One of the fundamental teachings of the Biblical Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements is the doctrine of biblical courtship, or betrothal. (My brother suggested the word casuistries instead of teachings, which is perfect except that I didnt know it before, either.) This teaching has it that since a father is the head of the family, his children are completely under his authorityeven for deciding whom they marry as adults.
Under this system, adult daughters or sons who presume to consider marrying somebody their patriocentric parents dont approve of may be labeled rebellious against God and His plan for the family. Its a classic case of bounded choice. Even though the doctrine purports to be motivated by turning fathers hearts toward their children, emotional trauma often ensues all around.
This isnt about minorsIve heard this from men and women in their twenties or even older, still bound by parental authoritarianism. Its a small step from stay-at-home daughters to kept-at-home daughters.
Lets ask one simple question: Is that really what the Bible teaches?
The answer is this: God wants us to be free.
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
They answered him, We are Abrahams descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?
Jesus replied, I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:3136, NIV)
If that seems like a non sequitur, just stay with me. Jesus came to set you free from all the things that try to enslave you, control your life, drag you into sin and bondage and slavery. Its a paradox: When we give up control of our lives to Jesus, He makes us free.
Freedom is sometimes misconstrued as license to sin. Nothing could be further from the truthJesus gives us freedom from all the sinful things that used to control us. Freedom in Christ means that we no longer have to be controlled by temper, passion, greed, lust, envy, porn, legalism, works-righteousness, laziness, alcohol, drugs, pride, sex, career, vanity, ego, reputation, peer pressure, food, bitterness...
... or authoritarian religious leaders.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, NASB)
The only way to be free is to follow Christ. Following anyone else is the way back to slavery. So anybody who sets themselves up as an authority to control your life is going against what Jesus wants for your life. You should be Christ-controlled, not others-controlled.
Godly leaders follow Jesus example in refusing to lord it over others:
Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. (1 Peter 5:24 NKJV)
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm. (2 Corinthians 1:24, NIV)
False leaders, on the other hand, try to compel people to follow them:
[This matter arose] because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. (Galatians 2:4, NIV)
One of the easiest ways to tell a controlling religious leader is that theyre ready to whip out the word rebellious right about this point. Right back at ya: Being concerned about people rebelling against you is a sign of pride and authoritarianism, and pride and authoritarianism are rebellion against God. People cant rebel against their servants, only against their masters. But if youre positioning yourself as anyones master, youre trying to take the place of the Lord. Youre rebelling against His commandment to serve as He does.
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slavejust as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:2528 NKJV)
What does any of this have to do with courtship, betrothal, marriage? Plenty. The modern doctrine of betrothal, at its core, is the idea that parents should act as authoritarian religious leaders, controlling their adult childrens lives and decisions about whom to marry. In other words, they dont allow them to be free in Christ.
But doesnt the Bible say Children, obey your parents? Honor thy father and mother? Of course it does, and Im not diminishing that a bit. I am, however, pointing out that the Bible does not say Parents, exercise total control over your children, even when theyre adults. You can honor someone and still disagree with them. The corresponding command for parents is Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged (Colossians 3:21). What causes bitterness and discouragement? Authoritarian control, for one thing.
You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. (Ezekiel 34:4, NIV)
Parents can certainly give their adult children advice and counsel and wisdom and guidance. But for them to manipulate and control their childrens lives is self-defeating. Godly parenting is the art of helping someone whos completely dependent on you to not need you anymore. Youre like a mother bird who, as soon as the babies are big enough, pushes them out of the nest so they can fly. In fact, thats exactly what the Bible says marriage is about:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
Thats the very first thing the Bible says about marriagein the story of Adam and Eve, no lessand its the most widely quoted Old Testament verse on marriage in the New Testament (Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:78, 1 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 5:31, et cetera). Yet in my research, I found entire articles, entire websites even, on the subject of betrothal that neglect to mention that this verse exists.
Why would anybody trying to argue for a biblical doctrine of betrothal neglect the most significant verse in the Bible about marriage? Maybe because it undercuts their doctrine at the knees. A man shall leave his father and mother, not a father and mother shall give a man permission. And be joined to his wife, no mention of provided her parents give consent. And for that matter, They shall become one flesh, not They shall become an authority and a subject.
Does this really mean that a young man and a young woman have the God-given freedom to decide for themselves whom to marry? Well, believe it or not, thats exactly what the Bible says.
One of the very few passages in the Old Testament that records what God said about people getting married (as opposed to the many that are historical records of what people did in the Ancient Near East, not commandments) is Numbers 36. If you think that God requires women to have male coverings or parental authorities to make decisions for them, you might have missed the story of Zelophehads daughters (as found in Numbers 27).
Single women approaching God on their own without a father or any other male authority? Single women empowered to make their own decisions, get their own inheritance, have their own money, and work their own land? God taking their side and telling Moses and the elders thats the right thing? In the Torah, even? Yep. Its not modern feminism; its ancient Scripture.
