The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what The Big Box is all about.
Well, it’s finally time to cover one of patriarchy’s most (in)famous practices: courtship. As anyone who grew up in the Christian homeschool “bubble” will tell you, courtship is pushed hard from all quarters in that community, often by organizations like Vision Forum that promote “purity”-based products, programs and events (see here and here). But what exactly is courtship, and how does it differ from dating (which courtship’s proponents often malign)? S. M. Davis’ lecture will give us lots of opportunities to explore those important questions.
“He who defines wins”
The name of this section is in quotes because it’s one of Doug Phillips’ favorite sayings. I therefore find it interesting that the central term in Davis’ lecture, “dating,” is never defined at any point in the talk (much like “vision,” still undefined after ten posts in the Big Box series). But as we all know, dating can mean very different things to different people. To some, dating means going out to dinner, movies, walks on the beach, or other similarly tame activities with a relatively small number of “suitors” (or maybe only one) before getting engaged and married. To others, it means casual sex with multiple partners and frequent breakups, with little or no commitment understood or implied at any point. With so many shades of meaning, a definition is vital. Davis, however, never provides one, so I’m forced to conclude that he must condemn all dating, no matter how many (or how few) partners it involves, and whether or not there is premarital sex.
Davis’ alternative to dating is, of course, courtship, though he never used that particular word in the lecture. Courtship also comes in many varieties. I think, however, that it’s easier to find the common elements between different methods of courtship than between different methods of dating – the two that come most easily to mind are a ban on premarital sex, and some kind of parental oversight or at least involvement. Davis, as it turns out, holds to a very conservative philosophy of courtship, but rather than detail his views here I’ll let them emerge gradually as we go through the seven “Bible truths” Davis believes are violated by dating.
Truth #1: A one-woman man
At the beginning of the lecture, Davis quotes 1 Thess. 4:3-8:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but to holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit.
Davis takes the phrase “possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor” as Paul encouraging the Thessalonians to find and marry a wife in a godly manner. He bases this on the fact that the Greek word for “vessel” is used to refer to wives in 1 Peter 3:7, and that the word for “acquire” is used of acquiring or purchasing things. His view isn’t entirely original, though many interpret “vessel” to be referring to the human body (or even male genitalia) and thus read Paul as talking about sexual continence in a more general way. (See here for a good overview of some of the different views on this passage.) In any case, even if Paul is referring to finding a spouse, it doesn’t necessarily help Davis as Paul’s instructions here are hardly specific.
Davis next quotes 2 Cor. 11:2:
For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.
The verses that follow indicate Paul is concerned that the Corinthians will be tricked into following false teachers instead of Christ. But here’s Davis’ take on the passage:
Now what Paul was saying was this: it is proper, godly jealousy for a father to make sure that his pure daughter saves her love for one man only.
I have two problems with this interpretation. One, though Paul uses marriage as a metaphor here, he is not issuing commands about marriage but talking about avoiding false teachers. Second, it’s clear here that the “daughter” (the church) is betrothed (i.e. engaged) to Christ, not courting or “dating” Him. Betrothal was often considered nearly as binding as marriage in the past (as the Greek word for “betrothed” here indicates when it lists one of the other meanings as “give in marriage”). In other words, a serious commitment has already been made in 2 Cor. 11:2. We’re not talking about some kind of “trial period” or a time when a couple doesn’t yet know if they’ll marry. If Paul is teaching something about marriage here, he’s teaching that an engaged man or woman shouldn’t be seeing other people behind their fiancee’s back – but that’s hardly controversial, is it?
Davis then moves on to 1 Timothy 3:12:
Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
It’s well-known that the literal Greek for “husband of one wife” in this passage is “a one-woman man,” which is why Davis used the phrase “one-woman man” at the beginning of this section. However, when he actually gets to 1 Timothy, he inexplicably changes the translation to “a one-woman kind of a man.” From what I can tell, this isn’t warranted from the Greek at all and Davis has simply inserted the words “kind of” into the translation to make it fit his theory. In reality it’s obvious that Paul is talking about married deacons here, as he mentions households and children in the very next breath. He’s not making a subtle allusion to courtship, or saying that anyone who ever went out with more than one girl is disqualified to be a deacon (which could be a logical conclusion from Davis’ statement).
