Homeschooling, Legalism, and Parallel Cultures
Is homeschooling a form of legalism? How about counter-cultural practices like courtship (i) and big families, which are common in homeschooling circles? Questions like these have caused me no small degree of confusion. I turn to my own family and many families that I have known, and confidently answer, "no." But then I find blog articles, comments of friends, and even reports on television which seem to credibly contradict my personal experiences. However, as I have repeatedly encountered these contradictions, I have also come across a probable explanation.
This article is partially written as a response to Thomas Umstattd's article, Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed. I found statements in his article describing courtship like, "the man must ask the woman's father's permission before pursuing the woman romantically," which is true for many families that I know, alongside statements like, "...the fathers are rarely gentle or kind," which is opposite of both my experience and the experiences of my brothers. I refuse to believe that Umstattd is misrepresenting his observations; the entire tone of his article denotes reason and honesty. The only conclusion left to me, then, is that he and I have lived in parallel homeschooling cultures which share a number of similarities and yet have key differences.
But what could cause such a division? Consider Umstattd's statement:
"Each year I waited for courtship to start working and for my homeschool friends to start getting married. It never happened. Most of them are still single. Some have grown bitter and jaded. Then couples who did get married through courtship started getting divorced. I'm talking the kind of couples who first kissed at their wedding were filing for divorce. This was not the deal! The deal was that if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later. The whole point of courtship was to have a happy marriage, not a high divorce rate."
Umstattd's assumptions are evident in this quote, and did not change when he changed his ideas about romance. Consider his statement, "This was not the deal!" He – and all of his friends – saw courtship as a contract. They were to do their part even if they found it awkward, and God would then be obligated to do His part by giving them a fulfilling marriage. Thus, when this lie was revealed either by years of singleness or by an unhappy marriage, they rebelled against the idea of courtship, or even against marriage itself. Yet, in revising his beliefs, Umstattd retained the foundational idea that the ultimate purpose of dating methods, romance, and marriage, are the happiness of man.
The connection between Umstattd's foundational idea and the existence of parallel homeschool cultures, is that Umstattd's idea goes far beyond the practice of courtship. Paris Reidhead, in Ten Shekels and Shirt, stated that modern Christian fundamentalism has simply become another expression of humanism, where the ultimate end of salvation is the happiness of man. Umstattd's sentiments about romance and marriage have the same man-centered core. How can a Christian article about romance not mention the Glory of God, when God is the point of all of life, and when marriage is display of Christ and His church? My explanation of these parallel cultures, then, is that while outwardly similar, they are deeply divided along lines of theology.
Consider another assumption in Umstattd's article: "...if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later. The whole point of courtship was to have a happy marriage..." He and his friends believed that success and happiness in marriage could be brought about by a simple courtship formula. Implicit in this idea, however unintentional, is a denial of the doctrine of the deep sinfulness of man. In contrast, most "courtshipping homeschoolers" that I know tell me that the success and blessedness of any marriage will depend upon how tightly its members cling to the finished work of Christ, the faithful grace of God, and His ability to heal two deeply sinful individuals, far more than upon the method of courtship or dating which began the marriage.
This theological divide would also explain the differences between the fathers observed by Umstattd and the fathers I have observed. A father who believes that courtship is the most important ingredient for his daughter's happiness will tend toward overbearing control, while a father who understands the sinfulness of man will understand his daughter's limitations, but also his own limitations and impossibility of finding a perfect suitor. Such a father will also tend to act with mercy toward all suitors, because of his deep gratitude and humility which come from understanding the depth of sin out of which Christ has rescued him.
Thus my conclusion regarding Umstattd's article is that he mis-diagnoses the problems he has encountered. He believes that they are rooted in a wrong methodology (courtship), whereas they are actually rooted in shallow or incorrect theologies. However, I have a much more important conclusion to make with regards to the homeschool movement in general, and I have one more point to make in support.
