Saturday, August 16, 2014

Homeschooling, Legalism, and Parallel Cultures


Is homeschooling a form of legalism? How about counter-cultural practices like courtshipi and big families, which are common in homeschooling circles? Questions like these have caused me no small degree of confusion. I turn to my own family and many families that I have known, and confidently answer, "no." But then I find blog articles, comments of friends, and even reports on television which seem to credibly contradict my personal experiences. However, as I have repeatedly encountered these contradictions, I have also come across a probable explanation.

This article is partially written as a response to Thomas Umstattd's article, Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed. I found statements in his article describing courtship like, "the man must ask the woman's father's permission before pursuing the woman romantically," which is true for many families that I know, alongside statements like, "...the fathers are rarely gentle or kind," which is opposite of both my experience and the experiences of my brothers. I refuse to believe that Umstattd is misrepresenting his observations; the entire tone of his article denotes reason and honesty. The only conclusion left to me, then, is that he and I have lived in parallel homeschooling cultures which share a number of similarities and yet have key differences.

But what could cause such a division? Consider Umstattd's statement:

"Each year I waited for courtship to start working and for my homeschool friends to start getting married. It never happened. Most of them are still single. Some have grown bitter and jaded. Then couples who did get married through courtship started getting divorced. I'm talking the kind of couples who first kissed at their wedding were filing for divorce. This was not the deal! The deal was that if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later. The whole point of courtship was to have a happy marriage, not a high divorce rate."

Umstattd's assumptions are evident in this quote, and did not change when he changed his ideas about romance. Consider his statement, "This was not the deal!" He – and all of his friends – saw courtship as a contract. They were to do their part even if they found it awkward, and God would then be obligated to do His part by giving them a fulfilling marriage. Thus, when this lie was revealed either by years of singleness or by an unhappy marriage, they rebelled against the idea of courtship, or even against marriage itself. Yet, in revising his beliefs, Umstattd retained the foundational idea that the ultimate purpose of dating methods, romance, and marriage, are the happiness of man.

The connection between Umstattd's foundational idea and the existence of parallel homeschool cultures, is that Umstattd's idea goes far beyond the practice of courtship. Paris Reidhead, in Ten Shekels and Shirt, stated that modern Christian fundamentalism has simply become another expression of humanism, where the ultimate end of salvation is the happiness of man. Umstattd's sentiments about romance and marriage have the same man-centered core. How can a Christian article about romance not mention the Glory of God, when God is the point of all of life, and when marriage is display of Christ and His church? My explanation of these parallel cultures, then, is that while outwardly similar, they are deeply divided along lines of theology.

Consider another assumption in Umstattd's article: "...if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later. The whole point of courtship was to have a happy marriage..." He and his friends believed that success and happiness in marriage could be brought about by a simple courtship formula. Implicit in this idea, however unintentional, is a denial of the doctrine of the deep sinfulness of man. In contrast, most "courtshipping homeschoolers" that I know tell me that the success and blessedness of any marriage will depend upon how tightly its members cling to the finished work of Christ, the faithful grace of God, and His ability to heal two deeply sinful individuals, far more than upon the method of courtship or dating which began the marriage.

This theological divide would also explain the differences between the fathers observed by Umstattd and the fathers I have observed. A father who believes that courtship is the most important ingredient for his daughter's happiness will tend toward overbearing control, while a father who understands the sinfulness of man will understand his daughter's limitations, but also his own limitations and impossibility of finding a perfect suitor. Such a father will also tend to act with mercy toward all suitors, because of his deep gratitude and humility which come from understanding the depth of sin out of which Christ has rescued him.

Thus my conclusion regarding Umstattd's article is that he mis-diagnoses the problems he has encountered. He believes that they are rooted in a wrong methodology (courtship), whereas they are actually rooted in shallow or incorrect theologies. However, I have a much more important conclusion to make with regards to the homeschool movement in general, and I have one more point to make in support.

