Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer. Image courtesy of LBC9 Wallpapers
In the late 90’s a book came along that shook the world of thousands of young Christians. It described how the common ritual we call dating is fraught with peril and risk. How naive teenage Christians are putting their emotions, faith, and purity at risk by going out to dinner and movies without a clear endgame (marriage) in sight. That book was Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, published January 1st, 1997.
The book was a smash hit. Some of us liked having a Christian excuse for why we weren’t going on dates, others wanted a reason to look down at those who did and of course a few actually were concerned about the dangers Harris described. The smell of this gravy train wafted over to Moscow, Idaho and a few months later on April 1st 1997, Wilson published his “Me Too!” treatise on the evils of modern dating: Her Hand in Marriage.
Her Hand in Marriage covers much of the same ground that I Kissed Dating Goodbye did. Both books state that dating is a relatively modern invention that does not have the best interest of a Christian at heart and therefore an alternative must be found. I decided to pick up and reread this book last weekend to finish a marking/notes project I had with it from years before. The day after I finished my notes a certain fracas emerged over passages in the book and I was blessed that the whole thing was fresh in my mind.
One of the reoccurring objections HHiM has with “recreational” dating is that it leaves the parties emotionally vulnerable to each other. Wilson calls this the “Zone of Vulnerability” and if dating doesn’t end with marriage then both sides are hurt and become damaged goods because of the emotional scarring. He also states that if you do date and it ends with marriage, well, you just “survived a plane crash”, just because you survived the disaster doesn’t mean that plane crashes are good things. Doug’s solution to this is “biblical” courtship, a system he claims builds protective boundaries that prevents people from being hurt.
Of course “biblical” courtship is just as biblical as “biblical” patriarchy and the idea that we can somehow shield our children from emotional turmoil is equally ludicrous. Wilson’s method for this is that a young man who is interested in a young lady must go through her father before he has access to her, and the sort of activities they’ll be allowed to engage in will be strictly dictated by the father. Setting up the father as the overlord of his daughter’s romantic life will somehow prevent anyone from getting hurt.
It’s readily apparent why this does not hold any water. If the young man is turned away by the father, that could be a crushing experience. If the father turns away a suitor his daughter is interested in, she could be just as hurt. If the father approves, both go through a courtship and either the father, daughter or suitor don’t think it’s going well and cuts it off then either the father, daughter or suitor could be hurt. The suitor if he was rejected and his courtship cut short, the daughter if her suitor doesn’t fancy her as much as he thought he would and she fancies him, or if her father cuts off a courtship she was happy in. Even the father can be hurt if the suitor whom he has deemed fit to see his daughter rejects him. I fail to see how “biblical courtship” puts any emotional safeguards in place that can protect all parties involved any more than your average dating relationship.
The book also assumes that under standard “recreational dating” (even when practiced by Christians) that the parents have no say, no control over what happens. That the parents can’t restrict their children, son or daughter, from going on a date that they think is a bad idea, that they can’t advise their daughter that dating Ben B. Motorcycle is a bad idea vs. Johnny B Good. Wilson constantly tells us in this book about what a distorted idea of love and relationships Hollywood has given us, but I think he’s been similarly affected. He seems to be under the impression that if you don’t follow his methods that your daughters will be slipping out of their bedroom windows to go to wild parties with their bad boy beau. That they’ll skip out on going to math camp for the summer and become roadies for the Grateful Dead instead.
The book is centered around a theonomic reading of the Scriptures, that each law given to the nation of Israel is applicable to us today. While the law of God, whether moral, cultural or sacrificial reveal to us aspects of his character and nature, it is not true that under Christ we are bound to every jot and tittle of the law. This is backed up by the Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 (Thank you R. Scott Clark). Laws given involving a father’s authority over his daughter’s oaths (Num 30:3-16, Wilson relies a lot on this passage) must be given the same cultural interpretation and leeway that Wilson gives 1 Peter 3:3. It goes beyond that to the other verses he references. As horrifying as the thought is to us today, a law that allows a rapist to pay the bridal price and marry his victim, or just pay the bridal price was a protection for women in a society where it’s possible that no men would look at them after this heinous crime was committed against them (Thankfully this is no longer the taboo it once was). It may have even served as a form of deterrent (It’s also relatively progressive that the man paid a bridal price rather than the woman’s family paying the man to take her off their hands). However, just because that was something that worked well for that culture, at that time, is no reason to try and emulate that sort of behavior now. It’s no more helpful than telling women not to wear makeup and braid their hair because of 1 Peter 3:3.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the book is that Wilson acknowledges that fathers can be “chowderheads” sometimes. Obstinate, dictatorial, ungodly chowderheads who are on a path to ruin their lives and their children’s. But Wilson offers no recourse for the daughters of these terrible men. Instead he doubles down and emphasizes that despite their horrible behavior, their daughters are still under their authority. He doesn’t recommend that they tell their elders about the problem and have their father brought under church discipline, he doesn’t say anything can be done about it at all. The book is short, surely he could have fit in a page or even a paragraph about how to deal with a situation like that. Rather, he emphasizes their authority, giving them a stranglehold of control. I fear that this book has empowered men with a fragile masculinity, who dream of being the king of their castles, with a guise to cover totalitarian motives under the ruse that they’re just looking out for the best for their daughters.
