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Courtship, or Betrothal?

Have you ever wondered why Joseph was going to have to divorce Mary if they weren't married yet? Sounds like a rash way to break up, to me! But the Bible records nothing abnormal about Joseph's approach to his relationship with Mary. This strange account raises several questions about Biblical romance.

  • Ingrid Dahl,
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"Divorce her quietly. . . ." (Mt. 1:19)

Have you ever wondered why Joseph was going to have to divorce Mary if they weren't married yet? Sounds like a rash way to break up, to me! But the Bible records nothing abnormal about Joseph's approach to his relationship with Mary. This strange account raises several questions about Biblical romance.

Just what is the Biblical standard for relationships? Christians across many denominations are becoming increasingly discontent with the current cultural norm known as dating. They are turning in large numbers to the Bible for a new approach to relationships. The "dating game" has pretty much seen its day in many areas of modern Christian culture. Young people are now encouraged to give up the "world's idea of dating" and replace it with "Biblical" courtship.

Defining Courtship
When I was first introduced to the idea of courtship, I saw it presented as revolutionary, the latest and greatest insight into Christian romance. As the idea gained popularity, many began to mix their personal convictions with formal definitions. I didn't realize how subjective the opinions on courtship had become until I heard my pastor's wife remark that every Christian girl she talked with defined courtship differently. It soon became evident that there wasn't an objective Biblical standard for what makes a relationship godly and what doesn't.

Definitions include everything from the actual process of courting to a pre-courtship code of conduct. A subtly pietistic definition of courtship emphasizes it as a means to remain pure throughout the single years. This view often elevates singleness to a higher form of godliness and presents marriage as a secondary condition of life. Young people are encouraged to "die to" the desire to be married and dedicate their lives to single service. A "courtship covenant" was even developed to facilitate this: "Dedicating the years of my youth to God rather than being preoccupied with the opposite sex."1 Although it does seek to purge Christian youth of the "teenage dating syndrome," taken to an extreme such teaching creates a sort of monastic approach to relationships. Another, less extreme, view presents courtship as a form of parentally controlled dating. One young lady defined it as "bypassing the dangers found in dating because of parental involvement." Still another approach sees courtship as the actual process of getting to know a person as a possible candidate for marriage: "Courting is a season in which a couple 'officially' and deliberately seeks confirmation concerning God's will for marriage by deepening the emotional and spiritual aspects of their friendship."2 Still others see courtship as postponed dating, stressing "marriageable age," and avoiding relationships until marriage is actually an option. One of the first proponents of "Biblical" courtship defined it as, "A romantic relationship between a young man and a young woman in which both are of marriageable age, have the full blessing of their parents and are seriously contemplating marriage."3

Although these definitions successfully elevated courtship above the immature, self-focused idea of dating, they still have one thing in common with it: the decision to proceed on to marriage is left up to how the parties emotionally respond to the courtship. Marriage is a consideration, not a consecutive step in the process of the relationship. Courtship, like dating, is at the core a trial relationship, a chance for a couple to emotionally experiment with the idea of marriage.

Such a Distinction Is Not a Distinction
In 1986 Jonathan Lindvall, who has since changed his position on the issue, stated, "The distinction between dating and courting lies in the intent of the relationship. . . . [T]he purpose of the relationship is to consider marriage."4 But can this approach really be called the Biblical alternative to dating? Is it not essentially the same idea? Courtship is designed to consider marriage. It still retains the option to sever the relationship for any subjective reason. Opponents of dating most often attack the shopping mentality: Take it out. Try it on for size. Take it back if it doesn't fit. Dating encourages a couple to "try the relationship on for size." And if it doesn't work, break it up. Courtship may raise the age, throw in some morality, and check with the parents, but it is in essence the same idea: "try the relationship on for size" before committing to marriage.

Courtship claims to be the Biblical alternative to dating, but it clings to the notion that the couple's feelings should dictate the extent of the relationship. But the Bible rarely assigns such weight to fickle human emotion. Rather than Scripture, the origin of emotionalism was the "eighteenth century philosophical movement we now call Romanticism. Among other things, this movement emphasized passion rather than logic. Writers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau lamented that Western civilization had fallen into the 'error' of exalting reason over feelings. He proposed making decisions based on emotion rather than intellect."5 A resulting idea was that emotional love became a prerequisite rather than a by-product of marriage. Marry the one you love, rather than the Biblical mandate: love the one you marry6 (Eph. 5:25; Tit. 2:4). The influence of these ideas is evident in both dating and Christian courtship.

