Marriage Mind Games

ball-1418250-1279x850A godly wife is submissive. A godly husband is a leader. This is the ideal model of marriage, as laid down by a God who likes making his children play mind games.

It’s not news that I’m no fan of the patriarchal/complementarian view of marriage. I sat through hours of the instruction as a teen. I even tried it when I first got married, with pretty terrible results. It causes more harm than good most of the time. But don’t take my word for it—here’s an article from one of the bastions of submissive womanhood, Above Rubies, with a rundown of how the game goes.

I found the article when someone shared it on my newsfeed, after Above Rubies posted it on their Facebook page. Considering that the working title of my novel was Somewhere Below Rubies, I’m obviously not the target audience. But it’s exactly the kind of stuff I was taught, and obviously still going strong.

You can read the whole thing here. Here on the blog, I’ll provide excerpts. With commentary, naturally.*

The author leaps into motion with the starting gun:

… God spoke to me and said, “Val, you cannot teach this message… Because you don’t understand submission!” Now I don’t mind admitting that I was shocked.

“Lord, do you realize that I’m Val Stares from Above Rubies? I’ve always encouraged submission.” “Yes,” was the reply, “but you still don’t know how to submit.” By now I was on the defensive. “But. Lord, you know that every time I want something, or desire to go somewhere, I always ask my husband first.”

“And what is his reply?”

“He says for me to please myself. Oh yes, he always adds, ‘You usually do.’ I don’t know why he says that because he’s already given me permission to do what I think best.”

Her husband’s reply is an interesting detail. Does he mean it casually, as a lighthearted way to say, “Yes!” or as an unstated resentful way to remind her that she doesn’t really care about his opinion? I’d think that God, who surely has as much basic education as a first-year marriage counselor, would suggest that she ask her husband what he’s really thinking.

But no. The patriarchal God rarely goes in for direct, heart-to-heart talks. That spoils the game.

“If you are serious about learning submission, Val, I want you to go to your husband and tell him that from now on he needs to answer you, “Yes” or “No.” If he says that you can please yourself, then you will take that as his disapproval and will stay home or go without. There is to be no pouting, no banging doors, no attitude of annoyance or hurt when this happens.”

So “God” has laid down the ground rules. Val runs out to the shed where her husband spends a lot of his time, and tells him her new revelation. He laughed—“You’ll never be able to do it!”

About three weeks later, a visiting speaker came to town.
Note the passage of time. Three weeks later.

Finally it was time to ask my husband if I could go. Out to the shed I went, told him what was happening and asked if I could go. As usual, I left everything until the last minute!
That little drop of self-blame is essential to the truly submissive woman’s worldview.

“Please yourself, you usually do.”
That’s how he answered. He didn’t say the magic words. Remember what he was supposed to say? “Yes” or “No.” Anything else meant he didn’t actually approve and she had to stay home. Because God said so.

I raced into the bedroom and pleaded with God, “He’s forgotten he has to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Can’t I just remind him?” “No” came the answer to my heart…
Because if you did that, it would totally ruin God’s fun.

Around the time I should have left for the meeting, my husband walked in to find me cleaning. “I thought you were going out to a meeting,” he said.
This is a major play right here. She explained how he had really forbidden her from going because he didn’t use the right words. And her husband got mad. He yelled at her that if she wanted to be so stupid and stay home, then fine, stay home!

It was then that the full revelation of what God was teaching me became clear.
I don’t know about you, but I’m revelating all over the place here.

I’m getting the impression that Val is an energetic, take-charge kind of person. Women who run ministries usually are. And she married a low-key, easygoing man. This is a perfectly normal and acceptable personality pairing—except in patriarchal/complementarian circles. In those circles, a take-charge woman has to force herself to be indecisive and subservient, but in order to do so, she’s got to compel her easygoing husband to order her around. However, according to God’s fun little game, she can’t say that.

So Val decided for some reason that her husband’s dismissive “Please yourself, you usually do” wasn’t up to par. She made up a code that he had to follow to show he was really leading her. Meanwhile, her husband thought he’d given her permission to do something she wanted to do, only to discover that she’d denied herself and blamed him. No wonder he was mad.