This point is that these problems are not intrinsic to particular families so much as they are intrinsic to particular "communities." In Umstattd's article, for example, all of his friends shared these same problems, which I have rarely encountered; similar articles reference entire churches or homeschooling circles where these problems are universal. Even granting possible exaggeration, it is hard not to conclude that Umstattd's problems are pronounced and out of control in some circles, while being uncommon and rejected in others.ii

So, my final conclusion is that these parallel cultures do exist, and that their division is not along lines of external practice but rather along lines of practical theology. I say practical theology because I do not mean that Umstattd does not believe in the deep sinfulness of man, or absolute worthiness of God. Rather, I mean that he did not (and still does not) live out these doctrines in his favored approach to romance.iii

In the more general sense, I propose that some homeschool communities have failed to honor God in their counter-cultural practices because they did not set out to honor Him in the first place, but rather viewed these practices, such as courtship, as being primarily for their own happiness. Wiser methods of living applied in a void of deep theology are bound to become legalism and humanism. On the other hand, I hope that the doctrines of man's sinfulness, the victorious gospel of Christ, and the unfathomable character of God, drive my family and my homeschooling friends far more than any particular methodology of education or romance.

I will end with a recommendation for the repair all problems, both those found in Umstattd's culture and any found in my own:iv we must preach the character of God and the gospel of Christ both in their transcendence and in their practical eminence. We must live by a deep humility and grace born of our understanding of our own sinfulness, and by a great hope in the power of Spirit to conform us to Christ in all areas of life, including courtship and marriage.

Certainly, my wife and I have found these things to be absolutely true at all times in our relationship; without them we would have failed to bring glory to God, and probably would not be married. Our road was too full of doubts, struggles, questions, and sins for us to have succeeded on our own, no matter what model of courtship or dating we had pursued. I could say the same for many marriages I know, both ones that began with dating and ones that began with courtship. I do believe that courtship provides a couple with a wiser start in matrimony; however, it is the heart and the applied theology of a courtship, or homeschooling family, or any thing else, much more than the particular method, which determines whether it is pleasing to God.

--- End Notes---
i  I use a very general definition of courtship here, as being the practice which is willing to change any aspect of the modern dating model using biblical wisdom, generally including an increased role for the girl's father, and a definite intentionality. In contrast to Umstattd, I must emphasize that intentionality does not mean that marriage is the goal of courtship. It means that the goal of a courtship is for the couple to determine whether marriage would be wise or not. A courtship which ends concluding that marriage would not be wise is just as successful as a courtship which ends in marriage, if the decision is wise. In my own courtship, I did not use the term "dating" simply because I felt that it would misrepresent my relationship with Kyleigh. However, I do not consider the term to be inherently sinful. It is the heart and the applied wisdom of a relationship which does or does not honor God, not the term used to describe it.
ii  Regarding Umstattd's website, it seems likely that persons struggling with courtship as a cure-all methodology would visit such a site in much higher numbers than persons with the conviction that the ultimate purpose of marriage is the glory of God, and that God's providence, much more than a method, is what brings believers together for marriage.
iii  I believe that this divide is also the best explanation for why people typically talk past each other when they disagree with each other on this issue. In our discussions, along with being humble and kind, we must understand where the difference is, and why we who have applied the same methods, such as courtship, have seen such vastly different results. Neither side is lying, neither side has its head in the sand, neither side is in denial, and neither side is expressing an isolated, uncommon situation. We who have seen courtship succeed ought to be merciful to those who have been wounded in what they believe is the same practice; they truly have been wounded. What they need is not a "more correct" practice of courtship, but a change in the cultures of their communities brought about by the depth of the gospel of Christ.
iv  Those of us who do not believe that our families have the problems described by Umstattd's article must use both humility and caution. "Let those who think they stand take heed lest they fall." If we have seen the grace of God working in our lives and our courtships, we can attribute precisely non of this to ourselves.

12 comments:

Deborah Adams said...

