This is a bit random, but I thought I’d do an entirely anecdotal post about courtship. What with all the hullaballoo lately on the interwebs on this particular topic, I thought I’d just share what it was like for me.
Dad (as you may or may not know) wrote Her Hand in Marriage which is a biblical defense for the courtship model, and that book is one of the things which put courtship on the map in the first place. He had been teaching on the subject for several years, and then he put everything all in one place in that book. Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye first came out right around the same time as my dad’s book – I don’t know which one came first. Personally, I think that moment in the late ‘90s was right for this subject because the first wave of kids raised in the Christian education movement were just reaching marriageable age. I was the oldest in my family, and I had gone all the way through a classical school from kindergarten onwards, and of course the Harrises were right at the beginning of the wave of homeschooling.
I’m only speaking for myself here because I’ve never even met Josh Harris, but I would assume that something similar was going on with them in the homeschooling camp. My parents had sacrificed an awful lot to give me the education they did. They not only did a ridiculous amount of actual hard work to build a school, but the whole thing had to begin by questioning the status quo, working through Scripture, trying to apply Biblical standards to the question of educating their children, and then doing something that in the eyes of the world – and also most other Christians – was completely and totally weird. They did this faithfully, and I was raised knowing why we were doing what we were doing. I was used to the idea that we obey Scripture even when it seems that no one else is doing it – and I also got a front row seat in watching all the blessings that came along with that principled stand. Then I became a teenager, and it was a totally natural progression for Dad to be looking a few years down the road and wonder about how we would tackle the whole dating / marriage thing. It was also a totally natural thing for me to realize that we were probably going to do it in a way that no one else was. That was just how we rolled in our family and I was used to it.
You know how it is – once I hit about 13, guys started asking me out on the street or at the mall – and that was not a complicated situation. To all guys who were cat-calling, whistling, yelling out car windows asking my name, or in general asking me if I liked to party . . . the answer was no, and I did not give them my (or my dad’s) phone number. (Nor did I give them any of the remarkably witty come-backs that my brother always suggested for me after the fact. I would faithfully put them in the file for future use – but of course it never plays out the same way twice and I never could think quickly enough on the spur of the moment.) But I do think that this whole situation is probably what made Dad say to himself, “Self: give this a think.” And he did. He studied it, we talked about it, and I was totally on board with him being an active participant once I was old enough for marriage to be on the horizon.
When I was 16 the Christian guys started thinking that I was of totally marriageable age and began talking to Dad – or asking me if they could talk to Dad. I do know that plenty of girls out there have completely punkish fathers, but I was never anything but grateful for my Dad’s protection and involvement. I don’t love saying no to guys – especially nice Christian guys that I like just fine. In fact, I’m rather horrible at saying no in general – and I was absolutely thankful that Dad would do it for me. And contrary to what certain segments of the internet would like you to believe, my Dad is not (and never has been) a heavy-handed, power-tripping, control freak who delights in smacking people down. When he said no to guys on my behalf, I know that he was not unkind . . . because I’ve known him for a lot of years and I’ve never seen him be unkind.
The way it generally worked was this. If Dad knew already that this fellow was a non-starter, he simply said no thank you. But frequently he would tell them he would get back to them, and then he would tell me at dinner that he had had a visit from so-and-so today. My response was generally something like, “AAAAGGGHHH!!!!” although if I had been asked directly by the guy it would have taken me 20 painful minutes to make him understand that I probably wouldn’t go out with him no matter what night of the week he suggested. And, in fact, if I was part of the traditional dating lifestyle I know for a fact that I would absolutely have gone out with the guy and had a very uncomfortable time, rather than just say no thanks. And it wouldn’t have saved me anything, because I would have had to just say no to the second date, or the third. And like I said, I don’t love saying no. I do it, but I hate it. One of the things I really disliked about this article was that he wants direct access to the girls without ever having to deal with another man – old adages about hiding behind a woman’s skirts come to mind. If the mere presence of a father is enough to make him pass a girl by and go look for one who’s not similarly protected, I’m sorry, but that’s not much of a man. I would offer a counterpart to his advice to guys: “Girls! If a guy is too much of a pansy to talk to your dad, say good riddance and be grateful you aren’t being troubled by the attentions of a eunuch.” He also wants girls to always answer yes when asked out. Seriously? No dads, and girls who always say yes? He’s asking for the bar to be lowered until it’s on the floor before he’s willing to step over it. Not an overly impressive attitude, and not a trait that would be in any way fun to have in a husband.