Oh, hang on. That’s not at all what Val concludes. Instead, she chalks up a major score in the mind game.

I had overridden my husband’s decision so many times that he was now robbed of any desire to lead. He must have felt so cheated. Now, by God’s hand, he was responsible for me staying home, but what hurt me most was the realization that it was me, the Christian wife, who had robbed him!
It’s a homerun, folks!

 My husband is a cautious man and rather slow at making decisions. My impatience at waiting for an answer caused me to make more and more decisions myself and he would go along with me for the sake of peace.
Or maybe he figured out a long time ago that you manipulate the situation to get what you really want, so his actual opinion didn’t really matter.

 I stayed home for several weeks after that, while we both learned our respective roles.
While he learned your official change in the rules, you mean.

So that’s the story part. Now she’s got to get into the doctrine part to justify why they dodge and block instead of talking things out like responsible adults. She quotes some usual verses on submission (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18) and adds all the usual explanations:

God is not telling husbands to make us obey or make us come under their authority. We do it because we love God and our husbands, and because He has asked us to. It is our choice.
Even though in her own story, she had no choice once “God” told her to do it.

In my mind I saw my broom raised to a horizontal position above my head. The handle was labeled, “My husband’s Authority.” I could see that if he were in his rightful position, I would be able to walk beneath it in an upright position. This upright position was one of honor, security, love–and a surprise I didn’t expect or notice until much later–power!

This is one of their favorite plays. They insist that a woman who doesn’t make any decisions on her own, but lets her husband dictate everything, is in fact very powerful. They point to Esther, who had enormous influence over the king. That’s the kind of influence a truly submissive wife has! All she has to do is go into every situation thinking, as Esther did, “I’ll ask him about this. If I die, I die.” What’s so hard about that?

Just because the things I wanted to do were good things, didn’t necessarily mean they were what my husband wanted to do. He could have other plans.
Not that she asked if he had other plans. Not that he told her he had other plans. They are very careful not to mess up God’s favorite sport.

But God wanted me to measure myself by the attitude of Jesus.

We read about Jesus’ example in 1 Peter 2:18-23, “For what glory is it, if when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps…Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously….Likewise, (with the same spirit of Jesus) ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the Word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation (the manner of life) of the wives.”

This is actually what 1 Peter 2:18-23 says. It’s written to servants (slaves, as translated in the New International Version).

“18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.

19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.

21 For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:

22 Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:

23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:”

It looks a whole lot like she tacked on 1 Peter 3:1, the verse about wives, without saying so. Not only is she quoting Scripture out of context, she just created her very own Frankensteinian context! Slam dunk!

What happened to that feared and dreaded “door mat,” the so-called intimidated mousy wife who gets no say? It was a lie. It had no substance or power. I can now stand up straight, and walk upright, secure and loved under his protection. On this side of submission, I have more say because my opinion is of greater value than before.
In a spectacular leap of logic, she concludes that by not expressing her opinion on anything, it has greater value. Touchdown, baby! GOOOAAALLL!

One word of warning– submission is a daily practice, not a one-time act. I have to daily check my attitude and the humility of my heart.
But it’s even harder to work every day at communicating with each other, balancing each other’s desires with your own needs, taking care of misunderstandings as they happen. No guarantees, no formula to fall back on—just love, effort, and God’s grace.

But in the long run, your marriage grows stronger when you don’t depend on formulas, but take the risk to meet as equals and face issues together.

We serve a God of grace.

Not a God of mind games.

Game, set, match.

 

*Should I apologize for the unholy mixing of sports references? That would suggest that I’m sorry for it.

Deborah: When Men are Weak

king-and-queen-1179013-639x462Apparently in some of the back streets of the internet, there’s a fight about whether movies should star “strong female characters.” The whole question makes me nearly sprain something rolling my eyes, so I don’t actually know much about it.

