Saturday, November 24, 2012

Courtship: The Background and Negative Outcomes

Soon I will begin posting personal courtship stories, so it might be helpful to get a little background of the history of courtship.  The courtship model is unquestionably a part of the culture of many conservative churches, conservative Christian groups, and promoted by leaders in the homeschooling community.  Some groups who have embraced the courtship model are:  Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), Doug Wilson, Family Integrated Churches (such as Household of Faith Community Churches),  ATI and Institute in Basic Life Principles by Bill Gothard, Steve and Terri Maxwell of,  Mike and Debi Pearl of No Greater Joy, Vision Forum - Doug Phillips, etc.  The Maxwells and Pearls are families who homeschool, full-quiver, speakers, authors, and promote courtship.  I'm sure there are more.

Bill Gothard taught a form of courtship in the 70s.  I remember reading documents and listening to Jonathan Lindvall cassette tapes on courtship in the early 90s called Youthful Romance.  I've read that Jonathan got his material from Bill Gothard who founded Institute in Basic Life Principles.

In 1997, Senior Pastor Josh Harris, the pastor at SGM's flagship church, Covenant Life Church, wrote a very popular book called, "I Kissed Dating Goodbye." when he was only 21 years old.  This book underscored what many church and homeschool leaders were saying all along, that modern dating is not healthy and recommended an alternative to recreational dating, courtship.   Josh had been in the limelight from an early age because his father, homeschool pioneer and pillar, Gregg Harris, took him on his speaking tours at homeschool conventions from state to state.  I remember seeing Josh manning his father's book table at homeschooling conferences.    

Josh Harris was already popular among homeschoolers because of the magazine, New Attitude, he published from 1994-1997.  The magazine's readership was focused on homeschooled teens.  When Harrris published I Kissed Dating Goodbye in '97, it was well-received in homeschooling circles, but also ventured into mainstream Christianity.   I Kissed Dating Goodbye highlighted the negative aspects of recreational dating practices and provided a seemingly healthier and new alternative:  courtship.  

I was 21-years old when I wrote my story of giving up the dating game in order to focus on serving God. The hope behind it was that other singles would be helped by some of the lessons I was learning. Most people have an opinion about "that book about not dating." Some love it; others despise it. I'd encourage you not to assume you know what it says without having read it. Many readers who start out critics of I Kissed Dating Goodbye are surprised to learn that the core message of the book isn't about "dating," but living your life for God. ~Josh Harris

Years later, Josh Harris wrote Boy Meets Girl:  Say Hello to Courtship.  

Here is the description from Amazon:

Purpose Driven Romance 
The last thing singles want is more rules. But if you’re looking for an intentional, God-pleasing game plan for finding a future spouse, Joshua Harris delivers an appealing one. A compelling new foreword, an all-new “8 Great Courtship Conversations” section, and updated material throughout makes this five-year revision of the original Boy Meets Girl a must-have! Harris illustrates how biblical courtship—a healthy, joyous alternative to recreational dating—worked for him and his wife. Boy Meets Girl presents an inspiring, practical example for readers wanting to pursue the possibility of marriage with someone they may be serious about. 

The summaries of these books come across as fairly decent, in fact, a lot of it still appeals to me today.  However, there has been a culture that has evolved since these books were published - not just at Sovereign Grace churches where Harris pastors, but throughout the interconnectivity of churches, homeschool groups, conferences, the internet, etc.  

Josh Harris received a lot of feedback on both books, including negative feedback, and he tried to address those issues in an attempt to clear things up in a sermon called, Courtship Smourtship which can still be found here.

I found an old comment by Kris (blog moderator from from April of 2008 on the I Kissed Dating Goodbye blog.  I realize this is an old comment, but it helps to illustrate how this courtship concept caught on and developed a life of its own in a negative way.

Kris Says:
It was my observation at our SGM church that the attitudes Josh Harris preached against in “Courtship Smourtship” were alive and well…and this was at least 2 years after he preached that sermon. Actually, “alive and well” wouldn’t do it justice. The paranoia about male-female interactions and the idea that “guarding one’s heart” meant running the other direction in the face of ANY sort of attraction – those attitudes were stronger and more pervasive than ever at the SG church we attended.
I don’t think any of the folks knew of Harris’ sermon. Or, if they had, by that time they’d taken his ideas and run with them to such an extent that they’d turned the courtship system into some sort of foolproof immorality-and-heartbreak-prevention-system.

