Seven Phases of a Godly (Gothard) Courtship

by Libby Anne cross posted from her blog Love, Joy, Feminism

So I’m going to dip my toes into Bill Gothard’s Advanced Seminar Textbook once again, this time looking at a section titled “Seven Phases of a Godly Courtship” (pages 160—164). This, too, is a teaching I am unfamiliar with. Yes, I was taught courtship, but without specific “phases.”

Gothard uses the story of Ruth and Boaz to illustrate his seven phases, holding their story up as an example of a godly courtship. This seems odd, given that their story was a bit of a special circumstance. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can read the book of Ruth (it’s short) or the story’s Wikipedia page.)

At the bottom of the first page, before Gothard gets into his phases, is this:

Note: The violation of any phase will hinder fulfillment and communication in a marriage.

Talk about scare tactics! You have to do it my way, Gothard says, or you will suffer. There is also this:

In a marriage covenant, the man is to be the initiator and the woman is to be the responder.

The man is to be active while the woman is to be passive. This is a theme we see throughout this passage, as we shall see. Now on to the seven phases!

1. The Richness of His Preparation—The Quiet Influence of Her Virtue

Note the active/passive dichotomy showing up already—the man is to prepare while the woman is to have “quiet influence.”

As with each section to follow, the text here is interspersed with a wide range of Bible verses and focused on Boaz and Ruth as an example of how this plays out. I’m not going to quote the Bible verses, but some of the text is worth noting.

The building of a house and the bringing home of a housewife are to be preceded by successful achievement in vocational skills.

Am I the only one bothered by the fact that Gothard puts “housewife” in the same category with “house”?

The lessons that a man learns in wisely handling finances will not only build character essential for a successful marriage, but will also provide the understanding of Scripture that is necessary for his spiritual leadership within the marriage, but will also provide the understanding of Scripture that is necessary for his spiritual leadership within marriage.

I am seriously not sure how being wise about finances leads to being better able to understand the Bible.

Ruth had already surrendered her expectations for marriage when she made her decision to serve her mother-in-law. Thus, when she went to glean in the field, she was not trying to impress a potential husband.

Hmm. I’m not entirely sure that the text of Ruth supports this. Yes, Ruth didn’t pursue remarriage to a man in her own country, instead choosing to return to Israel with Naomi and stay with her. It could possibly be the case that that meant giving up all thought of remarrying, but if so, that is because this was a special circumstance. This wasn’t something being held up as an example for every woman to follow.

That said, the idea he is using this to illustrate is something I remember hearing often growing up. In sum, if a woman wants to find a husband, she must first give that desire to God and accept that she might in fact never find a husband or marry. Otherwise she makes an idol out of the idea of marriage. In other words, a woman “fishing” for a husband is a problem. Indeed, half of the courtship stories I heard started with the woman despairing of ever finding a husband and surrendering that dream to God. This is what Gothard is emphasizing.

Each of these sections, one for each phase, ends with a “test.”

Test One: His desire to learn about her family.

This is accompanied by the verse where Boaz asks his servant “whose damsel is this?” Contrary to Gothard’s interpretation, this could simply have been the ancient equivalent of asking for a girl’s phone number. More seriously, Boaz asks this when he first arrives on the scene, before being impressed by her. So perhaps this is simply the equivalent of asking “hey, who’s the new girl?”

2. The Maturity of his Leadership—The Example of Her Diligence

I hope you’re starting to recognize a theme, here, with this active/passive thing.

Gothard argues that the fact that Boaz was concerned about his workers and not just the work to be done, and the fact that he set up a hierarchy with a servant in charge of the reapers, indicates that his leadership was mature. Gothard finishes by stating that:

Mature leadership is essential for a successful marriage.

Gothard then turns to the female side of things, speaking of Ruth’s diligence in gleaning and stating that:

A woman’s fulfillment will only come as she experiences the purposes for which God made her. Thus, for a woman, fulfillment comes by learning how to be a successful helpmeet. Skill in this area must be developed while single, even though God has given a basic aptitude for it.

My quick and dirty summary of this section is that in order to be ready for marriage a man must know how to lead and a woman must know how to work hard, especially at the unpleasant or less exalted tasks. (Gothard says that “gleaning was the occupation of the poor” and compares Ruth to Isaac’s servant.) Lovely.

Test Two: His Desire to Provide for Her and Protect Her.

Gothard, of course, quotes the passage where Boaz tells Ruth to eat and drink with his servants and orders his servants not to harm her.

When I write that the ideal of marriage in these circles is one where the husband is the provider and protector, that’s not a summary. That’s what I heard repeated over, and over, and over, and over again growing up. The husband, as Gothard says, must be ready to provide for and protect his wife.

