November 17, 2009 by Stacy McDonald

The Beauty of Courtship

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As I consider the lessons God has taught me over the years, through the brambles and tares of life, I wonder when I’ll learn that I have so much left to learn! The journey each Christian takes has many ups and downs—many twists and turns; and, often, we begin to think we understand the way, without knowing what lies ahead. It’s an exciting journey and we should learn to look forward to the exercise of faith that is part of the Christian walk.

The Bible may be our living GPS system, and the path God has us on doesn’t change; still, the landscape, the surroundings, and the people on the road with us do change. Therefore, we need to learn to walk by faith, being flexible enough to understand how to apply that unchanging road map to real, moving, organic life.

Over the last ten years, our convictions regarding courtship, marriage, and family have remained pretty much the same; however, as God has continued to shape and fine tune the way those convictions are worked out in our own family, we have realized with increasing clarity how each family and each child within the family is amazingly unique. Therefore, so many things are fluid.

Amidst the growing pains, we have been humbled as God has reminded us of His amazing providence and power. No, we are not in control; God is. Deus habenas tenet! He knows what is best for us—and He will be glorified by it! A few years back, James and I shared our family’s practice of courtship and the commitment period between courtship and marriage—a period we sometimes call betrothal.

Yet, the definitions of betrothal vary drastically— even to the point of some folks meaning an “arranged marriage” when they use the term. We believe the word betroth is a valid and strong word, even if it needs a clarifier. One online dictionary defines it this way:

“A mutual promise, engagement, or contract for a future marriage between the persons betrothed…”

[Middle English bitrouthen : bi-, be- + trouth, troth (from Old English treowth]

“To promise by one’s truth.” In other words, to give one’s word.

To me, the term engagement communicates a date on the calendar. The focus is the wedding, rather than the marriage. While there is nothing wrong with using the term engagement, and some of our children prefer it, you may also hear us use the term betrothal because of its focus on the promise of marriage—the anticipation of the two becoming one. The term is a personal preference.

And while a betrothal is a promise, we also acknowledge that two parties are involved, and some things are beyond our control. Therefore, things don’t always work out the way we hope or intend. While a betrothal is in a sense a promise, it is not a marriage—the two have not yet become one.

If there is some significant reason the two should not marry, there needn’t be a divorce; because, in our country, they are not married—they are not legally bound to one another. Again, some things are beyond our control; but, they are not beyond God’s power. We trust Him.

Courtship is another word that is difficult to define. I think if we define courtship as a “semi-engagement” then we may be asking for trouble. I do wish there was a better word than “courtship,” as this means so many different things to so many different people.

But courtship, as our family defines it, would best be described as the “deliberate pursuit of marriage.” Motive matters. It doesn’t mean that it will always end in marriage, but marriage needs to be the goal, not perpetual romance. When young people guard their hearts, they’re using discretion, and this is a great protection, as well as a biblical trait for any Christian.

We hope you understand that while we believe that the way we define courtship and betrothal is a good way, based on Scriptural principles, for unmarried couples to honor and enter marriage in purity, we realize it is not the only way. Therefore, we humbly submit to you our thoughts, asking that you compare all we say to the Word of God, remembering that there are no formulas:

The Bible gives us many prescripts, but not as many processes. God’s Word presents a number of concepts on how men and women are to relate to one another, as well as how they might prepare themselves for marriage; but it is certainly not a cookbook. While I don’t see a “biblical formula,” I do see biblical principles that will help our children move toward marriage in purity.

So, the way our family chooses to live out these precepts is just that – our choice. It is our application of the biblical precepts found in Scripture. This is not a new law for you. You may choose a very different path with your family and your children – and that is fine with me. I do not see a “one-size-fits-all” model in Scripture for courtship. Each family’s version will look different – and it may even look different from child to child. It has in our family!

In our family betrothal is a promise between a man and a woman to marry. The concepts of courtship and betrothal may seem foreign to some—archaic, and constricting. In a culture where marriage is redefined to include perverted homosexual unions, where recreational dating and “hooking up” is the norm, and where couples divorce because they “fell out of love,” courtship and betrothal may seem old-fashioned and strange.