What, Then, Is the Biblical Distinction?
We must again look at the question I raised about Mary and Joseph. At the time of Christ's birth, Mary was betrothed (or pledged) to Joseph. Many liken this period to our modern engagement. But because of Joseph's decision to "divorce her quietly" (Mt. 1:19), it was obviously more serious than the type of engagement we practice today. A legal (only by conditions stipulated in the law) divorce was required to break their agreement. Mary, found with child, would not have been simply guilty of promiscuity, but the greater crime of adultery. The law prescribes penalties for immorality based on marital status (Dt. 22:22-29). Mary would have been judged by the law that made the immorality with a betrothed girl worthy of capital punishment (Dt. 22:23-24). This law held trespasses against a betrothal to the same standard as those against marriage. It recognized that a betrothed couple would have already entered into a covenant before God, thus making them bound to each other. In contrast, an unbetrothed girl found guilty of immorality was not put to death, only required to marry (Ex. 22:16-17). This appears to be a double standard, unless it is noted that the former would be a violation of an existing, as opposed to a pending, covenant. It would literally be adultery. Joseph knew that even though they had not yet come together, he and Mary were covenantally bound. His decision to divorce quietly was a choice to save her life.

The Biblical distinction is this: relationships with the intended end of marriage are begun with a legal covenant and are therefore binding. The notion of a romantic trial period never appears in Scripture. The Bible recognized three marital states: married, unmarried, and betrothed. Though not yet married, betrothed couples are bound by a legal covenant. The term covenant can be defined as a binding agreement by blood, a life-or-death commitment. Establishing the marriage covenant at the point of betrothal fits with the English etymology of the word vow (what the couple takes at the marriage ceremony). It means "affirming one's beliefs."7 Marriage vows are essentially affirming one's belief in an existing covenant, bringing it to its consummation.

God's law never made allowance for experimental romance. Extreme forms of such behavior God placed under a strong sanction to marry (Ex. 22:16-17). And he completely outlaws them with sanctions against lying, theft, and fraud. If a courtship or engagement is broken off, at least one, if not both, of the parties is defrauded. One or both are led to expect certain benefits, limit their opportunities based on this expectation, and then are forced out of the deal. There was said to be a lawsuit in one of the Southern states where a jilted fiancee won a "breach of promise" suit based on unrevoked laws that still made engagements binding.8 Another prominent pastor walked three of his daughters through successful courtships, but before the wedding of the third the young man backed out of the marriage. Of course, according to the legal definition, the third daughter was defrauded. She was led to expect marriage from a young man who was not bound to deliver it. She was deceived, lied to. The Bible speaks favorably of one who "swears to his own hurt, and does not change," and prescribes sanctions against an unreliable word (Ex. 20:15,16; Lev. 6:2; 19:13; Eph. 5:6).

So, How Does This Work?
The trademark of a Biblical relationship is the place of the covenant. The covenant must be established before a one-on-one relationship (the path toward marriage) is cultivated. As demonstrated by the case of Rebecca ("Will you go?" [Gen. 24:58]), all the deciding parties must agree that the relationship is God's will. The couple then enters into a covenant that will reach its consummation in marriage. The relationship from the point of betrothal is progressive: Betrothe, then "take," as the Bible puts it (Dt. 20:7), not betrothe, then "decide." Romantic inclinations are saved until God confirms that he has revealed the life-long spouse. It is interesting to note that Isaac first took Rebecca as his wife, and then loved her (Gen. 24:67). Biblical love is a commitment to obey God's will, instead of mere emotion.

This is not the dreaded "arranged marriage," with visions of meeting your single-toothed, beer-bellied intended an hour before the wedding. Rather, it is a two-tiered marriage institution: a way to rest secure in your relationship as you cultivate your emotions and prepare for your God-given calling. Scripture doesn't specify all the purposes behind betrothal — only that it is a time of preparation prior to the physical union, during which the commitment to move on to marriage is irrevocable.

The Bible offers clear and strict standards for relationships. If we're going to call it Biblical, we had better make sure that it is. If we're going to pick on dating, we can't do it with courtship. If we're going to raise the standard, we must get it all the way up there.


1. Paul Gladder, The Courtship Covenant, 1996.

2. As cited in a publication from Fairfax Covenant Church, Fairfax, VA, 1998.

3. Jonathan Lindvall, "Bold Christian Living, Dating? Courtship? Betrothal?" Scriptural Romance 2, 1996.

4. As cited in The Teaching Home, December, 1986, Jonathan Lindvall, Dating vs. Courtship, 1996.

5. Jonathan Lindvall, Youthful Romance: Scriptural Pattern, 1997.

6. Jonathan Lindvall, "The Dangers of Dating," Scriptural Romance 2, 1997.

7. Institute In Basic Life Principles, Understanding the Biblical Foundations of Marriage, 1988, 7, 10.

8. Jonathan Lindvall, "Dating? Courtship? Betrothal?"