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 The Bondage of Betrothal

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 didn’t know it before, either.) This teaching has it that since a father is the head of the family, his children are completely under his authority—even for deciding whom they marry as adults.

Under this system, adult daughters or sons who presume to consider marrying somebody their patriocentric parents don’t approve of may be labeled rebellious against God and His plan for the family. It’s 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 isn’t about minors—I’ve heard this from men and women in their twenties or even older, still bound by parental authoritarianism. It’s a small step from “stay-at-home daughters” to “kept-at-home daughters.”

Let’s 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 Abraham’s 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 8:31–36, 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. It’s 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 truth—Jesus 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 5:2–4 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 they’re 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 can’t rebel against their servants, only against their masters. But if you’re positioning yourself as anyone’s master, you’re trying to take the place of the Lord. You’re 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 slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28 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 children’s lives and decisions about whom to marry. In other words, they don’t allow them to be free in Christ.

But doesn’t the Bible say “Children, obey your parents”? “Honor thy father and mother”? Of course it does, and I’m 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 they’re 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 children’s lives is self-defeating. Godly parenting is the art of helping someone who’s completely dependent on you to not need you anymore. You’re 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, that’s 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)

That’s the very first thing the Bible says about marriage—in the story of Adam and Eve, no less—and it’s the most widely quoted Old Testament verse on marriage in the New Testament (Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7–8, 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, that’s 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 Zelophehad’s 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 that’s the right thing? In the Torah, even? Yep. It’s not modern feminism; it’s 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 here’s 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 father’s 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 Testament’s advice that Christians should marry other Christians (1 Cor. 7:39). That doesn’t mean that we’re not free to make our own decisions, just that we ought to make wise decisions.

“Let them marry whom they think best.”

It isn’t 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 God’s 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, it’s a historical account that nowhere suggests it’s 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 24:57–58, NASB)

If people wanted to live the way the biblical patriarchs did, they’d give their daughters the freedom to decide whom to marry. That’s 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. You’d think the complete absence of the word “daughter” from the chapter in biblical Greek might tip people off that that’s a mistake. If you take the chapter as a whole, it is self-evidently an exhortation to embrace any situation you find yourself in—singleness, marriage, separation, whatever—as a chance to follow the Lord’s 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 Lord’s direction if He wants you to be single. You should follow the Lord’s 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 God’s commandment from the Torah—“Let them marry whom they think best”—to New Testament believers. It was true then, and it’s 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 4:1–3, 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 can’t 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 isn’t marriage or celibacy. It’s abuse of authority. It’s taking away the freedom we have in Christ.

They forbid people to marry.

It’s wrong. It’s sinful. It’s evil. It’s perverse. It’s apostate. It’s demonic.

That anybody presumes to set up as a “biblical” doctrine the idea that they have authority to control somebody else’s marriage—what God created to be pure and joyous and freeing and loving and a cause for thanksgiving—is 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 unknown—what will happen to my children if I don’t control them? What if they want to marry some serial murderer?—but that’s 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 daunting—what if I never meet anyone? How do I know he’s the one? What if God wants me to be single?—but again, it’s a chance to strengthen your faith. You wouldn’t need faith if everything was easy; you wouldn’t need God’s 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. That’s 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 Lord’s favor.”
—Jesus (Luke 4:18-19, NIV)

by Eric M. Pazdziora

 2011/5/23 17:13

Joined: 2003/5/8
Posts: 4419
Charlotte, NC

 Re: The Bondage of Betrothal

Very interesting thoughts.

Jimmy H

 2011/5/23 17:22Profile

Joined: 2009/2/20
Posts: 494
Celina, Texas

 Re: The Bondage of Betrothal

A777 this sounds as though somehow this may have hit close to home. Is there a questioning of the benefit of courtship over dating?

I can't imagine anyone entering the thread in disagreement and defending the abuse of authority you have described.

We have 2 children that will practice courtship and 2 that have not. I am open to Godly advise.

 2011/5/23 18:24Profile

Joined: 2011/4/7
Posts: 255

 Re: The Bondage of Betrothal


This is topic is what one has called "the hottest topic of the 21st century for Christians." I have some questions and comments about your article...

First, what kind of betrothal are you referring to? There are always numerous radical cases that are obviously wrong and then there are other cases. Could you show me some specific examples so I can better understand?

In the Bible, "betrothal" is not a picture of some oppressed young person who is told whom to marry. It's the idea of two people deciding to marry because they think it is God's will for them two. This is as opposed to the idea of dating and even courtship which is "let's play it safer by first seeing if we'll work out." Look at Rebekah, for example. She wasn't forced to marry Isaac; she was asked the straightforward question: "Wilt thou go with this man?" Also notice that she didn't say, "Well, I'll come and see if we'll work out...if not, I'm sorry." No, it was a matter of FAITH, of Rebekah believing that this was the one God wanted her to marry.

In no way do I believe that betrothal is for everyone; I know that every person couldn't handle it and I don't expect them to either. But I simply believe it's a matter of good, better, and best. Good is better than worse, better is better than good, and best is better than better!

Being a young unmarried lady myself, I wholeheartedly agree that the ultimate choice of whom to marry should be up to every young person. Yet at the same time I highly value my parents' wisdom and would not be content with someone they weren't content with. Do you get my point? I realize every young person's relationship with authority is not this way, but there are still a significant number like this. When you have deep respect for someone else's insight and guidance, it will inevitably carry into the way you choose a mate. I don't see advice as bondage, but as freedom, truly.

Also, scripture clearly lays out that a man "takes a wife" to himself and that a father "gives his daughter" to a man. Therefore, I would understand that a father ought to let his son, as a man, take a wife; while that same father ought to be more active in giving his daughter. This would mean the opposite, then, of what the extreme betrothists do, namely, keeping their daughters at home. It would mean that it is a father's duty to find someone if nothing's happening.

I have some betrothal testimonies that are nothing like what you've described...

Until later, the very best to you!


 2011/5/23 22:22Profile


Hi savedtoserve,

It is not surprising that this is a hot topic. And with hot topics you will have extremes and I am referring to the extremes although you would be surprised how it is growing and spreading. It is not just about controlling the adult child's choice in marriage, but keeping them home from persuing outside employment, college education, etc. I believe much of it is rooted in fear, by the parents. I PM'ed you with more.

All the best to you, too.

 2011/5/23 23:59

 Re: The Bondage of Betrothal

Isnt all this just a nother name for Arranged Marriages? Those are only practiced by authoritarian countries and authoritarian religions/cults.

Were there any arranged marriages mentioned in the Old Testament or New? I can think of only one, and that was Jacob's. It was arranged by God, not by his parents. I would never want my parents to arrange my marriage. I would be better off single forever! Only God should have that privilege.

 2011/5/24 0:07

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