November 17, 2009 by Stacy McDonald
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.
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?
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.”