Courting Disaster: Why Mennonites Are Afraid To Date

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Secular society, in many quarters, has moved in a direction of sexual promiscuity and too often young women bear the brunt of consequences.  Single mothers are much more likely to live in poverty regardless of race.  Children without two parent homes often suffer from neglect that leads to behavioral problems and this creates a problem for society.  Men too, for their own part, have to deal with the unwieldy burden of child support and it is far far from ideal.

However, on the other side, in the opposite ditch, is the religious ‘purity culture’ dominated by patriarchal men (or controlling parents) and fear based reasoning.  As secular culture has abandoned traditional mores there have been those on the other end who are adding precaution and increasing the burden of requirements.  Young people, young women in particular, are manipulated by those in positions of authority over them and driven to unreasonable expectation.  The result is a growing rank of unmarried singles and deep disappointment.

Clearly there is a balance between both cultural extremes.  Unfortunately the consequences of the overbearing purity culture are often not as obvious as a crying baby and an exhausted single mother.  The pain of the girl never asked on a date or suffering of the young man rejected time and time again is very real. Yet, complaining about the current state of affairs could be perceived as weakness and drawing attention adds an additional penalty of shame—failure is often carefully concealed out of embarrassment. 

Too Guarded, Too Superficial…

The logic of ‘guarding heart’ is great when applied to an already established dating relationship and holding back on sexual intimacy until the commitment of marriage.  But when it is a reason not to even attempt a first date it is no longer helpful.  It is a Hollywood myth that relationship should be built off of some kind of magical initial feeling. That is a shallow ‘eros’ love at best. Feelings can come and go. 

Love, real love, cannot develop without relationship.  Love is a product of commitment to love. Commitment to love requires relationship and starting a new relationship requires a seed of faith.  Faith is a commitment to act in love even before the feelings exist. Faith provides a better foundation for a successful long-term relationship to develop than the shallow feelings based alternative.

The purity culture, as I have experienced it, is motivated primarily by fear rather than faith.  Young people are encouraged to be absolutely sure before even a first date. Communication between genders (outside of dating) is discouraged as potentially harmful. And the result is an impossible quagmire for many. Only the most superficially attractive or socially adept have a chance.  Be a shy guy or a too average girl and you don’t have a snowman’s chance in the Florida heat.

I know young women who say (evidently with complete sincerity) that they will only date a guy they are sure they would marry and seemingly turn down every guy who doesn’t ride in on a white horse  It is an absolutely absurd expectation and yet not uncommon in the religious culture of my birth.  Many never take a half step of faith to ask for or accept a date.  Many who do start dating feel pressured into marriage because they have this false idea that turns a dating relationship into engagement.

Of course the insanity is promoted by cherry picked success story anecdotes (sanitized of impurities to make them more compelling) and thus the fairytale myths perpetuated to a new generation.  Ignored is the wreckage, the many many stories of those who did everything right according to the purity culture, and now lay bloodied in the ditch as the successful cross to avoid contact.  I believe if both sides were told there would be an impetus to encourage a more balanced faithful approach to courtship.

Finding Our Balance Between Extremes

The religious of today have seemed to have picked the worse parts of two systems.  They copy secular society and the idea that feelings of immediate or superficial attraction are a basis for relationship.  But then they take on the most onerous requirements, practically betrothal, before even being willing to talk with a young woman and take seriously a suitor.  It is not a faith based system.

We do not find the purity culture standard in the Bible.  In Scripture we don’t see promotion of the silly notion of secular ‘love at first sight’ or the preeminence of feelings of initial superficial attraction as a basis for relationship.  We don’t see a ‘one size fits all’ template.  We do not see ‘perfection’ either. Instead there is diversity of experience in the examples and faith (not fear) as the driving force.

Fear has caused the religious to overreact and only faith can correct the course.  We in the community of faith need to stop comparing ourselves to our to secular neighbors and deal squarely with the shortcomings of our own side.  If we want leaders we must quit treating young men in the church (in good standing) as not worth a first date and basically untrustworthy.