Truth #2: Security vs. insecurity
Davis’ next argument is as follows:
Christian dating violates the principle of security rather than insecurity for sons and daughters, especially daughters, in relationships.
God has designed human life in such a way that if men will be men of God, if men will follow the principles of God’s Word, then ladies can feel safe and secure basically from the cradle to the grave…
He then gives us a fairly good outline of his preferred courtship process, in which he explains how children are apparently kept “secure”:
Here’s how it works. A father watches over and protects and gives security to his daughter, from the time she’s conceived, through birth, through her younger years, teen years, young adult years, until they together find her mate for life. Then the couple commit to parents and to each other that they are definitely planning to go to the marriage altar, they could get engaged then or later. Then they get married till death do us part. You see that? Security all the way through? That’s God’s goal.
Davis seems to define “security” in the above as women being protected by men. (Though he says sons should have security also, he never says how this happens.) This is probably related to the idea (previously explored in this post) that women need a man as a “covering,” though Davis never mentions this. Instead, he tells several dating horror stories – angry breakups, girls being left at the altar, even a suicide – and through them implies that courtship relationships are inherently more stable than dating relationships.
First, there’s ample evidence available that courtship can go just as badly wrong as dating (see here, here and here for only three examples, and there are many more). Davis, however, seems to assume, not just in this section but in the entire lecture, that the system will work perfectly all the time, no exceptions. This works well as a tactic to sell courtship to loving parents; what parent, after all, wants to expose their child to romantic heartbreak? Unfortunately reality is rarely so neat. No system works perfectly, all the time, everywhere, for everybody. And frankly, anyone who claims that their system does work perfectly, all the time, everywhere, for everybody, is either delusional or dishonest. Steve at his blog came to a simliar conclusion about another courtship proponent:
One of the biggest concerns I had when I read the I Kissed Dating Goodbye book was that the author only noted “defects” about dating. I saw no acknowledgement that of possible defects with his approach. Is his approach without its own problems as one would be lead to assume since none were mentioned?
Reading his approach and not seeing any problems with his system acknowledged reminds me of a salesman, who when trying to sell me his product, only tells me the advantages of his product not the disadvantages. The only problem is that in this case one shouldn’t be selling a product; they should be trying to help singles find out what approach would work best for them.
Second, though Davis implies that following God’s commands will result in earthly security for women, God never promises anybody, male or female, earthly security. In fact, there’s loads of explicit Biblical evidence that following God’s commands often results in the exact opposite of security (2 Cor. 11:22-29, 2 Tim. 3:12, most of the book of Acts). I also can’t help but remember the prematurely widowed Ruth, who was left with no choice but to walk all the way to Israel with her mother-in-law and then provide for herself by gleaning leftover crops. Ruth does get her “security” back in the end, but there were many women who did not. Also Ruth’s second husband Boaz is often considered a type of Christ, so ultimately Ruth’s earthly security points to Christians’ heavenly security – the only kind of security God promises.
Truth #3: Brothers and sisters in Christ
Davis opens the next section with this verse (actually he only quotes verse 2, beginning at “older women”)…
Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity. 1 Timothy 5:1-2
…and then makes this application:
In relationships, where boys and girls ‘like’ some other girl or boy, or where, among older youth, someone is ‘going with’ somebody, they tend to treat them differently than if they’re not ‘going with’ them. But brother and sister relationships don’t have to change, because brothers and sisters don’t do things that communicate anything other than friendship. They don’t deceive each other. Neither do they suffer the devastation of broken relationships because theirs never had to break.
Davis then goes on to state that teenage girls should not be “close friends” with teenage boys but should maintain “shamefacedness” and “emotional distance” from them; and that, rather than getting to know one another by dating, young people should socialize in group and family settings “where romantic interests are neutralized.”
