What is biblical courtship?

(Photo: John Trif)

In my dealings with the topic biblical courtship, I have found that, to my disappointment and often discouragement, there seems to be a lot of opinion but regrettably, a real lack of clarity.

Reading many articles, talking with other believers, and being a believer who is currently in a courtship myself, I have found myself wrestling vigorously with the different ideologies which are flying about in answer to the following question: How do we, as followers of Jesus Christ, engage in courtship in a biblical way, a way in which honours and glorifies God, leaving both parties obedient to the Word?

I was fortunate enough to have an interesting conversation with a woman by the name of Rowina Seidler, who has written many articles reflecting on this very issue.

She has recently been married and I found myself extremely blessed by the insight she gave into her experiences and her standpoint on how believers should participate in courtship in a biblical manner, beautifully validated by particular Scriptures.

We've come together on this piece to hopefully bless, edify and implore other believers to assess their current courtships, implement principles prior to entering into one, and lastly, to move from desiring to fit into the ideals of men and look to what is taught in the Word of God.

Roxanne: What is your definition of biblical courtship?

Rowina: Different people define biblical courtship in different ways. There is no agreed definition but here is my attempt at one: biblical courtship is the period of time in which a man who is romantically interested in a woman pursues her in an intentional way with the hope of marrying her. The man and woman attempt to not stir up each other's love prematurely and thus do not act like a couple or as if they belong to each other. The man treats the woman as a sister in all purity. Their aim is to reach a wise decision, with the help of their families and Christian community, on whether they should marry or not while behaving in a way that honours God. The hope is that whether things work out or not, each person is left undamaged.

Roxanne: That is an interesting definition and one that draws on Scriptures such as 1 Timothy 5:1-2, "Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father, and the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters with all purity." From your previous articles, I can see that you have been trying to correct a particular kind of relationship that you feel is prominent in the church. On the basis of the above definition, what would you say the difference is between biblical courtship and what you are seeing in the church today?

Rowina:In the church today most people seem to do a modified version of the world's boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, the only real modification being no sex. They begin by hanging out and at some point become an official couple believing that they are now in an exclusive, committed relationship and that they belong to each other. They quickly allow themselves to grow in emotional intimacy and are physically affectionate beyond what would be normal between friends or family. s love up outside of actual covenant commitment with an understanding that things might not work out.

All this will have often happened before the man has initiated a clear conversation about his intention to marry the girl and before his or her parents or church community have been consulted. Thus you have a situation where one or both individuals are deeply emotionally attached to someone whom they may not marry. The result is many Christians will have had their love majorly stirred up or will have majorly stirred up another's love and then marry someone else and be the cause or recipient of great heartbreak, pain and emotional baggage. Moreover, many Christians will marry someone based on the fact that they are too attached to break things off instead of because the person is a wise match.

Roxanne: I can most definitely see how that can be problematic and I acknowledge that guarding both parties' hearts by ensuring obedience to the Word is important in biblical courtship. One problem I have experienced, as I have mentioned before, is finding myself in forums and conversations with people who have ideals which, in my opinion, are very rarely validated by Scripture. This has often left me discouraged and confused, due to the lack of clarity. This is a feeling which is most certainly prevalent amongst other courting couples and I think it is one of the reasons why there is so much contention and debate regarding the subject. In order to provide some understanding and clarity, I would like to know how you have come to the conclusion that this is what biblical courtship should look like? What are the Scriptures you have drawn on and how have you found applying them in your personal experience?

Rowina Well, first of all I have come to this conclusion due to what the Bible does NOT teach. Pastor Efrem Buckle from Calvary Chapel South London has said it well so I shall quote him: "We don't see the concept of an exclusive, committed, emotionally intimate relationship where both individuals believe they belong to each other outside of covenant in Scripture. We see no concept of a girl having a partner and thus being coupled before betrothal (biblically betrothal is a covenant)."

Secondly we have what the Bible clearly DOES teach. You quoted Timothy 5:1-2 which is a great text to demonstrate how a man should treat a woman (whom he is not engaged or married to) as a sister. I don't know about you, but I would not walk hand in hand with my brother down the street or continuously hug him and kiss him on the lips or face! 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 warns us to abstain from any kind of sexual immortality and lust. It would be naive to think only physical affection stirs up lust. Creating an illusion of emotional security and committed love and allowing ourselves to deeply grow in emotional oneness will do the job just as well as so should equally be avoided.

In Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5 and 8:4 we are pleaded with to not stir up or awaken love before it pleases. I would argue that it clearly does "not please" when it's with someone who is not fully committed to us or with someone we are not fully committed to and thus we should be aiming to not stir up love too much outside of engagement. Romans 13:10 teaches that to love is to do no harm. I find it hard to think of a better way of harming someone than stirring up their love to the point they are completely in love and then breaking things off.

1 Corinthians 7:34 shows that the unmarried woman is anxious about pleasing the Lord and not a man. Thus any type of behaviour that leads us to be anxious about pleasing a man before we are married (which boyfriend/girlfriend relationships arguably do) should be avoided. To me, the application of these Scriptures is quite straightforward but I will leave it to others to judge how well I have managed!

Roxanne: It is interesting to see how you have drawn on Scriptures which talk about how our conduct should be outside of a covenantal relationship and looked at that in conjunction with how some people participate in relationships that can be unhealthy. The Scripture in 1 Corinthians 7:34 is a great example of that. I think we take for granted how much we can learn from what the Bible doesn't teach and promote for example your quote from Pastor Efram about not seeing an exclusive, emotionally intimate relationship outside of a covenantal relationship. That being said, I do think that exclusivity comes naturally when you are intentionally courting someone in the sense that I think it should be one to one, none of the parties should be courting several people at once.

