Keeping Courtship Honorable
THE Bible says: “Let marriage be honorable among all, and the marriage bed be without defilement.” (Heb. 13:4) Is it not reasonable that what precedes marriage—courtship, in many lands—should also be kept honorable if it is to please God?
In some places a young man is allowed to be with a young girl only when at least one of the parents, or some other older person, is present. In many Western lands, however, such young persons may often be together without a chaperon. The question is, then, where such wider area of freedom is permitted, how can courtship be kept honorable? What can a young person do to assure that in his or her case courtship will lead to a truly happy and successful marriage?
Freedom always brings with it responsibility. So, if this question is one that you now face, you do well to keep in mind the fine principle set out at Galatians 5:13. Here the apostle Paul was, of course, speaking of the freedom that Christianity brought to those embracing it. But the principle applies to any kind of freedom, especially if we want our exercise of it to bring fine results and God’s favor. The apostle writes: “You were, of course, called for freedom, brothers; only do not use this freedom as an inducement for the flesh, but through love slave for one another.” Genuine love—for God and for our neighbor, including the person we may be courting—will help us to avoid using any freedom we have in a selfish, harmful way.
WHAT SHOULD COURTSHIP ACCOMPLISH?
To be honorable, courting should be carried on with marriage as its goal. So, it should not begin before the person is ready to take on marriage responsibilities. Of course, you cannot know right at the start whether you want to marry a person or not. It makes sense not to be too quick in settling your attention on any one individual. But this is no reason for carrying on “courtships” that amount to no more than a mere flirtation or series of flirtations.a
Even if you are “interested” in someone, you would be wise, for a while, to try to keep your association with such one as merely part of a group, in group activities. Why? Because, in those circumstances, you can often get a better idea of what a person is really like. This is because we all incline to be more “ourselves” when we are not under the pressure of feeling that someone is paying us special attention. But when a couple separates from the group, the natural tendency from then on is to be what the other person wants you to be, even to mirror his or her likes and dislikes. And sometimes this can camouflage one’s real personality. When paired off, a couple can also quickly become emotionally involved so that they begin to see each other through ‘rose-colored glasses.’ If a couple gets married under the flush of such emotion, they often face a rude awakening. Far better to ‘look before you leap.’
Generally, it is the man who initiates courtship, by expressing interest in the woman. If he is honest and serious about it, she has the right to believe that he is at least contemplating marriage. Then what? Well, she then has a responsibility to ask herself whether she believes she could consider marriage with him. If she is quite certain that she would not consider him as a prospective husband, then it would be quite cruel for her to allow him to develop a deep interest in her. Some girls have been willing to let someone court them just to enhance their appearance of popularity or eligibility, hoping that other young men will now notice them. Some young men have done similarly, thinking they can ‘play the field,’ have a good time and then pull out before things get too serious. But such selfish use of one’s freedom can cause real hurt, severe wounds that may take months, even years to heal.—Compare Proverbs 26:18, 19.
Only if used unselfishly can the freedom to court bring benefits. It can afford an opportunity to become better acquainted with the person with whom you are considering spending the rest of your life. Depending on how honest each one is toward the other, you can get to learn each other’s likes and dislikes, standards, habits and outlooks, yes, and each other’s temper and disposition and reaction to problems or difficulties. You rightly want to know such things as: Is he or she kind, generous and considerate of others? What about respect for parents and older persons? Is there good evidence of modesty and humility, or is the person boastful, obstinate? Do I see self-control and balance or, instead, weakness and childishness, perhaps sulking or even tantrums? Since a large part of life is work, what about signs of laziness, irresponsibility or a wasteful attitude toward money? What about plans for the future? Is a family desired or is there interest in some special vocation? In an article entitled “Danger Signals in Courtship” the writer states: “Our study of engaged and happily and unhappily married people found the unhappily married were in little agreement on life goals and values.”—Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, November 1970, page 43.
Above all, you should want to know how much God’s purposes figure in the other’s interests and plans. Yes, when the whole picture is filled out, how well suited are you for each other? If serious differences exist, do not fool yourself into thinking that marriage will automatically solve them. It may only make the friction that they cause be felt more keenly.
HONORABLE CONDUCT IN COURTSHIP
In lands where unchaperoned association is allowed by parents, couples who are courting often engage in expressions of affection such as holding hands, kissing, even embracing. How advisable is this? Does the Bible have any counsel for us on such matters?
The Bible does not set forth any specific rules on these matters. Parents, of course, have the right to instruct their sons and daughters as to the standards by which they want them to conduct themselves. While elders in a congregation cannot establish such rules, they can direct young people’s attention to the sound guiding principles found in God’s Word, and anyone who honestly wants to take a wise course in life will willingly and gladly give heed to such counsel.—Prov. 1:7-9; 2:6-9.
