Christian Courtship's
Potential Pitfalls

As a senior in High school, I had never even heard of such a thing as Christian Courtship. I went out with a guy if I thought he was cute, funny and if he liked me. I didn’t see anything wrong with enjoying the admiration and flirtation of a different guy every few months.

When my sister gave me the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” for a graduation gift, I thought it sounded dorky and old fashioned. After reading it I wished someone had taught me everything I learned much sooner. The message in that book redirected the course of my life for the better (read my whole story here). But many people who have kissed dating goodbye are wanting it back.

After almost two decades of young people trying to follow the Christian courtship paradigm of finding true love, the extremes to which some have taken it have given the name a bad reputation. Unfortunately, instead of using common sense and applying bible based principles to their unique situations, people have taken books like Joshua Harris' and turned them into gospel truths about how to conduct relationships. And as someone pointed out, "When people inscribe their relationship rules in concrete, subscribing to [insert Christian author]'s rules to finding a spouse, 99 percent of the time they screw up somewhere."

Sharon Hodde Miller, an author in Relevant Magazine observes, "In my experience, Christian courtships are about as straightforward as the Cha Cha Slide: You take two steps forward, then one step back. You meet one another’s parents, then decide to limit your time together. You start talking about marriage, then you stop engaging in any physical contact. You start praying together, but you also begin “fasting” from one another."

She recounts a time when her friend told her the news of a sudden pause in her relationship. “I’m not sure what happened, but he said we needed to take a break. He wants to pray about the relationship. He needs time to make sure he is following God’s will. He doesn’t want us to have any contact for a month." Just like that, my friend was sent into a tailspin. She hadn’t seen it coming, and neither of us knew what it meant. Was this just a cowardly way of breaking up? Or was her boyfriend genuinely seeking God? And why had God communicated something so different to him than He had to her?"

I've seen this kind of thing happen with couples I've mentored too. In the desire for perfection, Hodde points out that couples who follow the Christian courtship paradigm will sometimes:

  • Place expectations on their relationship that God himself does not have.

  • Pursue holiness in order to earn the reward of marriage. ("As long as I can stay pure and keep Christ central, God will reward me with marriage." But this if/then approach can easily become an attempt at bribing God.)

  • Trust in their methods and rules instead of the grace and mercy of God

  • Avoid idolatry of a person, but end up idolizing the perfect relationship instead. 

Because of this, there is a movement to ditch Christian courtship and bring back dating. The problem is that it's not about which bandwagon you jump on. Whenever you get two sinners together, there's bound to be drama. Our great struggle as humans is to maintain balance. It's possible to date in a healthy way and it's possible to have a Christian courtship in a healthy way, so the issue is not courtship vs. dating but staying balanced.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Here are some of the other ways in which I've seen people take the principles of Christian courtship to extremes when trying to implement them. (I'm going to be very honest with you here. Don't freak out after reading these and swing to an extreme by ditching all the godly principles of Christian Courtship just because there are potential pitfalls!)

Principles of Christian Courtship and how they are taken to extremes

  1. Begins with friendship and trust as a foundation

    It’s hard to even be friends first because in certain conservative circles friendship with the other gender is forbidden because they might threaten their "emotional purity." People frequently question if there’s anything more. Guys don’t feel like they can get to know a girl well enough to decide if they want pursue them without the girl or other people being suspicious that they are  “drawing out their affections” without any commitment to them. They don't want to risk their reputation being labeled as one who "trifles with hearts" so they become passive and do nothing. Inviting a girl to go get a smoothie after class is loaded with "implication." It's not always easy to hang out in groups and yet that's the only "acceptable" way to do the friendship stage. This strict boundary between male and female interaction makes saying "yes" to a courtship almost feels like you’re saying yes to marriage. It’s overloaded with commitment. This is why I wrote an article called "Going on a date does not mean you're dating." To some people I would say, "Chill out. I know marriage is a serious decision, but relax. Take one day at a time and enjoy it. You don't have to have it all figured out. God will lead you."

    PLEASE listen to this sermon to understand this better. It's called Courtship-Shmourtship by Joshua Harris. It clarifies a lot of things. Highly recommended.
  2. Only serious candidates for marriage are considered. 

    What makes one "marriage worthy" has evolved into an impossible ideal. One writer noted that people who believe in having a Christian courtship often require attributes of a “godly young man” that are mutually exclusive. "Her future husband would be a paradox: ambitious and hard-working and able to support a family, yet fully under his parents’ authority and living in their house without going to college. He would be an intelligent, independent critical thinker, yet he would agree unquestioningly with every belief of his parents and church....An ambitious, hard-working young man is going to want to go to college, or at least live at a level of independence from his parents... And any truly intelligent and critical-thinking suitor is not going to agree with his parents on everything..."

