Courtship for Christians
Her Hand in Marriage
by Kevin Offner
I have been working with single adults through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for nearly fourteen years now, and for some time I have been convinced that something is seriously wrong with dating in America. It has been painful to watch scores of twenty-somethings long to be married, only to be burned by dating as it is practiced today. Dating simply does not prepare one well for marriage.
Dating’s problems are legion. It does not encourage sexual purity before marriage. It does not teach singles the importance of commitment, agape-love, or the subservient role that one’s feelings should play in a male-female relationship (even some of the most godly Christian singles hold the worldly expectation that one day they will develop good “chemistry” with someone, “fall in love,” and then marry). It is not an effective tool in helping singles decide whom to marry. It is not conducive to deep friendship, and, because of its exclusivity, it often enervates the larger Christian community to which the singles belong.
I have been encouraged by many of the recent books by Evangelicals that seek to address the current unhealthy state of dating. Some of the better books are: Dating with Integrity, The Myth of Romance, True Love in a World of False Hope, and the very popular (it has been on the best-seller list of Christian nonfiction paperbacks for months now), I Kissed Dating Goodbye (by Joshua Harris). All of these books make important points. They are especially good at proclaiming agape-love as commitment and not (primarily) a feeling. They also stress the importance of friendship between the sexes, and they warn of too much one-on-one exclusivity. These books are good—I use and recommend them.
But I can’t help thinking that none of these books goes deeply enough. Each of them takes dating as a given and then tries to tweak it in some way, injecting it here or there with biblical principles of holiness. But this seems like trying to put Band-Aids over a deep wound, or trying to fill a bad cavity instead of pulling the tooth. I have begun to believe that dating needs more than fine-tuning—the time has come to promote a radically different alternative.
I recently read Her Hand in Marriage: Biblical Courtship in the Modern World by Douglas Wilson, and it left me stunned. This book goes right for the jugular by showing how unbiblical the mindset behind contemporary dating is. The book is radical. The book is conservative. After reading it, one is left with only two options. You either laugh out loud, call it absurd, backward, and unrealistic, and kick yourself for wasting time on such stupidity, or you realize that something profound has just been communicated, something that gets you rethinking along biblical lines not only dating but also marriage and the family. It calls for a paradigm shift in the way one thinks about preparing for marriage.
The Old Testament Model of Courtship
The Bible, Wilson believes, teaches that God created men and women for different functions within the family. There is not androgyny; rather, the sexes are distinct; and there is order. “Men are created and called to initiate, and women are created and called to respond.” In marriage, the husband is the head of his wife, and the wife is to submit to her husband. God has placed parents in authority over their children, and children are to obey their parents.
In the Old Testament, a female, under normal circumstances, was always under protective male authority, either the authority of her father or the authority of her husband—there was no in-between time when she was independent and autonomous. Furthermore, a father was responsible for his daughter’s sexual purity: if she was found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, her father would be publicly shamed.
In preparing for marriage, sons and daughters should be trained differently by their parents. “A son is reared up for independence. He is trained to leave, while still respecting his parents’ godly counsel. A daughter is brought up to be transferred from one state of dependence to another. Sons leave; daughters are given.” Wilson devotes two chapters to discussing how parents can best prepare their sons and daughters to fulfill their future roles as husbands and wives.
In courtship, the son leaves his parents and seeks a wife. When he discovers a woman he is interested in pursuing, he approaches her father and asks for permission to court her. If her father says yes, the man begins spending time with her—but always under the general supervision of her father. After a time, if he wants to marry her, he again asks her father for permission.
Wilson says much about the “covenantal fence” that God has ordained for marriage. Physical and emotional intimacy—not to mention life-long commitment—are intended by God to occur within the protective fence of marriage, not in the non-committal world of “serial dating.”
Courtship as Wilson describes it is light-years away from today’s recreational dating. In courtship, the parents are intimately involved in the process; in dating, they are rarely involved at all. In courtship, men and women are understood to have different roles based on their sex, and these roles are learned when they are children and realized when they are courting and married; in dating, androgynous behavior is the rule, and any assigning of roles by sex is considered sexist. In courtship, the independent, autonomous single adult is the exception; in dating, the independent, autonomous single adult is the rule.
Wilson’s perspective (and that of the courtship movement) is very different from what we see around us, either in the culture or in the Church. The question, though, is this: Is the radical change in the way we in contemporary America understand marriage, family, sex differences, dating, and so forth, an improvement over the way these things were understood in the Old and New Testaments, or is it a regression? Yes, the worldview Wilson illuminates is radically different from the one presented daily by the New York Times and Harvard University. Yes, the notion that wives are to submit to husbands, that children are to obey their parents, and that men and women were created by God for different functions within marriage contrasts sharply with the lack of male leadership in marriage, the lack of children’s obedience to parents, and the androgynous understanding of the behavior of men and women that prevail in today’s culture. But which perspective is correct?
The Role of the Old Testament
While the Christian’s source for truth must be the Bible, Wilson’s perspective raises the question of how Christians ought to read the Old Testament. For though Her Hand in Marriage draws from all of Holy Scripture, Wilson gleans most of his material from the Old Testament: The status of daughters is taken from Numbers 30:3–16; the grounds for parental authority are drawn mainly from Deuteronomy 22:13–21; the responsibility of fathers is expounded in Exodus 22:16–17; and so forth. There is little question that Wilson has represented these passages thoroughly and accurately in his book—but to what degree should they apply to Christians in America today?
