Chrysi and Earl Doner are the perfect '90s couple. No, they didn't bring any children into marriage. Nor do they come from broken homes. When their pastor, Tom Elliff, said, "You may kiss the bride," it marked the first time their lips touched.
A match made in heaven? Perhaps. If so, their parents served as God's agents — these newlyweds pursued a serious relationship only with their approval and guidance. A practice as old as Isaac appears to be making a comeback: courtship.
"It's not based on a lot of values the American dating culture is based on," says Earl, a mechanical engineer in Oklahoma City, Okla. "I fell in love with Chrysi's mom and dad before I even knew her. Who we are as people has a lot to do with the family God has placed us in."
"With courtship you don't put on the false front you tend to have during dating," says Chrysi. "You tend to see people the way they really are. Earl's kindness and respect was apparent as he related with my family."
These members of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City are just one example of a trend that, while hard to measure, is clearly evident. The topic has launched best-selling books, home-based businesses, and is a staple of curriculum used by thousands of homeschoolers.
But unlike current trends in dating, courtship wants to discard the games. In place of dating come submission to parents, accountability, seeking God's guidance, and reserving physical intimacy for marriage.
Advocates suggest plenty of group and family activities before deciding whether to pursue a serious relationship. Familiarity with each other's parents becomes as important as closeness with an intended mate.
A Christian professor who co-authored a book about courtship says group settings are crucial. Jeff Myers points to surveys showing whenever a couple spends sixty hours of time alone together they will become sexually involved.
"Dating today means going steady," says the professor of communications at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. "But the key issue here is integrity, not courtship. We don't expect a lot of integrity from young people in this area."
Myers and his wife, Danielle, stress three objectives in courtship:
• Accountability to parents and other trusted adults;
• Building each other's character instead of focusing on physical attraction; and
• Waiting to develop a serious relationship until one is ready to marry.
The popularity of that message can be seen by sales for Of Knights and Fair Maidens, an account of their courtship that led to matrimony three years ago. Relying on word of mouth advertising, in one year they sold 6,000 copies of their self-published book.
Jeff estimates they have spoken to 20,000 persons about courtship in recent years, usually to packed auditoriums. Listeners include everyone from junior-highers feeling pressure to go steady to twenty-somethings wounded by dating relationships gone sour.
"The rate of sexual involvement, even among Christians, is astoundingly high," Jeff says of college students. "Even if they're not married, they're mimicking marriage. When it falls apart, it's like divorce. What's worse is with each relationship they become a little more cynical, a little less trusting."
"We probably avoided a lot of things that other people run into," Danielle says of the constant flow of letters and other communication that marked their engagement. She recommends all couples discuss things like money, time, and in-laws before they get married, instead of watching them turn into serious disagreements afterward.
Parents of a boy born last December, the Myerses say they are still enjoying courtship's benefits.
For Jeff, it provides deep levels of trust and stronger bonds than between other young couples he knows. Because he knew his wife's character beforehand, today he trusts her judgment. Conversely, Danielle believes in his faithfulness and character when speaking engagements take him away from home.
Despite budding interest in courtship, proponents stress there is no perfect pattern.
Chrysi and Earl Doner didn't follow a prescribed set of guidelines. After encouragement from their parents and a blessing bestowed at a family gathering, the two families scheduled many joint activities. Their children could observe each other in the framework of daily life.
"We adore Earl," says Cynthia Boyd, his new mother-in-law. "The very first time he came to our home, he cleaned dishes and loaded the dishwasher. For the most part, we got to know him together as a family. That's a real positive thing."
Despite such glowing reports, a Southern Baptist pastor who prefers to remain anonymous cautions courtship can prove dangerous if it becomes a legalistic formula.
The issue has become extremely divisive in his church. Some have treated it like a biblical command and absolutely the only way to approach marriage, the pastor says.
Although he teaches teenagers to develop relationships in groups and seek parental permission for any important decision, he says God's Word doesn't define courtship as rigid doctrine.
"The model may be the best thing if the parents and children have a good relationship and the young people want to commit to this oversight. But if they don't, it can become extremely harmful. As parents, we need to let children grow in their responsibilities so they can learn while they're still under our training."
Supporters acknowledge it can be taken to extremes. Myers notes that some critics insist he and Danielle didn't "court" because they kissed the night of their engagement instead of waiting until marriage.
And, a woman in Southern Illinois hopes her family's courtship newsletter will help readers avoid turning a good practice into an ethical straitjacket.
"I saw the danger of people saying, 'If you do A-B-C-D-E, everything will be all right," says Martha Ruppert, editor of BASIC Digest, whose circulation has increased five-fold the past three years. "I could see there would be principles, but that God would guide people in the process."
Jamie O'Rourke of Nashville, Tenn., whose oldest daughter married three years ago after he supervised her courtship, agrees. Dating is not prohibited by the Bible, he comments, because it isn't even mentioned.
Unless a child agrees to courtship it will never work, he adds. He believes the right approach is parents sharing insights and guidance, not ruling their children's future with an iron hand.
"The average American has never heard of it," says O'Rourke. "But there's a lot of rethinking about dating relationships. I think that's a good thing. God wants to be Lord of every area of our lives."
As the parents of seven children between three and sixteen, Kathie and Alan Morrisey wanted something better for them than the often battle-scarred dating scene.
But when their oldest daughter committed to following courtship, they knew so little they sought information on how it worked.
After locating several items, they felt other parents needed a way to find materials without enduring similar, time-consuming searches. That idea led to The Courtship Connection, their home-based business in Toledo, Ohio.
Originally a small brochure, they now offer a twenty-page catalog of books, booklets, audio and video tapes, and related materials.
Parents tell them it makes a lot of sense, says Kathie. While most didn't like the idea of dating, they didn't know of any other options, she observes.
Many people resist the idea initially because of fear or because it is such a new concept, says the homeschool teacher.
"At first, our sixteen-year-old pictured it as old-fashioned and unromantic. Then she got excited about it and it freed her up. She's committed to save her heart for whoever God has for her. Now she goes to church to hear what God has to say, instead of worrying about having every hair in place."
To obtain a copy of the Morriseys' catalog, write to 3731 Cecilia, Toledo, OH 43608, or call 419-729-4594.
Here are some other resources:
• Of Knights and Fair Maidens by Jeff & Danielle Myers, send $9.95 to P.O. Box 7000, Dayton, TN 37321.
• Dating With Integrity by John Holzman, Word Publishing.
• Passion & Purity by Elisabeth Elliott, Fleming S. Revell Co.
• New Attitude Magazine, for teenage home school students, P.O. Box 2250, Gresham, OR 97080.
• BASIC Digest newsletter, $12 for 12 issues, P.O. Box 31, Coffeen, IL 62017, or e-mail to [email protected] Sample issue available for a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
• Advanced Training Institute of America, Box One, Oak Brook, IL 60522, 630-323-9800.
• Bold Parenting seminars, contact Jonathan Lindvall, P.O. Box 820, Springville, CA 93265, 209-539-0500.
• Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995, carried an article on courtship in November '95 magazine.