I was in college when the “godly courtship” movement was at its peak.
For those not in the know, godly courtship was a concept made most popular by Joshua’ Harris’ seminal book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. True to the title, the book sought to differentiate “Christian courtship” from “dating” in many marked ways and offered guidelines accordingly. In godly courtship, believers embarked only on serious relationships with the intention of evaluating their partners as marriage candidates. Physical intimacy of any sort was de-emphasized in the service of purity to the degree that many “godly courtship” participants refused to even kiss until their wedding day. Parental involvement and approval was encouraged.
My own personal brush with godly courtship came in the persona of a Christian man I will simply call J., who essentially used Harris’ text as a guidebook to our dating life. During the brief six months that we dated – a relationship I would have described as in the beginning stages and certainly not deeply serious, he:
- told me that I would make a wonderful wife, aside from my academic aspiration to get a Ph.D. (since I would have to put goals aside if he wanted to go to seminary during our marriage)
- planned a date with me in a laundromat so that we could reduce sexual temptation but also engage in a domestic chore together to test our compatibility and communication
- made me dinner at his house, then immediately had me leave afterward since it was too tempting for him to be alone with me without food or dinner-making involved
- asked my (bewildered) father for permission to “court” me before he ever actually asked me out himself
- bought me a series of gifts and items and made declarations that felt wildly serious (if not downright inappropriate) for a beginning relationship
- once called me crying from a youth retreat he was leading in Florida to confess he had lusted after a woman on the beach
I’ll put my cards on the table and say that “godly courtship” never worked for me. It made my relationship with this man feel far too serious far too soon. I felt as though I had no agency, and deeply disliked him having discussions with my father about our relationship before he had them with me (a feeling that my father shared with me). I didn’t like feeling as though I had to submit my dreams, ideas, or God’s call on my life to his when (regardless of complementarian or egalitarian theology) we weren’t even close to married. I hated feeling as though I was a perpetual temptation to sin merely by existing or being alone in a room with him. And I wanted to have a boyfriend I could kiss, hug, or hold hands with – without feeling as though any of those things was an invitation to impurity, sin, or relationship ruin.
When we broke up, I was relieved. But at the time, my dislike of godly courtship made me an outlier among my friends, many of whom implied I had simply “done it wrong.” It was all the rage among evangelical women who believed that Harris, in his book, was essentially expressing God’s ultimate vision for a romance and dating life. They bought into the ideology lock, stock, and barrel. This was what holiness looked like: this was the recipe for a blessed marriage and a blessed life.
And it went badly for many of them.
In the years since Harris’ book came out, a wellspring of frustration, anger, and resentment has flooded out from the broken foundations of the godly courtship movement. Christian singles grew frustrated with the book’s representation of marriage as the ideal for all believers. Christians believers who had long repented of, and been forgiven for, past sexual sin nevertheless felt alienated and shamed by the way the book equated physical virginity with value. Sexual abuse victims struggled with the loss of agency they felt as they went through the godly courtship process – and many of them saw it abused.
Moreover, many of the men and women who embarked on godly courtship that culminated in marriages found themselves struggling with resentment, fear, and broken relationships, the aftermath of following his roadmap to find “the one.” The blessed marriage they were promised never materialized; in fact, many have gone on to get divorced. It’s gotten so bad that Harris himself has disavowed the book and asked for copies to stop being printed, participating in a documentary and issuing a statement about the matter.
What I want to do here is not to pile on to Joshua Harris or onto the book. I am sure that godly courtship did indeed work for some people; I am sure that it did not work at all for others. But what has happened with this book and this author is really just a macrocosm of what happens many times with many books and many authors: believers conflate Christian authors with God, and their words with Scripture.
I, as much as anyone, believe deeply in the value of the written word. I believe in the gift and in the purpose and usefulness of Christian writers. I am one myself. Authors like Philip Yancey, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Max Lucado, and Tish Harrison Warren have been a precious and great help to me in drawing closer to God. They have illuminated the Word for me and helped my understanding; they have gifted me with new ways of understanding. When I recently left a comment of gratitude on a Yancey piece and he responded, it was one of the great joys of my life.
But Christians writers are not God. They are not to be revered, adulated, idolized. And their ideas – while helpful, while illuminating, while interesting, while important – are not in and of themselves Scripture. In his statement, Harris acknowledges that some of the practices and ideas he put forward in his book are not, indeed, in Scripture. And yet readers felt as though they were, or believed they were, or ought to be, and adjusted their lives and behaviors accordingly.
To be a critical and a thoughtful reader is a wonderful tool for the Christian. To be able to pick out and parse what an author says that accords with Scripture – or does not – matters. The sensitivity and the willingness not to simply swallow everything that an author says as Gospel because it sounds good or because it accords with what we think the Bible should say is important. And the willingness to acknowledge the grey areas – the places where an author says something that does sound correct or godly or good, but does not have any inherent support (if also no inherent contradiction) in Scripture is paramount.
Wise reading and the humble understanding that we are all believers in this together will go a long way toward safeguarding against the kind of disaster Harris and his readers have faced. When we recognize only one source of truth and wisdom, we also understand that we must tread lightly with all others that claim to be the same, to test those words and weigh them accordingly.
The consequences, otherwise, can be catastrophic.