3. His Commitment to Godly Character—The Genuineness of Her Gratefulness

. . . yeah.

The character qualities which Boaz recognized and rewarded in Ruth began with loyalty. A mature man knows that if a girl is not loyal to her family, she will be not be loyal to him.

Here I am going to repeat that Ruth’s story is a special circumstance. Yes, Boaz was impressed that Ruth left her country and her people to come follow Naomi, her mother-in-law. If we were to draw modern parallels, we might look at a woman who takes time off from her career to care for her sick mother, or a woman who takes in and raises her kid siblings when her parents died.

Gothard is doing a bit of a bait and switch here. Growing up, I remember being told that a woman honors her father and mother by only marrying with their permission, or by getting their permission before moving out, going to college, or taking up a career. Honor, in other words, became obedience. The same thing is happening here with the word loyalty. In Gothard’s world, being loyal to one’s family means being obedient to one’s family, no matter what. And this is what girls growing up in this culture are told—that if they go against their family, they go against God.

In other words, Gothard is suggesting that Boaz was impressed by how obedient Ruth was. From my reading of the text, Boaz was impressed with Ruth’s ingenuity, devotion, and courage, not her obedience.

Ruth had a genuine spirit of gratefulness because of a total lack of demands and expectations. . . . Genuine gratefulness is one of the most attractive qualities in any woman and one of the most appreciated qualities by any man.

I . . . no.

Is gratefulness a good thing? Absolutely—when there is something to be grateful for. Can we be grateful for what we have even in times of hardship? Sure. The problem here is that being eternally grateful with no demands or expectations leaves one open to being completely taken advantage of. After all, it’s healthy to expect to be treated with basic human decency. That expectation should be there. Further, some things should be demanded, like communication, or cooperative decision.

The trouble is that within Gothard’s framework this is not true. Within his framework, all the wife gets is what her husband gives her. The wife should approach her husband with no expectations or demands but only with eternal gratitude, much like Debi’s demand that wives render their husbands eternal respect whether they’ve done anything to deserve it or not.

Test Three: His Desire to Be with Her and Talk to Her.

I’m pretty sure this is the normal baseline requirement for dating. Either way, Boaz apparently satisfied this requirement by eating lunch with Ruth and his servants.

4. His Proper Expressions of Favor—The Consistency of Her Submission

This is just going from bad to worse, isn’t it?

Gothard starts by discussing the ways Boaz “showed favor” to Ruth, such as by ordering his men to intentional drop wheat for her to glean. Gothard then tuns to the woman’s side of things—and here we see how Gothard gets from Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law to his own teachings, which proscribe a father-guided courtship.

Ruth was blessed by God because she remained under the protection of her God-ordained authorities. Initially she asked her mother-in-law’s permission to glean . . . She continued to remain under the protection of her mother-in-law by reviewing with her the instructions that Boaz had given to her.

A woman with true obedience continues to keep her God-given authorities involved in decision-making even when those decisions seem obvious at the moment. This allows the authorities to rejoice in God’s blessing and to be well-informed for the next counsel to be given.

Gothard goes on to speak of Ruth’s “spirit of obedience.”

When Gothard speaks of a woman’s submission in this passage, he means her submission to her “God-given authorities”—or, in other words, to her father. Throughout the courtship process, a woman is to be in submission to her father and his will for her. If he tells her she must break it off, she must break it off. If he tells her the relationship is preceding too quickly, she must follow his instructions in how to slow it. And so on. The key is that she remain in submission. By using the term “God-given authorities,” Gothard skirts the fact that Ruth was, in fact, obeying her mother-in-law and not her father, whom she had left back in Moab.

As the young woman is to be submissive to her authorities, the young man is to render “proper expressions” of his “favor.” Gothard’s only instructions there are that he must ensure that he only gives favor “to those who deserve it” and to “one whom God wants to favor.” Presumably the young man’s judgement on who is deserving of favor and whom God wants to favor is enough. Actually, now that I think about it, no, that’s not how it plays out. In actual fact, the father usually oversees and limits the expressions of favor permitted from a young man courting his daughter. That doesn’t really sit well with what Gothard is saying here.

Test Four: His willingness to let time confirm his impressions.

This is part of why many couples today live together before marrying. But then, I’m pretty sure Gothard would be horrified by that application of his principle.

5. His Decisiveness with Right Timing—The Courage of Her Willing Response

Active/passive dichotomy anyone? The man makes decisions, the woman responds—willingly.

Gothard goes over the kinsman-redeemer issue, including Boaz’s role and responsibility.