On the one hand, there cannot be a direct, one-to-one equivalence between the Old Testament and contemporary America. Israel and the Church are not synonymous—and how much less so, Israel and America. The “theonomist” hermeneutic simply is untenable. On the other hand, few Christians today seem to take the Old Testament very seriously. We read the Psalms to enhance our worship, and we read the historical stories for inspiration, but we usually focus on the New Testament for our theology and ethics. Yet, the God of Israel is the same God we worship today, and the Old Testament surely says something to twentieth-century Christians. The dispensational hermeneutic also is inadequate.
Surely Wilson is right to draw principles from God’s instructions to Israelite families for our families to follow today. But which are the timeless principles, and which the culturally specific instructions to Israel? In what sense is the Old Testament “God’s Word” for today? In drawing our contemporary application, one answer might be to universalize God’s interaction with creation and to localize his interaction with Israel.
Ordered Relations or Egalitarianism?
Are ordered relations, where husbands lead their wives and parents lead their children, part of God’s created order that remains true throughout history, or a consequence of the Fall, with God’s highest intention being egalitarianism among people? Has God created men and women to be different, and are these differences to be reflected in the ways they build their lives together, from dating/courtship to marriage to parenting their own sons and daughters, or would we be wiser to minimize all gender differences, focusing on men and women first and foremost as human beings and not as “particularly-sexed” beings?
This is one of the most passionately debated (and divisive) issues facing Christians today. I believe Wilson is right and the egalitarians wrong. The order God created between the sexes within the family is attested to not by a few isolated texts from the Pentateuch but by the whole sweep of both the Old and New Testaments.
It is interesting to note that almost all of the New Testament passages that speak directly to men’s and women’s roles in the Church and in the family draw authoritatively from outside contemporary culture in making their points: St. Peter points to Sarah as a worthy model for married women to follow in submitting to their husbands (1 Pet. 3:1–6); when discussing women’s roles in the Church and children’s roles in the family, St. Paul draws from Genesis 2–3 and Exodus 20 (1 Tim. 2:11–15; 1 Cor. 14:34–36; Eph. 6:1–4) and from the nature of God’s created order (1 Cor. 11:3); and in his teaching on marriage, Paul compares the roles of husband and wife to those of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:22–33).
Wilson is not alone when he insists that ordered relations are biblical. One can disagree with his emphasis on certain particulars in the Old Testament and still agree with his overall point regarding ordered relations.
Three Practical Applications
For those who believe that the Bible teaches ordered relations in marriage and family, Her Hand in Marriage raises important questions to consider when thinking about dating. I also derive three practical applications from the good points Wilson’s book raises.
First, orthodox churches should encourage parents to help their children prepare for marriage in ways specific to their sex. (Our culture no longer reinforces biblical values here.) Wilson is right: boys need to be taught to initiate and girls taught to respond. It is never too early for boys to have before them the model of Christ relating to the Church, and girls the model of the Church relating to Christ, as they prepare for marriage. (Of course children should also be prepared in non-sex-specific ways. By virtue of their common humanity, all boys and girls are called to love, serve, forgive, and so forth. The key is not to be all sex-specific or all generic in raising our children, but both.)
Boys, especially, need to learn early how to prepare themselves for marriage (even though God may lead some of them to celibacy). The predominant mindset of Christian single men today, when asked if they intend to get married, is, “Whatever.” The hoops they need to jump through to further their education and to select and obtain a good job are fairly clear and obvious. But unless marriage as a positive good to be sought is drilled into boys’ heads at an early age, their tendency will be to follow the line of least resistance and simply prolong a decision about marriage. They know they need to get a job in order to live—but marriage? “Whatever.” Men’s passivity here hurts them and hurts women, for how are single women to respond when men don’t initiate?
Second, single men need to be encouraged to pursue women! In my fourteen years of ministering to twenty-somethings I have seen a marked increase of fear among men with respect to relating to women. If he pursues her, will she think he is being chauvinistic? Shouldn’t he put off questions of marriage until he’s “fully ready”—say, around 40 years old or so? What if he isn’t “attracted” to any particular woman? Men need help in moving towards women—in learning how to initiate and to take bold risks, squarely facing the fear of rejection. (The culture used to encourage male initiative in dating, but no longer.) Older Christian men can encourage younger men here. The overwhelming popularity of Promise Keepers shows the growing need men have for role models and reinforcement in their masculinity.
Perhaps the greatest complaint I hear from single women is, “Why are the guys so hesitant to ask me out? Why are they so fearful of commitment?” Most godly women appreciate being pursued by a Christian gentleman.
Third, both single men and single women should be encouraged not to look at dating as an individualistic exercise. The entire process—from finding compatible people to date, to dating, to preparing for marriage—should be more of a community affair. Singles’ parents (even older singles’ parents!), pastors, church elders, and friends should all take some responsibility here. The fact is that arranged marriages were the norm until only recently. Where are the older married men and women in our churches who have the courage to become actively involved in the lives of single young adults? It’s easy to make fun of “matchmaking”—but this can be done sensitively and in a way that still leaves the final decision up to the couple.
The current crisis in dating ought to shake all of us up so that we rethink the process of how singles move into marriage today. All previous assumptions should be open to question. As we seek to build stronger marriages in a culture riddled with infidelity and divorce, we need to see that changes must occur long before the wedding day. For how single Christians date and prepare for marriage will strongly influence what kind of marriages they build.
Kevin Offner is on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He has written for Re:Generation Quarterly, Critique, Student Leadership Journal, and First Things. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Amy. They are members of the Presbyterian Church in America. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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“Courtship for Christians” first appeared in the April 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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