Breaking Fences, Take 2

“The more commitments you make, the more mature you will be.”

After reading my last post (click here) a friend sent me actual photographic evidence that people really do think that “building fences” will protect you from sinning.

This page is from a “counseling” conference for students (about age 16 to young 20s) held in 2000. The bullet point listed here is just one of probably six or seven; these conferences deluged the attendees with information. It was hard to take it all in, much less judge each point’s validity — even if you had some frame of reference that let you see the problems in the first place.

This was written by the same teacher who wrote this helpful self-motivation checklist right here.*

Counseling1

Let’s take a look at this bit by bit, how about?

CounselingPt1

Oddly, when I went to my (highly effective) counseling sessions, what I most appreciated was how my counselor listened to me. She occasionally asked questions or suggested a different way to understand God or my past. No explaining or urging took place.

Counseling sessions are very individualized, so I imagine that sometimes a counselor might take a different tack that would look more like explaining and urging. But this teaching seems to assume that if people have problems, those people need to be “fixed.” They need to keep behind the fences and follow the rules. That way God will bless them again.

CounselingPt2

Two Bible verses! The first one is pretty solid. The second one is from a Psalm, which is poetry, not exactly cause-and-effect promises. And then, in a giant leap for logickind, he explains and urges that in order to get God’s blessings, you have to make commitments to do good things.

Just in case we might think he made up this theology, he gives us proof: an unverifiable story about anonymous people.

(If you’re thinking, “How could people believe this?”, then you don’t understand the force of a leader’s personality, the high-pressure atmosphere, and the reinforcement from the group where everyone else seems to agree without reservation. You should read my novel, The Fellowship.)

CounselingPt2

I don’t even have to point out what’s wrong with this “example.” But I will anyway.

The story assumes that if the young woman had committed to telling young men to approach her father first, she would be spared Bad Things. We also “know” that she’d be more mature if she made this commitment.

This is one point where he and I agree: this woman was not mature enough to handle a relationship. But turning it over to her dad wouldn’t have helped her in the long run.

After all, she thinks that since she accepted a date in surprise, it’s a binding promise. No, honey. If you’re uncertain about it, email him to say that the day you agreed on wouldn’t work out after all, and you’d really like to think about his offer a little longer. Then, after you’ve thought about it, call him and explain that you have a conflict of faith and you really don’t think it’s a good idea. It will be awkward and he might end up feeling hurt. That’s grown-up life.

But, no, since Daddy isn’t there to rescue her, she goes out with the guy after all and… violates her moral purity? There’s no knowing what that really means in this context. This phrase could refer sex — and if she had sex on the first date despite her conscience, she’s got really serious issues. It could also mean they kissed. Or maybe she wore a low-cut blouse and he complimented her figure. No telling which fence got breached, since breaking any of them counts as sin.

(It’s even possible that it means he forced sexual contact without her consent; since she dated a guy who didn’t have her father’s approval, she’s partly guilty for whatever he did to her. I don’t have the evidence of this logic right here, but it’s definitely part of the thinking.)

The story serves only one purpose: to create fear among his followers so they’ll accept his word as their means of security.

CounselingPt3

Well, yes, Daniel did. But that showed his strength of character. He knew his own mind. He didn’t need to prop up his sagging judgment with “commitments.”

This whole bullet point (and the rest of the material) is flavored with the pungent stench of Bible verses ripped out of context. Teachers like this demonstrate over and over that their concern isn’t what the Bible says or what God is really like. It’s to reinforce their own authority as teachers of truth, as they trap their followers behind miles of fences that God never created.

Amid all that talk of God and Biblical principles and Bible verses, though, this teacher — like most teachers like him — forgot to add a key verse. I’ll do it for him.

“Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” Nehemiah 6:8

*The teacher is Bill Gothard of the Institute in Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute. I have no qualms about calling him out by name. But although his material is what I use for my examples, I don’t want to focus solely on him and his teachings. He’s just one of many teachers who peddle legalism, and they all use the same methods.

Breaking Fences

“Why won’t legalists have sex? Because somebody might see them and think they’re dancing.”

While you’re still dying of laughter over that one…

Rules protect us from sinning. That’s the whole spirit behind legalism. Rules about what you wear, what you watch, how you dress, what you eat, where you go — they’re all designed to keep you from ever getting close enough to a sin to commit it. They “fence off” the sin so you can’t get to it. Want to avoid sexual sin? Probably best not to go dancing.

That way, you can be sure that God will bless you instead of punishing you.

The problem is… actually, there are a lot of problems with living life this way. One of the problems is that there are never enough fences. Legalism creates row after row of fences, trying to block off any avenue to that sin. That includes even the good parts of our human nature that might lead us too close to that sin.

And eventually, breaking the “fences” becomes just as great an offense as the sin itself.

These rules vary from one subculture to another. In my own “Fellowship,”  (Bill Gothard’s homeschooling program) girls could wear makeup and earrings, but it was a big deal not to listen to “rock” music (which was almost any music other than hymns or classical). In the church my husband grew up in, the music rules were less stringent, but women weren’t allowed to have pierced ears or cut their hair. I read about other cults where members weren’t allowed to attend other churches, or had to log a certain number of hours in prayer every week, or weren’t allowed to eat marshmallows.

And it never works. We still mess up. Legalism just gives us hundreds of extra ways to mess up, without the remedy of God’s grace and mercy to restore us.

It’s a heavy burden of guilt to be credited for a sin you never committed.

