Joshua Harris and Arranged Marriages

If you swim at all in the waters of evangelical subculture, you know who Joshua Harris is. Though he has since retracted much of what is in the book and has even left the faith, he is most famous for writing “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Published in 1997, the basic premise of the book was to argue for the model of “courtship” over the model of “dating.”

Courtship is a model where a man asks the father of the woman he is interested in if he can pursue the relationship. And based on his response, they can start the courtship, which is the chance where they get to know each other. The “dates,” so to speak, happen after the father’s permission. Now, I’m not here to critique Harris, or even the concept of courtship. But I do want to draw some (seemingly unlikely) parallels to my culture’s practice of arranged marriages.

You see, I only learned about Joshua Harris later in life, because I didn’t grow up in the mainstream evangelical subculture. I grew up in the Indian Christian subculture. And the model that is often held up as ideal in this subculture is not courtship or dating but arranged marriage. Arranged marriages are typically characterized by a parent or a relative pointing out a potential candidate to someone of marrying age. The marrying couple themselves have limited interaction, and then they get married. Think of it as a courtship with the parents or relatives as the instigators of the relationship.

Now, arranged marriages can work beautifully, and I’ve personally seen healthy marriages grow out of that system. Like courtship, there is much good that comes from the intentionally of focusing on marriage as the end of the process. Also like in courtship, there is much value in involving the older and wiser members of the family at an early stage of the relationship. There is some discernment that can only be bought with decades of life.

But arranged marriages can go terribly wrong as well. If you never, or only briefly meet someone, how do you gauge their godliness? Often in our technological age, proposals are done through the internet, not unlike online dating. Do a Google image search on “Christian Biodata” and you’ll get a general feeling for what that looks like. And not unlike online dating, arranged marriages often tend to focus more on the externals (good looks, education, reputation of your family) and less on the harder to quantify virtues of the Christian life. (love for Christ, passion for the lost, a spirit of sacrificial generosity)

Now there can be arguments on all sides on which method (courtship, arranged marriages, or dating) is the wisest. And I think those arguments should be had. But one thing that we as Christians should not tolerate is any indication that the Bible prescribes any of these methods. To do so is to alienate believers who come from different cultures and to encourage unbiblical “secret” dating, completely cut off from Christian community. But worst of all, it is to, like the Pharisees, “teach as commandments of God the traditions of men.” (Matthew 15:9) And Jesus didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about those guys.

So why do we, both in the evangelical and Indian subcultures, do this? I think its fundamentally a confusion of models over principles. I think both subcultures rightly look out at the current American dating landscape and see a train wreck, mixed with a plane crash, which is then subsequently doused in gasoline and set on fire. Huge divorce rates, premarital sex as the norm, an endless amounts of heartbreak and tears. Who wouldn’t want to stop something like that? So they think the problem is dating itself, not the way that dating is carried out. They are not unlike the house-church-only guys who see (legitimate) problems with mainstream American churches and diagnose that the problem is the church model, not the underlying principals.

And the Bible does have principles for romantic relationships. We should search for the most spirit-filled, godly, sacrificial spouses we can find. And we should do it in the context of brutally honest community that will see the red flags that we don’t and who will hold us accountable to strive for the highest level of physical purity. And that, more than focusing on a particular model, will be the best building blocks of tomorrow’s healthy, resilient, and fruitful marriages.