Against the postmodern mind stands the authoritative Word of God. As a Christian family, we strive to make sure that the way we live and think is directed by the Words of Scripture. Of course, we often fall woefully short, but God is gracious to help us learn from the mistakes and sins of the past – to live more faithfully today. And, Lord willing, our children will learn to live even closer to the mark than we have.

Most of us did not understand courtship when we were young. Perhaps, like me, you had never even heard of it. We grew up in a world where dating numerous different people, sometimes at the same time, was part of growing up. “Going steady” a few times, “experimenting in the back seat” a few times, and “breaking up” a few times, were expected rituals.

As Christian parents, we wanted something more for our children. Therefore, we began to pray, research, and listen to testimonies of faithful Christian parents who we knew were traveling a different path with their children than the mainstream dating crowd.

Courtship

In our home, courtship is a structured period where a young man and a young woman learn about one another within the natural setting of family and fellowship—in the midst of children, normal laughter, conversation, and even conflict (and how it’s resolved).

One-on-one relationships are notorious for the “rose colored glasses” syndrome. A family offers background, conversation—and protection. Not that courtship is a fool-proof method of “discovery” about the other party, but it is certainly more accurate than the dating culture of modern America.

During the courtship period, the young man must decide if he in fact can love this woman as Christ loves the church. Can his heart safely trust her? Is she indeed a virtuous woman whose worth is far above rubies? Will she make a good helper to him and a good mother to his children?

And the young lady must decide if she in fact can respect and submit to this man as unto the Lord. Will he be a faithful provider, protector, lover, and father to her children? Is he a wise or foolish man? What of his character?

Are they theologically aligned? Are they like-minded in areas of importance? Are they in agreement on major life issues? Courtship is not a time of fluttery romance and unrestrained emotion. That time will come soon enough.

We encourage each party to remember that the other may in fact be someone else’s (future) husband or wife. Part of learning to love the other is to spur one another on to good works and self-control – faithfulness to the Lord. During this time, the couple prays for the Lord’s will and the affectionate/romantic side of emotions are held in reserve as much as possible.

Obviously, as the courtship progresses, the affection and friendship between the two will surely grow as a sign of a healthy relationship, but the true romance has not yet begun; therefore emotions should be guarded. It is still a time of “discovery,” and both parties should pay close attention to the character of the other, as it is revealed in daily life.

How does the young lady react when her father asks her to do something inconvenient? What is her response to disappointment? Is she helpful? Does she have a modest demeanor? Is she flirtatious?

How does the young man respond to his mother? Are there signs of an anger problem? Is he too forward? What is his reaction to noisy siblings? Is he a hard worker?

Betrothal

As time goes by, and as relationships grow, the character of each is likely to be revealed. And, should the young man decide that she is “the one” God has for him; he approaches the young lady’s father, asking for her hand in marriage. If Dad feels the match is a good one, he gives his permission to the young man to “win her heart.” The young man is then free to propose to the young lady, and the decision is up to her.

If the young lady has also come to believe that she can love and honor the young man as the church should Christ, she accepts his offer of marriage and offers her heart in return. And thus the betrothal begins—a time when they develop a mature and holy love for one another. Romance blossoms. They grow together emotionally and hearts are bound together.

Yet still, it’s a time of physical restraint as they look ahead to that coming day of matrimony. That first touch of affection—that powerful moment—is saved for the glorious day God has ordained for them—the day they begin their life together as husband and wife. And we do all we can to make that wait very short.

Again, this is our attempt to apply the precepts of the Word of God to courtship and marriage. We willingly offer our understanding of Scripture and share our lives with you as a testimony of God’s grace in our lives, not as a “rule” or “burden” for anyone to follow.

UPDATE: Four of our daughters are happily married after having been courted by godly young men. We now how have six grandchildren (one yet to be born). 

Not too long ago, I received the DVD, To Be One, in the mail from Peter Telian, a young man who put together a documentary detailing three distinctly different courtship stories from beginning to end. Each family had obvious theological differences, as well as significantly different lifestyles. Their goals for their children were similar, and the young couples were equally committed; yet, each family was very unique in its approach to preparing for marriage.