I did read a post on the subject, though. The author, a woman, wrote it in response to a man who objected to “strong females” in stories. He claimed that they usurped a man’s rightful, God-given place as the protector of the weak.

Among other points in her post, the author of the rebuttal mentioned the Biblical example of Deborah. And I thought, “You think you won a point. But you really lost it.”

The thing about Christian patriarchalists is that they know their Bible. They know it like Westley and Inigo knew their fencing forms. It’s kind of like a game, sparring with them. First they lay down the rules—you must argue from the Bible. Nothing else is authoritative. Then they show up with all their Bible knowledge and interpretation and demolish you. They know what you’ll say, and they’ve developed a reflexive response for it. Maybe, if you’re really good at holding your own, they might acknowledge—as Westley did to Inigo—that you’re an artist of stained glass window caliber.

But how is bringing up Deborah in a debate about female leadership an automatic loss?

Yes, we’re talking about the same Deborah, the Old Testament judge, whose story is found in Judges 4-5. She lived during the time before Israel had kings. The people listened to her for God’s words and judgements, especially during this time when a nearby king oppressed them.

Deborah sent for Barak, obviously a warrior of renown. She informed him that God wanted him to gather troops and go against the enemy general, Sisera, in battle. Barak kind of blanched at the thought and said, “I’ll go if you go with me.”

“Fine, I’ll go,” Deborah said. “But just so you know—you’re not going to get any glory from this. Sisera will die by a woman.”

So they went up together and Barak mustered his troops. They met Sisera in battle; it didn’t go well for Sisera. God routed his army, and he himself escaped on foot. He found the tent of an ally, whose wife—Jael—invited him in to rest.

(Jael is the stuff of nightmares to patriarchal men. She pretended to be friendly, waited till Sisera collapsed from exhaustion, and then drove a tent peg through his head.)

Israel won a definitive victory, and the entire next chapter is “the Song of Deborah and Barak.”

If you read the account straight through, you might not see where Deborah went wrong. That’s because you’re probably forgetting the most important principle for interpreting a Bible story about a woman: authority.

Who was in authority? It’s hard to get around the fact that it’s Deborah. She was even married but still looked to as the judge. But women aren’t ever supposed to be in authority over men, therefore Deborah’s judgeship was somehow not God’s best. Even though God doesn’t seem to have realized that.

The teachers I sat under pointed to the fact that Barak was so reluctant. If this warrior was too uncertain to go into battle without Deborah, what did that say about the men of the time? Exactly. They were all weak. That’s why there was a woman in charge—because there weren’t any good men to step up and do it.

So the story isn’t about Deborah’s strength, but Barak’s weakness. It’s not Deborah’s honor, but Barak’s shame. It’s not about a woman, it’s about a man.

And there’s obviously an element of that, since it’s such a point that the victory went to “a woman.” But without the Authority filter over it, the story in general kind of shrugs at the fact that Deborah’s in charge. The point is not woman or man, but God.

But if you find yourself locked in combat with a patriachalist over female empowerment, and the twisty logic, leaps to conclusions, and sheer vigor of his arguments have forced you to the wall—don’t bring up Deborah. He’s already got her properly boxed up and out of the way. All you will do is reinforce his point (to himself) that a strong woman is merely compensating for a weak man. A woman who is trying to be “strong” is therefore trying to “weaken” a man.

It’s right there in the Bible. Remember Deborah?

 

Bleeding Praise

They opened a Bible and
Drew out a gleaming
Metal sheath, polished silver
Studded with rubies.
They said it was good.

They said the beautiful sheath
Enclosed treasure to
Carry deep inside my heart –
God’s gift for God’s child.
I stretched out my hand.

They unclasped a silver lock.
The sheath broke apart
Revealing a slender smooth
Steel blade, thin and sharp.
I accepted it.

I took the chilled metal blade
Which did not warm to
My touch, and they showed me just
How I must hold it.
Poised over my heart.

Together, we drove it in.
Easily, it pierced
My chest. The handle snapped off,
The blade disappeared
Deep within my heart.