Honestly, I believe that at our SG church, anyway, courtship was more about parents who wanted to control every aspect of their children’s lives than it was about actual purity. Purity may have been one of these parents’ well-intentioned goals for their kids, but purity can be accomplished in other ways, like equipping young adults to MAKE GOOD DECISIONS, rather than setting up a bunch of stringent rules for their kids to follow…and a weird artificial process for finding a mate.

I think what disgusted me the most was to watch people’s responses to the one successful courtship at our church that had actually ended in marriage. Everybody thought that this couple had lived out the absolute ideal. Yet (and granted, I could be wrong, as I did not know this girl that well) I got the distinct feeling, from my position as an observer, that the girl in this couple was woefully ill-prepared for marriage to the young man. She seemed very stiff and uncomfortable whenever the two of them were together in public. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her, to go from living with her parents (she was about 20, had never been to college and had never held a real job aside from giving piano lessons to some of the other kids from church) to – within a period of about 3 months – having gone through a whirlwind courtship with someone she’d hardly spent any time alone with, to being engaged, to getting married to him.

I should probably quit this rant. But courtship and the legalistic excesses that I witnessed are subjects that really get me hot under the collar, almost more than anything else within SGM. There are extremes that NOBODY could ever address in a single sermon.

Here is a response to Kris' comment - - someone's personal experience of this courtship, purity, father-owning-daughter's-heart culture.  Read how church leaders used their authority in ways that were really out of line.  It's sad.

Fundamentalism Survivor Says:
That’s bad. But it gets carried to even greater extremes in other churches, where people’s paranoia and subjective interpretations of the book are involved.

The doctrines of this man (Josh Harris), difficult enough in themselves, provide a ready platform for fundamentalist hypocrisy in the church. Fanatical proponents of “Kissed Dating Goodbye” methodology ultimately trashed my reputation in my old church (it was found out I “went too far” with my ex-fiance). They stalked around with lists of requirements for their future wife/husband. The sexes avoided each other and were embittered. Elders/deacons kids got a lot more freedom even though they weren’t above messing around at times. The singles had a gossip network by which others were “warned” as to who was “marriage material” and who was NOT. If you didn’t make the lucky few, people were distantly polite & emotionally absent in the youth group; you didn’t have a chance at making friends.

Josh, I don’t believe you intended for extremes to happen. But you have muddied the pond for a couple of generations now. Many of us are so cynical that we have resigned ourselves to singleness. Some of us had meaningful, pure relationships with Christian sisters that have been destroyed because of confusion on topics like “emotional purity” (we don’t want to cheat on our future spouses by opening up). You are in a position of great recognition and authority. You have the responsibility to set a better example…”

Who is to blame for all of these legalistic excesses?  I cannot be sure.  It seems Josh has tried to clear up some misunderstandings, but there is definitely something still amiss in this "courtship culture".  I personally don't think Josh Harris is to blame for what has occurred in the homeschool movement and courtship culture, but the books played a part.  

I believe the problem occurred when pastors, leaders, and fathers went above and beyond what is normal involvement in the lives of their congregants and used their power to control and shame their flock/adult children.  


  1. Could it be that the whole courtship movement is people looking for formulas?

    They see that there are dangers for our children and assume those dangers didn't exist (I think they were different) 2000 years ago.

    1. For our family - we were looking for an alternative to what we had grown up with. For the patriarchs and a lot of the people behind this movement, there is indeed an agenda. The goal is to find a spouse for your daughter who goes along with your patriarchal belief system: husband as spiritual head of the home, same theology, populate the world with lots of babies, take over the world with generations of people who believe just like you. I kid you not.

      In my generation, if you went to a party and met someone and they asked for your phone number, it wouldn't have been a big deal to later go out with that person. Parents were not usually involved in the process whatsoever - even on giving permission to go out. They didn't ask and kids didn't tell. Of course I'm generalizing, but that was my experience with my friends. I hung out with pretty decent kids with intact families, too. The courtship model as taught by patriarchs is the other extreme. It seems we need something in the middle of the extremes, huh?