This point is that these problems are not intrinsic to particular families so much as they are intrinsic to particular "communities." In Umstattd's article, for example, all of his friends shared these same problems, which I have rarely encountered; similar articles reference entire churches or homeschooling circles where these problems are universal. Even granting possible exaggeration, it is hard not to conclude that Umstattd's problems are pronounced and out of control in some circles, while being uncommon and rejected in others. (ii)
So, my final conclusion is that these parallel cultures do exist, and that their division is not along lines of external practice but rather along lines of practical theology. I say practical theology because I do not mean that Umstattd does not believe in the deep sinfulness of man, or absolute worthiness of God. Rather, I mean that he did not (and still does not) live out these doctrines in his favored approach to romance. (iii)
In the more general sense, I propose that some homeschool communities have failed to honor God in their counter-cultural practices because they did not set out to honor Him in the first place, but rather viewed these practices, such as courtship, as being primarily for their own happiness. Wiser methods of living applied in a void of deep theology are bound to become legalism and humanism. On the other hand, I hope that the doctrines of man's sinfulness, the victorious gospel of Christ, and the unfathomable character of God, drive my family and my homeschooling friends far more than any particular methodology of education or romance.
I will end with a recommendation for the repair all problems, both those found in Umstattd's culture and any found in my own: (iv) we must preach the character of God and the gospel of Christ both in their transcendence and in their practical eminence. We must live by a deep humility and grace born of our understanding of our own sinfulness, and by a great hope in the power of Spirit to conform us to Christ in all areas of life, including courtship and marriage.
Certainly, my wife and I have found these things to be absolutely true at all times in our relationship; without them we would have failed to bring glory to God, and probably would not be married. Our road was too full of doubts, struggles, questions, and sins for us to have succeeded on our own, no matter what model of courtship or dating we had pursued. I could say the same for many marriages I know, both ones that began with dating and ones that began with courtship. I do believe that courtship provides a couple with a wiser start in matrimony; however, it is the heart and the applied theology of a courtship, or homeschooling family, or any thing else, much more than the particular method, which determines whether it is pleasing to God.
--- End Notes---
(i) I use a very general definition of courtship here, as being the practice which is willing to change any aspect of the modern dating model using biblical wisdom, generally including an increased role for the girl's father, and a definite intentionality. In contrast to Umstattd, I must emphasize that intentionality does not mean that marriage is the goal of courtship. It means that the goal of a courtship is for the couple to determine whether marriage would be wise or not. A courtship which ends concluding that marriage would not be wise is just as successful as a courtship which ends in marriage, if the decision is wise. In my own courtship, I did not use the term "dating" simply because I felt that it would misrepresent my relationship with Kyleigh. However, I do not consider the term to be inherently sinful. It is the heart and the applied wisdom of a relationship which does or does not honor God, not the term used to describe it.
(ii) Regarding Umstattd's website, it seems likely that persons struggling with courtship as a cure-all methodology would visit such a site in much higher numbers than persons with the conviction that the ultimate purpose of marriage is the glory of God, and that God's providence, much more than a method, is what brings believers together for marriage.
(iii) I believe that this divide is also the best explanation for why people typically talk past each other when they disagree with each other on this issue. In our discussions, along with being humble and kind, we must understand where the difference is, and why we who have applied the same methods, such as courtship, have seen such vastly different results. Neither side is lying, neither side has its head in the sand, neither side is in denial, and neither side is expressing an isolated, uncommon situation. We who have seen courtship succeed ought to be merciful to those who have been wounded in what they believe is the same practice; they truly have been wounded. What they need is not a "more correct" practice of courtship, but a change in the cultures of their communities brought about by the depth of the gospel of Christ.
(iv) Those of us who do not believe that our families have the problems described by Umstattd's article must use both humility and caution. "Let those who think they stand take heed lest they fall." If we have seen the grace of God working in our lives and our courtships, we can attribute precisely non of this to ourselves.