Read Umstaddt's article then yours. I appreciate both of your opinions because they have allowed me to think on a subject which I have not allowed much thinking. I have been divorced for 23 years except for a brief reconciliation that did not work out. The reason the marriage failed both times is that there was a frictiousness because we were unequally yoked. I decided i probably will not marry again because I left him the first time for what i considered Biblical reasons but not the usual reasons considered Biblical. I found out during the reconciliation that the Biblical reasons had existed but were not forthcoming until the reconciliation. The truth caused another breach and we have been divorced again almost 9 years. I grew up in a household of faith. My parents met at college, basically for ministers. My dad pastored for almost 40 years. My mom is now 80 years old. There were Biblical guidelines taught but not completely understood by me until it was too late and I was married to someone who, although confessed with his mouth did not believe in his heart. We dated only on weekends for 8 months before marriage. I could not have seen the reality of his lifestyle until after we married and he kept much hidden from me for years. I decided several years ago that if God ever did bring someone into my life that I would consider marrying I would be sure and ask myself if I could see that the two of together brought more glory to God than either of us alone. Thank you for the confirmation. We should live, walk and be filled by the Spirit. Otherwise, we waste precious moments of the brief vapor of life we have. Thanks.

Ezra said...

Deborah, thank you for your comment. While your story is sorrowful, the wisdom you express makes me believe that God has more than redeemed the "wasted precious moments" in your life. May He continue to do so in all of our lives.

Sheril C said...

Thank-you for writing this post and for linking it in the comments under the original blog. You have eloquently expressed some important points.

And thank-you, Deborah, for sharing here as well!

Courtney said...

I appreciate another perspective, but I tend to agree with Umstaddt in the practical application of the courtship model. Maybe if you grew up with a person and knew them very well...well enough to know you eventually want to marry them, courtship might work okay. But asking the father before you really even know each other puts unnecessary pressure on both sides. Courtships in my experience are rarely broken off...so I think it is viewed almost as seriously as engagement. Or, for example, you have graduated college and are in a profession where you aren't in a group of singles. That's where I've seen many godly friends waiting and trying to follow the courtship model, only to move into their late twenties, thirties, and forties and nobody going to their father for permission to court. There just has to ba better way. I see courtship as one avenue, but many people in the homeschool community look down on other avenues of finding a mate, and I don't agree with that.

Jody Van Ness said...

I'm really outside the courtship world, (I am a married mother of 4 grown children. We are evangelical, but not homeschoolers or courtship folks.) but when I hear from people disappointed that the courtship model has not produced a marriage for them, I want to say maybe it isn't the courtship model, I know other christian young people in the dating world who also haven't met the right person, and want to be married. Actually, it's a problem in our culture, including within the church. So that's a problem to be addressed in the church, but also we all need to remind ourselves that the chief end of man is to glorify God. And as parents of grown children, as much as we are tempted to want most for our children to be happy, we should want most for them to glorify God. And that might come in suffering.

Anonymous said...

No argument except that courtship which does not end in marriage is simply defined, today, as dating.

miles smith said...


I believe there are many more flaws in this article than in Umstattd. I am not doubting your faith, and it is obvious you are a man whose theology is deeply rooted in Christ and his grace. At the same time, it seems to me that you made some assumptions that were just not true about Thomas Umstattd. First off, you said that he is lacking a biblical background for his article and his reasoning when he very clearly states that "Unless the Lord builds your relationship you labor in vain regardless of what method you are using. No system is a substitute for the Holy Spirit." Then you make the statement that "Umstattd retained the foundational idea that the ultimate purpose of dating methods, romance, and marriage, are the happiness of man." when Umstattd very clearly says "Your trust should be in Christ, not in the system you are using." Obviously his theology is not flawed nor disagreeing with yours. He still agrees that any relationship, no matter how it is derived, that is built without Christ at the center will not last. His idea of marriage is therefore the glorification of Christ. It is clear then that while you hold to the belief that "he did not (and still does not) live out these doctrines in his favored approach to romance," it is pretty clear that he does. I see where you are coming from, and I can tell that you want to continue to use courtship, and I can tell that to justify doing so you must attack the foundation upon which Umstattd stands, but ultimately the conclusion he draws is correct.

miles smith said...

