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.

Are You a Failure? Y/N

The thing about cults and cult-like systems is that, for the most part, they’re really boring.

Most of the indoctrination takes place day by day, through sermons that carefully redefine Scripture, through lectures that reinforce the group’s beliefs, and through long, dull sessions of filling in blanks and regurgitating the right answers.

The question-and-answer exercises are very simplistic, and all designed to condition you to doubt yourself and feel like a failure. You learn to look to your leader for answers, and you’re afraid to leave the group because you know you’ll crash and burn on your own.

A friend from my own Fellowship* recently shared a snapshot of a worksheet we had to fill out as students in the early 90s. As 14 – 18 year olds, we were separated from our parents at weeks-long conferences, awakened early and kept up late, and bombarded all day with lectures and conditioned group responses. Somewhere in the middle of this exhausting, bewildering, and exhilarating experience, they dropped things like this in our laps:

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1. Do you get up early in the morning?

2. Do you get out of bed when you wake up?

3. Are you an “energy-giver” when you get up?

4. Do you decide the night before what to wear the next day?

5. Do you consistently honor a day of rest?

6. Do you make your bed as soon as you get up?

7. Do you have everything in its rightful place?

8. Do you keep your room neat?

9. Are you consistent in your daily Bible reading?

10. Do you have a regular prayer time?

11. Do you regularly memorize Scripture?

12. Do you always wash your hands before meals?

13. Do you practice proper etiquette?

14. Do you sit near the front during a meeting?

15. Do you stand up for your elders?

16. Do you take notes during messages?

17. Do you know how to detect the five types of fools?

18. Do your parents approve of all your friends?

19. Do you fulfill all the promises you make?

20. Do you put yourself to sleep with meditation on Scripture?

*

An outsider could glance over it and say, “Well, there are a lot of great ideas here. Except what does washing your hands have  to do with self-motivation? Just take what’s good and leave the rest.”

An insider knew much better than that.  “No” is not an acceptable answer to any of these questions. Notice that”Sometimes” isn’t even an option. We couldn’t take-and-leave. This wasn’t a mere list of ideas. This was a test, and we were set up to fail it.

Unless you’re educated in the culture that it comes from, you probably still miss how loaded some of these questions are. I could spend a dozen blog posts unpacking these questions.

For instance, “Do you get up early in the morning?” Early rising was a mark of Godliness; sleeping late was, therefore, sinful. The next question, “Do you get out of bed when you wake up?” reinforces the idea that staying in bed is a sign of slothfulness. And there was an entire booklet about the dangers of being slothful. So if you answered “no” to questions 1 & 2, you’re already spiritually defective.

Or how about #14? Sitting in the back of a meeting demonstrated apathy (a sin) or rebelliousness (a major sin).

In order to answer #17, you had to remember the extensivelesson on the Five Types of Fools; so that question actually covered an entirely separate session in itself.

Question #18 weighed about a ton. Your parents had the power of God’s disapproval in your life. If they didn’t like a friend of yours, no matter the reason, the only obedient course of action was to get rid of that friend. Also, “friend” here could stand for “friend of the opposite sex” — someone you liked despite the fact that God expected you to keep your emotions pure until He brought you the one you were to marry. It was a reminder that even your emotions were subject to God/your parents.

The entire list, by the way, is pretty easy to master if you happen to be someone exactly like the Venerated Leader who wrote it — a man who didn’t need much sleep, was an extrovert, found memorization easy, didn’t have any real friends, wore basically the same thing every day, and spent thirty years sexually harassing young women that he invited to work for him. Oh, wait, he forgot to add that item, didn’t he?

Twenty years later, when many of us saw the picture of this list, we felt that same oppression we’d lived under as teenagers. “No wonder,” we said. “No wonder I always felt like a failure. No wonder I worked myself into chronic fatigue. No wonder I broke down at age 20.” This list was just one of many others like it. This was how we knew to please God.

This was our spiritual life, one in which choosing your clothes the night before is just as important as keeping the Sabbath (one of the Ten Commandments). No room for mistakes or personality. Just keep your head down, obey, and pretend you aren’t the complete failure you know you are.

And for the record, I have no idea how washing your hands before every meal made it on this list. That’s stupid.

If you need me, I’ll be lying in bed in my comfortably cluttered room, with no memory of the five types of fools, and resting in the grace of God.

*Bill Gothard, IBLP/ATI

Ruthless Courtship

Ruth-and-Boaz
Properly dressed and keeping a chaste distance between them, Ruth suggests that Boaz might want to marry her.
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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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