(In which I re-examine my past in light of my present, and re-evaluate courtship doctrine from a personal perspective. Part 1 can be found here.)
Deceived. The realization sinks in, numbing my brain and my heart. This is the section that breaks me, the words that suddenly personalize all the theoretical turmoil I have struggled through for the last several years:
“A favorite strategy of Gothard’s is to cite all the references in the Old Testament where parents arranged their children’s marriages, together with unrelated passages that he somehow manages to turn into mandates for courtship, and then overwhelm his listeners with the sheer volume of apparent support for his view. The manner in which he delivers his teaching allows no time to consider the hermeneutic and cultural issues necessary to understand the matter or place it in its proper context.
In the Jewish culture, the father or representative of the family often selected partners, so of course Gothard can find examples of this happening in the Bible. This custom wasn’t unique to the Jews, however, but was practiced by the surrounding cultures at large and is still practiced in parts of the east today. . . In that culture, marriage was often treated more like a contract or property sale than a relationship.
. . . The point is this: Gothard picks and chooses the elements that fit his point of view. He conveniently ignores others. Then he audaciously says he has discovered God’s plan for courtship.” (A Matter of Basic Principles, pgs. 263-265.)
And in the moment I read those words, I realize that even though my family never took part in Gothard’s IBLP or ATI groups, even though my knowledge of him and what he believed was very vague and fuzzy when I was growing up, still I had reaped the poisoned fruit of this twisted teaching. Everything that Gothard taught, I had absorbed, somehow, and the roots of his teaching, passed along to me through so many channels, had settled deep in my very impressionable young heart.* I, too, had picked and chosen the elements of courtship that matched up with history and the teachings of the Bible, and conveniently ignored the elements of courtship that didn’t make sense, things that didn’t line up with what I knew of the gospel and the heart of God. Somehow, through friends, through family, through books, movies, and all the Christian subcultural influences that held sway over my young life, I had come to believe that courtship was “God’s way of handling relationships.” I had believed that dating was mere hedonism, with no grasp of the seriousness of commitment to marriage. I had believed in the concept of emotional purity–that emotions were to be avoided in relationships with the opposite sex, since they only clouded one’s judgment about potential partners. I had believed that strong parental involvement was helpful, even necessary, to guide a courtship and keep the young people on track in their relationship.
Most of all, though, I believed that courtship would keep me safe. That it would protect me from a broken heart. That if I “courted” instead of dated, I would arrive at my wedding day with a beautiful story, a story that I would be proud and happy to tell to my children and grandchildren.
Instead, I have a story I struggle to tell anyone. A story I couldn’t put on our beautiful wedding website. A story only my best friends know.
The caustic, confusing anger continues to burn, and I reach up to smear away the tears smudging my cheeks. “Jesus, I’m angry,” I pray aloud. “I’m angry and sad and hurting…” More tears. I pick up the phone and text my friend Elizabeth.
“Hey…are you available?”
“Yeah…want me to call?” That’s Elizabeth. She has an uncanny sense of when things are going wrong.
The phone rings, and I can hear her voice. I’m crying. I tell her about last night, how I couldn’t sleep, how my sadness over our courtship just kept growing and growing, and how this morning, reading and analyzing the “Biblical arguments for courtship,” I realized that I, like so many others, was duped. And how I’m so, so angry.
Through my sobs, I try to explain what I’m feeling, “I just feel like, I did everything right. I tried so hard–and I should have had a better story. And it shouldn’t matter, because we’re married now and happy, but Elizabeth…it does matter…”
“Yes,” she says, “yes…I know. It does matter.”
Elizabeth asks if she can pray with me, and I say yes. She prays for comfort, and strength, and healing for the anger and the hurt and the bitter regret. She doesn’t shame me for my feelings. She stays with me in them, holds my heart, and prays for peace.
The pain subsides as we talk, and a sense of quiet comes over me. It’s my story, and I have to live with it now. I have to live with knowing it could have been different, had I not tried to follow the rigid model of “traditional courtship.” I realize that in the past year or two, I have been able to tell myself that the things courtship advocates say are not grounded in either a historical or Biblical context. I have been able to debunk their logical fallacies and their unreasonable demands, but I have done so with a heart divorced from my emotions about the topic. I have not allowed myself to personalize my discoveries until now…
I was deceived. That one sentence alone turns my world upside down. No longer is the courtship debate academic for me. It is very, very personal.
And I let go, and allow myself to say the one thing I have never quite said, even to myself.
Courtship is not “biblical.” It is not “God’s way of handling relationships.” To say that it is either of these things requires a twisting of Scripture out of context and out of character with God’s Holy Spirit. Courtship is a man-made fabrication, a formula that may or may not work, depending on the personality temperaments and personal convictions of the parties involved. In my case, it did not work very well.
Courtship did not keep my heart from being broken–it was the instrument for doing so. I am scarred, and I am still hurting. And even though my husband and I are married, and happy, and thankful to God for that fact, we are still processing the emotional trauma of everything that happened during that year of courtship. We may never be able to tell our story, but we can give a warning to those who will listen.
If you are reading this, don’t be deceived. Courtship is a lot messier than many people make it out to be. It won’t protect you from emotional harm and long-term damage. It has unique challenges and hardships of its own.
Also (this is very important), you can have a heart to follow God and be led by the Holy Spirit and you can date. You can seek counsel from wise people and you can be committed to seeking marriage and you can date. It’s okay. It’s not wrong. There is nothing inherently sinful about dating. Like many things, it can be done in good ways and bad ways. Some dating can be frivolous and selfish and has no intention of seeking the good of the other person. Other dating can be serious and intentional and focused on learning to love the other person as a human being you respect and enjoy.
Most of all, whether you end up in a courtship or a dating relationship or some strange hybrid of the two, remember that this is your story. It’s no one else’s.
Make sure it’s one you will want to remember and tell, over and over again.
*I am under no illusion that Gothard was the only one to advocate for courtship in the 1980s and 1990s, but the authors of A Matter of Basic Principles point to Gothard as the first major proponent of courtship in its present form, and state that the popularity of IBLP caused “courtship doctrine” to spread to many other people and organizations in the Christian conservative world (page 251).