Friday, December 1, 2006

Thoughts on courtship and marriage

I've had a chance to discuss marriage and courtship at some length on various forums recently. I'm reposting an edited version of the arguments I've put forward here, edited for clarity. I hope they're enlightening. (Side note: am I back? Sort of.)

I have to back up those who comment that calling courtship as defined by men like Josh Harris and Scott Croft rigid and legalistic - particularly without having tried it - is folly. It is clear that God has a right way and a wrong way for us to do things. We ought not take freedom as an excuse to sin, as you all recall. This is not a set of rules - it is more a set of guidelines of the heart, and some practical ways we can apply that. Every part of our lives is to be submitted, and not only to God in some abstract sense, but also to the guidance of those older and wiser than us in the church. We have the body for a reason. Without spiritual authority over us, we quickly veer off the path.

As someone who has pursued a young woman in a way that, for all my efforts not to, essentially ended up looking just like the world in terms of patterns of behavior (sure, we kept ourselves physically, but we wounded each other deeply emotionally) and having pursued just a little, and seen others pursue, in a way much more similar to what is being advocated by Croft, Joshua Harris, and others in a similar vein, I can speak from firsthand experience when I note that this new (old-ish) way is much better. Croft and Harris have it right. The old way has it wrong.

I think perhaps the clearest moment of revelation for me was in reading a book countering Harris and trying to elaborate on a Godly, Biblical way of making dating work, Cloud and Townsend's Boundaries in Dating. Clearly they were well intentioned, but equally clear was that they missed the entire point of Harris' writing: that it is the attitude of our hearts, not some specific set of actions, that God is concerned about (ie, at what stage you kiss - I'm not saying God doesn't care about sinful actions). In fact, I found it ironic that a book devoted to rebutting the "legalism" of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (a legalism I've never managed to find despite having read the book through at least four times) ended up itself being little more than a set of rules about "do this, don't do that in such and such a situation." It also ended up being a very self-centered approach, whereas Harris, Croft, and those like them are advocating an approach to dating that has as its foundation a heart of serving the other person in the relationship - of laying one's life down for them even as Christ did for the church and us as individuals.

The call is to purity - and purity is not merely physical. Purity is physical, but it is just as much mental, and it just as much emotional. To borrow your argument, where is the Biblical command not to have sex before marriage? You will not find it explicitly anywhere in the Scripture. We can, however, infer certain things from what Scripture does say on the matter. We infer that Because God intended our sexuality to be contained in the context of marriage, that we then ought to refrain from it before marriage.

Likewise, we see that we have a responsibility to guard emotional intimacy. There can be no intimacy unless there is corresponding commitment - at least, no level of intimacy that is healthy. We are defrauding one another if we enter into intimacy - physically, emotionally, etc. - without a commitment corresponding to the level of intimacy at which we are engaging one another. We are explicitly commanded not to defraud one another, and I see no way in which having a degree of emotional intimacy comparable to that which one would have inside marriage with a person outside marriage is not defrauding someone.

I'll put it this way: any intimacy that would not be permissible between a married person and a person they are not married to also ought not be permissible between any unmarried people. The principle is clear: if something is to be reserved for marriage, then it is to be reserved for marriage regardless of the timing and context. If we would frown at a married man for kissing a woman not his wife - and we must ask ourselves why we would, answering that it is because she is not his and he not hers, and thus they are defrauding each other and someone else - then we ought likewise to frown at any man kissing a woman not his wife. If I am seeing a woman, she is still not mine and I am not hers - until we are married. I thus cannot, in good conscience, take from her what rightfully does not belong to me as of yet. This is not legalism, but rather applying the whole of God's word as faithfully as we are able. [This is not to say that there is not a place for deepening emotional intimacy before marriage, but we ought to be very careful in guarding that - and all the more so with friends with whom we are not pursuing marriage. Too, we must consider the timing of marriage and engagement in this; but even here we must be wise.]

This is radical. I see that, because I have come to a much stronger conclusion regarding these things in the process of writing this than I originally intended to come to - but I have followed where the dictates of Scripture and reason have led. I understand many of you many disagree on the specifics of what this looks like, but I think the underlying principle is clear.

In terms of spiritual oversight, I think there is an inherent flaw in any vision that chooses to dismiss spiritual oversight. Croft himself acknowledges that this will look different for different people - as do Harris and most other authors I've read advocating a "courtship" mentality. I would comment that there is no reason one's personal spiritual partners and mentors cannot fulfill that role, even if she goes to another church. (And if one has none, then there is a serious problem.) The same for her. And ultimately, one should be in a position, I believe, to choose for one of the couple to move churches and be attending the same church: if two people cannot agree on that before marriage they certainly will have a challenge after marriage.