I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with various things each couple/family shared, which just goes to show you that no two families are the same—and we can learn from one another whether or not we agree. Though I found myself best able to relate to Jeff and Ashley, I learned a lot from each of the testimonies, and found the perspectives of both parents and children before and after marriage to be helpful. Much to think about. Thanks, Peter!

I highly recommend To be One to anyone who is looking for an alternative to the “dating mindset.”

Middle English bitrouthen : bi-, be- + trouth, troth (from Old English


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11 Responses to “The Beauty of Courtship”

  1. Dear Stacy, I heard you and your husband speak at a Washington State homeschool conference 3 years ago. Your husband mentioned putting together a 100 question list for suitors to answer and he mentioned making that available in the future. Have you published that anywhere? I would like to have it for the future and to help us put one of our own together. Thank you for your beautiful website. It is as feminine and lovely as you are.
    In Christ,
    Kristi Knifong
    Sandy, Oregon

  2. Laura Ingerswen says:

    Stacy,

    Your article was very helpful in outlining the courtship details. I believe that many disputes could be resolved if only people defined their terms, so I appreciate that you have clearly stated what courtship entails. However, I must respectfully disagree with the idea that a young adult man and woman should only get to know each other within a chaperoned environment. I am aware that the back seats of cars have had a long reputation of being the place where many young couples started out with some semi-innocent experimenting and ended up losing their innocence, and that leaving two attracted people with no self-control in the same room is like leaving a used cigarette near a pool of gasoline. But I do not think that two people can get to know each other fully well within a family-centric environment, and that some well-structured “dates” with the two of them alone are unharmful and even helpful. Ultimately the man is not trying to see if he can marry the girl’s family (though they will play a big part in his life): he is trying to see if he can marry the girl. Beliefs can also differ between parent and child, and just because the parents hold to certain beliefs does not mean their children also do. The young man in particular should find out if the woman he wants to marry blindly follows her parents’ advice or firmly holds her own positions. In a date with the two of them alone, he can more easily discover which is the case. The same also applies to her. Dating can work. The key is teaching them self-restraint from an early age. Children that have been raised to give into temptation whenever it presents itself are not children who should ever be left unsupervised with the opposite sex when they develop sexual appetites, and they are certainly not prepared for marriage. If a young, responsible young man and woman need constant supervision to ensure that their sexual desires are kept under control, they should not be considering any kind of relationship — through courtship or otherwise.

    Still, even well-intentioned, self-controlled couples may fall: therefore my advice is to find out as a parent how important one’s virginity is to the young man who wishes to have a relationship with your daughter. If he thinks that safe sex or other forms of sexual stimulation outside of marriage are acceptable, then he should not be left alone with her. If, however, her sexual purity and his are important to him, he does not need the constant eye of a chaperone. In fact, a chaperone can be more harmful than helpful. Will not the allure of holding hands, increased physical contact, or kissing increase once such things are forbidden and strongly discouraged? As fallen human beings we are geared by sin to want that which we cannot have: once we are free to do as we choose, with limited to no social restrictions, doing the forbidden is less attractive.

    Ultimately, the Bible does not lay out a clear courtship model, but it does instruct us to exercise self-control, love each other unconditionally, and glorify God in all that we think and do. This is as good a relationship model as ever I saw one.

  3. Travis Wakeman says:

    @Stacy McDonald:

    I’m interested to know how courtship is a more accurate method of discovery than dating. I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but the comments presented by Laura do. Your post clearly illustrates the advantages of courtship, and your well-defended reply against the dating culture is appreciated.

    @Laura Ingerswen:

    The focus of courtship is not so much chaperoning as much as it is gauging behavior in a family setting. The differences in beliefs between daughter and family would only further strengthen the cause of courtship, because it gives the young man the ability to determine how the young girl reacts to these differences. If she can still submit to her father and obey her mother in spite of these differences, even if she disagrees with the courtship method, then she is a rare jewel of a girl, and one I would certainly consider marrying myself.