The Bible, of course, does definitely rule out such things as fornication. But it also warns against other unclean conduct that may not be as grave as fornication. Any couple that heed these warnings will save themselves much grief and will not run the risk of having the memories of some misconduct come back to trouble them.—Eph. 5:3-5.
Holding hands can be a clean expression of affection between persons contemplating marriage. True, it does have a stimulating effect, but this is natural and not necessarily bad. Why, just the sight of the person one is considering marrying may also stimulate, ‘make the heart beat faster.’ (Song of Sol. 4:9) Nevertheless, we need to remember that, human nature being what it is, physical contact does increase the “pull” of sexual attraction. It is also a fact that as simple forms of contact are repeated the pleasurable sensation they first brought generally decreases. This can lead you to seek something more intensely stimulating. But how far can you go without endangering a clean relationship? Because of realizing the possible danger, some persons may prefer to limit themselves very strictly as to all physical contact during courtship, and no one should disparage or make light of their conscientious position.—Compare Romans 14:5, 10, 22, 23.
Kissing may also be a clean expression of affection between persons contemplating marriage—or it may not be. Really the question is, To what extent does passion enter the picture? Some types of dancing are clean and free from passion; others are not. So, too, with kissing, or even embracing. But even if clean, each of these expressions represents a new line crossed. If they are crossed early in courtship—perhaps even before engagement—they may well cause the couple’s relationship to degenerate into mere satisfying of passion, leading them to engage in unclean conduct, if not fornication.—Col. 3:5, 6.
We ought to be honest with ourselves. If we know we do not have strong self-control in these things, then we should not jeopardize our future or that of the other person by taking chances. Would you drive a car down a steep winding road if you knew its brakes were in poor shape? The time to make up your mind and settle your heart on these matters is before you begin, not after. Once the physical desires begin to stir, it is generally very difficult to stop their buildup. (Jas. 1:14, 15) Those who let passion build up in them to the point of desiring sexual relations—when they are not entitled to these through marriage—subject themselves to tension, frustration and actual pain. It is like reading an exciting book—only to find that the last chapter has been torn out.
Those who keep their relationship in courtship on a high level will get off to a far better start in marriage than those allowing their relationship to work down to a low level through intimacy that steadily increases in frequency and intensity. How much respect can a girl feel for someone that she has to ‘keep fighting off’? But a young man who shows strength of willpower and respectful restraint earns respect. The same is true of a girl. And she particularly needs to realize that, whereas her feelings may require time to be stirred, this is seldom true of a male.—Prov. 25:28.
Giving in to frequent and increasingly passionate expressions can lead to a premature marriage. The book Adolescence and Youth (page 288) says: “The early stages of courtship are often impossibly romantic. Marriage at that time might lead a person to expect more of the marriage than any marriage could realize. Lengthened courtship usually brings about a more reasonable understanding of the other person so that an understanding marriage may result.” For such longer courtship, restraint must be exercised—otherwise the power of sexual drive may build up so early as to become a real danger.—Compare 1 Corinthians 9:27.
Serious doubts and suspicions may also crop up after marriage if passion was allowed to color the picture strongly during the courtship or engagement period. The couple may begin to wonder, Did we really marry for love? Or were we just caught up in passion? Was it a wise choice? The girl may also incline to doubt the genuineness of her husband’s love, wondering if he did not just marry her for her body and not for what she was and is as a person.
To protect yourself and your future happiness, avoid situations that lend themselves to passion. (Ps. 119:101, 104) Lonely places and darkness are not going to help you to keep courtship honorable. Nor will situations where time hangs heavy and there seems to be nothing else to do except engage in such expressions of affection. But much clean enjoyment can be had in such activities as ice-skating, playing tennis or similar sport, having a meal together at a restaurant or visiting some museum or local point of interest and beauty. While enjoying some feeling of privacy because of not being around personal acquaintances, you still have the safeguard of not being completely isolated from other people.
Too, instead of thinking just about what you are “missing” by showing restraint, think about what you are preparing for in the future. Then, in all the years to come, you will be able to look back on your courtship, not with distaste or regret, but with pleasure.—Rom. 13:13, 14.
Yes, courtship can really test you as to what kind of person you are, what you have in your heart, how conscientious you are. God’s Word does not draw precise lines for every aspect of this matter. Yet the sound principles, wise counsel and helpful guidelines found in God’s Word are ample to aid us to keep a balance, to stay well within the bounds of what is clean and morally healthful. Thus our expressions of affection for a prospective mate will never work to the harm of that one, emotionally or spiritually. So, if you should enter into courtship, by all means keep it honorable. You will always be happy you did.
a For further information on this subject, see the article “What About Dating?” in the October 1, 1971, issue of The Watchtower, pages 593-595.
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If one’s courtship becomes a series of passionate expressions with less and less restraint, how will this affect prospects for a successful marriage?
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There is much clean enjoyment that can be had and which also safeguards a couple from being completely isolated from others