In terms of the reasoning why we ought to be under spiritual authority - and why we ought to ask permission of her father - this too is relatively clear from Scripture. First, we know that we are not to be in a position of not being under any spiritual authority; to the contrary we are always to be under authority. Second, the Biblical understanding is that a woman is under the headship of her father until she moves to be under the headship of her husband. It is only right, then, that a man interested in pursuing a woman ought to respectfully pursue the guidance and involvement of her father.

To ask a very practical question: given the opportunity for Godly guidance, prayer support, and the wisdom of those who have walked down this road before, why would anyone not take it up immediately? Whether that guidance be from a father, or from a pastor or elder, guidance is available. The only reason I can think of that would lead anyone to reject that is rebellion against spiritual guidance and authority.

[Aside: It is worth noting - and I hope that one of those who has followed the discussion on the Scott Croft article points it out to him - that the divorce rate statistics he quoted are indeed misleading. I and several others pointed this out in our response back when the Census bureau released new figures a month or so ago... marriage among Christians has a way to go, but when normalizing for church attendance alone I believe the divorce rate for Christians drops to around 30% or lower - not perfect, but far from looking like the rest of culture.]

There's a significant dichotomy culturally right now about - between those who still hold to that older way of looking at it which values beinga wife and a mother as the ultimate fulfillment in life, and those who don't, who have embraced the liberation ideology of modern radical feminism. Unfortunately for those in the latter category, I haven't seen many of them happy. The more women I see embracing careers at the expense of all else, the more I see unhappy women. (I don't have a problem with women working, by the way, I just think that men and women fulfilling natural gender roles is ultimately more fulfilling for everyone.) Then what, you ask? Well, all the women with college degrees I know raise their children, and as their children get to a point where they require less care, start working more and more, until after the children are gone they simply are working full time in a good corporate or similar level position. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. I see very few women having to sit at home baking cookies; most of the ones I know who do that do so because they enjoy doing so.

Nothing in the world ordinarily prevents women from going and doing after they finish raising their children - I've watched my own mother do it quite successfully, and she's very happy. There are exceptions, of course, but this generally holds true. I should clarify, though: I don't think liberation ideology makes women unhappy because of the difficulty of what they have to do. Quite honestly, I've never seen any job that compares at any level in terms of stress and difficulty to parenting well. Getting it right is far harder than running a company - I've seen people do both. Parenting successfully is ultimately both harder and more fulfilling than running a company, from every case I've seen. And the studies showing that increasing numbers of women just want to get out of the workplace and have children would tend to support the idea that ultimately, that is part of their natural gender role.

What really makes me sad is the false dichotomy so often stated - the split between "taking care of the kids for a few years" and "making a positive difference in society." Those used to be viewed as essentially one and the same. There was a time when people understood that in raising children one was accomplishing the most one possibly could for the future - far more than any change at any other level, because in so doing one is preparing those who will live in the future. It saddens me that we have lost that, and that we see children now as a burden or obstacle in the way of true success - perhaps a pleasant one, but a burden or obstacle nevertheless. There was a time when they were considered life's greatest blessing and challenge aside from one's spouse.

Suffice it to say that the happiest families I know by far are those where the man works, comes home and spends quality time with the family, and the mother raises the children until they're grown, and then goes into the workplace. The strongest families I've ever seen follow that through all the way to the point where the mother homeschools all of the children.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but I doubt it, particularly given the weight of evidence that backs it up. Doing things the "old-fashioned" way leaves people more content and happier. Why? Because it lines up with our natural design. It's that simple. Most of my close female friends ultimately want to be housewives. Not because they don't have ambition, but ultimately because they do - and they see that as a higher calling than any other available.

For me to have the opportunity to serve my wife, whoever she may be, by letting her fulfill that dream, is no difficulty, but rather a blessing beyond compare. And I look forward to the blessing and challenge of raising children, knowing that more than any other accomplishment I have in life, their lives will be my legacy.

Women didn't start becoming discontent until the breakdown of normal social patterns began to happen with the spread of the seeds of modern ideological liberalism, with the emphasis on secularism propagated by the gradual diffusion into the general population of Enlightenment ideals. That bred discontent for everyone, particularly as the pre-existing (and highly functional) models of society were slowly but surely deconstructed. (It is well worth noting that the collapse in the traditional family structure - and its occasional surges in strength - parallel [or rather, closely follow] the erosion and occasional resurgences of traditional Judeo-Christian values.)

There is another way. And it's not a Catch-22 once one has been liberated from the indoctrination of the modern liberal ideology. Men provide; women nurture. When the nest is empty (or even mostly empty, or getting that way), the women need no longer function with that as their primary role. It certainly never need be their only role.

- Chris

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