They looked at the bright red blood
Welling from my heart,
Smearing and staining my skin.
Blood is life, they said—
God’s abundant life.

They reproached me for my tears,
Said I must be strong,
Said my heart was rebellious
Said it was Your gift.
I must love the pain.

I loved the pain, rejoicing
In abundant life.
My bleeding and wounded heart
Sang praises to You
In grief and despair.

I cherished the deep-set blade
Having forgotten
That it was not part of me.
Not remembering
That they put it there.

You came near to me and saw
That I was dying,
Slowly, while gasping praises
As each new heartbeat
Tore wider the wound.

You whispered in my anguish,
Said the sharp steel blade
Was not a treasure of Yours.
Pain stopped up my ears
I couldn’t hear You.

You slid Your fingers into
My agonized heart.
Then I knew You were with me.
Fear and pain burned me.
I begged You to leave.

Peace, be still, is all You said.
You drew out the blade.
It was pitted, slimy, dark.
My torn heart closed up.
I cried soft, warm tears.

Quietly You embraced me,
Stanched the bright red blood
With Your own bloodstained fingers
Said You don’t love pain.
But You love to heal.

You washed my skin and my clothes
And bound up my heart.
You shattered the ugly blade,
Asked for no praises.
Told me to just breathe.

Abigail, A Dangerous Woman

The Bible doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to exposing dangerous women. The first one who comes to your mind, just like mine, is Abigail.

Lest you think we’re talking about two different Old Testament characters, I’ll give a rundown of her story. It’s found in 1 Samuel 25.

In the years before David became king of Israel, he was on the run from Saul–the current king–and building up his own following. They happened upon the fields of Nabal during shearing time. David sent ten men to Nabal saying, “Hey, we didn’t mess with your shepherds or steal any of your sheep or goats. So could you give me food for my men?”

It was a big request. But Nabal was a rich man. More to the point, he was still rich thanks to David’s honorable treatment of his property. Also, David’s men had weapons. Like any reasonable man, Nabal saw that it was to his advantage to pay up his part of the bargain.

Oh, wait. Nabal’s name means “fool.” He did not pay up. He insulted David and told him to get lost.

David got mad and began mobilizing his men for wholesale slaughter of every male in Nabal’s household.

(See, class? We sure do need for men to be in charge all the time because it always goes so much better that way.)

Abigail was Nabal’s wife. When a servant came to her in a panic, telling her what was going on, she swung into action. She gathered up food, freshened up, saddled a donkey, and went out to meet David herself. She apologized for her husband’s foolishness and begged him to spare the household.

David, hotheaded though he was, was actually a reasonable man, especially by ancient warlord standards. He agreed to call off the attack. In fact, he was relieved that Abigail had kept him from unnecessary bloodshed.

Abigail went back and told Nabal what she’d done. Nabal was furious. So absolutely, intensely furious that he had a stroke and then died.

So the household was saved, Nabal disposed of, and David took Abigail to be his wife. Which really was the best a woman could hope for in that time.

Okay, so I admit that at first glance, it actually looks like Abigail is the hero of this story. But one of the tricks of a patriarchal worldview is that it can use one or two details to twist the whole perspective into the proper shape.

To start with, you’ve got to keep the most important principle in mind at all time. That principle is: Authority. Every situation, even a story told for centuries around campfires, must be filtered through the grid of Authority.

Who was in authority in this story? Well, David, because he’d been anointed the next king of Israel. Who else had authority here? Nabal, the husband and owner of the property.

Who did not have the authority to make any decisions or take any action? Abigail. Because she was married, she was bound to obey her husband no matter what.

There are two telling details in the passage of Scripture. One, the servant came to Abigail behind Nabal’s back, and even said he was wicked and foolish. Abigail did not rebuke the servant for speaking against their authority. Two, Abigail made her plans and headed out to see David, but as the story notes, She did not tell her husband.

But… but… she spared every  male in the household! Including Nabal’s worthless hindquarters!

