Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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I’m sure you are familiar with them, you know, that family who has a life that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, always so idyllic and cute. In fact, they are so adorable they are annoying. This sort of charmed life comes a sort of “holier than thou” smugness. Sure, they are too perfect to say it outright, they always religiously maintain that facade of sweetness, but they often have the easy answers that often betray their true cluelessness.

I can recall, for example, a lovely twenty-something, themselves engaged, who with complete sincerity suggested that my romantic struggles may be God’s will for me to remain single. They themselves successful because of their endearing charm and connections (which to them meant divine favor) whereas my own inability to navigate was to be taken equally as a sign. Apparently they worship the God of circumstances, one that absolved them of any responsibility to help those less fortunate—other than to offer some words of encouragement and advice.

Anyhow, thank God that doctors do not subscribe to a similar thought process: “We know you are lots of pain, broken legs are not easy for sure, but have you ever considered that it might not be God’s will for you to walk? Here’s an ice cube, I suck on one of these when I’m feeling down and out…” That sort of response would probably fall under the category of medical malpractice. Likewise, the advice of those who heap a burden on the shoulders of others and yet are unwilling to lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4) are guilty of spiritual malpractice:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

The passage above, from James, contrasts the mere words of the pretentious and the gritty hands-on sacrificial love that true faith requires. Talk is cheap, my darlings. And what my advice giver really meant to say is that they were unwilling to pull out all the stops on my behalf, they themselves were comfortable with my circumstances as they had persisted for years and thus they were unwilling to confront the prejudices or cultural assumptions that had made an impossible hurdle for me. But, rather than take personal responsibility for their own indifference towards my plight, they turned it into God’s will.

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

When the news of the separation of Joshua Harris from his wife of over twenty years reached me this week it was hard not to connect it back to the courtship ideal he expressed many years ago. Harris, a “purity culture” advocate, rose to prominence in fundamentalist churches for his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in 1997. In this book unmarried Harris promoted a model of courtship that was supposed to lead to happily ever after and instead left many of us outside looking in—unable to overcome this stumbling block put in our path.

The Harris model of courtship required a level of commitment that, for the less beautiful and bold, made it virtually impossible for many of us to get started. This absurdly increased threshold of commitment meant that unmarried women, even in their mid or late twenties, refuse to go so much as a coffee date with an eligible bachelor for fear that it could lead to ‘defilement’ or marriage. The horrors of being sucked into a commitment after finding out that slightly awkward guy is a lovable child of God! I mean, isn’t that what King Solomon had in mind by “guard your heart”?

(I have about 1000 reasons to doubt that interpretation.)

Pushers of purity culture didn’t necessarily intend their model as a panacea. I’m guessing Harris and others would deny that there were guarantees of success that accompanied following their prescribed methods. I’m also pretty sure they did not anticipate the unintended consequences and damage caused by their teachings either. Nevertheless, they did “tie up the heavy, cumbersome loads” of fear and many have failed to find meaningful relationship with their religious counterparts as a result. It undoubtedly contributed to my own woes.

Sure, some, including Mr Harris, were able to get through this courtship minefield. However, that doesn’t mean it produced that perfect marriage as was promised by their courtship prescription. However, formulas aren’t going to produce happiness through the years and struggle of a marriage. If anything they built up impossible expectations for married life in the same way that they did for dating relationships and leads to future disappointment. At very least, while unwarranted confidence is attractive, nobody wants to be married to someone with all the answers.

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

For all of us who weren’t born into a Precious Moments world, who had to beg and plead, compete against the odds, claw for inches at a time, to earn our small measure of success, we can’t simply rely on circumstances. Our Pollyannaish notions of destiny and love have always went up against the headwinds of fear and brick-wall after brick-wall of rejection. We weren’t born tall, extraordinarily handsome or especially wise. If we were wait for our dreams to arrive on a silver platter we would never get anywhere.

If we were fatalists and shared the mechanical view of God’s will of those who depend on circumstances rather than faith, the faith of those who “ask, knock and seek” (Matt. 7:7-12) that Jesus described, then we could also blame circumstances for our not getting out of bed anymore. I can assure you of this, there were days where I had fight to continue, where it was only the love of another person that kept me going, and that’s what real faith is. Real faith is having the guts to face down the impossible.

The cutesy patootsy life doesn’t actually require any faith, sacrifice or grace. Everything depends on their good feelings and God’s will mysteriously never goes against their own expectations. And it works until they face that first real test. When those delusions of “meant to be” are replaced with the reality of failure. I pity those who get the rug yanked out from under their idealism at a later age. That is why I pray that Mr Harris and his family find God’s grace is sufficient even when things do not go as planned.

