Is courtship fundamentally flawed?
It’s normally not my practice in this column to comment directly on other articles or posts, but enough of you have asked questions specifically about this article — and there’s so much strong opinion online since it was written several months ago — that it seems appropriate to at least take a brief pass at it for our Boundless audience.
In his piece “Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed,” Thomas Umstattd, Jr. essentially describes “courtship” as a recipe for permanent singleness and strife and advocates a return to what he calls “traditional dating.”
The very long initial post in question is apparently now a book, and there are many more specific issues in the post than I can deal with fully in this space. As I researched this column, I read any number of pieces that address Umstattd’s original post in greater length, and for my money, there’s a lot to like in this post by Scott Ross. [Note: I am otherwise unfamiliar with Ross’ work and theology; my recommendation at this point extends only to his post in response to Umstattd.] Still, let me summarize some thoughts and principles on the problem Umstattd raises and the approach he suggests.
First, in fairness, let’s acknowledge that families and communities that practice the traditional courtship model Umstattd describes can sometimes do it poorly and sometimes assert hard biblical authority where none exists.
In the nearly 20 years I’ve been thinking, writing and counseling around these issues, my own thinking on what is wise and authoritatively biblical has changed some on this. At this point, I and others I trust believe that, generally, the “permission and control” model that Umstattd describes, in which a father has formal and authoritative veto power over the identity of his adult daughter’s husband and the timing of her marriage, is not required by anything in the Old or New Testaments and is even theologically and practically problematic. Forgive the lack of a detailed explanation here (it’s not the topic of this piece), but in a nutshell, the specific passages in the Old Testament law that deal with fathers and daughters do not necessarily translate to the church under the new covenant (as Umstattd points out), and Ephesians 6:1 (and Colossians 3:20) were not directed at adult children.
Even in most (though not all) conservative, reformed evangelical churches and communities, the “advice, counsel and blessing” approach has rightly come to prominence and is the approach followed in the vast majority of cases. In fact, just as often in this day and age, the woman in question has moved not just out of her parents’ home, but also their town, such that it ends up being an elder or an older married couple in the woman’s church who end up providing much of the “counsel and advice” day to day. Certainly, issues of age, financial dependence, whether a woman lives with her parents, etc. can complicate this calculus. But as I’ve written before in this space, “honoring father and mother” in adulthood need not necessarily equate to “obeying” their specific wishes as to marriage, career and other life choices — especially when Mom or Dad’s directives don’t gel with Scripture.
All that said, Umstattd’s approach to finding a spouse throws the baby — and the tub and the fixtures — out with the bathwater. My bottom line issues with Umstattd’s approach are that (1) it fails to seek the wisdom of Scripture as its guide for practice; (2) Umstattd’s conclusions about the likely results of his suggested approach are naïve in the extreme and unwise to pursue; and (3) it is careless and inaccurate in its characterization of most “courtship”-like relationships (many of the principles of which align with what I have called “Biblical Dating”).
First, Umstattd appears to base almost his entire approach to dating and marriage on his grandmother’s anecdotal, pragmatic advice. Parts of Umstattd’s post appear to affirm the importance of Scripture, but his larger position seems to be that because Umstattd disagrees that the Bible mandates the “permission and control” version of courtship, the Bible has nothing to say about how to find a spouse.
If Umstattd’s grandmother was a believer at all, he doesn’t say so. If any of the men her grandmother dated were believers pursuing biblical principles on how to treat a sister in Christ, Umstattd doesn’t say so. If his grandmother’s advice was based on any scriptural principles, Umstattd doesn’t say so. If she was using biblical criteria to determine which “Bob” she ended up with, Umstattd doesn’t mention it. Umstattd appears to be a believer and seems to aspire to some level of physical holiness (though he seems pretty flexible about what that means), but his approach is expressly based not on Scripture, but rather on folksy, pragmatic advice from a bygone era of sexual and cultural morality.
As I’ve argued before, Scripture is sufficient to guide us in all areas of faith and life, and Christians should base their approach to all significant life issues — including the finding of a spouse — on the principles and prescriptions that are there. (See the first couple of articles in my Biblical Dating series for more on that.) Umstattd’s post doesn’t take that approach.
Second, Umstattd’s conclusions about the likely results of “traditional dating” are terribly naïve and unsupported by any current experience or facts on the ground. Where is the community of believing 20-somethings who would agree to go through slow-motion speed dating, round-robin style with no expectations of anything more serious? Why wouldn’t “traditional dating” as Umstattd describes it come with all the pitfalls of the other popular fix for the “awkwardness” of the more deliberate approach to dating — intimate friendships between single men and women where both parties “know” it’s nothing more? What exactly would prevent the confusion, unmet expectations, hurt feelings and sexual temptation that plagues the other casual approaches to friendships and dating?
If the pervasive sexualization of our culture, the obliteration of mores against premarital sexual involvement, and the pressure to be physically intimate on a casual basis in today’s dating scene are so easy to overcome, then what about the statistics showing levels of premarital sexual involvement among professing evangelicals that are essentially comparable to the world at large? If the lack of exclusivity inherently means “less sexual temptation,” then why has the hook-up culture made its way even into church singles groups?
To all of the above, if Umstattd has answers or evidence apart from his grandmother’s experience, he doesn’t give them. His statements about the results of “traditional dating” are conclusory and unsupported. The work of myself and others on biblical dating, and the views of the scores of pastors and counselors I’ve talked with over many years who do premarital and marital counseling, are based on scriptural principles and the practical experience of hundreds or thousands of couples and singles. Those people’s struggles with sexual sin and shattered expectations are not the result of failed “courtships” as Umstattd conceives them. They are the result of an approach to dating that takes it all as it comes, keeps it all really casual, mirrors the world, eschews real accountability, and makes no particular effort to treat brothers and sisters in Christ to whom they are not married as Scripture instructs. On all these issues, Umstattd’s post smacks of inexperience with even most Christian dating contexts in the real world.
Third, Umstattd’s post is based on a caricature of most biblical dating relationships, not on the real thing as properly conceived. Umstattd’s inaccurate “tweetables” are not arguments, and they don’t present a fair picture of most biblical dating relationships. A clear, deliberate approach to dating and marriage — with the goal of discerning whether marriage is right for the couple involved — does not mean that asking a woman on a first date is the same thing as the proposal. If the “only tangible difference between an engagement and a courtship is the ring and the date,” you’re not getting your biblical dating relationship off to a good start. The idea is just to be clear enough with one another about intentions and interactions that you both know what’s happening and why. Are the stakes higher with a deliberate approach? Yes, but two mature young adults can take that approach without feeling the outsized pressure Umstattd assumes.
As Scott Ross suggested in his piece, rightly criticizing the poor execution of an idea is not the same thing as showing that the idea itself lacks merit. Umstattd’s post rightly calls out some aspects of “courtship” that could be executed better, but he has not effectively undermined the more deliberate, more biblical approach to dating, and “traditional dating” is not the answer. You might say his approach eliminated even the right aspects of courtship and replaced it with nothing.
Copyright 2015 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Scott Croft served for several years as chairman of the elders at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where he wrote and taught the Friendship, Courtship & Marriage and Biblical Manhood & Womanhood CORE Seminars. Scott now lives in the Louisville, Ky., area with his wife, Rachel, and son, William, where he works as an attorney and serves as an elder of Third Avenue Baptist Church.