Courtship: Dating… but no sex.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 April 2019

Years ago I worked at a Christian camp. For the summer program we’d hire college students to be counselors. Some of them grew up Christian; some of them had only been Christian a short time; some of them had only claimed to be Christian on their applications, but didn’t know Jesus from Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Actually they may have known a lot more about Obi-Wan than Jesus.)

Once, while hanging out, one of the longtime Christians mentioned her brother was “courting” a certain girl. The Christian newbie in our group got a confused look on her face—she wasn’t familiar with the term.

“Courting,” I explained, “is dating. But no sex.”

The newbie nodded, understandingly. Some of the group grinned.

The girl who introduced the term “courting” objected.

SHE. “That’s not what it means.”
HE. “Does he bring chaperones to the dates?”
SHE. “No…”
HE. “No kissing? No hand-holding? No touching of any kind?”
SHE. “No.”
HE. “They go off and do things together, by themselves? But not sex.” [As far as she knew.]
SHE. “Yes.”
HE. “The rest of the planet calls that ‘dating’.”

’Cause to be fair, many Christians do add extra expectations to what they’ll call “courting.” When Christians use that term, it can range from my basic definition (dating, but no sex) to an arranged marriage—I’m not kidding—where the parents interview their children’s prospective spouses, approve them, and supervise every single interaction between the kids till they’re wed. Even listen in on phone calls and read their texts.

However, I should also bring up a couple I knew in college who called what they were doing “courting”—and yep, they were having sex too. They just wanted to use the Christianese word.

The whole point of having a unique Christian word for dating, is because nowadays “dating” can pretty much mean anything. And because self-control is a fruit of the Spirit—and promiscuity isn’t—Christians usually don’t equate dating and sex… and pagans totally do. “I’m dating” means “I’m sexually active.” If they “wanna go out with you,” it’s ’cause they hope to have sex with you. If they “had a date last night,” they had sex.

Yep, it’s a jungle out there. So “courtship” implies civilization. It suggests a couple aren’t simply trying to get into one another’s pants, but want to really get to know one another. Want to develop a friendly, loving relationship—the kind of solid basis for a marriage.

But I should point out: Courtship doesn’t come from the bible. Isn’t found in the bible at all. Seriously.

Ain’t nobody courting in the bible.

In Old Testament times, if a man wanted to marry a woman, his family would get together with her family, and make arrangements for her to join his family.

Usually they’d just buy her. Of course they didn’t call it that. They called it “negotiating her dowry,” or some other euphemism so it didn’t sound like outright slavery. But in a patriarchal society, families were like little monarchies, and the women had to live under the patriarch’s rule, which could be exactly like slavery if he was that kind of ruler.

The dowry, or money paid to the family for the bride, was meant to be collateral: If the man divorced her, she could go back to her parents, and the dowry would pay for her upkeep until the parents could find her another husband. But it’d be naïve to assume families actually held on to this money just in case. Dowry wasn’t really about the woman’s welfare; it was her value. If a man wanted a woman badly enough, the woman’s family could really shake him down. Maybe, with a little trickery and another sister thrown in, get 14 years of free labor out of him. Ge 31.41

Sometimes parents would consider the woman’s feelings, and ask her if she cared to marry this man. Ge 24.58 But it wasn’t necessary, and parents didn’t always care.

Samson’s a typical example.

Judges 14.1-3 KWL
1 Šamšón went down to Timnát, and saw a Timnáti woman from the Philistines’ daughters.
2 Šamšón went back and told his father and mother, “I saw a Timnáti woman from the Philistines’ daughters.
Now get her for me, for my woman.”
3 Šamšón’s father and mother told him, “There are no relatives’ daughters?
No women among all my people, so you go take a woman from uncircumcised Philistines?”
Šamšón told his father, “Get her for me. To my eyes, she looks right.”

There’s nothing in there about getting to know one another, friendship, love, compatibility—in fact the rest of the chapter makes clear Samson and this woman were completely incompatible. But that didn’t matter to ancient Hebrew marriages. Samson saw a hot white girl, wanted her, got her, and had sex with her. Who needs Tinder?