We need fewer books giving advice. We definitely need less advice from single men, with their graceless formulas (*ahem* Bill Gothard, are you listening?), and more faith of real action. Being a best-selling author at twenty-one might be a thrill and even good for your chances of getting married. My question is what did these idealistic men do to help others across that impossibly high threshold they created? In the end what matters is what we do to help others carry their burden.

It’s time to kiss the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” goodbye. A courtship ideal cannot prevent divorce and it seems to more often prevent marriage. It is faith of action, not a courtship ideal, that makes a successful loving relationship possible. A faith that is willing to sacrifice, truly sacrifice, for the good of another person. A faith that makes the impossible possible rather than blame God’s plan for our own unwillingness to intervene on behalf of others.

Commitment Issues: Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

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There was a Baptism service at my church this past weekend and not the usual indoctrinated from birth teenager either.  This was a married couple in their thirties come in from outside the Mennonite religious tradition.

We had Communion that night and the devotional was about how Jesus asked “take this cup from me” when considering the suffering he would soon endure.  The cup we drink at Communion is a voluntary commitment to “take up the cross” and suffer with Jesus.

Baptism is a serious commitment.  Jesus urged to “count the cost” before making a commitment to follow after him and his converts were adults.  This seems in stark contrast to the evangelical emotional appeals for a decision and child conversion of the current conservative Mennonite culture.

Mennonites, or rather our Anabaptist ancestors, suffered persecution because they (among other things) rejected infant Baptism in defiance of the established religious order of their day and tied the ritual back to profession of faith.  This is called “Believer’s Baptism” and a commitment made with keen awareness that it could come at a tremendous cost.

Baptism Age: Then Compared To Now…

We, as Mennonites, especially conservative Mennonites, take pride in our Anabaptist identity, we like to use it as something that makes us unique, special or separated and, put plainly, better than other Christian denominations.

But are we?

Are we much like early Anabaptists and Mennonites who came before us?

In my own church experience, as noted, the ‘conversion’ to Christianity often comes at a very young age and most are Baptized as teenagers.  This is probably a reflection of a departure from our Anabaptist roots and embrace of more recent Evangelical innovations.  We, unlike our predecessors, have pulpits to pound on, Sunday school hours aimed at children and Revival meetings with strong emotional appeals.

So, what about our Anabaptist heritage, how does *their* normal for conversion compare to our own?

When did *they* get Baptized?

According to a GAMEO article on age of Baptism this is the answer:

“The estimated average age of baptism for 10 representative Anabaptist men and women, 1525-1536, was 36.4, with none under the age of 20, two between the ages of 20 and 29, four between 30 and 39, and four between 40 and 49.”

Early Anabaptist converts were often adults who could likely more fully understand the commitment that they made and knew it could be a death sentence.  Mennonite converts today, by contrast, are often children, products of a careful indoctrination from a young age, taught to please parents and through ‘conversion’ gain access to the perks of cultural acceptance rather than lose it.

Which leaves a question of whether or not our child converts actually able to count the cost of being a disciple of Jesus or are they simply doing what is culturally expedient and trying to keep up with their religious peers?

Sure, we could say that our children (because of our great teaching and example) are more ready for a serious commitment than say, for example, a 16th century German peasant facing death, a safe assumption, right?

However, then we get to the topic of marriage commitment…

Marriage Age: Then Compared To Now…

As far as I can tell our Amish and Old Order cousins are doing just fine in regards to courtship and marriage—It seems to be business as usual for them.  However, in the conservative Mennonite subset I am a part of there also seems to have been a shift away from marriage commitment.

When compared to prior generations we are waiting longer and longer to tie the knot.  My great grandma, not uncommon in her day, married as a teenager, and my grandparents married just into their twenties like my parents did.  But in my own church today there’s nearly two pews of those twenty-five or older who never married and hardly even dated.

The subset of Mennonite I belong to came under the influence of fundamentalist voices, men like Bill Gothard (who remains single) and others, that taught a courtship model.  They have embraced an idea that basically turns a first date into an engagement.  Friendship, let alone development of a romance, has become nearly impossible and it is because there’s this fear instilled in both genders to prevent even healthy interaction.

