Not Every Courtship Looks Like the Duggars’

Not Every Courtship Looks Like the Duggars’ June 22, 2015

So, courtships. In a post I wrote recently on the Duggars, I mentioned that I “went through a controlling and manipulative courtship process and then lived in fear that my mother would find out I was having sex during my engagement.” A reader objected, and this exchange followed:

screenshot courtship

So, I think it’s time for a public service announcement: Not all courtships look the same. It seems that the high-profile Duggar courtships have so shaped public perception of what a courtship within this subculture looks like that some readers have concluded that college and courtship are incompatible. Not so!

Actually, there’s a huge variation of practices and ideas within courtship circles, and the way Josh Harris of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame described courtship is vastly different from the form of courtship the Duggars practice. There are also even more conservative forms of courtship, with some practicing outright betrothal. What courtship looks like (or means) in one family or one community may be different from what it looks like (or means) in another family or another community.

While I Kissed Dating Goodbye spread beyond the Christian homeschooling world, influencing evangelical young people more generally, those communities and families that have explicitly used the term “courtship” tend to be Christian homeschooling communities and families. These ideas are spread through homeschool conferences, homeschooling magazines, and homeschool speakers and leaders. Within this cultural milieu there is a great deal of variation in courtship practices.

Courtship the Josh Harris Way

Joshua Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye in 1997, and followed it up with Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship several years later. These books took the Christian homeschool world by storm. In his second book, in which he explicitly endorses courtship and describes his own courtship process, Josh writes this:

But before we go any further, I want to make sure that you’re clear on what I’m not saying. First, I’m not saying that you should sacrifice all privacy in your relationship. Having time alone as a couple is very important. Second, I’m not saying that you should have someone else (your parents or pastor) make the decision about whom you marry. Only you can make that final choice.

Our problem today is that we’ve allowed the importance of privacy and personal choice to cause us to neglect what the Bible teaches us about our need for fellow Christians in the local church. While it’s true that no one else should decide whom we marry, how arrogant it is to think that we can make this important decision on our own without counsel and advice from others! And while a couple needs time alone, how shortsighted and foolish it is to cut ourselves off from the wisdom and support of the people who know us best.

It’s important to note that essentially every example Josh uses in both of his books involve couples who are in college or have attended college. In most of his examples, both individuals in a courtship live outside of their parents’ home. Josh gives the courting couple agency and puts them in the driving seat. At the same time, he contends that a couple would be unwise to ignore the counsel and advice of others, and that young adults should honor their parents.

If the girl you’re interested in has a Christian father, he should be the first person you schedule a meeting with. Getting his permission to pursue a relationship with his daughter will honor him and help protect her. Gratefully acknowledge his authority and leadership in her life. Make your case for a courtship and trust that God will work through him for your good. Don’t try to undermine his leadership—honor it even if it means waiting longer or doing things differently than you had planned.

. . .

Just as no courtship should be disconnected from the involvement of others, neither should it be controlled or manipulated by other people. A biblical attitude is one that humbly seeks the help of others. But this doesn’t mean that we should rely on others to make the final decision about whom and when we marry. The very serious and binding commitment of marriage is something that only we can live out and stand by in the years to come. And for this reason no one—not parents, pastors, or friends—can make it for us. While their counsel should inform us, we are the ones who must hear from God and have faith to get married.

While many singles lack Christian parents, others have them but are confused about how much say they should have in courtship and marriage. I’ve come across some very sad stories of parents who manipulated and tried to control their children in courtship. This is wrong and unbiblical.

Josh walks a line that can be precarious. He says young adults are not bound to “obey” their parents, but that they are still bound to “honor” them. He says young adults should not let their parents make the big decisions for them or control their courtship, but that young adults should be willing to wait or do things differently in accordance with parental wishes. I’m honestly not sure whether even Josh himself can properly parse this all out.

But the point I want to make here is that the courtship process Josh lays out looks vastly different from the one we’re familiar with from 19 Kids and Counting. There is much less parental control, and there is privacy. Josh would likely have been horrified by Jim Bob’s insistence on reading all texts that passed between his daughters and their beaus until their wedding day. He would likely have said that couples couldn’t actually get to know each other, soul to soul, under those circumstances.