Boaz’s decisiveness was perceived by Naomi when she assured her daughter-in-law the next morning, ” . . . Sit still, my daughter, until though know how the matter will fall: for the man will not be in rest, until he have finished the thing this day” (Ruth 3:18).

In other words, the man determines what is right, and when the timing is right, and then acts on it. He is decisive. Oddly, in the actual story, Boaz did not pursue marrying Ruth until after Ruth forced his hand by coming to him in the night on the threshing floor. It seems it was Ruth who was decisive first, on Naomi’s instructions. Note that Gothard ignores that bit.

What about the woman?

God had blessed Ruth through Boaz, and her mother-in-law had given her precise directions on how to approach Boaz for marriage according to the customs of that day. However, Ruth had to know in her heart that it was right, and she had to be willing to do it.

God never forces a person to get married through the influence of his or her authorities, because the very nature of love requires a choice.

Responding to love must also be done with propriety, without giving any appearance of evil.

This is actually fairly consistent in courtship culture—the woman has the option to receive or reject an offer of marriage. Her father vets the young man and only lets through proposals he approves of, but the daughter may say “no” if she so chooses. I’m unsure that this applies very well to Ruth’s situation, however. Again, Ruth and Boaz were a special circumstance, which makes using it as an example very very weird.

Test Five: His desire to assume the full responsibilities of marriage.

Note the sole focus on the man. Is this a property purchase here?

6. His Public Thoroughness Above Reproach—Her Commitment to Marriage Purposes

The man is oriented toward the public sphere, the woman toward the home. It’s all very Victorian.

Boaz followed every law, statute, and custom in the legal and social setting of the city gate. He made sure there were ample witnesses who would not only give him and Ruth their blessing but would spread the good news to everyone else in the city.

This bit seems to be emphasizing that a man must be careful to follow all of the rules of the community, which in this context means following whatever courtship rules the father or church set up. It’s about ensuring that the man doesn’t go solo.

As for Ruth, Gothard offers this as proof of her commitment “to marriage purposes”:

By asking Boaz to be her kinsman-redeemer, Ruth was demonstrating her commitment to God’s purposes in marriage and her devotion to her remaining family.

Here Gothard touches on Ruth’s midnight appeal to Boaz (“By asking Boaz to be her kinsman-redeemer”), but he touches on it without really touching on it. He doesn’t talk about what she actually did, and he somehow turns Ruth’s assertiveness in confronting Boaz and being the one to ask him to marry her rather than vice versa, into her being oriented toward marriage and homemaking. Yes, it’s true that part of the purpose of the match was to continue her deceased husband’s family line, but again, this was a special circumstance. Gothard is playing fast and loose with Ruth’s story in his attempt to fit it into his predetermined model.

Test Six: His willingness to let God stop the marriage as he placed it in the hands of their authorities.

Oh of course Gothard would put this here. Again, he’s wanting to ensure that the couple does not go solo. Note, though, the bait and switch going on here. The “authorities” in Ruth, which Gothard quotes from, are those at the city gate, where Boaz negotiated with the other relative regarding who should fill the place of kinsman-redeemer. The equivalent today would be the local government, but you better believe that’s not what Gothard is referring to. What Gothard is referring to not the local government but the girl’s father.

7. God’s Blessing upon the Marriage, Families, and World when His Order of Courtship Has Been Followed

Here Gothard quotes the end of Ruth and the birth of Obed.

Test Seven: Their obedience in raising up the foundations of many godly generations.

Baby-making. When a couple follows God’s courtship rules, they are blessed with baby-making. I’m wondering how Gothard explains all the couples who dated and failed to ask their “authorities” for permission and yet went on to have children, and those couples who follow all the rules and turn out to be infertile.

So what are these phases, exactly? There’s a lot of Christianese here and a pretty big lack of clarity. I mean good gracious, a phase’s “test” often does not line up with the main titles given. But let me see if I can sum this up.

  1. He has a job and she is virtuous.
  2. He is a mature leader and she is a hard worker.
  3. He is committed to godliness and she is grateful.
  4. He shows her favor and she submits to her father.
  5. He choses the timing and she responds willingly.
  6. He makes their engagement public.
  7. God blesses the couple with children.

Hmm. I can sort of make that out. I’m still not sure that I could easily identify a given phase. Are the Duggar girls at phase 3 in their courtships, or at phase 4? And so on.

But there you have it. Gothard’s seven phases of a godly courtship, a la Ruth.

Read everything by Libby Anne!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Libby Anne blogs at Love, Joy, Feminism
Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the religious right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving fundamentalist and evangelical religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the problems with the “purity culture,” the intricacies of conservative and religious right politics, and the importance of feminism. Her blog is Love, Joy, Feminism

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