No harm comes from a date.  In fact, my grandparents dated many different people and have been married faithfully for nearly sixty years.  Had my grandma governed herself by the current paradigm there may have never been the opportunity for her relationship with grandpa to even get started—I would not even exist today. 

We need to recognize that our current standard is often based in fear and overreaction rather than faith.  We do not need to fall in the same ditch as secular society to be as off base and faithless.  Love can triumph if we commit to loving faithfulness in relationships rather than live in fear of failure.

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20 thoughts on “Courting Disaster: Why Mennonites Are Afraid To Date

  1. Thank you for courageously sharing. Realism is evidently a strength that you have. It is good for everyone to hear, whether their response is positive or negative.

    I have marveled at what some fathers put their daughter’s boyfriends through even before the first date. No wonder the courtship is basically only a rubber stamp on what is obviously going to happen. If it doesn’t work out, the young man would face the daunting prospect of yet another interrogation. The whole process has become very fear-based, in my opinion.

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  2. I have experienced first hand the ugly side of this culture and I also know it doesn’t need to be this way. It seems like the ‘purity culture’ advocates have a stranglehold on the conversation. The tune they sing is very convincing to young idealistic mush filled minds. Unfortunately it is often a message that is antithetical to the kind of faith truly promoted in Scripture. I’m not sure how this is overcome. It might be too late for me and many in my own generation of Mennonites. But I’m doing my part to put a dent in it and that’s all I can do.

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  3. s

    Thank-you for pointing out some of the flaws in this broken system. Having the permission to use more than one kind of cookie cutter would seem to be a step in the right direction, and perhaps even the option of going with a different kind of cookie or to continue the analogy, choosing pie, cake or ice cream instead. Is one more right than the other? Mennonites seem to give a lot more leeway for branching out from our previously agrarian lifestyles into various other vocations but in this matter not so much. If A=single and B=married can there be more than one right way to get from point A to point B? Connecting the two dots, sounds so simple but all the complications of finding the other dot….

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    • You seem to get it. My goal is not to replace one false ideal with another. But I do hope that I can free some and spur them towards a more full and fulfilling life. Our fears and preconceived ideas can limit us in our romantic pursuits.

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  4. s

    I’ll try to tread lightly here, but if I may make a comparison. So how would it be if childless couples were told, “Be content where God has you, He must have something better for you”, “Be the right person and the right child will come along”. “You don’t need a child, Jesus is enough”. “Childlessness is a gift.” Sounds rather harsh doesn’t it, but these are the kinds of things singles are told in the singleness context. And woe to the single who publicly express a desire for marriage, they’re perceived as hard up and desperate. So what can be done to change common misconceptions and walk in faith instead of fear?

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    • Yes, I am way too familiar with the clichés people spout. I know it is intended as helpful, but often the advice is contradictory and only adds to the confusion. The worse advice is those who perpetuate the idea that your being single is a punishment for not trusting God enough and that letting go is the solution. Certainly in some cases desperation to find a spouse has made a person less attractive (a sad irony) and yet I can’t really blame God for that…

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  5. anonymous

    I don’t think everything can be blamed on the purity culture. I think it does tend to produce the don’t court anyone unless you are sure you are going to marry him or her. You seem shocked that women there are women who hold to this position, but if you try asking some out I really don’t think it really is all that surprising.

    There does seem to be an expectation of perfection. I am guessing it has a bit more to do with the Disnification of our culture: every woman is a princess, and is waiting for her prince charming. The idea is nothing new though. It is a vein on thinking that goes back to at least Plato’s Symposium around 370BC.