Yet you see what her rebellion–yes, she was rebellious–led to. Her husband died. David might feel like God had vindicated him, but Abigail had to live with the knowledge that her actions killed her own husband.

But… but… Abigail became David’s wife…

Pfft. She became one of his wives. Who wants that? (What woman had a choice back then? Hush, you’re cluttering up the narrative.) And she did have at least one son who should have become king after David, but we never hear anything about him. That’s the third devastating detail in this story: God punished Abigail by not letting her son become the next king.

I’m not exaggerating this interpretation. This is what I was taught as a student of Bill Gothard. He embroidered a lot of the details*, but there’s a long tradition among hardcore patriarchalists to demonize Abigail. She usurped her husband’s place and was the cause of his death.

Girls, do not grow up to be like Abigail!

You should instead hope to be like… well… how about you just don’t read ahead in your Bibles until we have time to explain how Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Jael, etc. are also cautionary tales. Here, instead we’ve rewritten history and also these stories with passive obedient heroines. We’ll get back to God’s Word when you’re ready to understand the truths hidden within it.

Good thing you’ve got men to illuminate it for you.

*Gothard claimed that if Abigail hadn’t intervened, then David would have had the guilt of unnecessary bloodshed on his conscience; years later, when he got Bathsheba pregnant, he wouldn’t have sent Uriah into battle to be killed because he’d already know how wrong that was. I didn’t make that up.

** I hope it’s clear that I’m not claiming all Christian men believe this way. But there’s a slice of Christianity that does. If you’ve never encountered teachings like this, you might not realize the enormous effort it takes to re-read the Bible in its own words, not the twisted interpretation we were given.

Delilah

Poor Delilah. Ever since her tragic romance with Samson, her name has been synonymous with a scheming, treacherous woman.

I think she deserves better.

Full disclosure:  I’m reacting to more than just Delilah’s age-old reputation here. As a teenager, I sat under people who taught us that we women are dangerous to men. Not because we’re smart or competitive or even manipulative, but because we have female-shaped bodies. Men are weak to female-shaped bodies; trying to talk to, reason with, or relate to a man while existing in our female bodies made us dangerous.

And they backed it up with The Bible, as follows:

  • Adam, created perfect in God’s image, fell because of a woman.
  • Samson, the strongest man in history, fell because of a woman.
  • David, the man after God’s own heart, fell because of a woman.
  • Solomon, the wisest man in the world, fell because of lots of women.

Adam ate the fruit that Eve, deceived by Satan, offered him. Samson told Delilah the secret of his strength. David saw Bathsheba and had her brought to his bed. Solomon had thousands of wives for political advantage, and eventually worshiped their gods. These men made conscious decisions against their own moral compass or common sense, often influenced by women.

See? Women! You see who’s at fault here.

You see why I am reacting here.

Still, if you know the story of Samson and Delilah, you’re going to point out that Delilah wasn’t exactly a shrinking little mouse in the drama. Here’s a quick recap:

Samson was a big strong manly Israelite. He had unusual strength; as a child, he was dedicated to God. In acknowledgement of his bond to God, he kept himself ritually clean, didn’t drink alcohol, and never cut his hair.

He was a hero among his people because they lived under the oppression of the Philistines at the time. Samson was invincible, and he wreaked havoc on the Philistine people. Israel loved him.

Which was good of them. Because Samson was dumb. Good heavens, was this man dumb. He had one default approach to any situation:”Can I get sex out of this? No? KILL!”

After various sex-and-violence vacations into Philistine territory, including an ill-fated marriage, he settled in with Delilah.

Who was Delilah, anyway?

The Bible doesn’t really say, but it’s pretty safe to assume she was a prostitute. What she wasn’t was dumb. She knew how to survive in a world where she was good for one thing only. Apparently Samson provided protection and money. Maybe she was lonely and enjoyed him. She knew a good thing when she got it.

But the Philistine leaders persuaded her to find out the secret of Samson’s great strength. She tried several different times, wheedling and manipulating him, while he gave her all the wrong answers. Finally she wore him down and he revealed his secret: if he cut his hair, he would lose his superstrength.