    The criteria for what makes one marriage worthy can sometimes be very one dimensional and shallow too. There is a mindset that "correct doctrine = dependable person/incorrect doctrine = potential abuser" that simply isn't true. Just because someone goes to the same church as you does not mean they will pan out to be a good, loving, trustworthy spouse. Men who are hardworking, sincere, honest and all the rest don't make the cut because they don't share the same political views or have slightly different interpretations on minor points. And just because a woman can cook healthy food and keep a house clean does not mean she's a Proverbs 31 woman. She may be manipulative, critical, and selfish and drive you up the wall. 

  3. Driven by rational thinking, study and prayer.

    Instead you're driven by manipulation, fear and guilt. There is so much pressure to meet the ideal of “doing it right the first time” that you feel like you will be labeled as someone with “baggage” or that your courtship “failed” if you start a Christian courtship with someone and it doesn't work out. So you agonize and fret about the decision and over analyze the prospect until you get confused or go crazy. You may even hang on to a relationship, trying to make it work when common sense says you should move on because everybody is watching you and rooting for you and you "knew" God was leading you when you began. (NOTE: It SHOULD be considered a “successful Christian courtship” if you determine through the course of the relationship that it’s not God’s will for you to marry and you break up).

    In the effort to stress the importance of being level headed in a Christian courtship some young adults wind up frightened by their own emotions and are afraid of making decisions for themselves. They are constantly confused with conflicting “impressions” and believe that if they strictly followed a “formula” everything should work out right. To them I would say, "Relationships are messy and require risk. Every couple's story will be different so don't try to fit a puzzle piece where it doesn't belong. There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to finding true love."

  4. It’s best to prevent numerous emotional attachments to avoid unnecessary heartbreak and regret.

    There is an erroneous teaching going around that if you become emotionally vulnerable with someone who doesn't end up as your spouse, you've been "unfaithful" and can no longer give your spouse your whole heart, but rather an incomplete heart. While it is good to keep your heart on a tight leash, not letting sentimentalism rob you from becoming a useful person in your developmental years, the mindset of saving your entire heart for your future mate creates a pressure to give all your love and commitment to the first one who comes along. When that falls through, it is much more devastating than a dating relationship that didn’t work out.

    Debra Fileta, author of True Love Dates, shares her testimony, "Trying to stay true to the concept of courtship that I had read about and so desperately wanted to believe in, I confined myself to a relationship that I eventually knew in my heart wasn’t the right fit. I was terrified of failure and of letting people down. Afraid of starting over, afraid of playing the dating game, I allowed my bond to get deeper and deeper with a man whom I ultimately would not marry." (True Love Dates, p. 22)

    The truth is, our hearts are not finite objects. We are capable of loving more than one person. Recovering from a breakup is never fun, but you should not carry around guilt that you've been "unfaithful" or have "robbed" your future spouse because you followed the Lord to the best of your ability and the first wasn't "the one." I loved someone before my husband but he has never felt like that robbed him from me giving him my whole heart. Maybe if I were still communicating with them and obsessing over them, he'd feel different. But when we broke up my loyalties and affections were cut off and still are.

  5. Esteems purity – there is a commitment to guard the sacredness of sex.

    The bible is pretty clear about staying pure before marriage. But in their zeal, some teachers of purity make it an idol and young people are left with the conclusion that your sexual history determines your worth. Young people are frightened and manipulated to adopt rules which don’t address heart issues. They pride themselves for not kissing but cross boundaries in other ways.  Principles of modesty are taught in a way that make girls hate their body because they believe their curves might send a guy to hell if he lusted after her. Young people become afraid of their sexuality and cower in shame if there is any hint of sexual impurity in their life instead of rejoicing in the love and forgiveness of God. When it comes to physical boundaries in Christian courtship, we will become just like the Pharisees if we try to take an outside in approach; measuring our spirituality on the basis of a set of rules designed to govern behavior.

  6. Humbly embraces the counsel of parents and trusted mentors to help navigate the choice to marry or not.

    Instead of the young adult coming to the conviction that they want their parents to participate in the process of them finding a spouse (because they trust their judgement) parents demand that they be consulted.

    One guy who grew up in a conservative Christian homeschooling family remembers coming home from college with a good degree and a solid job lined up, anticipating the opportunity to finally find a bride. But he recounts that "even with the right credentials, it was still impossible for me to come against home-school patriarchy and perfectionism."

    He goes on to say, "For many girls I know, the perfect suitor never materialized. Instead, they became forced to wait for the elusive young man who could gain the approval of their father. Many of my more ambitious male friends left the home-school community entirely out of disgust, tired of facing impossible obstacles set up by fathers just to get to know their daughters. (See 1st video in this post for comical illustration) The boys who remained were often never given enough freedom to choose anything for themselves, and were under-employed, unable to communicate with women, and altogether as uninteresting as they were ineligible…"

    "I have seen young men get married who never would have had a chance of even getting a date in the real world. But for girls with no other alternative except being surrogate mothers for their younger siblings, even bad marriages often seemed desirable. If anything, it allowed them to get out of their fathers’ house.

    "I knew a boy who had been met with ridicule and disdain by a girl’s father when he had expressed interest in her. When she turned twenty-five, still living at home and waiting for a suitor, the dad relented and tried to get the young man to court his daughter again. The young man said in no uncertain terms that he was no longer interested."