Now when the man and woman had sex before negotiating with her parents, this’d be adultery, i.e. having sex with someone who’s not yours. In Exodus this meant the man had to pay the woman’s family for “damages”—and of course the family could still forbid them from staying together in marriage. Ex 22.16-17 But since it’s really likely people abused this command to pimp out their daughters, it was updated for Deuteronomy: The man had to pay a specific 50 sheqels (about $300 today), had to marry her, and was forbidden to divorce her. Dt 22.28-29 And since they were never getting divorced, clearly the 50 sheqels had nothing to do with insurance in case of divorce; it was a fine. But like I said, dowry wasn’t really about insurance. It was about buying a bride.

As for the wedding ceremony, that’s a Christian invention. The bible has no wedding ceremonies. People swore nothing to one another. They just stopped living with their parents, started living together, and that made ’em married. Ge 2.24 They might throw a wedding feast, like the one Jesus provided the wine for, Jn 2.1-11 but yeah: Cohabitation, back then, was marriage.

(So does that mean all our cohabiting friends are, in the eyes of God, married? Well… yes. Wrap your brain around that for a while.)

So… Anything in the bible about dating? About whether it’s okay to kiss on the first date? About whether the man should pay for dinner? About how it’s wholly inappropriate for women to ask men out? (Somebody should’ve told Ruth. Ru 3.7-13) Nope. The bible was written for a culture which didn’t work that way—nor for that matter, see women as equals. In fact it had to introduce the idea of women as equals to humanity—and did so in the New Testament, written several centuries after courtship advocates’ favorite proof-texts were written.

Courtship and sex.

So courtship is a western cultural invention. Most of its customs originate from the upper-class etiquette of the Victorian era. (The lower-class etiquette? Same as today. Human nature hasn’t changed any from Samson’s day.) The courting couple does what looks good and proper to their parents and their churches, who largely set the rules of decorum.

That’s why customs vary from Christian to Christian: Some parents are stricter than others. More fearful their kids will sneak away and have sex. ’Cause that’s what courtship is really about: Keeping kids from having sex.

Which is a totally valid problem. Kids, at younger and younger ages, are far more willing to experiment sexually in ways that their parents never did in their teens—and might never even have imagined. Understandably, parents wanna shield their kids from the rotten morals of the larger society. They particularly wanna protect their daughters. And sometimes their sons, even though they absolutely should teach their sons better than that. (There are a lot of sexist double standards in Christendom, including in courtship, and they all need to be addressed.) In any event I wholly understand the need to safeguard your teenagers and young adults. I’m all in favor of it.

And I don’t object to courtship. If you wanna be celibate till marriage, good for you. If you don’t trust your own judgment, certainly don’t trust your hormones, and want trustworthy mature Christians to have a significant say in your dating practices, go for it. Get some chaperones. Get some accountability partners. Confess everything. I’ve known plenty of people who went through a string of horrible relationships; they haven’t a clue how to pick good people. (These are all the folks who whine, “Where are all the good men?” or “good women?” while everyone else seems to have little trouble finding them.) They can’t keep their hands to themselves. They need structure, so the structure we find in various systems of “courtship” is exactly what they need.

Nope; what I object to is the claim courtship is God’s idea. It is not.

Courtship is a human tradition. We invented it. And like any human tradition, it can be used for good… or used to control and manipulate others. It can become living religion which grows us closer to Jesus, or dead religion which drives us apart.

I’ve seen cases where paranoid fathers won’t let their daughters date anyone, for fear all young men are sex-crazed. (Usually because they’re sex-crazed… and they’re not as good at hiding it as they think they are.) Or when fathers push their daughters into marrying their protégés, hoping to get two people they can manipulate. In the hands of legalistic, unloving Christians, courtship can be twisted into a terrible thing. Be cautious.

But no matter what your parents’ or churches’ rules are for courtship, it still boils down to my basic definition: Dating, but no sex.