In the end, you are right about courtship and marriage. Any marriage and system used to reach that point can last a lifetime and be fruitful when it is founded entirely on God. At the same time though I think you are missing the point of Umstattd's article. He has agrees that all marriage is possible when based on God when he says that "I am not saying Courtship is evil, or that it will lead inevitably to singleness or divorce. God gives us a lot of freedom when it comes to relationships. I have nothing against Arranged Marriage or its little sister Courtship. If it has worked for you, great!" What he is saying is that a lot of the promiscuity that has occurred from dating occurred because "The commitment, exclusivity and intensity of dating is what lead to temptation and compromise in the first place. Courtship makes the problem worse by increasing the commitment which intensifies the temptation." What he is saying is that dating got screwed up, and courtship took what was bad about dating and not only failed to improve on it, but made some aspects worse. He is showing how dating would better guard the hearts of Christians. Dating allows us to choose someone and if it doesn't work out, then we can break it off without any negative or unnecessary repercussions. It allows God to have more control in our lives and who we marry. The other argument he makes is that it allows us as young people to get married at a younger age with more knowledge about who we are and what we are looking for in a lifelong partner. This is important because there are many many many women out there who are getting into their thirties and have never even gone on a date with someone. This only leads to women "physical compromises in an effort to attract a man." His argument for dating becomes "The benefit of traditional dating is that the lack of exclusivity reduces temptation."

miles smith said...


I can see that you enjoy Voddie Baucham, and personally I love his marriage series. One thing that you will learn about Voddie is that he never courted and he is a strong advocator for early marriage (he was married early himself, and out of his entire extended family who were all married in their late 20's, his is the only one to last). Ultimately, you have good points, but I think you are wrong about Umstattd, and the only thing I wish to see you do is understand that courtship is not necessarily good and that Dating is not necessarily evil, and that advocates for dating instead of courting can be just as strong Christians as those who advocate courting

Ezra said...

I've been busy for a few weeks now with the birth of my first child! However, now that I have a moment, here are some replies to your comments:

To Everyone: remember that the purpose of this article is not to examine the merits of courtship, but to point out that a lack of God-centered, gospel-driven living is what causes divorces (not a wrong choice of methods). Even more generally, the article was my attempt to understand why the same practices (homeschool, courtship, family worship, etc.) seem to glorify God and build His kingdom in some circles while only resulting in powerless legalism in other circles. My conclusion, though I view courtship as generally wiser, is that choice of method is much less important than living in the fear of the Lord and the shadow of the cross.

Courtney: With regards to courtships being viewed almost like engagements, you are right in many cases. Certainly, it is a problem which needs to be addressed. However, I find that the same phenomena exists among serious daters I have known. The point we must make to our children is that they must seek God's wisdom in the situation first, being ready to give up the relationship if it is unwise and not holding tightly to it emotionally until a proposal has been made and accepted. Regarding asking the father before you know the girl - well, every story is different. But if you mean that guys and girls should be allowed to have meaningful relationships and discussions without asking the father's permission, then certainly! That may also be an area in which the courtship crowd sometimes gets it wrong. I hope that we will be humble enough to learn from constructive criticism like yours. However, if I may offer some counter-criticism, the problem which often occurs among daters is that guys and girls often carelessly play with each other's hearts or even form deep and long lasting relationships without a clear intention to marry, often wasting years the other person's life by their own selfish indecisiveness. So, both methods can and do go wrong in various ways. Thanks for your comment, and your loving disagreement.

Jody: Amen!

Sheril: Thank you.

Anonymous: Perhaps in some circles, but not in my article, my family, or my "circle".

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone would argue that a marriage should not be God centered and I have yet to see any advocates of "courtship" actually quote scripture to support the position. The Bible is clear about fornication, being unequally yoked and honoring ones adult parents (not obeying). It does not specify how one should meet a future spouse. I can't help but notice there is a need by many in the home school / courting camp to control their adult children. This often goes hand in hand with other extra Biblical standards/controls. I can only suppose this is from fear or a lack of faith. I have even heard of this including the physical discipline (abuse) of an 18 year old woman, and women in their 20's not being able to get a license or take a job outside the home because their father wont allow it (sharia anyone?). My adult children have been raised to serve and bring honor to the Lord but it is their life and their choices that will honor Him, not me imposing my will on them. On a side note it occurs to me that many who would seek to control their adult children, themselves chafe at the Biblical idea of leadership in a local church, ie pastor etc. (family worship anyone?)
Regards,
Josh

Victoria said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and analysis on this! It's something I've spent a lot of time thinking about, and had thought of similar things to what you said, but it was nice to read it in a distinct, clear article.
(I found this because Kyleigh link it in her blog post.)