    "It is a cruel irony: a culture which esteems marriage and family as the highest ideal ultimately makes it unattainable...By idolizing marriage, finding a spouse becomes almost impossible."

    In a forum where the question was asked to ex-"Quiverfull" people (think VERY large families and very conservative), "Did you participate in a parent-guided courtship? If so, what was your experience? If not, why not?" One girl answered by saying, "I was told to take a look at him because my Dad thought he was the one for me. It doesn’t sound like forcing, but believe me, you don’t get to say no to that without being labeled rebellious….I broke off my courtship the day the man proposed to me, which ultimately caused me to be shunned by my entire family."

    To me, these stories are terribly sad. What a perversion of the Proverb, "In a multitude of counselors there is safety."

  7. Waits until maturity and life preparedness is reached before pursuing a serious relationship with the opposite sex.

    I don't really see this one being taken to extremes except by controlling parents.  See #6 for more explanation. In fact, the idea of Dating yourself first before dating others is very important. See link for more explanation.

  8. Aims to be content while single and enjoy that time of life through deep fellowship with the Lord and personal growth.

    Have you ever felt guilty for having a sex drive and desiring intimacy? You shouldn't but it's all too common in circles where this principle of Christian courtship is taken too far. I've known someone who, in an effort to prove that they were content and fully surrendered to God they vowed to stay single. From a misconception of what 1 Corinthians 7 teaches, some believe that being single means being more sanctified. With every natural disaster and political decision the message that Jesus is coming soon is preached. Such urgency obviously gives no time for love and those who are pursuing romance and dreaming of building a family are looked at with scorn.

    If someone does decide to risk God's timetable of prophetic events and enter a Christian courtship, once the feelings grow stronger, there is a panic that sets in and couples wonder if God wants them to break up. "New relationships are intoxicating. Falling in love is blissfully disorienting, so it’s easy to lose your true North. Everything, including God, can take a backseat to your beloved. Knowing this, many well-meaning Christians work hard to stay on the straight and narrow. In an earnest attempt to honor God and one another, many sincere couples take a circuitous route marked by pain, confusion and unnecessary detours." Relevant magazine

    This over-spiritualizing and subjective yo-yo experience leaves one remembering their single years as years of angst and turmoil.

  9. Intentionally looks for real life scenarios to hang out so that you can see who a person really is.

    This Christian courtship principle is taken to an extreme when couples are not allowed to be alone without a sibling or adult chaperone. If they are old enough to be considering marriage, they should be mature enough to decide how they want to be held accountable so they don't compromise their convictions about purity.

  10. Sees flirting as immoral because it trifles with hearts and develops habits that will be carried into married life.

    I'm a proponent of not flirting, but to some people, the littlest things are considered flirtatious.  One guy I knew thought a girl was teasing him because she wore scented lotions. I had to tell him, "Dude, her hands are probably dry. The lotion has nothing to do with you."

  11. Focus is on pleasing the Lord – You don’t base your obedience to God’s word on feelings.

    This definitely should be the motive of a Christian courtship, but as humans our motives are sometimes mixed. I've read stories where it's clear that the couple's focus was on obeying their parents and not getting labeled as “rebellious”. Their decision to “court” was not from a personal conviction so they followed the rules outwardly because that’s what was expected of them. Inwardly they felt like a hypocrite.

  12. Sees God as the only one who can satisfy the deepest longings of their souls. Each couple gives out of their fullness.

    While we can't expect a relationship to meet the deepest longings of our soul, we must realize that God created us for fellowship with human beings. I've seen people take this principle of Christian courtship to extremes by believing that they weren't “spiritual enough” if they desired intimacy with another person. They felt plagued by guilt because they were taught that you must be happy and content all the time if you truly love God – a very unrealistic expectation.

If you read my post about  courtship vs dating you'll see that these principles are far superior to the worldly practice of dating, but the truth is, Jesus did not give us directions on the proper method of becoming married. He instructed us on purity of body and mind but never gave us step by step instructions on how a relationship ought to unfold. Every couple's story will be different, unique and beautiful, so don't panic if your experience does not match the ideal you have in your head of Christian courtship.

When it comes to following the principles of Christian courtship,  Joshua Harris' says himself, "One of my main concerns in my church or any other church is that there be no disunity among Christians over issues of dating and courtship. We need to learn to hold our own convictions on this matter with charity. Most importantly we need to make sure that our convictions are shaped by scripture not culture, church culture or my books."

Since we all want to have great marriages, we want to "do it right.". But it's all too easy to trust in methods by taking them to extremes. In Bible times the armies who had chariots and horses were expected to be more powerful. But God did not want Israel to trust in the weapons of warfare for their victory. God wanted His people to know that their victory didn't come from the how, but the Who. Your Christian courtship is no different. "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God." Psalm 20:7

Back to top Christian Courtship Potential Pitfalls

You may also like: How the Courtship vs Dating Debate is Changing

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