There are so many problems here it’s difficult to know where to start. First, Davis implies strongly here that since physical brothers and sisters do not have “special” romantic or sexual relationships, then all spiritual brothers and sisters are to be treated in the same (non-romantic, non-sexual) way, all the time. But does a Christian wife cease to be her Christian husband’s “sister in Christ” just because they got married? If not, then Davis should forbid marriage entirely, because it involves a man treating a certain “sister in Christ” “differently” than all his other “sisters in Christ,” by having “incestuous” romantic and sexual feelings for her!
Second, the idea that siblings never “suffer the devastation of broken relationships” is just plain wrong, as the Bible itself is full of examples of siblings with broken relationships (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David’s infighting sons, etc.). Third, Davis comes off as amazingly naive when he says that group and family situations “neutralize” romantic interests. I’m sure we all know couples who met at parties, church functions, or other group situations (my own parents met at a friend’s wedding). But how is this possible if this “neutralizes” romantic interests?
Fourth, as a non-girly girl who had mostly male friends growing up, Davis’ advice that girls not be “close friends” with guys is very familiar to me. Unfortunately for him, however, I only got a crush on one of those young men, and never dated even him. (Interestingly, this was because I chose to go through the proper courtship procedure with his parents and was rejected as insufficiently spiritual.) As for the others, we’re still close and I’ve had many deep conversations with them over the years. And yet, I remain only their friend, and thus living proof that Davis’ concerns are, at least in some cases, unfounded.
Also, lest we be misled to think that Davis only forbids girls from being “close” friends with guys, read his words again. I don’t know about you, but I would not define “emotional distance” as being a component of any friendship! Friends are supposed to care about, support, and yes, love each other (though not in the romantic or sexual sense of that word). None of those things are compatible with “emotional distance”! So unless Davis defines “friendship” very differently than the rest of the world, the functional effect of his teaching is to forbid girls from being friends with guys, period.
Truth #4: Defrauding
At this point in the lecture, Davis finally tips his hand and lets us know exactly how radical his vision of courtship really is. He focuses on the word “defrauding” in 1 Thess. 4:6, which in Greek is pleonekteo (“to gain or take advantage of another, overreach”). It’s also used four times in 2 Corinthians:
Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices. 2 Cor. 2:10-11
Open your hearts to us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have cheated no one. 2 Cor. 7:2
Did I take advantage of you by any of those whom I sent to you? I urged Titus, and sent our brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not walk in the same spirit? Did we not walk in the same steps? 2 Cor. 12:17-18
A look at the larger entry for pleonekteo and its noun form in Liddell & Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon makes its meaning even more clear – cheating, presumption, greed and dishonest gain. In other words, this does not appear to be an act you commit accidentally or unconsciously.
Davis’ next step is to talk about the two “fences” he claims the Bible has erected around marriage. The first is the “emotional fence,” which he claims should only be crossed after a couple is engaged, and the second is the “physical fence,” which should only be crossed after marriage. So what constitutes “crossing the emotional fence”? Apparently much the same actions that qualify as treating a sister in Christ “differently”: intimate conversations, special attention, secret-sharing, etc. The physical fence is crossed, not only when a couple has sex, but when they kiss and “touch.” And Davis doesn’t just mean sexual touch, such as petting. He appears to mean touching in any affectionate manner whatsoever, including hand-holding.
Yes, you heard me correctly. Couples cannot bestow “special attention” on one another until they are engaged, and cannot hold hands until they are married. But it gets better. Apparently Christian couples should not fall in love until they are engaged, either, or else they will cross the “emotional fence” too early and thus “defraud” each other.
So how on earth does Davis get from a word that likely requires malicious motives or forethought, ensconced in a passage about sexual sin (which some even interpret as using a Greek metaphor for male genitalia), to the idea that it’s sinful for a teenage boy to innocently give a rose to or hold hands with a crush he doesn’t ultimately marry? I have no clue. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable stretching pleonekteo to that breaking point. Perhaps if the young man was giving the girl the rose to deliberately trick her into falling in love with him so he could “have fun” and then dump her, it would qualify as “defrauding.” But this is hardly an accurate portrayal of an upstanding Christian dating relationship.
