I’ve noticed more and more voices speaking out against courtship, and the interesting thing is that it’s no longer limited to those who have questioned more of the beliefs and ideologies conservative Christian homeschooling culture. No, it’s some of those who stayed in the fold, who did everything right, who have remained the poster children to this day who are now speaking out. And I find that fascinating.
Today it’s Thomas Umstattd Jr., a proud homeschool graduate active in conservative politics and evangelical ministry.
I grew up as a member of the homeschool community back when we were hiding from the cops and getting our textbooks from public school dumpsters. When I was a teenager, my friends started reading this new book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. For months we could talk of little else. After reading it myself, I grew into as big an opponent of dating as you could find. Dating was evil and Courtship, whatever it was, was godly, good and Biblical.
My grandparents would often ask why I wasn’t dating in high school. I explained what courtship was and quoted Joshua Harris, chapter and verse. Their response surprised me.
“I don’t think courtship is a smart idea,” my grandfather said.
“How can you tell who you want to marry if you aren’t going out on dates?” my grandmother wondered every time the topic came up. I tried to convince them but to no avail. They both obstinately held to the position that courtship was a foolish idea.
Well, what did they know? They were public schooled. I ignored their advice on relationships, preferring to listen to the young people around me who were passionate advocates of courtship.
As I grew older, I started to speak at homeschool conferences and events. I talked with homeschool parents, students and alumni all over the country and started to see some challenges with making courtship work.
Some of the specific challenges I identified were:
- Identification (Finding that other person)
- Interaction (Spending time with the other person)
- Initiation (Starting the relationship)
So I founded PracticalCourtship.com. Its purpose: to instigate a national conversation about how to make courtship more practical. Visits and comments poured in from all over the country about how to make courtship work and why it did not work.
Each year I waited for courtship to start working and for my homeschool friends to start getting married. It never happened. Most of them are still single. Some have grown bitter and jaded. Then couples who did get married through courtship started getting divorced. I’m talking the kind of couples who first kissed at their wedding were filing for divorce.
This was not the deal!
The deal was that if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later. The whole point of courtship was to have a happy marriage, not a high divorce rate.
So I humbled myself and took my grandmother out for dinner to hear why she thought courtship was a bad idea all those years ago. She had predicted the failure of courtship back in the 90s and I wanted to understand how and why.
Read the rest of Thomas’s article. It’s long, but it’s a very interesting read. Thomas is still invested in saving sex for marriage and the conservative evangelical framework for marriage in general, but he calls for a return of dating—a real, genuine return to dating. My teenage years would have been so very different if my parents and our homeschooling community had espoused the ideas Thomas lays out—that dating is not only not bad but a positive good and something that should be engaged in frequently and liberally.
Thomas argues that young people can’t know what they want in a life partner without dating around to learn what they like and what they don’t, what clicks and what doesn’t. As I read that section, I was reminded with this clip from the Duggars:
In the clip, the five oldest Duggar daughters sit around trying to guess at what each might like in a marriage partner. What struck me was the amount of sheer guesswork going on, and realizing that these girls are never going to be allowed to look around and figure out what they do or don’t want in a marriage partner. Instead, they have to guess, and pick once, and hope they picked right—because that once is all they get. That’s courtship culture. That’s what Thomas is calling out, because it does not work. It’s a flawed system.
How are people responding to Thomas’s article? It’s hard to say. It has definitely kicked up a flurry in the conservative Christian homeschooling world, and I saw one girl from growing up share it whom I would never have expected to share such a thing. That’s encouraging. Some homeschool parents, too, have jumped in with approval. But the article has also garnered its share of backlash. Douglas Wilson responded in his usual style. Others responded with lots of bold and caps. One homeschooling mother took the opportunity to begin an entire series debunking Thomas’s article.
Honestly, though, I’m glad for the reflection. I’m glad that even in conservative Christian homeschooling circles, Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye and the ideas that accompanied it are no longer above criticism.