Anyway, time went by. Dad started New St. Andrews college and pretty soon I was 19. Courtship was an actual word by then – even though neither Dad’s book nor Josh Harris’s book had been published yet. And I’ll be real – there were some serious courtship nerds floating around back then as I assume there still are today. Dad has always been big on the concept that you need to distinguish between principles and methods – and there were people even way back then who were getting all caught up on the method . . . frequently at the expense of the principle. Once, at a homeschool conference where my dad was speaking, a guy came up to me in the hall and asked me if he could court me. He even went so far as to spell out his future career plans and lay out his financial situation to show me that he could support a wife. The whole thing was just ridiculous – he and I both knew that what he wanted was a girlfriend for the weekend, but at this particular conference you had to wrap that up in proper “courtship” language. He couldn’t just say, “Hey do you want to hang out?” He had to say, “May I have the honor of courting you? I am totally capable of supporting a wife.” Anyway, that was the first and last conversation I ever had with him and I assume he found another girl willing to fill that role for the weekend. I would also put money on it that they are not married today – and I hardly set that down to a failure of the courtship method. When people throw up their hands and start wailing, “Why isn’t courtship working???!!!!” I would suggest that perhaps they’re being too easily fooled by people using specific “approved” courtship words or methods to mask what’s actually going on. Principled obedience is always blessed (sometimes not the way we expect!) but a method never saved anybody. Because Dad could see that people were getting hung up on the words and the method, he leaned against that, and taught us to lean against that, from the beginning.
So I was 19. I was also pretty convinced I would have to become a spinster missionary because no guy was ever going to show up. I remember announcing from the back seat one day that I was going to have to follow Jepthah’s daughter’s example and go bewail my virginity on the mountain tops because there were absolutely no guys that I would ever be interested in. I remember Dad saying, “There’s Ben Merkle.”
“Ha.” I said, “He isn’t reformed, he doesn’t go to our church, he doesn’t even live in Moscow anymore, and he has a girlfriend. I think. This just proves my point that Jepthah’s daughter is the career path I will have to follow.” But truth be told, I really thought Ben Merkle was pretty awesome. I had met him in my New St Andrews Greek class my freshman year, but my dad and brother had known him for a couple years because they all played lacrosse. He had a very cool motorcycle, he looked good in his leather jacket, he played lacrosse, he was a former Marine, and he was funny. Really funny. And he was taller than me. Nonetheless. He wasn’t reformed, he didn’t go to our church, he didn’t live in Moscow anymore, and he had a girlfriend. I thought. What a shame.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, he had become reformed, and the summer before my junior year at NSA he moved back to Moscow, came on staff with our church, and there wasn’t any girlfriend in the picture. We saw each other around a lot at church, at the college group, at parties. We always ended up talking together – and in September (I had just turned 20) he went and talked to my dad. Contrary to the normal routine, Dad didn’t tell me about it. He told Ben that they would meet together for a bit first. During their first meeting, Dad turned around and printed out Her Hand in Marriage which he had just finished writing and handed Ben the entire manuscript and told him to read it by next time and they would talk. They met together for about four weeks and I still didn’t know about it. Dad knew me well enough to know that Ben wasn’t in the same category for me as previous suitors or he wouldn’t have done it this way. At the end of October, Dad told Ben that he could go ahead and ask me out.
Both of them – Dad and Ben – wanted Ben to be the one to do the asking. No sense in making this into a junior-high style note-passing . . . “circle yes or no if you want to court me and have your dad hand the note back to me.” So one day after church, Ben asked me out. I said yes. (And not just because I couldn’t work up the guts to say no!)
Ben came and picked me up on his motorcycle that night – wearing his cool leather jacket. Yes, we went on a date. On a motorcycle. Just the two of us. Dad did not come along in a sidecar on the motorcycle, and he did not come and sit at the next table with a pair of binoculars. As I recall, he said something like, “Have her home by midnight.”
As people found out about us, we consciously said that we were “dating” because we were trying to lean against the courtship nerds who got scandalized about the word and who were hung up on a method rather than a principle. We dated for two months and Ben and Dad continued to meet together. We never had a chaperone on our dates, but we also had plenty of accountability. Dad oversaw the whole thing – but thankfully he was never one of those dads who felt that it was his God-given role to make things difficult. He was there to facilitate a godly relationship, not to get in the way of it.
And there were never any guarantees that this was fool proof. Dad was clear to Ben that he did not need to feel like having started a courtship, he was stuck for life. He let Ben know a number of times that if he was starting to have second thoughts, he was welcome to back out without any black clouds hanging over him. And I had the same freedom. It would have been tough if either of us backed out – but we knew that courtship wasn’t engagement, and it certainly wasn’t marriage.
Of course Dad talked to me about how it was going all the way through, but after two months we had a specific conversation about how I would feel about this moving on to marriage. We had gotten to know each other, and Dad wanted to know my thoughts. Since I was smitten, I was all for it. Dad was similarly impressed with Ben, and so when Ben was ready to ask Dad for permission to propose, Dad was ready to give it. We got engaged at the beginning of January and married at the end of May, right after my junior year.
Seventeen years and five children later, I’m still nothing but grateful for my dad’s wisdom, kindness, protection, and oversight. But let’s face it – going to talk to Doug Wilson about his daughter would be a wee bit intimidating. I’m ever so thankful that Ben wasn’t the kind of guy to be scared off by that. He proved right at the beginning that he’s the kind of guy that likes a challenge and who welcomes accountability – and that, girls, is the kind of man you want.