Numbers 36 takes the story to the next level. The tribal elders brought Moses another question: who decides whom these single, fatherless women should marry? This was an issue because, since they were entitled to their own inheritance, marrying outside their tribe could have created economic instability. If ever there was a place in Scripture for God to set the record straight, to say Well, ordinarily, parents ought to decide whether to give their daughters in marriage, to tell them to find a male authority to guard their hearts and arrange their betrothal, here it is. And heres what God said:
This is what the LORD commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father. (Numbers 36:6, ESV, emphasis added)
Let them marry whom they think best.
Not whom their parents think best. Not their grandfather. Not their fathers brother. Not their pastor or priest or rabbi. Not their fiancé. Not even Yente the matchmaker.
Let them marry whom they think best.
The only stipulation (within the clan) was for economic purposes, to make sure the inheritance stayed in the tribe (Num. 36:7). We might compare the New Testaments advice that Christians should marry other Christians (1 Cor. 7:39). That doesnt mean that were not free to make our own decisions, just that we ought to make wise decisions.
Let them marry whom they think best.
It isnt selfish to decide for yourself who is best to marry. It takes wisdom, intelligence, thoughtfulness, humility, trust. For believers, it takes prayer and reliance on Gods guidance. Nobody else can think for you. Nobody else can rely on God for you. Nobody else can decide who is best for you to marry.
The patriarchs themselves knew this. The story of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24) is often held up as an ideal of parentally arranged marriage, though as noted, its a historical account that nowhere suggests its a model for anyone else to follow, any more than the historical accounts of Hosea or David or Samson or the rapacious Benjaminites. Right in the middle of it, though, is this exchange:
And they said, We will call the girl and consult her wishes. Then they called Rebekah and said to her, Will you go with this man? And she said, I will go. (Genesis 24:5758, NASB)
If people wanted to live the way the biblical patriarchs did, theyd give their daughters the freedom to decide whom to marry. Thats what the Bible says, anyway.
The idea of freedom to choose a spouse carries over into the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 7, of all places. This chapter is often twisted to argue for the false doctrine of parental control over daughters marriages. Youd think the complete absence of the word daughter from the chapter in biblical Greek might tip people off that thats a mistake. If you take the chapter as a whole, it is self-evidently an exhortation to embrace any situation you find yourself insingleness, marriage, separation, whateveras a chance to follow the Lords direction.
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17, ESV).
You should follow the Lords direction if He wants you to be single. You should follow the Lords direction if He wants you to marry. The one thing you should never do is let anyone else set themselves up as the Lord:
You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23, ESV)
And according to this chapter, who decides whom a woman should marry?
...she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39b, ESV, emphasis added).
That sure sounds familiar. Paul is directly applying Gods commandment from the TorahLet them marry whom they think bestto New Testament believers. It was true then, and its true today.
So, what about the people who insist they should control this decision for others? The New Testament has severe words for them:
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:13, NIV, emphasis added)
The Holy Spirit foretells that certain false teachers will abandon the faith. They follow deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons. They are hypocrites and liars. Their consciences are cauterized. You can tell these demonically deceived apostate hypocritical liars because they
forbid people to marry.
Yes, it really says that.
Notice the verbs forbid and order. These hypocritical apostate false teachers are setting themselves up as authorities over people. They order them around and decide what they can and cant do. You see it in cults and high-control groups where the leaders insist on control over members marriages or force everyone to be celibate. You see it in patriocentric families where parents insist on control over their adult sons and daughters marriage.
The issue isnt marriage or celibacy. Its abuse of authority. Its taking away the freedom we have in Christ.
They forbid people to marry.
Its wrong. Its sinful. Its evil. Its perverse. Its apostate. Its demonic.
That anybody presumes to set up as a biblical doctrine the idea that they have authority to control somebody elses marriagewhat God created to be pure and joyous and freeing and loving and a cause for thanksgivingis nothing less than heresy and blasphemy. You cannot believe that doctrine and believe the words of Scripture. You cannot practice that doctrine and still have a clear conscience before God. You cannot follow that doctrine and follow the leading of the Spirit. You cannot trust that doctrine and still have faith in Christ. If you believe otherwise, repent.
Following Jesus is about living in freedom.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17, NIV)
Sure, for parents, freedom can invoke the fear of the unknownwhat will happen to my children if I dont control them? What if they want to marry some serial murderer?but thats where faith comes in. You train up your children in the way they should go, and the way they should go is walking in freedom after Christ on their own, living in wisdom and liberty and self-control.
But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5, NASB)
Sure, for young people, freedom can be dauntingwhat if I never meet anyone? How do I know hes the one? What if God wants me to be single?but again, its a chance to strengthen your faith. You wouldnt need faith if everything was easy; you wouldnt need Gods guidance if everything was clear. You learn it by doing it, and you get it by asking for it:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (James 1:5, NASB)
That goes for parents and children and adults and everyone else. Follow Jesus, love your neighbors, have faith in God who will guide you and give you wisdom. Thats the truth, and that will set you free. You are free in Christ. You are free indeed.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lords favor.
Jesus (Luke 4:18-19, NIV)
by Eric M. Pazdziora