What’s perhaps more interesting is that Davis never provides any further evidence that his “emotional fence” even exists in the Bible. He simply quotes 1 Thessalonians, points to defrauding, and then moves on. He is right that there is a “physical fence,” but the only way that fence can be crossed, at least according to the Bible, is sexual intercourse, or perhaps some of the more involved and intimate forms of touching. If he wants anyone to believe his radical assertions, he needs to produce actual Biblical evidence that innocent, affectionate hand-holding is on the same level with fornication. He conspicuously failed to do so.
Truth #5: Going to sleep
When Davis introduced this topic, this was my first thought:
Interestingly, there is another CD in my Big Box entitled Sleeping Beauty and the Five Questions. Davis, however, tied the notion of “going to sleep” not to Sleeping Beauty, but to Adam, who fell asleep and woke up to find that God had made him a wife out of one of his ribs (Genesis 2:18-25). Not detailed enough for you? Davis to the rescue:
…this is the first of the four key principles that everyone should follow to get to the marriage altar. Principle number one, go to sleep, stay asleep or go to sleep in relation to the desire to have a mate or to get married. Number two, wake up with the leadership of God-given authority figures. Number three, make a wise decision as much apart from emotion as possible to avoid defrauding. And number four, establish a secure relationship that includes physical purity and the winning of the lady’s heart.
So “going to sleep,” in this context, refers to a deliberate decision to not look for a spouse. But how does one “wake up” from this condition? Not with a kiss; Davis has already forbidden that. Apparently God Himself must do the job, but only through His chosen “authority figures”:
Let me show you how it’s supposed to work. It’s too simple, it’s so simple. They’re just brother and sister in Christ, they just get to know each other as they know everybody else in the church. And someday God speaks to his father or his mother, or speaks to him, and he talks to his father and says, ‘I think she might be the one.’ And then his father will talk to her father, and it may go no further. Her father may say, ‘We’d like to ask you a whole bunch more questions.’ Eventually the two young people may sit down and talk together, ask all the kind of questions they want to determine what is the number one thing we’re trying to determine here. We’re trying to determine God’s will. That’s all that matters, God’s will. It is not emotion.
There’s some important red flags lurking in this passage. First, notice who God speaks to (according to Davis) when He wants to initiate this “waking” process. The only people Davis mentions as being spoken to are the young man and his parents. So can young ladies hear from God about their future spouses, too? I personally doubt it, because of second red flag. After the young man has heard from God, his father is supposed to go to the girl’s father and inform him of his son’s interest. At this point the girl’s father can either stop the process, or allow it to proceed further. Notice that up to this point, the girl has not been informed of the young man’s interest at all! The father also doesn’t appear to be obligated, if he rejects a suitor, to tell his daughter that there was even a suitor in the first place. So conceivably, a girl might be kept completely in the dark about the existence of multiple suitors until her father finds the “right boy.” This is an important qualification to Davis’ later statement that a daughter’s opinion about a suitor must be valued. It should be valued, to be sure – but only after her father has narrowed down her choices for her.
Third, if God Himself really did tell the young man that a particular girl is His choice for him, what business does the girl’s father have refusing the young man’s suit? Is Davis really suggesting that a human father can tell God He is wrong? The only logical conclusion is that the “message” the young man got was not from God in the first place – or that Davis is merely giving a “sanctified” label to young people’s innate drive to “pair off.”
I also wonder how this process of being guided through courtship by “authority figures” works for older Christians. Davis has obviously tailored his speech for parents of teenagers, but what about a 35-year-old widower or widow? Though Davis doesn’t address this, we may not have to look far for the answer, as a documentary film is currently in the works which explores this very question. The woman profiled, when her biological father would not get on board with her courtship plan, found “spiritual parents” for herself and gave them authority over her courtship process. I highly recommend you go watch the trailer for yourself. I’ll merely observe that I find it interesting she was able to so easily “ditch” her biological family, in light of Vision Forum’s incessant family focus and teaching on multigenerational faithfulness.
