Deceived, Part 2

(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.)

Girl staring out windowDeceived. 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).

15 thoughts on “Deceived, Part 2

  1. I love you, Sarah! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the wisdom you’ve learned from your story. There is a lot there for me to think about and pray through. I will be praying for you as well! <3

  2. Me too… Read both parts. I too grew up in a family that was disassociated w/any “movement” yet yeaped all of the benefits the same. I too have a “courtship” story that isn’t pretty, and until recently caused me heartbreak. We even called it dating as we didn’t want a “legalistic” courtship; it doesn’t matter what you call it though if you have still been taught to view things a certain way.
    I’m a facebook friend of yours but can’t this comment on your facebook for privacy reasons. I’ve learned through the years though how I can be proud of my story even if my family/past friends will never understand. Proud of the parts that others might look down on because those are the ones that helped shape me into who I am today. And the parts I’m not proud of… They helped shape me as well, and I have my whole life before me to make my own decisions.

    • Jess, I’m really glad that you’ve been able to come through all that heartbreak and form such a positive outlook on the things that shaped you to be who you are today. Thanks so much for commenting. <3

  3. Sarah- this was fantastic and well written. Thank you for opening up and giving us a personal insight into your mind and experience. I remember someone saying one time that nothing good could come from, “putting two hormone filled teenagers together for a night”. I thought to myself that I am raising my sons to be responsible and when the time comes I want to trust them. We need to be parents who a) are not naive, and b) believing God for our children’s sake. Sometimes, as Christians we believe more in the strength of sin than the power of God. It’s no wonder many of our children don’t do well… maybe that’s what we expected from them all along!

  4. \”Courtship is a lot messier than many people make it out to be.\”

    So true! I wish we both (my husband and I) did things differently too…there are parts of my story I gloss over when I tell it. *virtual hug*

    PS: Why does Bill Gothard, who has never been married, think he knows *so much* about relationships…?

  5. I love you and am praying for you,Sarah! <3 <3 I know hurts from the past are really hard to deal with. I take joy in knowing that God can see a rainbow out of clouds we see. <3 You do Sarah mean a lot to me. <3 I hope to get to know you more. I'm sorry to hear about this I wished you didn't have to deal with this. I pray you will find joy and peace through this that only God can bring. <3 <3

  6. Sara, as I reflected on your writing I had a few question. 1) What part of what Gothard said or scripture he used do you feel like was twisted or used improperly. 2) Can you define terms.. I was kind of wondering how you define courting vs dating, other biblical examples of relationships, or whatever else you contrast it to. And 3) did you have some scripture to support your feelings.
    I do think it’s important that if you have some hard, sad or mad feelings in your heart to be careful as you analyze the source. The very fact that you confess a happy, functioning marriage is a major blow to your entire article- however well it was written.

    • Michael, thanks for reading my blog! As I said in the beginning of this article, my main problem with the Scriptural “support” Gothard presents for the courtship model is that he points almost exclusively to /stories/ in Scripture that are neither primarily about pre-marital relationships, nor are they meant to be prescriptive in any form or fashion. The majority of courtship advocates I have read/listened to follow this same pattern.

      I will be addressing some of your other questions in coming posts, as addressing every aspect of courtship in one post is rather impossible.

      Regarding your final point, however, I would just like to ask, why would you consider the fact that I have a happy, functioning marriage to be a “major blow” to my article? My marriage is not based on the way our courtship was managed, but on the strong friendship and love that my husband and I share. We have a successful marriage not because of our courtship, but in spite of it.

      • Sarah, thanks for the reply and I’m looking forward to your additional writing on the subject! With regards to your last question, I made the conclusions based on your article. 1) You did “court” instead of “date” (however we define those terms) 2) It was after you were married that you realized the inaccuracy of the teaching you received. So it seemed to me that your happy marriage is a product of courtship (or some influence of those ideas).
        Could it be that the strong friendship and love you and Willie share is rooted in the conviction of what biblical marriage is which manifests itself more toward concepts of courting (dating with a view towards marriage instead of casual dating is how I’d define it.)?
        You said something very interesting… you said ” the way our courtship was MANAGED”. Is it the way others tried to control, direct, and manage your life that you are upset about? If I understand the concept of courting (and this is the importance of defining terms :) , courting is simply going out with a VIEW TO MARRIAGE instead of recreational dating. I have 4 sons and I intend to instruct them to date with intent… the intent to marry. Treat a woman with respect because she may be someone’s wife one day if not theirs.
        Thanks for the reply and again I hope we can dialog more on the subject.

        • Michael, thanks for your reply as well! It helps me see where our perspectives differ a bit. :) I have no problem with the concept of intentional dating as you defined it. Respect for the other party, having a potential marriage in view, and treating the process of working towards marriage seriously are all things I can back 100%. Your sons are lucky. I wish that courtship was always defined as “dating with intent to marry.”

          However, for many, many people in the conservative (esp. homeschooling) Christian world, courtship is much more complicated than that. I invite you to take a look at this article from Recovering Grace’s website: While, as I stated, my family was not involved in ATI, nor was my husband’s family, this model of courtship was held up as the ideal in our homeschooling communities. Variations (including having a strong friendship with the person before committing to courtship) were considered “less than the best.” This view of courtship, with the emphasized elements of parental control and emotional sterility, is widely touted by homeschooling leaders (Vision Forum, Bill Gothard, etc) at conferences, in books, in “documentary DVDs” and in countless articles.

          This is the definition of courtship as I learned it, and the relationship that my husband and I had was stuffed into this box as well. While I prefer not to go into details, I will say that my own courtship caused me to lose faith in this “courtship model” for good. I have known for quite some time (even before my courtship began) that the “Scriptural mandate” badge that courtship advocates so proudly wear is based on a long list of Scriptures taken out of context, but I find myself continually discovering new levels of deception as I explore how deep the rabbit hole goes. :P

          I credit my strong relationship with my husband to our shared faith in God (which carried us through many storms) and to the strong friendship that we had before we decided to court, without which our relationship would not have survived the courtship stage.

          • Thanks Sarah. I did read the article. I also completely agree with you that some of the things we are taught have a very sketchy biblical foundation (I’ve seen people make arguments for all kinds of things that IMO just wasn’t supported by balanced scripture (or Christian history) Numerology, tithing, elder rule, dispensationalism, etc- and it doesn’t surprise me in the least bit that dating could fall into the same trap. It’s one of those areas where us parents, under the guise of not being naive, can be paranoid and unbelieving. Sometimes it’s just a knee jerk reaction to what we perceive are today’s abuses.
            * I’ll be looking forward to reading a fair exegetical treatment of the issue; keep us all posted :)

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