Josh also emphasizes getting to know a person you’re potentially interested as friends before instigating anything. He talks about the importance of forming deep friendships before pushing for anything more. He emphasizes the importance of getting to know a wide range of young people, and participating in group settings with other young people, and without adults around refereeing. The parent does not play a role, here, in pushing couples together, and courtships are not supposed to begin if there is not already a deep underlying friendship.

I have sometimes heard this style of courtship referred to as “dating with a purpose,” but it’s important to remember that Josh very intentionally and emphatically does use the term “courtship.” This is not some sort of “fake” style of courtship while what the Duggars practice is the real deal. This is simply one end of a courtship continuum that goes from “dating with a purpose” to straight-up betrothal.

Courting the Duggar Way

In some sense, Duggar-style courtship starts out in the same way as does the style of courtship promoted by Josh Harris. In each case, the young man is to ask the young woman’s parents before starting anything. But even here there are subtle differences. Josh specifies that young adults are no longer bound to “obey” their parents, and that involving parents is about “honoring” them rather than about “obeying” them. In Duggar-style courtship, the father literally owns his daughter, and a “no” is always and completely final.

Josh notes that there are times when asking a girl’s father first won’t make sense, and he even asks that he didn’t ask his now-wife father before speaking with her about pursuing a relationship. But in Duggar-style courtship, if a young man speaks with a young woman about the possibility of a relationship before approaching her father, that is seen as a strike against him. The father is the one in the driver seat, not the courting couple. Indeed, Josh emphasizes involving the entire church community in your courtship, but Duggar-style courtship is wholly family-centered. This is significant because there are times when a couple courting the Josh Harris way might be given unfair treatment by the girl’s parents but then find solace with a wise older couple from the church who could function as proxy-parents. This is not true for Duggar-style courtship, with its heavy emphasis on parental control.

In Duggar-style courtship, a father may even approach a young man about his daughter, or otherwise seek to set up a relationship. In some sense, it is considered the father’s responsibility to see his daughter wed, and that may mean going out and seeking a young man. In some cases, families will even talk about the importance of the father “dating” a prospective young man first, to feel him out and ascertain where he is with God.

It is considered appropriate and acceptable, in Duggar-style courtship, for a couple to embark on a courtship without the benefit of a strong underlying friendship. Duggar-style courtship is sometimes discussed as a time for growing or creating that underlying friendship. What matters is primarily whether the couple is compatible, which generally means sharing the same religious beliefs and ideas about the family. Indeed, strong friendships between boys and girls outside of the courtship process are frequently discouraged. This runs very much contrary to Josh’s insistence that courtship should only be pursued when there is already deep friendship, and that young people should first focus on getting to know peers of both sexes as a way of feeling people out and locating a prospective partner.

There is also a significant difference in the amount of privacy a courting couple is afforded. While Josh Harris argued that privacy was important and that courting couples should be given leeway in making their own decisions, Duggar-style courtship mandates constant chaperoning and surveillance. Not only are courting Duggar couples never left alone without a chaperone, they are also not allowed to text each other privately, and instead must do so as part of a group chat with their parents. The Duggars hold that privacy is a problem for courting couples, and is dangerous. In contrast, Harris argues that having privacy and space is an important part of developing a relationship.

Josh warns his readers against any physical intimacy at all, including kissing, arguing that once you get started it’s difficult to stop, and that purity should be paramount. On this front, his views would seem similar to those of the Duggars, who allow only hand-holding and side hugs before marriage. But I would argue there’s a subtle difference nonetheless. The Duggars’ rules for physical intimacy in a courtship are set and policed by their parents. Josh does believe the community should play a role in holding a courting couple accountable, but focuses primarily on courting couples setting their own physical boundaries, as they are the ones who will live with the consequences.

Overview

In the end, the primary difference between Josh Harris’s courtship teachings and those of the Duggars is the level of parental control. Duggar-style courtship is tightly controlled and places the decision-making squarely in the hands of a girl’s father. In contrast, Josh Harris puts young people in the driver’s seat.