These fundamentalist Mennonites have also come under the influence of worldly entertainment.  Despite our traditional dress and slightly more cloistered communities, we are exposed (through internet and other media) to secular millennial generation values.  Mennonite fundamentalists, like their worldly counterparts, are postponing a marriage commitment longer and more never do tie the knot.

Could it be possible that we value freedom from responsibility over commitment and our temporal pleasures (like freedom to travel or other self-satisfactory personal projects both religiously or otherwise justified) over the risk of a long-term relationship?

But, more importantly, what does this reluctance to show romantic love say about our faith?  Can we claim to be committed to God when we can’t even make a serious commitment to loving each other?

Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

I believe our practices betray our inconsistency of thought and departure from the identity we claim as our own.  It is cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, etc.  We urge our children to commitment before they are able to count the cost as an adult, but then continue to mistrust that decision after they do so as if we do secretly know better. 

First we often urge them to wait to be Baptized.  We save that public confirmation for teenagers who went through a young believers class, which is nothing like the Baptism immediately upon profession of faith as was the case in the early church. 

But then, even after that, we continue to mistrust the commitment when it comes to courtship practice.  Mennonite suitors are not treated as an actual brother in Christ when it comes time to ask.  No, instead they are treated as if a hostile invader who must prove himself worthy by running a gauntlet and can be instantly disqualified if he dare be too honest about his own imperfection.

We might ridicule Catholics and Lutherans for doing the opposite of us (for Baptizing their infants and then confirming them as believers later on) but should probably be careful not to throw stones from our glass houses.  We should instead consider the beam in our own eye and ask why we are urging commitments that we don’t fully recognize or completely respect later on.

We tell tales of Constantine marching his troops through a river and calling them Baptized.  Yet could it be that we are really only manufacturing pre-programmed religious robots?  Sure, we produce children who recite back memory verses, spout out our dogmas on cue, and give all the right sounding answers with a smile on their face, but are as evil as the world at heart?

Adult Commitment Rather Than Premature Birth and Underdeveloped Faith

In Christian commitment (as in marriage) we should probably be encouraging our adults to commitment and telling our children to wait until ready.  If a person is too young to commit to marriage then they are also likely too young to comprehend the true cost of discipleship and make a commitment to God.

As one who was physically born early (my mother’s labor induced rather than natural) there is clear danger in going ahead of schedule like this.  I spent weeks in the hospital, in plastic box seperated from my mom because of a collapsed lung, and seemed to have developmental issues since as a result.

Likewise, encouraging premature spiritual birth could be to our detriment and leading our converts to struggles down the road.  Perhaps we have become like Abraham who tried to create a fulfilment of God’s plan through his own efforts?  Ultimately our children are not saved by our good parenting, frequent altar calls or courtship standards.

We need to return to a radical faith that emphasizes the cost of discipleship and encourages adult decision rather than urge premature commitments.  Perhaps the our young adults would be less fearful of lessor commitments and more ready to sacrifice all for love than cling forever to their childish fears?

Whatever the case, there is something very special about an adult Baptism and a decision made by one more fully aware of the cost of commitment.  May God bless Dan and Dina for their testimony of faith and their public commitment yesterday.

Marriage as Martyrdom: The Truly Christian View of Love and Romance

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Do you want to know a secret?

You are never ready for marriage nor are you ever worthy of anyone’s faithful abiding love—and nobody is.

We are all fatally flawed, even those of us who are more capable of hiding it beneath a facade, and eventually our own immanent human weakness will be made known.

Some, for fear of being exposed as the frauds, never open themselves up fully to the love of others. They prefer the safety of the illusion that they are able to create (in the solitary confines of their own minds) to the risk of honesty about their own hopelessness. This is a worldly approach to love, it is all about proven performance, all about carefully maintained outward appearances and it lacks true faith.

Others make themselves vulnerable. They confess their faults openly and let their flaws be known. They would rather deal with the pain of rejection than deal dishonesty with themselves or others. These people have hope of finding real love because they have humbled themselves, they have taken this risk to confessed their own sinful imperfection, and choose to live in faith of forgiveness rather than in fear.

Christian love transcends existing reality and, in true communion with God, seeks to find a more glorious future—it reaches out in faith rather than dwell alone in fear of our imperfection.

Jesus sacrificed all while we were still dead in our sins, Jesus healed even those who did not take time to thank him, and faithful followers must do the same. Christian love is a preemptive love, it is a truly selfless love only possible through means of God’s grace and a genuine spiritual transformation.

Christian love is always a gift given to those completely undeserving.