While he slept, Delilah shaved his head.  She called on the Philistine leaders, and watched them drag him away and throw him in prison. That devious, wicked, manipulating jade proved to be a strong man’s fatal weakness.

And how did the Philistine leaders persuade her? Well, they offered her a whole lot of money. 1100 pieces of silver each, in fact.

But hang on. Two chapters back, we find out that Samson married a Philistine woman. At the wedding party, he presented a riddle; if nobody could answer it, they had to pay through the nose. So the men went to his new wife and said, “Find out the answer to the riddle or we’ll burn your father’s house with you in it.” She hounded him and Samson eventually caved, but got mad and went back to Israel — without her. One thing led to another, ending with Samson’s wife and her family burned to death in their house.

So now it’s Delilah’s turn. She wasn’t being threatened by young punks at a wedding party; she was standing before the leaders of the city. I suppose the conversation could have gone like this:

“No. I can’t betray him.”

“Well, okay, we see your point. We’ll find some other way to get him. Oh, and Delilah… say hi to your family for us. We know where they live.”

As my husband says, they held a big carrot and a big stick. Seems to me that her options were: betray Samson, get filthy rich; or refuse to cooperate, and seal her and her family’s doom.

She could have confessed to Samson and asked him to protect her. But he was no Boaz, who watched out for Ruth, made sure she was okay, and finally married her. Samson would have hung around long enough to slaughter a few Philistines because that’s what he did for fun. But this was the man who abandoned his wife just because she made him lose his stupid riddle.

She could have tried to run away. That would have worked! Because just like today, it’s so easy for a woman to escape dangerous men, especially with her children and family in tow. Back then, no problem — she’d just leave the city and die in the wilderness, assuming the Philistine leaders didn’t track her down first.

But who says Delilah was such a great person herself? Maybe she was a poison-tongued, complaining, selfish shrew. Maybe so. I certainly don’t point to her relationship with a violent, selfish man, and her accomplished manipulation, as a good model for the young women in my life.

But that’s not why she’s got such a bad reputation. She’s got a bad reputation because she used her considerable feminine wiles to get around a man’s defenses. Never mind that he knew very well what she was up to. Never mind that she was trying to survive.

She, as a woman, was dangerous to a man.

That’s a generalization that most of us reject nowadays. Possibly it’s time to rethink Delilah as well.

Watch Your Mouth, There Are Men Present!

Once, during the years I was part of my own real-life “Fellowship,” I and several others were being trained to teach a children’s class.

The leader asked if anyone knew a particular story from the Old Testament. I volunteered to tell it, and it was a great moment in my life. I made everyone laugh, then sigh, then grow quiet at the heartbreaking ending. The leader was really impressed, and said so.

The next day, he asked for another story. I volunteered again. The leader gave me a brief smile, then asked, “Any guys want to try?”

Not “anyone else,” but “any guys.”

It was a subtle rebuke to all those guys who didn’t volunteer.

Hang on. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the leader just wanted participation from the guys as well as the girls?

Not in the world of Christian patriarchy.

Everyone there had been schooled in the same teachings. We all knew that the guys were supposed to be taking the lead — in spiritual matters, in teaching, in marriage, and in life. Girls were supposed to submit to their fathers’ or husbands’ authority. In practice, they were taught to defer to men in general as well.

I was once told, “Where women move in, men move out.” The speaker was talking about the real estate business, which in the late 90s was heavily populated by women. That was why you didn’t want to let women move into professions like piloting, politics, and military. Because men would move away to something else, leaving women in charge. And you know what a disaster that would be.

Wait, you don’t know?

We were assured it was the worst thing that could happen to our churches and our nation. God didn’t want women in charge. All kinds of (unspecified) calamities would result as soon as “feminists” got control.

(Nobody addressed the fact that the world was already in pretty rotten shape with men in charge.)