    Today we have taken our culture and Christianized it, and given it God’s stamp of approval. I was asked by a minister on a couple of occasions whether I wanted to marry the person God had chosen for me or whether I was willing to marry anyone who came along. I responded that this was a false dichotomy and gave him scripture references that indicate we are free to choose whether we marry, and whom we marry. Some such passages are Mat 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7:8-9, 25-28, 32-35, 39-40; 1 Cor 9:5. His response was that since whom we marry is the second most important decision we make in our lives then God sure has a will in the matter. Given that his response to God’s Word was man’s flawed reasoning I didn’t change my mind on the matter.

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    • I agree, blame is not on purity culture alone and perfectionism is nothing new. Society in general has moved in a direction of impracticality. Marriage and adult responsible often postponed indefinitely.

      I also share your view that love is a choice and not a fate. I know some may prefer the security that their fatalistic view of romance provides them and I believe God does know the future, but I also believe we are given the ability to choose.

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  6. Joel, I’m wondering about your background, because you and I seem to share connections to Mennonitism and Bill Gothard. 🙂 And names. 🙂

    Anyway, excellent post! Have you read the book Courtship in Crisis by Thomas Umstaddt? He talks about some of the same things you mentioned in this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have not read that. And thanks!

      My church actually had a Gothard seminar for winter Bible school last year. I was incensed and even more so when nobody claimed responsibility. I’ve been assured the same mistake won’t happen again. But am unconvinced that they understand fully why his teaching is so destructive and wrong.

      I think the name Joel is significant. Acts 2 quotes the prophet, the promise he foretold and was fulfilled in Jesus has been abandoned today. Many don’t have the Spirit to teach them because they have placed Scripture, tradition or institution above the living Word. We really need a simple back to Jesus focus.

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  7. Jessica

    The purity culture ditch is a new concept for me, but I can see where you are coming from. Yet young women are often caught: they are told to not lower their standards for a man, that a guy worth being pursued by will respect where she’s at. While I do hold this to be mostly true, I can see how this may create unrealistic expectations and hinder the role of faith in stepping out in a relationship.

    “Guarding heart” is a big deal for women. Emotional attachments can be formed ridiculously fast, whether in or out of a dating relationship. They can also lead to a lot of secret heartache. I seek to tread softly here, but I don’t think guys quite understand the power of these attachments. (And to be fair, we girls cannot fully understand the struggles guys deal with.) When I guard my heart, it means, in part, that I am discerning in my interaction with guys to avoid forming improper bonds that will cause eventual pain and regret. When done wisely, this is a beautiful thing and promotes fuller intimacy in a future relationship. But taken to the extreme, like you point out, it may also lead to some fear and hyper-sensitivity rather than graciously stepping out in faith when the opportunity arises. I wish there were easy ways to “fix” the imbalances within Mennonite culture. I’m still processing all of this, but thanks for stimulating my thoughts on this issue.

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    • I think I can understand ’emotional attachment’ and have enough of my own heartache in that area. However, in my case, it really would not make much difference how much I actually interacted with a girl and for me the wall of being shut out completely is much more painful. So many times the “if only” feeling and a wish to be treated like a brother rather than a threat. There’s no reason why a young man and young lady cannot talk without an expectation of a romantic relationship. I think there would be less pain and regret if we treated each other as family learning to relate normally.

      I don’t think our friendships in the church take away from our future spouse. Otherwise is it unhealthy for young women to relate closely to other young women or siblings to be affectionate to each other? I mean, there’s some intimacy there and there can probably be too much. But some interaction might actually help us appreciate our eventual spouse all the more because we have some basis of comparison.

      I’m convinced small adjustments in practice or attitude could make a big difference. Anyhow, always glad to stimulate thought and hopefully also some discussion. Thanks for your comment!

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      • Jessica

        “There’s no reason why a young man and young lady cannot talk without an expectation of a romantic relationship. I think there would be less pain and regret if we treated each other as family learning to relate normally.” Well said, and I agree. I apologize, because I think I came across a little strait-laced and insensitive. If we would have more of that natural interaction, I think some of the problems would be resolved. For one, the occasional guy/girl conversation would not be automatically romanticized (if that’s the right word) and the “oh-no-I-need-to-put-up-my-guard” panic would subside. And like you alluded to, such healthy interaction would only broaden one’s view.

