If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth…. And if she had at all an husband, when she vowed, or uttered ought out of her lips, wherewith she bound her soul …. But if her husband disallowed her on the day that he heard it; then he shall make her vow which she vowed, and that which she uttered with her lips, wherewith she bound her soul, of none effect: and the Lord shall forgive her.
-Numbers 30:2,6,8, KJV
Courtship was all the craze in the evangelical culture when I was growing up in small suburban city. Joshua Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye was touted as the very best in Christian advice for teenagers seeking to follow God’s will in the romantic world of finding a godly mate.
While the actual practice of courtship did not fully take hold of my world, some of the ideas did. It’s emphasis on traditional gender roles and reinforcement of male headship principles definitely were in the air.
You see, courtship puts a great pressure upon the man (and the couple) to know they are for each other forever before courting. For example, the courting man had to get permission from the woman’s father in order to court. It is a very family-involved sort of way to treat the development of romantic relationships (for a longer explanation regarding courtship in contrast to dating click here).
In a lot of ways, courting hails back to a more traditional world where women (and especially their virginity) were treated as property to be protected by the men in their lives and fathers especially. The idea of asking the father to court is clearly a nod back to that time even if it no longer is consciously treated as such.
That said, I appreciate the spirit behind this movement to treat sexual relationships between men and women with solemnity and respect. I just think it swung the pendulum too far back to traditionalism to the detriment of both men and women seeking to be faithful followers of Christ.
I am concerned such courtship practices set up couples for failure in their marriages by reinforcing an unhealthy paternalistic-power dynamic at the very beginning of the relationship.
In particular, my concern is with how the courtship mentality can easily devolve into outsourcing major life choice to others. It is like the passage from Numbers 30 (a strange favorite of my ex-wife) where fathers and husbands are the ones responsible for the vows of daughters and wives. Even with a very good father, this can go awfully awry for a young woman and the man she marries:
No longer is dating (i.e. courting) a decision between the couple but rather it becomes a decision of the woman’s father. That is how a romantic relationship starts under this philosophy.
What happens when things get tough in a marriage born of this?
A woman may rebel in anger believing her father did a poor job vetting her husband. She does not own the decision to marry as the relationship began upon a choice not technically made by her even if her father consulted her before granting the young man permission to court.
Maybe it is the Mennonite in me, but I find it anathema for one adult to make adult decisions for another who has capacity to do so herself. This is true on matters of religious as well as–in this case–romantic convictions. Part of respecting another human being is respecting their agency–i.e. ability to make their own choices.
Courtship undermines personal agency and responsibility. It puts men on pedestals in making decisions for young women who need to be making and taking responsibility for such decisions themselves.
That way a woman (or man) tempted to cheat is forced to realize the choice to court/date and marry this person was their own choice. By choosing to lie and cheat, they are not rebelling against the woman’s father–whose choice to allow them to court and marry they deem flawed–but violating their own integrity before God.
A wise person and leader takes sound counsel into account before making important decisions. This ought to include the parents of the individuals seeking marriage under normal circumstances–i.e. sometimes the parents are not wise or accessible to obtain such counsel. However, a truly wise person makes their own decisions as this person recognizes he or she alone will be answerable to God for them one day ( 2 Corinthians 5:10).