One thing I have most certainly noticed in forums and discussions is that there is an awful lot of talk regarding what we should not do i.e. not hold hands, no kissing, no spending time together alone, but couples who are courting are rarely encouraged in things which should be evident throughout their courtship. My next question would therefore be to ask you to list three things you think should be implemented and maintained throughout a biblical courtship drawing on reasons why and Scripture?

Rowina: 1. Marriage should be kept at the forefront of both individuals' minds and should be intentionally pursued. This would mean basically only doing things together that will help the individuals better know if they should marry or not. Conversely, this means avoiding doing things that are unnecessary and unhelpful in this pursuit such as actions that would stir up the person's love before engagement, and cloud sound judgment. This would include behaving like a couple outside the covenant of betrothal.

My scriptural basis for this is that an unintentional relationship that is not clearly moving towards marriage and that could very well end up not working out has the potential to greatly harm another (Romans 3:10) and stir up love before it pleases (Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5 and 8:4). Moreover, my scriptural basis for this is the fact that a romantic relationship between two individuals not pursuing marriage is not found in the Bible. This intentional pursuit of marriage should be initiated and led by the man as men are biblically the leaders when it comes to romantic relationships (Ephesians 5:22-24, Proverbs 18:22).

2. The Lord should be kept number one throughout the courtship and both individuals should keep the time, energy and emotion invested in the courtship limited and to an amount that does not interfere with their church and family responsibilities nor their relationship with the Lord. If either individual is getting to the point where they are becoming too anxious about pleasing the other rather than the Lord then they should pull back a little and refocus themselves on their priorities. I base this on Colossians 3:5 which teaches that we should put to death any idolatrous desire. Moreover, 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 shows an expectation that we would not become anxious about pleasing someone of the opposite sex outside of marriage and that we should serve the Lord without distraction. Furthermore, Genesis 2:24 shows us that until we are married we belong to our mother and father and thus a man/woman should only begin to become a full priority at marriage.

3. Both individuals should seek plenty of council especially from their families and mature Christians. I base this on Proverbs 15:22 "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed" and the fact that families biblically always seem to be involved in courtships. Obviously if a person's family is against their faith and would not allow them to marry a Christian it's more complicated and advice from church elders should be sought. The individuals should of course also seek the greatest councillor, God Himself, whose wisdom can be sought in the Bible and through prayer.

Roxanne: I am very happy that you raised the point of accountability and wise council within the church concerning courtship. From experience and from conversations had with other couples who are courting, this is something that most definitely appears to be quite absent. I think it is to be noted that both parties (being the courting couple and those who would be providing the advice) have responsibility to implement some level of accountability. Although it is important to initiate, I think there is also a responsibility on those who are older in the faith to come over those who are younger and are aspiring to attain that which, by God's grace, they are already living out. Scriptures such as Titus 2:2-6 clearly encourage this by stating "But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine: That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded."

As we draw to a close, I think it is imperative to seek advice concerning those who have made crossed several boundaries within their courtship, conformed to some elements of the modified boyfriend/girlfriend relationship and have stirred up love way too soon. I can most certainly identify with this category so I would like to know what advice you would give someone who has stirred up love too much and crossed boundaries? How do you rein it in? What Scriptures stand out for you concerning this?

Rowina: Good questions! First of all God can turn difficult situations around and neither person should feel hopeless. I think repentance to God and some serious time in prayer and His Word would be a good starting point as well as speaking to a mature Christian who understands biblical relationship principles. Secondly a conversation and apology would be helpful where new emotional and physical boundaries are agreed upon and an understanding is reached that both individuals will no longer act as if they are a couple.

It is normal in boyfriend/girlfriend relationships for the girl to pursue and lead as much as the guy and if this is the case I would encourage the girl to stop this, hold back and let him be the leader and pursuer. It is also normal for guys and girls to have the other as their main time priority and again I would encourage them to pull back and get their time priorities straight and allow their feelings to cool down a bit.

Furthermore, it is likely that by this point the pair will know enough to know if they are suited to marriage and thus no more time should be wasted and a decision should be made. If the individuals are still not sure, they could go through a list of questions such as the ones found in the book "101 questions to ask before you get engaged" and seek to make a decision as soon as possible before love is stirred up any further. This answer is really just based on all the Scriptures I have already mentioned plus 1 John 1:9, "But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness."

Roxanne: I think repentance from both parties is important. And what a beautiful reminder of God's grace being bestowed upon us through forgiveness in all areas of our lives, including sins committed within a courtship. In order to provide people within a courtship and who are single with the appropriate ongoing support and accurate information, I would like my final question to be this: what resources have you found beneficial and would you suggest as good reading regarding biblical courtship?

Rowina: The free online magazine www.rubyintherough.co.uk that I write for, has a number of articles that I would recommend for women. "A culture of stirred up love" gives advice on how to conduct courtship "Why women shouldn't pursue" would also be beneficial as well as "Is he a good match for you?" which goes through 8 important questions women should ask themselves. For the guys, I would recommend Paul Washer's teachings and especially a video entitled "A young man's attitude towards women". Also, boundless.org does a great free guide titled "A guy's guide to marrying well". I also have links to more resources on Ruby in the Rough.

The information that has been provided above, which myself and Rowina discussed, proved to be very insightful and provided me with a lot of clarity; bringing truth to a lot of questions which have gone unanswered for so long. Our desire is that everyone would take heed to the scriptures and be diligent in continuing to search them for more guidance and clarification if needed but also be open to correction, something that I most certainly battled with concerning undertaking courtship the biblical way. May we all rest on the power of the Holy Spirit, be quick to repent where we have made mistakes, and be obedient to the Word of God which, to the believer is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, life to those who find it and most importantly, absolute truth.