  2. It is all about control. Control is destructive.

    1. I agree with you, Tom. I think there are certainly more risks than benefits with this kind of system.

      There are some things I like: I like that the families get to know prospective son-in-law/daughter-in-law. They put a lot of emphasis on spending time together, doing things together in the family. That's good. I like the dad's involvement, but I find it too intrusive the way some tout it. So much of it is over the top.

      I have seen a few beautiful courtships, but it was the kids who initiated the process by finding themselves attracted to each other and then got their parents on board with it. It wasn't nearly as rigid and dad having so much control. So there are people using the courtship model, but toning it down quite a bit to make it work for them as opposed to recreational dating where that concept can be an hormonal free-for-all.

  3. Julie:

    What I think is an insult is the insinuation that women can not look out for themselves in the courting or dating process. I give women much more credit than they are willing to.

    1. Yes, Tom, they are treated as if they have no common sense or any discernment. I think it is very wise to get parents involved in the process to some extent - by that I mean, spending time with the family, allowing the family to interact with the guy, but the ultimate decision should be the daughter's, not the father's. What's going to happen when there is a failure in marriage? Does dad get the blame for choosing the wrong spouse?

  4. I agree on the balance. I would never be able to trust a male that is into the controlling aspect of "husband as head of the home". That would 100% make me run the other way. However, I do like the aspect of being pursued, romanced, loved, etc. I don't think that has to be a "bad" thing at all. I don't think God's design is "bad". I just like the idea of being respected for who God has created me to be. I don't know if I'd like the courtship model completely. But, with a healthy balance it would be nice to have a male respect me for who I am and give me a positive example of Christ.

    I think for me, I would have to be careful of going to an extreme. I have been at points of male hatred and disrespect. I would not care an ounce if my father approved of who I was dating. So, to go to the other extreme of getting his approval would be ridiculous. In all honesty, because of the abuse I've been exposed to, I am one that doesn't really care what my father thinks. I think for me, it would be more between me and my mate...if God has one for me.

    1. Tammy - Your story explains why the courtship model would be a failure for some. I could point out the similar things with my father. My father was abusive to me throughout my childhood - - -if he couldn't care for me appropriately as a child, what logical sense does it make that he could choose a good life partner for me? None whatsoever!!

  5. This is trend is just starting to come alive and well in Baptist churches in TX. I first heard the concept about 8 or 9 years ago when I attended an Acquire the Fire conference - the teens were all encouraged to sign a card pledging to "only date God for a year". The teens were then encouraged to go home and break up with their boyfriends/girlfriends and tell them why. Then when I was in college I saw the "courtship" model come into play more and more, especially as Matt Chandler's influence spread. None of this ever made sense to me because as a human being I am not my parents. As parents and children, we were not created to be attracted to the same people for the same reasons. For this reason alone my parents stay out of my love life (or lack thereof). I would be incredibly happy to see Josh Harris stop publishing his books completely and let his courtship model pass as just another foolish trend.

    1. It will be interesting to see if Josh continues this courtship model in his church or if he plans on doing any more to resolve the situation. There are reports that Covenant Life Church will be voting to see if they will remove themselves from it's parent Sovereign Grace Ministries. Since CLC is currently the SGM flagship church, this will be interesting to watch.

      I have never heard of signing pledges to date God for a year. What ever happened to let your yes be yes? I'm going to have to look that up. Thanks, Mandy for sharing that info.

    2. Headless Unicorn GuyDecember 3, 2012 at 9:10 AM

      I have never heard of signing pledges to date God for a year.

      Sounds like a watered-down version of Medieval nuns "marrying Christ". To this day, nuns wear a ring like a wedding ring to indicate their vow to remain single and dedicated to God.

      Or maybe that's too Romish?

  6. Blah Blah Blah..... Where's the spice we've come to enjoy on this Blog?

    1. If you don't like it, why read it and comment on it? Take your anonymous self elsewhere... Constructive criticism is fine, but negative comments do no one good.