In contrast, the secular world has a version of love that is special favor distributed based on past performance. It is only given out in expectation of a return bigger than the investment made and abandoned quickly when the initial pleasurable feelings of an expected return fade. It it is a selfish false love despite the selfless romantic language it is often disguised in. It is a love of “what’s in it for me?” and is the only kind of love those without the Spirit of God can show.

The religious hypocrite may too use the language of faith and grace to describe their love. However, with a bit of testing of spirits, sometimes their lack of truth in love can be revealed and their acting the part (as hypocrites) will be known. This self-seeking love and self-serving spirit is found all over the church—even tacitly sanctioned in the romance and courtship arena. But in marriage the truth of our love is known.

Is our conservative Mennonite idea of romance purely Christian or somewhat worldly?

I must vote the latter.

As much as I hear talk about being the “right person” and emphasis on past and anticipated performance it is quite evident that we have an idea of love being something that is deserved. It is the very antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we profess. If love were indeed something earned then we would all be stuck in an impossible situation in relation to God and hopeless.

It is paradoxical, but many of the things the world uses as a basis to reject people and withhold love are the very things only love can cure. For example, many prefer to criminalize addiction and take putative measures against addicts. Unfortunately this approach is often extremely counterproductive, we drive those suffering further towards the margins of society, and a growing body of research shows that connection (a practical expression of love) is the solution.

We in the church, as religious people, do make an effort to reach out to those on the margins of society. I have great respect for those faithfully involved in prison ministry, who visit the elderly interned in nursing facilities or for those who conduct clubs for disadvantaged children. However, these are also things that can be done mostly out of obligation or religious duty, an attempt to earn the favor of God, and not out of genuine Christian love for others.

We can maintain a facade of Christian love in church and church activities. But there is a point when the truth of the kind of love we possess will be brought to light. And, while I’m not talking about only romantic love, our romantic and marital love is where this mask can no longer be maintained. Sure, we can fake self-sacrificial love around our religious peers when preening for their approval, but we will not give away our whole life for our lie and therefore must keep some places off limits.

It is ironic that many conservative Mennonites (the same who affirm a belief in a doctrine that would preclude them even defending loved ones) also preach an extremely self-serving me-first worldly idea of romance. I’ve had a father literally whip out a calculator while trying to explain why I was ineligible to court his daughter. It is appalling faithless hypocrisy and yet never really seriously questioned.

My way or the highway: If I can’t marry who I want to marry, why marry at all?

Marriage, as something self-interested, means we will only marry when the calculations favor our own interests. This, again, is a worldly idea of love and the antithesis of actual Christian love.

Unfortunately many in the church, going against their profession of faith, will only marry when they believe that it will produce a future advantage for them and choose based in things like family pedigree or past performance. They rely on their own understanding and not faith in God.

Such might have been the case when a young woman named Emily Cavanaugh turned down a suitor back in the spring of 1938. She rejected a young man’s love because he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere in life and she believed he would never amount to much. She wanted a leader in the church and, by her analysis, he lacked that potential.

That young man rejected by Emily later preached to millions. He even acted as a personal advisor in matters of faith to Presidents of the most powerful nation in the world. I had the honor of hearing him speak to the multitude at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. His name is familiar to many people today.

The man?

Evangelist Billy Graham…

One should note carefully that all of the significant men in Scripture were losers and outcasts by worldly standards. Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old, Isaac had his head in the clouds, Jacob was a liar, Moses had murdered a man and couldn’t speak confidently and this pattern of God using the unlikely candidates continues into the New Testament. Matthew was a collaborator with an enemy occupation, Thomas had doubts about Jesus, Peter was a basically racist (with a bark much bigger than his bite) and a Paul was actually abusive against the faithful. They were misfits, but God saw what others did not.

Consider what God told Samuel when he was in search of a leader for his people:

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

The man who fit the requirements was King David. David, unlike Saul before him, was not a man of impressive stature and was a mere shepherd (a menial task) at the time Samuel found him. What David had was a strong faith that was not recognized by his peers and yet was already known to God. The courageous warrior and Biblical hero that we know today only emerged later in the story. One can imagine the faith that it took for Samuel to anoint this unknown commodity as the future leader of a nation.

I believe those who reject a suitor (or a marriage eligible woman) based in their own expectations and arbitrary standards may want to reconsider their own profession of faith in a man run out of his own home town as a false prophet. I would recommend some reflection on the words Jesus spoke to his Bible-believing (and deceived) detractors:

“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus was also turned down by his rightful bride because he was deemed unsuitable. That is a reality worth considering when it comes to how we pick and choose today. Perhaps our reasonable standards today are wrongheaded and unGodly? Perhaps we are no better than our unfaithful religious predecessors?