In Scripture, it remains true that if a man has not been an obedient father, this does not remove his personal authority. He may be a poor father, but he remains a father. So even if a man has been disobedient, this does not grant his daughter the right to disregard anything he says.
It’s important to note that in this case we’re not just talking about an overprotective father with a shotgun approaching anyone who looks at his 15 year old daughter like some sort of caricature. Under Wilson’s system, the daughter remains under her father’s control and authority until she is “transferred” (like property) to another man. This allows scenarios such as an 80 year old man who could have complete control over his 40 year old daughter which he has kept so safe over the decades to come. Wilson never brings up how to deal with these terrible fathers, or acknowledges the fact that there are monstrous, abusive fathers who should never be trusted with this sort of authority over anyone, let alone their daughters. This shows his wild-eyed, naive belief in the inherent rightness of his self-constructed system.
Wilson’s agenda with this is supposed to be to protect the children, and the daughters specifically. This ties directly into the fiasco I referenced above, which circles around what Wilson titles the “propriety of rape”
Women inescapably need godly masculine protection against ungodly masculine harassment; women who refuse protection from their fathers and husbands must seek it from the police. But women who genuinely insist on “no masculine protection” are really women who tacitly agree on the propriety of rape. Whenever someone sets himself to go against God’s design, horrible problems will always result. The Bible says that we find the way to true self-discovery through self-surrender (Cicero’s Note: Citation needed). Those who exalt themselves are humbled, and vice-versa. In the feminist movement over the last several decades, women have been looking for (and have not yet found) themselves. This is because they have been trying to find and identify their role apart from God’s design. The beauty of biblical courtship is that it never leaves women unprotected.
Wilson has argued until blue in the face that he’s not really saying that women who disagree with him here are asking for it. No, he claims that what he really means is that those who disagree with him advocate rape. The problem is that it is extremely hard to get that meaning out of the text. Wilson does say that his feminist boogeymen tacitly agree on the propriety of rape because they disagree with him on gender relations. He follows up by claiming that the natural result of their disagreement with him on gender roles is in fact, rape and that this is natural and justified because it’s the consequence of going against God’s design. Women “who exalt themselves” above men are humbled, and how? Through rape. This is the sort of perverse theology which allows Wilson to blame the victim for being complicit in their abuse and pull the rest of his followers down with him.
Wilson ends this by saying that biblical courtship never leaves women unprotected, but as shown above he has never acknowledged that sometimes it’s the fathers that women need protecting from. How is that not horrifying?! It is hard to acknowledge that this may be true of people we know, people in our own congregations, but by insisting that the father is the god of his family who cannot be questioned and that Wilson gives no recourse for when the father behaves badly, he is tacitly agreeing to the propriety of abuse.
After that, the rest of my objections are rather small in comparison. The book is full of silly contradictions. Wilson recommends that people marry young, 19-23, this is what he says God expects. Try googling for how od a lot of the Old Testament patriarchs were when they got married and justify that. But Wilson also says they must be financially stable (I’d avoid attending NSA then). He mentions that widows can be the heads of their own household and constantly cites Lydia, despite the fact that the Bible never mentions that she was a widow and may in fact have been a free woman. Wilson never mentions what to do when a father allows for a young man he likes to court his daughter who has no interest in the suitor (He says this should never happen, but as stated above, “even if a man has been disobedient, this does not grant his daughter the right to disregard anything he says.”) The same arguments used here to justify Wilson’s version of courtship could just as easily be used to justify polygamy or slavery because it ignores that just because something is described in the Bible doesn’t mean it is proscribed. The list of objections is endless.
Reading the book, I was constantly hit by what I heard R. Scott Clark say on an episode of Calvinist Batman this past week: that we shouldn’t look to Scripture for answers to questions it doesn’t intend to answer. Wilson has done exactly that, he has turned the Bible inside out to try and justify a system he approves of that will sell books and bring people to Moscow. He is reading into Scripture exactly what he wants to see and issuing it as a requirement over all of Christendom. It is a form of control and it must be resisted.
For further reading, please check out this post from A Daughter of the Reformation who examines how this model plays out in the real world.