    2. Anon - Tell me what kind of spice you'd like?

      Thx, Hannah :)

    3. Seems someone told Julie Anne the same thing, Hannah, So she started this blog. Hmmmm... so she is entitled to post a negative google review (and start a blog when she gets booted), but other's aren't entitled to ask where the regular dose of spice is on her blog? I should go start a blog about it!

    4. I don't care if you ask where the spice is. That doesn't bother me in the least. However, why don't you answer my question above? What kind of spice are you looking for? I listen to my readers on what they post in the comments and what I get in e-mail.

      Hint: it works better, though, if you use a better pseudonym than "Anonymous".

  7. My thought when I read about courtship is why would parents want their kids still living with them as adults? We've done it when they were in college and wanted a break or between homes but life on our own again is fun! It's completely different. Maybe some parents can't let go of being in control; they can't remember how to not be hands on parents.

    1. That's a great question, Jackie. I'm no expert, but from my experience of being in the homeschool movement, I know that the concept of "family" is idolized. So, I think that does line up with what you are suggesting - the control, don't know how to let go.

      But another thought entered my mind also. It might also have to do with an underlying theme I've read a number of places - the idea of having the "perfect" family carry down through the generations. These dads have to approve the perfect spouse who will follow their way of thinking or else it could sabotage their family lineage for generations. So, if they can't find the perfect spouse, they will wait as long as it takes. It almost reminds me of how LDS goes backwards in search of ancestors - - patriarchal families seem to be thinking ahead to future generations and what that will look like. They want to replicate themselves, having many children, same theology, etc. This is the extreme side of patriarchal families (ie, Doug Phillips of Vision Forum, etc.)

      I'd be curious to see if anyone else has further thoughts on this.

    2. Headless Unicorn GuyDecember 3, 2012 at 9:13 AM

      But another thought entered my mind also. It might also have to do with an underlying theme I've read a number of places - the idea of having the "perfect" family carry down through the generations. These dads have to approve the perfect spouse who will follow their way of thinking or else it could sabotage their family lineage for generations.

      Tribal family clans.
      Or Noble Lineage and Founding Dynasties unbroken for Ages Eternal. (How long before their family tree stops forking in order to keep the Dynastic Bloodline pure, like the Egyptian dynasties, Spanish Hapsburgs, and a lot of upper-class Saudi clans?)

  8. This brings back some flashbacks to the young singles group back in the day.

    Even within the group was a strict hierarchical structure with men serving as "spiritual leaders" over young women. They called themselves "shepherds."

    So you have a 24 year old woman being told to submit to a 26 year old man she barely knows.

    Let's let that sink in a little.

    Just like puppies, you gotta pound them into submission while they are young.

    What does this have to do with dating?

    These "shepherds" appointed themselves as guards of purity for the women in the group. When they spotted male newcomers eye the women the wrong way, they took it upon themselves to confront them and sometimes expel them in order to root out "carnal ulterior motives." After all, everybody was there to pursue deep spirituality, not for the meat market. Most guys were too scared even to look at the women in the group or risk a ominous phone call from a shepherd.

    But these shepherds allow themselves access to the women while keeping down other guys who had not been accepted into the godly men's club in the name of "protecting the flock." I guess this is how Christian alpha males operate. Use their godliness and positions of authority to beat their competitions.

    As a side note, the women too had female leaders who were of course subservient to the male leaders in the group. They were called the "Key Women." What I would have given to be a fly on the wall to watch a group of men in the room brainstorming to come up with that term - The Key Women.

    1. Ok, David - this is crazy! I don't want to let any of the above sink in whatsoever. I want to run far from this madness!

    2. Headless Unicorn GuyDecember 3, 2012 at 9:16 AM

      But these shepherds allow themselves access to the women while keeping down other guys who had not been accepted into the godly men's club in the name of "protecting the flock." I guess this is how Christian alpha males operate.

      In any herd species with a harem herd organization, the Alpha Male drives off or cowes all the Beta to Omega males to get all the females for himself. Including driving out male offspring when they reach puberty. (See "lost boys" of polyg cults.)

      Wasn't one of the themes of Torah to "Transcend the Animal"?