Do our American ideals for love and marriage fail in delivering orthodox Christian imagery?

Marriage, in western society at least, has somehow become a legal arrangement dependent on human vows and will. But this “till death do we part” contract view of matrimony is not necessarily the most faithful understanding in Christian tradition. In fact it is this view that makes the very definition of marriage dependent on human whims. Marriage has become about us rather than about God.

But, what if we were to put God at the center of the marriage union instead of human effort and need?

The Orthodox Christian marriage tradition (in contrast to our Western and somewhat Catholic originated ideas) puts much more emphasis on the eternal perspective and mystery of God. And, in fuller recognition that God is the one who creates the martial bond, they make no wedding vows. To them God makes a marriage commitment sacred, not human promises.

Most significantly, the Orthodox view puts stronger emphasis on the symbolic and positive spiritual value of Christian marriage. It does not treat marriage as if a mere compromise for human weakness. As an Orthodox friend of mine explains it:

“…marriage is the means blessed by God from the very beginning for a man and a woman to be yoked together in order that they might achieve union with God. In Orthodox Christian teaching, the original intention of God is reaffirmed by Jesus in his teachings and in his blessing of the Marriage Feast at Cana. Furthermore, the Orthodox put a great deal of emphasis upon the mystery of Christ and his Church—the Bridegroom imagery of Ephesians 5 and see marriage as one very important manifestation of God’s love for his children.”

(Fr. Anthony Roeber, priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and Professor of Early Modern History & Religious Studies, Penn State.)

Conservative Mennonites do like their symbolism. We have persistently held onto symbolic Christian practices (like veils, kisses of charity and foot washing) long after the mainstream church abandoned or neglected them. This cultural penchant for resisting change could give the impression of faithfulness. Unfortunately, our reality of heart can sometimes be vastly different from what we display outwardly.

Is our concept of marriage a reflection of a radical commitment to Christian self-sacrificial love? We might say that our romantic endeavors are God honoring and rooted in faith, but is this actually true? Or, beneath the veil of religious symbolism, is our romance spiritually vacant and about our own personal preferences?

Love as God loves and for God wants to do through us, not for what we want to choose for ourselves.

I believe emphasis on choice and knowing (on our own terms) often comes at the expense of faith. There is cognitive dissonance in the church when you compare our courtship ideals to what we expect in marriage. In courtship we forget about God’s perspective and adopt a worldly approach. Yet then we expect that self-centered attitude to disappear once some religious ritual is performed?

Marriage is not about our choosing what is best for ourselves. To be successful in marriage requires commitment to self-sacrificial love and giving up our own rights to another. I believe that our American/Western culture is hung up choice and independence, it is to our own spiritual detriment too, but there are few who address this weakness in our courtship ideal. We push human calculations, our own personal or political advantages, and not faith.

The worldly perspective of romantic love is self-centered and is only about a person getting what they want. But the true Christian ideal is martyrdom:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:21-33)

That, a text oft used at weddings, is a great guide to marital relationship. However, to remain consistent, isn’t this the same reality of love that should be guiding our lives and including the whole process leading to marriage from start to finish? Can we truly expect Christian love to be made manifest in marriage when we married for selfish gain or to advance our own personal agenda religious and otherwise?

A faithful follower of Jesus should marry because they wish to better serve God by their devoted self-sacrificial love to another. It should not be a market based decision, a weighing of available options and determination to select what will be most beneficial to ourselves. When marriage is about our own plans and ambitions it becomes as a business transaction between two people. Yes, we can dress it up in the language of love or romance and celebrate it together in religious formality, but we might as well call it what it is: legal prostitution.

There is sometimes a vast difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe in practice. We can claim to be ready to sacrifice anything in service to God, but are we actually willing to sacrifice our right to marry or marry the person of our own choosing? Do we bring honor to God in our romance or are we as self-seeking and carnally minded as our secular neighbors?

It’s not what you can obtain through romantic pursuits, but about the glory God will obtain. Marriage, for a Christian, should be a great testimony of our faithfulness, a practical display of a transcending self-sacrificial and eternal commitment to love.

Our romance, according to the most ancient of Christian traditions, can be our greatest witness and testimony of faith put to practice. In truest form marriage is a dying to ourselves for love of another or, in other words, martyrdom.