You can even see this difference in the way the two define the term. Harris defines courtship as “Dating with a purpose; friendship plus possibility; and romance chaperoned by wisdom.” In contrast, the Duggar’s primary religious leader, Bill Gothard, defines courtship as “A father’s agreeing to work with a qualified young man to win his daughter for marriage.” 

It’s worth remembering that some homeschool leaders, such as Jonathan Lindvall, have come to believe that courtship is a flawed ideal, endorsing instead what they often term “biblical betrothal.” In this practice, it is the father’s role to select a young man for his daughter to marry, and while the couple may meet before the altar, their union is already considered settled. The argument Lindvall and others make is that this process avoids any emotional entanglement before marriage, and is thus the best way to protect young people’s purity, both physically and emotionally.

Jonathan Lindvall would probably consider the Duggars just as liberal and off target as the Duggars would consider Harris. And that’s rather my point. There is no one official courtship process within the Christian homeschooling world. Instead, there’s an entire spectrum. The main difference between the various forms along that spectrum is the level of parental control. While Duggar-style courtship places much more control in the hands of the father than does Harris-style courtship, it does allow the couple to get to know each other in some form before making the final decision, thus distinguishing it from Lindvall’s betrothal ideal.

The next time you’re tempted to declare whether someone coming out of a Christian homeschooling background “actually” had a courtship, remember that not all courtships look like the ones portrayed on TLC, and that the Duggars do not have a monopoly on the term.

My Story

As for me, my own courtship was somewhere between Harris and the Duggars.

I was in college and living away from home when Sean and I approached my parents for permission to begin a relationship. My father gave his approval and my parents initially had a fairly hands-off approach, trusting me to make good decisions and believing that the Christian community we had become a part of in college (we had a tight group of Christian friends) would help hold us accountable. Really, my early courtship was textbook Harris.

When I went home for the summer my parents saw some changes in me that they didn’t like. I had left my parents’ young earth creationism and now adhered to theistic evolution (the belief that God created the world through the evolutionary process), for example. They believed my new relationship was to blame, and the responded by asserting their right to complete control over my relationship with Sean. Here they were drawing on the Duggar-style courtship they had seen taught at homeschool conferences and in homeschool literature.

My parents first ordered us to break off our relationship and not see each other for a set number of years, and then, when we refused, they asserted their right to control communication between us while I was living at home that summer. Sean visited for a few days at one point early in the summer (it was during this visit that they ordered us to break up), and we were under constant surveillance. Even after he left, my parents asked that I only communicate with him via written letter. The crackdown was incredibly painful, and it was too much.

When I left home to return to college that fall, I was done with courtship. I felt like I had tried to play by the rules, and everything had blown up in my face. At this point, if I had still been interested in courtship a la Josh Harris, Sean and I could have found a couple at the church we attended to serve in the place of my parents, and know of people who have done this. We could still have made Harris-style courtship work for us. But at this point I had given up on the idea of courtship altogether, and all I wanted was the freedom to be authentic and figure things out myself, without labels or restrictions. Besides, after the treatment I had received at my parents’ hands that summer, my religious beliefs were now firmly in flux.

In some sense, though, I hadn’t given up on courtship altogether. Sure, I rejected its purity standards and our physical relationship progressed gradually over the coming months, but young as I was, I still saw my relationship as marriage-oriented, and indeed, Sean and I married the following summer. We could not have legally partaken even if we had been able to afford an open bar.

I honestly think that one of the biggest problems I faced during my courtship was that both I and my parents had for so long received messaging from both Josh Harris and from those who taught Duggar-style courtship. As a result, things could be confusing and messages could get crossed. For example, when Sean and I asked my father permission to start a relationship, I expected my father to grill him a la Duggar-style courtship. And yet he didn’t, preferring a more hands-off Josh Harris approach. But by the time my parents ordered Sean and I to break up, I had experienced the freedom of a Harris-style courtship for too long to make the switch to a more Duggar-style approach. Everything felt ill fitting, somehow.

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