In my world, the “fence” progression looked something like this:

Sin: sexual sin

Rule 1: To avoid sexual sin, don’t date until you’re ready for marriage.

New sin: dating

Rule 2: To avoid dating, commit to “courtship” in which the parents make the decision that you’re ready.

New sin: violating courtship commitment

Rule 3: To avoid violating your courtship commitment, don’t let yourself fall in love with someone your parents haven’t approved.

New sin: falling in love

Rule 4: To avoid falling in love, don’t let yourself have crushes.

New sin: crushes

Rule 5: To avoid crushes, don’t interact with the opposite sex on a casual basis.

Therefore:

Interacting with and enjoying the attention of the opposite sex is, in effect, sexual sin.

So back away from the fence and behave. That’s what God said, after all.

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.

The Courtship Package

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In Chapter 5 of The Fellowship, Bekah’s good friend Ty gives her a ride home to her parents’ for the weekend. He’s begun to suspect that the “weird church” Bekah grew up in affects her thinking more than he realized. Bekah fields his questions about authority, college, a woman’s role in life, and they eventually get around to “courtship.”

“Courting…?” Ty said.

Bekah groaned.

He went on, “That basically means getting engaged, right?”

“No. We’ve had this conversation before too.” 

“I know. I just can’t keep straight… oh, hang on. It means you can’t hold hands till you get married.”

“Exactly. Glad you listened when I explained it.”

“No, no, wait, I remember more now. It means you can’t hold hands until you marry the guy your dad says you can marry.”

“You’re definitely not going to be speaking at any Youth Meetings.”

“How would you explain courtship then?”

“It means not starting a romantic relationship until you’re ready for marriage. And you have to have the blessing of both fathers. And the guy initiates the relationship, not the girl.” Bekah didn’t add the dozens of other rules and expectations that were included in the courtship package.

*

My husband and I courted. We waited until we were ready for marriage before we started a romance (we were already friends). He contacted my mother first (both my dad and stepdad were dead, a situation that the patriarchy movement tends to gloss over). We involved our parents and families in our activities. We set boundaries in our relationship, including saving our first kiss for the wedding. (Full disclosure: we didn’t save everything for the wedding; we felt very free to make out within our boundaries.) For years I was a big fan of courtship… until I figured out why ours went so well. We did it wrong.

DJ and I made all the decisions ourselves. Our parents were available for consultation — I talked for hours with my mom before agreeing to court him — but they didn’t have any final say. It never occurred to them to try to make our decisions for us. We took charge of our relationship, and it’s served us well all these years later.

But we have many friends whose parents very much considered themselves the active authority in the relationship. Those courtships rarely went well. Either the couple was too compliant and didn’t learn how to function as a united force, or one or both parties aggressively asserted independence and everybody suffered from the emotional fallout. As one friend said later, “My courtship was the most miserable time of my life.”

All too often, “courtship” ends up looking a lot like these rather poetic essays from two friends:

Davad:

When I was 14, the homeschool fathers said, “Read your Bible, abstain from sex, and in a few years you’ll be ready for one of our daughters.” And I did.

When I was 18, the fathers said, “Work hard, be creative, and make something of your life, and in a few years you’ll be ready for marriage.” And I did.

When I was 22, the fathers said, “Embrace our theology for yourself, get a career that pays as much as we make now, and you’ll be ready to court.” And I did.

When I was 26, they said, “Why are you so independent from your parents, go to a different church in a different state, and don’t respect their authority? The answer is no.”

Rachel:
When I was 14 I was told, “Promise God you will never date, try with all your energy to turn your crushes into something else, learn how to be content with only your parents and your brother as friends, and one day you’ll catch the attention of a godly man.”

I did.

At 18 I was told, “Focus on ministry, minimize your own dreams and desires, give selflessly at home, learn to submit to your parents at home, and soon a godly man will notice you.”

I did.

At 22 I was told, “The godly man you think is the one isn’t the one, trust us. So submit to your parents’ better judgement and discipline your heart to be quiet while they make it impossible for this man to know you well enough to consider you. Focus on serving. Focus on giving. And soon the right godly man will notice you.”

I did.

At 29 I was told, “The godly man who has seen you, noticed you, and admired you while you’ve been giving and serving and ministering, isn’t committed to courtship, and you promised us when you were 14 that you wouldn’t date. So this is not the right godly man. Just…”

I stopped listening.

I’m married to him.

But the years I wasted are never far from my consciousness.

*

The problem isn’t that parents are involved, or express disapproval, or set high standards. The problem is, as expressed a little later in the novel:

“I don’t resist the idea of authority,” Ty objected. “What I resist is somebody telling me that he speaks for God in my life, and if I don’t listen to him I’m screwed.” 

Looking back, here’s what I see:

  • Some people did everything right and have a beautiful marriage now.
  • Some people did everything right and are picking up the pieces of shattered dreams.
  • Some did everything as stupidly as possible, and suffered from years of misery.
  • Others did the same thing and ended up wiser, a bit storm-tossed, and happily married.

The Courtship Package was sold to us as a way to prevent bad things from happening. But the promise was empty. Formulas don’t guarantee success. Even God doesn’t guarantee that everything will go well. Trusting in a formula leaves us shattered and helpless when things go wrong. Trusting in God gives someone to grab onto when everything is falling apart.

So I’m not really a fan of “courtship” anymore. I’m a fan of two people knowing their own minds and getting to know one another, and standing together before God and the world.

*

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