of God’s grace. On that we Christians are wholly agreed.
What do you think? Do you casually date or intentionally interact with people in ways that help you discover who you should be with long-term? Please let me know you thoughts be leaving a comment!
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