    I am writing this not based on home-school or any other kind of "Movement".

    I have taken time to read Joshua Harris book reviews on Amazon. It appears that he wrote his "courtship" books when he was too young and perhaps from a very narrow point of view. Looks as if he based a lot of what he says on just personal experience. (I enjoyed the 1 star reviews.) Of course people who subscribe to his logic will give the book high ratings. But it's the single star reviews that tell "the rest of the story". An you just gotta love the comments when someone rates a book with just one star. lol

    One review did give an alternate book which makes a lot of sense to me. I have read some of Henry Cloud & John Townsend's other books. These guys know what they are doing. They are not some kid just out of school!

    "Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships" is the book mentioned, published in year 2000. They don't wear a big sign on their foreheads saying, "CHRISTIAN". So a lot of Christians may miss their books. I see Joshua's first book was published in 2003. So there's not a big difference in time. Our culture would not change much in 3 years, IMHO.

    I have to be aware of the date on books that I read because in the PC world things change daily. But in the "people" world, I would say that 12 year would not be too old to be a good read today. If I were young and had it to do over, I would read "Boundaries in Dating".

    I did take a quick look at the book and it was interesting that part of a chapter was entitled: "Take God on a date." Now that can't be all bad, can it?

    1. Sheep-Dog - the 2003 date was probably the 2nd printing. The first book was printed in '97. Again, I don't know that so much in the book is all that bad, but if you combine it in a super-controling church culture, it can yield some undesirable results.

    2. JA,

      OK. So Joshua Harris wrote a book before Cloud. But I'm still thinking that Henry Cloud's book is much better and not aiming at any kind of control tactics.

      When I said, "can't bee all bad" I was referring to Henry Cloud's book, not any that Harris ever wrote... Sorry for the confusion..

      We really are on the same page. (pun)

  10. Julie Anne,

    Harris' book was a big hit in the neo-Calvinist circles I was in almost immediately upon its release. It became a formula. Though Harris was a youngster, even single people in their 30's and 40's looked to it as some kind of ideal way to approach marriage and singleness. I was single, and put the "formula" into play, and it had some damaging results that I won't go into here very deeply. Try telling a woman who doesn't know the meaning of the word "courting" that you aren't "dating." Yeah, you get the idea.

    1. Steve: Yea, I got the idea. What I want to know is if those 30-40 yr old single women were still living at home with daddy.

      . . . . Wait . . .. no, I don't want to know. It's too disturbing and I want to sleep tonight.

      I've read a lot of negative stories from people my daughter's age (mid-20s), but not so many from 30s on up. Sad.

    2. No, they weren't living at home. This was a fairly new church and the ideas in the book were new to everybody. Before reading the book, we were all just normal single people. And there really wasn't any way we could slide back into an "ideal" living situation - haha.

  11. Headless Unicorn GuyDecember 3, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    Question, everybody:

    How does Christianese Courtship(TM) differ from Islamic Arranged Marriages?

    1. For the extreme courtship cases which is what I assume you mean by (TM), there is not much difference except the god/God that is served.

      I like to add the disclaimer that I have seen good courtship stories, too - ones where the couple are "allowed" to have a voice in the process.

  12. As someone else pointed out, it has been my experience that the teaching on "kissing dating goodbye" and courtship has caused problems including singles not marrying that want to or as early as might have been appropriate. One person wrote a blog entry titled along the lines of regretting kissing dating goodbye and he indicated that the KDG movement caused him to no learn social skills with women thus making it difficult for him to meet and marry. Another person indicated in a comment on my blog that KDG gave men in their 20's an "excuse" for not pursuing relationships with women and just doing things with other single men.

    My experience has been that wherever "kissing dating goodbye" and courtship is taught, singles are almost "afraid" of those of the opposite sex. To put it another way singles learn how to avoid relating to those of the opposite sex vs. how to properly relate.

    Isn't this vision group the same ones that had a video talking about "stay at home" daughters. This would be where daughters over the age of 18 rather than going to college or get an outside job would stay at home and learn domestic skills till and in preparation for marriage?

    "I Kissed Dating Goodbye: Wisdom or Foolishness?"


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