Truth #6: Don’t date unless you’re ready to marry
I found this to be the least objectionable of Davis’ points; the objections I do have are more of a matter of degree and extent. It’s not necessarily bad advice for couples to be financially stable before they marry, but how far are we supposed to take this? Can a young man get married while still in college? Or should he not marry until he is well-established in his chosen career? We must also remember that Davis likely believes women should not work outside the home, so what he is really saying here is that men should be ready to support a wife (and probably children too, since Doug Phillips stated that anyone who does not want children is not ready to get married – see this post).
I’d also like to share a story from my personal experience that I believe is very pertinent to this topic. Friends of friends had a son, still in homeschool high school and still living at home. They allowed him to marry another family’s daughter, also still in homeschool high school and still living at home. Their solution to the problem of supporting a family? To convert their shed into an apartment for the happy couple, equipped with only a bed and a wood stove (the kitchen and bathroom were in the “big house”). How this matches up with Davis’ advice, I’ll never understand. I suppose sometimes, fact really is stranger than fiction.
Truth #7: Walk by faith
Davis’ final claim is that Christian dating violates 2 Corinthians 5:7 (“For we walk by faith, not by sight”). If we “go to sleep” and wait for God to “wake us up,” we are walking by faith; but if we “date around” and thus search for a spouse “in our own strength,” we are walking by sight.
Davis’ reasoning here reminds me of the joke about the man trapped on his roof during a flood. The waters are rising and the man prays desperately for God to save him. A neighbor comes by in a rowboat and calls for the man to jump in. “No! God’s going to rescue me!” the man replies. Next a Coast Guard helicopter flies overhead with a ladder, and the pilot calls down for the man to grab hold. “No! God’s going to rescue me!” the man says again. In the end, the flood waters come over the man’s roof and he drowns. When the man gets to heaven, he says, “Lord, I don’t understand. I prayed for You to rescue me and You didn’t.” To which God says, “Son, I tried twice.”
The point of the above joke is, of course, that God uses means to accomplish His will. Yes, sometimes when God wants to heal a child of cancer, He works a miracle, but more often He uses chemotherapy and other medical treatments. So it doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of faith if we use some kind of means (such as dating) to help us find a spouse – just as it doesn’t indicate a lack of faith if we pray to God to get rid of our migraine, and then take Tylenol.
But there’s an even more important question here. What happens if we pray and pray and pray for God to bring us a spouse, but He never does? Remember, we learned in this previous post that Vision Forum considers marriage to be “normative” (i.e., basically mandatory). What would be the consequences of long-term singleness in a church subscribing to Phillips’ and Davis’ ideas? If marriage was truly as “normative” as they say, why would God ever let anyone be left alone? Or is the task of finding a spouse, perhaps, a joint effort between God and man?
My concluding advice: S. M. Davis is trying to sell you an idea called “courtship.” He wants you to believe that this idea has no problems, far outstrips its competitor (“dating”), and is the only product God wants you to buy. Trouble is, there’s plenty of evidence lying all over the internet that courtship has just as many problems as dating, and carries the potential for horrific abuse by controlling parents. I’ve outlined some of that evidence above, as well as linked to some of those horror stories. Read them, and read them well, before “buying” Davis’ “product.” It might save you – and your children – a lot of time and grief.
Being in love is one of the poorest reasons in the world to get married. I’m not against at all somebody getting married and they’re in love. I think that’s wonderful, I think that’s the way it ought to be. But being in love is not a reason to enter into a relationship headed toward marriage, it’s not a reason to get married. The number one reason is, this is God’s will. … The first reason to cross this fence is, the couple have found out, with the leadership and guidance of authority figures, that they are God’s choice for each other’s life and now they can cross the emotional fence and for several months, without touching, they can fall in love with each other.
When I was 17, I attended a conference by a well-known betrothal guru. He outlined the steps two betrothal-minded families should take if God revealed that two young people should marry. As I recall, it went something like this: If God revealed it to one of the dads, they were to approach the other dad. If he revealed it to a mom, she was to approach her husband. If he revealed it to the son, he was to approach his father. And with a laugh he finished, ‘And if God reveals it to the daughter, she should be quiet and wait for God to tell someone else.’ -from Darcy’s post here