Court. Rum's I: The Importance of Grace
"Court. Rum's" actually is an abbreviation for "Courtship Ruminations", so this post has little to do with courtrooms. Hope you're not terribly disappointed. And, of course, you can all read my (mostly) tongue-in-cheek post on keeping unsuitables away. That's in my November 2005 archive.
What is courtship? One thing I have learned beyond the shadow of a doubt is that there are more definitions of courtship than there are people who want to do it. You have nearly a continuous spectrum in method, ranging from something close to dating (little to no parental involvement) all the way to arranged marriage (little to no potential bride and groom involvement.) Well, maybe that last bit is a slight caricature. I actually think arranged marriages have a lot to recommend them, assuming you trust your parents.
Here is my attempt at a definition: courtship is a process whereby a man honorably seeks to take over the covenantal headship of a woman from the woman's current covenant head (not a husband; usually her father though there are exceptions. I will use "father" throughout, but you can substitute "head" if you like). The word "honorably" is important, because by it I mean that the woman's father (and by covenantal inclusion, her mother as well) is heavily involved with this process: they oversee it, in fact, though the man needs to be the "proactive" person in the process. Also, we understand that covenantal headship looks different depending on who the head is. When the woman is under her father's headship, it's a father-daughter relationship that's more like when she was growing up. When the woman is under the man's covenantal headship, she is married to him (assuming they have a sexual relationship inside that covenantal commitment.) I will use Wilson's definition of marriage here: marriage is a sexual relationship inside a covenantal commitment.
Now that we've got that off our chests, let me explain just why I think grace is so important in courtship. First of all, notice I used the words "man" and "woman" and "father" in my definition. Yes, that's right: courtship always happens, when it does happen, between sinners. Everyone involved are sinners. This has always been the case, since Jesus (contrary to some opinions) never married on this earth. His bride is the Church, so it would definitely not fit His character to have married on this earth. Ergo, everyone who is involved with a courtship are mere human beings, and therefore sinners.
It follows that they will sin against one another at times. Certainly well-intentioned Christians will not try to sin against one another, but it will happen. It is much wiser to have a program in place for dealing with that sin before it actually occurs. That program is the usual Christian one, the program that is really at the heart of the gospel: repentance and forgiveness. Grace is absolutely essential to both of those. So grace is important to courtship in the universal way: just to help sinners get along as with any other relationship.
What are some ways people can sin against each other, specifically in courtship? I can imagine quite a few ways. The suitor can rush things, thus being insensitive to the woman's desires. The woman could say things to the suitor that she thinks he wants to hear, regardless of whether it's the truth or not. The suitor could try to circumvent the father's authority and try to get some of that headship over the woman without him knowing it. The father could judge harshly with respect to the suitor, thinking that "this man is definitely not worthy of my daughter." That, incidentally, would be a sin against both the suitor and the woman. The woman could fail to trust her father's judgment (because she might fear the foregoing example, for instance). So it's quite possible for anyone involved in a courtship to sin against anyone else involved in the courtship. Sometimes mere awareness of these evils is enough to prevent them even from occurring. But if they have happened, then it seems to me that grace is the only answer for restoring these damaged relationships.
But there's another reason that grace is important to courtship, and that is commitment. Courtship is like an arrow: it points to something. No one enters into courtship without realizing where courtship leads, which is to marriage. Marriage, as I mentioned before, is a commitment. Marriage on this earth after the Fall (the only other kind of marriage is between Christ and His church) is always between two sinners. That means that every marriage has enormous difficulties even before going into it. When my last courtship ended, I remember saying, "How does anyone ever get married?" The difficulties of marriage, the pain (and it's a huge pain!) of courtship, etc., had led me to question how anyone aware of these difficulties can ever get married. At the time I thought the answer was that a lot of people must be blind so that they don't see these difficulties! Such would be, perhaps, a caricature of rose-tinted glasses (see Susan's excellent post on that subject). And the answer is really the Sunday-school answer: Jesus. He gives us the grace that will enable us to get over these difficulties. It is an awareness of the astounding grace that has been shown to us that enables us to give that grace to others, including spouses or potential spouses. The phrase Susan originated in her post was "grace-tinted spectacles." I love that phrase, because it quite captures the sort of thing necessary. Grace does not ignore sin; rather, it deals with sin head-on. Grace looks sin right in the eye and then dispenses with it. So this reason grace is important, to sum up, is that an awareness of the grace shown to us by God enables us not to be afraid of commitment. The man need not fear to commit to husbanding a sinner, and the woman need not fear to commit to submit to a sinner.
One book that helped me enormously on this subject is Larry Crabb's The Marriage Builder. I rather think it has a hokey title, but the content is just great. For once, what we have in that book is not a list of do's and don't's. He spends an enormous amount of time explaining the importance of grace in a marriage. That is, in fact, his central thesis, that grace is essential for a marriage to achieve oneness.
The advice is therefore this: anyone contemplating courtship, or anyone currently involved in a courtship should rediscover the wonders of the grace God gives to you, especially His saving grace. When you think about it, that grace is so huge that problems of pride and discontent and so on seem rather petty in comparison. You don't have to stick up for yourself: God's already done that. You can relax and be humble and content, trusting that God will get all the glory.