    I am not saying that dating does not or cannot work – on the contrary, it appears to have had spectacular effect for the people I now know to be my parents. But it is not the norm. From what I have seen of the dating experiences of others, time and again couples get together, break up, and repeat countless times over without ever learning from our mistakes. The dating method facilitates this. Americans might as well drop their Christian background of taking only one girl at a time and adopt the middle-eastern method of taking all the girls they want at once, since the end result is often the same. I have two friends whom I can use as examples of this; one Iraqi guy friend has about 5 girlfriends at the time of writing and boasts of having slept with 50-100 girls. At the same time, an American (Caucasian) girl friend said she had 67 boyfriends, presumably one at a time. I see no real difference between the two. Courtship minimizes the number of heartbreaks by utilizing betrothal. And if there is any doubt left in your mind about how this can work, arranged marriages are reported to be far happier and last longer than “love” marriages.

  4. Carly says:

    Thank you for your carefully crafted piece on courtship. My husband and I both came from non-Christian families and followed the dating model. Now my eldest son is 14 and for a couple of years we have been reading and trying to learn what we can about courtship. (He is still not interested in girls… God is good! :)

    If I am quite honest, I do find the description you present constricting and old fashioned. I think my greatest concern comes from the “betrothal” period in which the “promise” can only be broken for a very serious reason. Yet we are talking about young people here who are learning many things about life and about themselves. My concern stems from a young man who is currently living with us, an intern at our church working under our senior pastor. He had a “betrothal breakup” a couple of years ago in which the young lady said she realized she was not yet ready for marriage. He scoffs at that… it wasn’t a good enough reason to break up and he thinks she was wrong to become betrothed. In my opinion, we learn new things about ourselves all the time. She thought she was ready; she changed her mind. That is FINE in my opinion, in fact commendable that she was willing to risk the shame of breaking it off without a “good enough reason.” I applaud her and I wonder about the courtship model that leads this young man to have so little grace and compassion and understanding for a young lady he once thought he would marry. (Though we truly love him and know in time he will grow in these areas.)

    Curious to know your thoughts. Thank you.

    With highest regard,

    :) Carly

  5. Michelle says:

    Thank you for posting this! We’ve recently decided that our daughter will court and not date. We are both new to this. I was very glad I found your blog! It has been most helpful. I’m looking forward to watching To Be One.
    Thank you and God Bless!
    Michelle :)

  6. Freida says:

    Thank you for sharing, Stacy! I completely agree that dating is “asking for problems”, not the least of which can be getting your heart broken numerous times. Moreover, dating usually starts in the early teens, well before anyone could think about getting married. I have never dated anyone, and as one of the only girls in my entire group of relatives who hasn’t been physically assaulted by men, I am so thankful that my family cares enough about me to NOT leave me in dangerous situations where I would be alone with a man (or men).

    You are so right that courtship means different things to different people! It’s amazing the differences in that term I’ve seen. One family I read about didn’t let the betrothed couple hold hands until the wedding, while to another dad “courtship” just meant that the young man had to ask permission to get engaged to the girl! (This couple did’t last very long, by the way, as the “godly homeschooled young man” turned out to be a pedafile…)

    It is very important for a girl’s parents to feel like her potential spouse is the right one (assuming her parents are Christians), and to not let the courtship process be a series of secluded dates.

    But no matter what method, a girl’s heart could still be hurt. I’m thinking of one young lady who was courted by a man in her church, and he then decided to leave her for another girl, leaving her heart in shambles . Still another girl got engaged to a guy that she didn’t know that well, only to have the engagement (after it was announced!) be nullified. Was it better than dating? Absolutely! But since the courtship is just a time to see “Is this the one God has for me?”, there is still a huge amount of potential for someone’s heart to be hurt. No matter how much they guard their emotions, a girl can’t help getting her hopes up, so courtship is still not a fool-proof method. : (

    It is easy to think rationally, “You don’t have any guarantee it’s going to work out,”, but the heart doesn’t work by logic. No matter how guarded someone is, they still can’t help hoping that he will love her, and it would be impossible to get to know the person without opening up your heart to them at least a little…

    Speaking from experience, it is also sometimes embarrassing to have people “watching” you when you’re talking to somebody. I think the more time young couples can have getting to know each other as friends in large group settings, the better! Parents remember dating and want to save their children from that, but those same parents don’t know how it feels to have to get to know each other in front of both sets of potential in-laws (or an obliging sibling).