        Regarding being shut out, I would venture to say that for many young women it is a reflection of her own insecurity. (I’m not condoning this, but it’s a sad reality for some.) She simply does not know how to respond to a nice guy, and so she runs. And this only heightens her insecurity. It bothers me to think of young women giving young men the impression that they are a threat, but I can sadly see how that impression is given. I know I’m guilty, and it makes me cringe to consider how my false views of self and relationships have hurt others. I’m sure for many young women, too, they give the impression of shutting out through their methods of “guarding their heart.” So while they may actually be protecting their own heart, they are wounding another. And that’s not right. (This ditch is a lot deeper than I originally thought.) There is more that could be said, but I better leave it at that for now. Thanks for your response.

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      • I know Jesus, quoting (Deuteronomy 15:11) said that there will always be the poor among us and it could be disappointment is an inexorable part of human romance. So maybe we should just teach faith in Jesus rather than ‘guard hearts’ or avoidable of pain.

        Good relationships take faith. A good church life requires vulnerability and sharing so others can help us carry our burdens. I suspect a healthier church family, one where all members have both sisters and brothers, would solve some of the desperate longing for relationship and might actually help encourage that next level relationship. But it will take the faith to simply live the church life described in Scripture and we have a long way to go.

        Whatever the case we should not give up or be discouraged. God has given us the grace and strength we need for the time we live in if we are willing to step out in faith and use it. I believe a good first step is recognizing our anxieties/fears and confessing them.

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    • Juan Sandoval

      Jessica, your perspective is invaluable and I agree with you that “guarding your heart” is discernment.
      Men can sit around and discuss theology for hours. But until they man up and be the men of kindness, integrity, and mercy that God intended them to be, the communities in which they live will suffer. I’ve seen too many mediocre men in my lifetime to blame the girls for being single. Joel, I don’t necessarily agree with the strong idea that purity culture causes this–but traditions can get in the way of God’s way.
      We need to acknowledge our weakness before God, but we don’t have to fear. Let’s be like Jesus!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Nate

    A lot of good stuff here! I unfortunately missed the initial discussion. Check out all three parts of this podcast with the previously mentioned Thomas Umstaddt-i think anyone interested in this issue will enjoy it:http://www.covenanteyes.com/2015/09/02/is-courtship-in-crisis-1/

    I agree with that guy and everything Joel wrote. I left the Mennonites and moved California, so I’ve kind of escaped that dating culture.

    The one thing I have to add I’d that much of what was discussed above is helped by healthy relationships. That dating culture oversexualizes all relationships between single young men and women. It’s awkward and unhealthy. Unmarried people who long to get married but haven’t yet, people (like myself, for years) who have such distorted views of relationships they are to afraid to actually be in a relationship, people who are awkward around the opposite gender, etc to name just a few… all of these things are improved by healthy relationships and healthy community with other men and women. But that’s the opposite of what you have when you can’t even have a normal human conversation without someone jumping to thoughts of marriage, either to their delight or horror.

    It’s ridiculously hard to change a culture, especially when that broken culture is backed by pseudo-religious fear based ideology. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nate, part of the problem is that conservative Mennodom, as it exists today, is a hodgepodge of different and sometimes contradictory theological perspectives. There has been something lost in this Frankenstein creature that makes even our Old Order brethren seem appealing by comparison, who (despite their lack of sophistication) seem able to get the job done and consistently. I am pretty much at the point of saying that the conservative Mennonite culture was nice while it lasted, but probably doesn’t give much to build on and would be better simply replaced by something with a more robust theological basis and better practical results. Although I do think it is worth my time to outline my reasons for leaving if I do.

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