An Analysis of Courtship and Dating

I now write in response to the article as found here, entitled ‘Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed’, by Thomas Umstattd Jr. I always start off by clarifying my purpose, stance, belief and whatnot:

  • I am no master. I admit my age and lack of experience leaves much of what I say on a questionable ground and perhaps most of the truth you should find in it rests on your evaluation of what I believe. This is also where I ought to be speaking least, and where I am least substantiated. Nonetheless I speak redeemed by Truth.
  • I am no opponent. This is not a rebuttal but an analysis. I actually do stand firmly with Mr Umstattd regarding his views on both dating and courtship but I wish to scrutinise the entire idea by using his article as a perspective lens.
  • I am an explorer. My own analysis seeks to flash the searchlight inwards also, that I may know my heart, know where it points, what it holds on to: is there a place too far for the Lord to reach? What have I withheld? If I find it, I will seek change in the way I think.

Having said all that, I try to pick out main points in this arduously long article. 

  1. Defining courtship and dating
  2. Some statistics about courtship divorce rates
  3. Case for dating
  4. Defense of dating; and
  5. Attack on courtship
  6. Suggestions in light

As a preliminary, I found it queer that up to point 4, there seemed to be a lack of substantial Biblical references or theories based on such values and themes. Perhaps it is intentional that the first three parts focus mainly on the secular perspective of dating and courtship, then the question of ‘courtship being biblical’ is answered in the negative in part 5. I do not know, but perhaps I find it important to bring in God heavily right from the start. Since Josh Harris (the author mentioned in the article whose book I have read) attacks the secularized concept of dating and tries to establish a religious courtship idea, Mr Umstattd needs to show all the merits of his dating scheme in light of the values as held by Mr Harris. Of course though, some areas are not suitable for introducing this perspective as some things are amoral and/or dependent on individual opinion and/or not explicitly stated in the Bible.

Part of the problem I am experiencing right now is picking out the subtle opinionated statements embedded in part 1, as this article is arranged sometimes anecdotally and at other times argumentative. The other part, as aptly raised by Mr Umstattd himself, is debating definitions. But perhaps for once, I will try very hard to conform to the given definition and work with it and see what I get.

Therefore some basic definitions as given by him: courtship is the definitive precursor to marriage, and therefore carries with it a more guarded boundary and set of rules (regarding contact, accountability, parent involvement and so on). 

Now for the interesting distinction Mr Umstattd points to between dating and going steady: whereas dating is really just a non-committal, über-short-term water-testing (for which the recommendation is even to avoid going on a date with the same guy consecutively), going steady is a continuous relationship which takes one ‘out of the market’ as is so phrased.

Finally, one interesting comment by the author: “Each decade added more exclusivity, intensity, and commitment to dating and saw a subsequent rise in temptation and promiscuity.” Perhaps it is something like: dating –> going steady –> courtship. And that is why we are here where we are now, debating the whole progressive continuum that tends towards marital union.

Mr Umstattd makes a primary claim that courtship increases tendencies for promiscuity (1), are virtually identical to engagement (2) and have therefore done nothing to improve the dating scene (3). Furthermore and more central: “How can you know what personality you fit well with if you only go out with one other person? The result can be a mismatched couple and a marriage that is difficult to sustain.”

The pros of dating (U1-U7)

As a preliminary, I would say Mr Umstattd makes very startlingly bold and unabated declarations about the benefits of dating over courtship. I do not list all, though. 

  1. No emotional commitment –> less physical temptation –> less compromise 
  2. More interaction –> getting to know and getting known –> gradual path to marriage –> higher success rate
  3. No emotional commitment –> less heartbreak upon breakup
  4. Higher success rate (based on statistics) for marriage
  5. Dating routine –> habitual for couples to go on dates –> habit continues in marriage

Attacking courtship: the bible says nothing of courtship being the way to go (6), support for courtship tends towards that for arranged marriage (7), arranged marriage is unsuitable for a Western culture (sub-point 7 and point 8), courtship often delays marriage and thereby increases tendency to compromise (1).


A short detour here to a page that provides a summary of Josh Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I reproduce the listed summary of ‘seven habits of highly defective dating’: (I now refer to them as J1-J7)

“(1) leads to intimacy but not necessarily to commitment; (2) tends to skip the “friendship” stage of a relationship; (3) often mistakes a physical relationship for love; (4) often isolates a couple from other vital relationships; (5) in many cases, distracts young adults from their primary responsibility of preparing for the future; (6) can cause discontentment with God’s gift of singleness; and (7) creates an artificial environment for evaluating another person’s character.”

At this point, however, I wish to retract my earlier decision to stick with Mr Umstattd’s definition for courtship because he apparently has also read Josh Harris’ book and ought to have obtained Harris’ idea of courtship from there, but it is evident there are major distinctions between how both of them define courtship. Mainly: J2 and J7 versus U2, U7 (and thus U8). That aside for a while, I bring in an incongruency – not a contradiction, but a surprising unmatched stance on an ideal central to the topic – commitment. Whereas Harris contends that commitment is absolutely crucial for any steps leading towards marriage, Umstattd disregards that by explaining it tends towards physical temptation. (U1 and U3 versus J1). 

