Oriel O’Gorman is thinking about buying roses for his fiancÃ©e, Heather Pardee, for Valentine’s Day, but there won’t be any romantic hand-holding, hugging or kissing. That’s because the two 23-year-olds are saving their first kiss for their wedding March 4 at Falls Baptist Church in suburban Milwaukee.
Featured this week in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the couple are among a number of conservative evangelical Christians who have kissed dating goodbye in favor of “Christian courtship,” relying on their desire to seek God’s will instead of romantic feelings in choosing a mate.
Numerous polls suggest that despite preaching moral values, evangelical Christians divorce at the same rate as–or perhaps slightly higher than–other Americans. Even with programs promoting sexual abstinence, the sexual behavior of evangelical youths is not much different from the rest of society.
The plethora of Christian dating Web sites that exist to match up sincere single Christians seeking friendship, romance or marriage, some say, is not the answer. In their view the problem is rather that the Christian system of dating is virtually undistinguishable from that of the world.
Advocates of Christian courtship say culture teaches that singles should engage in multiple dating relationships until they find a Mr. or Ms. Right. But dating is a rather modern invention, they argue, and a far cry from what is taught in the Bible.
“Dating creates more problems that it solves: broken hearts, illegitimate children, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases and feelings of guilt and shame that can last a lifetime,” Don Raunikar wrote in his 1998 book Choosing God’s Best.
A Christian psychotherapist and member of First Baptist Church in Houston, Raunikar, who died in 2004, said as serious as those consequences are, the solution for them is simple: “biblical courtship instead of dating.”
Courtship isn’t just another form of Christian dating, Raunikar wrote, but is “radically different and proudly old-fashioned–as old as the Bible.”
“Although the process may seem difficult at first, it’s been practiced successfully for thousands of years,” he wrote. “Dating, by comparison, is less than a century old–on the timeline of history, little more than an experimental blip. As an experiment, though, it has been a total failure.”
Joshua Harris, senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., helped popularize the courtship concept in a 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which sold over a million copies. (Harris formerly published a magazine for home-school teenagers. Courtship is a popular idea among home-schoolers.)
Harris’ subsequent titles include Boy Meets Girl, a follow-up to his first, in 2000; Sex is Not the Problem (Lust Is), in 2003; and Stop Dating the Church in 2004, which addresses the problem of people who visit church after church without ever settling down with one congregation.
In a 2002 interview, while he was speaking on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Harris told Baptist Press that his first two books “came at a time when a lot of Christians were questioning their practices when it came to dating–seeing a lot of problems, experiencing a lot of heartache.”
“And these books became sort of the spark that lit what was already there ready to be set aflame,” Harris continued.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Washington, D.C., incorporated many of Harris’ ideas in a six-week study on premarital courting or dating relationships in 2004. Scott Croft, an attorney and church elder, wrote and taught the seminar.
Croft identified two approaches in Christian books about dating and marriage. One generally supports dating as a system but seeks to instruct people on how to do it in a “Christian” way. The other rejects dating as unbiblical and unhealthy, advocating an alternative system termed courtship.
Dating, he said, is a premarital relationship between a single man and single woman that can be initiated by either sex. Dating is “egalitarian,” meaning there is no difference in whether the male or female takes the lead.
Courtship, to the contrary is “complimentarian.” That is a view that while men and women are spiritually equal, God created them differently and for different roles. (This is the view that won out when the Southern Baptist Convention amended its Baptist Faith & Message in 1998 to declare that wives should submit graciously to their husbands, and again in 2000 to proclaim that women should not serve as senior pastors of Baptist churches.)
In Christian courtship, therefore, it is up to the male to initiate the process, ideally beginning with the man approaching and going through the woman’s father. Unlike dating, courtship is conducted within formal oversight and authority of the woman’s father or family.
The woman’s God-given role, Croft said, is to respond, positively or negatively, either through her father, family or in words directly to her suitor. The woman should never ask a man out on a first date, or try to spark his interest by leaking word that she is interested in him through friends.
“Does this mean that you just sit back and watch and pray and maybe it doesn’t ever get off the ground?” Croft asked. “Yes. The Lord is sovereign. If it doesn’t work out, the Lord will cause something else to work out. He knows what is best for you, and all of us must learn to trust him–even about things that are really important to us.”
Unlike dating, in which couples may or may not contemplate marriage, courtship always has marriage as a direct goal. Single people should date only for the direct purpose of finding a marriage partner, Croft said, and should look for characteristics in a potential mate that are extolled in Scripture, rather than relying on physical attraction.
Croft warned against over-reliance on romantic feelings. “Romance is fundamentally self-centered,” he said. “It cannot be constant over the course of a real relationship in a fallen world.”
In fact, he advocated putting off all forms of romantic physical involvement until marriage. One problem in modern dating, he said, is that it encourages thinking about “how far can I go” instead of looking forward to a biblical marriage.
All sexual activity, including kissing and passionate hugging, is sex, Croft said, and is not meant to occur outside of marriage.
“In modern dating, intimacy precedes commitment,” Croft wrote in another article. “In biblical courtship, commitment precedes intimacy.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.