Every female character in the Bible was forced through the grid of “submissive to authority” or not. One day I’ll devote a post to explaining how Abigail was bad, Esther a compromiser, and Deborah a reluctant leader. Ruth generally came out okay if you glossed over the story enough. But for here, I’ll just say that all of us young people understood the same “truth”: that a woman was always second place to a man.

So when a young woman stood up and did a top-notch job telling a Bible story, the young men in the audience couldn’t just say, “Good job!” and let it go. No, she’d laid down a challenge: someone had to get up there and do it too. Preferably better.

And not just “someone,” either. Some guy.

And please, woman, from now on — keep your gifts and your voice in check when men are present.

Ruthless Courtship

Ruth-and-Boaz
Properly dressed and keeping a chaste distance between them, Ruth suggests that Boaz might want to marry her.
Romeo_and_juliet_01
They’re kissing. And they’re not even courting, much less engaged.

During my teenage years in a Fellowship-like system, I was given an assignment on “courtship.” No, I didn’t get to court anybody, although I was desperately interested in the idea. My assignment was to research a romantic couple in literature and explain how they did or didn’t follow the Biblical principles of courtship. Then, as a contrast, I was to highlight a Biblical couple who did follow the principles of authority-led courtship.

As a quick recap, the brand of courtship that my camp espoused went something like this, (not necessarily in these exact words):

  1. Approach — A single man (and his parents) chose a woman worthy to pursue, and the suitor asked her father for permission to court her.
  2. Evaluation — The father decided if this young man was right for his daughter.
  3. Approval — After an unspecified process and duration of evaluation, the father ideally would approve the young man as a suitor.
  4. Acceptance or Veto — The father then went to his daughter and told her who wanted to court her. This was the woman’s one moment of self-agency. She could accept or decline.
  5. Courtship  — If she accepted, she and the young man were unofficially bound in courtship. It wasn’t an engagement, but to break off a courtship was a very serious matter.
  6. Purity — To protect both parties, parents (usually, but not always, hers) set strict rules about conversations, physical interactions, how much time they could spend together, and whether they could ever be alone.
  7. Engagement — He asked her to marry him after his authorities agreed it was time. She could theoretically decline the engagement, but that would be highly scandalous.
  8. Marriage — Whew, finally get them safely married. Now they could have sex and God wouldn’t get mad.

With this courtship formula in mind, I chose Romeo and Juliet as my cautionary couple, and Ruth and Boaz as my shining example.

Whatever I thought I learned at the time, some lessons now stand out very clearly all these years later:

      1. If Romeo and Juliet had followed the principles of authority-guided romance, there would be no story. In fact, anytime characters always behave according to the rules — good or bad — the story is lifeless. Most morality tales are zombies, dead stories forced into terrible half-lives.
      2. Since courtship was “Biblical,” and since Ruth and Boaz are clearly a “good” couple in the Bible, it follows that their relationship is Biblical. I experienced a major disconnect when I tried to fit them into the formula. I mean, Ruth followed her mother-in-law Naomi’s advice to speak to Boaz about marriage; and her mother-in-law was her authority, so I guess Ruth was under authority. But Ruth basically threw herself at Boaz. At night. Where he was sleeping. It’s unclear exactly what went on between them on that threshing floor, but it’s pretty hot stuff compared to the painfully chaste courtship stories we were given to emulate.
      3. There was no male leadership. Boaz didn’t make the first move. The only “permission” he asked was when he had to let a nearer relative get the first chance to marry Ruth.
      4. If Ruth and Boaz had followed the “right” method of courtship, they wouldn’t have gotten married either.

Basically, this whole assignment shot itself in the foot. While Romeo and Juliet failed to follow the proper steps of courtship and DIED, I learned that the Bible didn’t, in fact, lay out a correct method of romance. This lesson opened the way for me to interpret courtship so liberally that when the time came that I actually did court a man, I exercised all kinds of self-agency in my decision-making. I entered marriage fairly well-prepared for life as an equal partner to my husband.

So while I wasn’t as bad as Juliet, I still completely failed at courtship. I’m pretty sure Ruth was proud of me.

Why, yes, I’m really pleased with my post title, thanks.