To me, it would seem there has been shots fired from both parties – but they are hitting some other distant target rather than each other at times. Why? Harris’ path is friendship, then a relationship of commitment and intimacy, then marriage. Umstattd’s path is that of no commitment and no intimacy until the right partner is found, then ‘going steady’, then marriage. They sneak around each other to some extent. Harris’ courtship is a later-stage implement and Umstattd’s dating is a preliminary exposure and experimentation. Umstattd’s ‘going steady’ is somewhat like Harris’ courtship, and both Harris and Umstattd acknowledge the abhorrent sexual promiscuity of the ‘hookup and breakup’ culture “that the founders of courtship were reacting to” as Umstattd put it. What we should focus on instead is:

  1. The function of friendship
  2. The function of commitment
  3. Where God reigns

Firstly, where both cross notably is the initial approach (method) to marriage. Umstattd both questions the reliability, effectiveness and ease of “group dating” while also affirming the usefulness of going on many dates that increases interaction, exposure etc. Harris establishes friendship as the crux of the journey towards a serious relationship (he has quite a section on it in his book), and he points out that dating creates an artificial environment for evaluating another person’s character. First I lay out Umstattd’s argument: group dates do not expose all personality types bare as some are brought up more meek and quiet; dating eliminates that worry fairly efficiently. Harris’ is this: the context of dating is a getting into a relationship (a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship as you would have it), and even with just this purpose in mind, it drastically alters what a person really reveals about himself. Only time spent with people as friends can show much more. Which is truer? 

I think that anyone with substantial understanding thus far will realise that the routes of the authors do differ and that impacts this in a way. Harris never implies a deliberate search for a partner; the gradual way getting to know individuals is the way. Umstattd claims that a deliberate, wide search for a partner is indeed the gradual way. How contradictory indeed! At first glance though, Harris has gotten it right. In fact if I may place the methods in increasing order of ‘steepness’ (speed at which it rushes towards marriage):

  1. Harris’ Unintentional Friendship Method
  2. Umstattd’s Intentional Interactive-Dating method
  3. Conservative Courtship 
  4. Arranged Marriages

Unless of course, Umstattd intends to say that dating different people (non-consecutively, even) is meant to be more of fun, explorative, interactive, and not really with a final goal of marriage. Which brings me to the second related point: the function of commitment.

I don’t exactly have much to stand on this, because it almost seems like the two authors are at loggerheads with each other already. One says commitment is absolutely crucial in the journey, right from the point it starts (what Harris calls courtship but is different from Umstattd’s courtship which I call conservative courtship); the other dismisses it as the bane to promiscuity, and embraces the lack of commitment in dating as a tool for self-knowledge (knowing the kind of person oneself is looking for), opportunity (lower level of seriousness gains more approval and dates), detachment (a lower level of heartbreak possible), amongst other plus points. But maybe there is also a slight missing of arrows as they point to slightly different parts of the journey, as already pointed out. 

Umstattd: relaxed dating –> going steady –> marriage
Harris: no action –> friendship becomes something more –> marriage

See what I mean? Isn’t there a rather yawning gap right there? Perhaps Umstattd thinks commitment ought to come in only at the ‘going steady’ section, and he may be right. Harris thinks commitment enters directly at the ‘friendship–>courtship’ part, and he may be right also. Commitment is vital nonetheless to a serious relationship, and if we really want to look further, we have to go back to the first point about friendship. The litmus test for Umstattd is: where does all this (very casual, uncommitted) dating take one, i.e. what is the journey of going steady after such a process like? I think the bracketed words in the previous sentence were very important because even ‘date’ and ‘going steady’ have a wide range available, as mentioned by Umstattd and as now reiterated by me. 

I was thinking of ‘The litmus test for Harris is:’ before I reflected on his heavy reliance on waiting on God. And that leaves me asking again: where is God in all this? Especially in Umstattd’s dating concept. Can God be left out so easily? Oh, yes, he does bring it up in the ‘Christian guy’ thing in the suggestions section, but what is the theological merit in the whole idea? Is it really separate from the Bible? Can we really be allowed to explore the “fish in the sea” as he puts it, or is it truly not a problem worth a Bible consult? I know Josh has a very touching encouragement in affirming readers to trust that God will provide in His own good time and plan, especially with His personal story (do read it in his epilogue, or his ‘sequel’). I for one question the need for a ‘healthy culture of traditional dating’ and ‘[going] out on dates with lots of different people before going steady with any of them’. Maybe the question is: if God is in charge of our future and our partner, do we need to actively seek out single people for dates? Umstattd’s other suggestions include: ‘Find a church with lots of single people’, ‘Get a job. Money makes you more attractive’, and ‘Fear God’. 

In conclusion, I acknowledge the full diversity of opinions about this matter which is yet another seemingly out-of-His-direct-Word topics that allows for great contention, controversy and contradiction. I only questioned Umstattd’s need for his advised dating style because of what I have surmised from: 1) friendship is an essential prerequisite for truly getting to know someone’s character, virtues etc.; 2) God’s divine plan for every one of us ought to leave us with attitude and action that honours that foreknowledge and benevolence (Jer 29:11); 3) God can make the path towards marriage way smoother and less heart-breaking if we listen to His voice and obey. But as I have said, this is something which can still potentially differ from Christian to Christian, from church to church, from nation to nation. God can accomplish His will and give you the best life in Christ through both dating and finding your sweetheart, and through a friendship that develops into a special lifelong walk. I actually have to say that that is the whole truth to me; I hail my ideas superior or inferior to none other than God’s. 





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