    I have always said to myself, “If you can’t trust a couple to be alone, you should not be letting them get married!” After all, if their character is such that they can’t control themselves before marriage, how can you be sure that they won’t let their problems get the better of them with someone else, after they are married? That being said, I do agree that most young couples could not be trusted to be alone, and maybe it would be best to let couples be alone (in a crowd, not a secluded place!) once they’re engaged?

    Like you said, it is really different with each situation. Some young couples would wait till their dying day to marry if that’s what God wanted, while other kids have been chomping at the bit for the last ten years and only want to have this courtship because “Well, she’s the only girl my parents will let me marry, so I guess getting a frumpy girl is better than no girl at all.” (I can truthfully say that one of my brothers had exactly that mentality for the first girl he courted, after the previous girl that he dated secretly. That courtship didn’t work out, and the next one was entered into without my parent’s knowledge…)

    But back to the subject! I always thought it was interesting that Laura Ingalls in the 1880s was allowed to go on long carriage rides with Almanzo every Sunday for years, and she did kiss him right after they got engaged. Similarly, the Elsie Dinsmore books (incredibly conservative) and Jane Austen novels portray engaged couples as being very affectionate, and courting couples as taking walks by themselves. So the current form of courtship is probably much more old-fashioned than the “old-fashioned” years ever were! I understand that we are basing courtship on the Bible, not the 1800s, but in Bible times it seems like the marriages were often arranged. That is almost the only way to guarantee your kids will marry, but obviously that is not a good option for getting to know the person!

    So in other words, as a girl who is completely opposed to dating and will wait as long as God wants for that “someday”, I have to say that from a young person’s perspective, courtship still doesn’t iron out all the potential problems, nor does it keep your heart from being broken. Since there is still no commitment until you’re engaged, one cannot really trust the potential spouse all the way.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Freida, very wise thoughts!

  8. BlessedMama says:

    Hi Stacy!

    I am re-reading over all of your articles here on courtship, marriage, divorce and remarriage. Am especially encouraged by the Grace Widow series. I’m interested in knowing how an abandoned young Christian homeschooling mom to 5 is to approach this territory? I do not want to be alone for the rest of my life. In fact, after all my husband has put me and our family through the past 3 years especially, I feel sooooo ready to move on with my life. But how does someone, such as myself whom earnestly believes in Christian courtship, go about this since I’ve obviously been married before and also have several small children? My husband is a sex addict and left us for the ‘chance’ to swim in the sea of all the other women he could be with instead of being tied down to just one. He has absolutely no heart for repentance nor for ever returning to me and our family. I am fighting hard to move on in my life without him.

    There are a few ‘believers’ around me who are already trying to lay down condemnation and blame on me , first off, for my husband’s sins, and second, for the idea that I could ever be joyfully married to a different man [of God even??] and not be considered an adulterer. With so, so many men addicted to pornography these days, such as my husband has been since he was a child and have become perverted sex addicts, where does that leave the wives married to these men who get saved and give their lives to God, such as I did? I knew that as soon as I had a very real experience with Jesus that my marriage with my husband would be on the rocks because, even though he is very intellectually accomplished and even religious, he surely had not ever had the same conversion that I had. It was obvious by the way I saw him live his life. For a Christian wife who has been abandoned by a husband like this and he’s out sleeping around with other women now and only sometimes having anything to do with his own children, where does that leave me and my kids? What about our future? I really don’t believe it is Biblical at all for me to stay true to my wedding vows to this man who has shattered the sanctity of our marriage forevermore. Or am I wrong in any way?

    (My heart’s desire is to be married to a man of God and him be a father to my children, who desperately need fathering. I want to be able to serve my husband and family, and do whatever God would call us to do. How long am I supposed to wait? How do I go about finding good connections with people i.e. someone interested in courtship and not just dating around?)

  9. Stacy McDonald says:

    Blessed Mama,

    Please feel free to write me privately.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Blessed Mama, you’re in my prayers.

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