Doug Wilson: “The beauty of biblical courtship is that it never leaves women unprotected.”

One of the comments that Doug Wilson has made regarding Jamin Wight and the abuse Wight inflicted on Natalie Greenfield is that Jamin and Natalie were in a “secret courtship.” The existence of this “secret courtship” is supposed to be a mitigating factor in the abuse. For the record, Natalie, and her father Gary Greenfield, both deny the existence of a courtship, secret or otherwise. Having read a good bit of literature on courtship, I wondered how what Natalie experienced could be called a “courtship.”

I discovered that Wilson has written a book on courtship, Her Hand in Marriage: Biblical Courtship in the Modern World. I decided to read the book and consider the following questions. First, how does Wilson define courtship? What is it, and why is it preferable traditional dating? Second, would what happened to Natalie fit under that definition of courtship? And, lastly, if there had been a “secret courtship,” so what? What difference would it make?

So first, what is courtship? According to the various advocates of courtship, such as Gothard’s ATI and Phillips’ Vision Forum, courtship is a way for a young couple to determine if they are suited for marriage. Unlike traditional dating, the couple does not get to know each other through going out on unsupervised dates. Typically, the process is for a young man to approach the father of the young woman he’s interested in and ask for permission to start courting her. The end goal is marriage.

This means that a man who is initiating in a relationship must take quite a risk in talking to her father. But God has designed it so that the man is the one who is to take such a risk. He initiates, and, if she has received her father’s blessing, she responds. This is biblical courtship. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 99-101)

Throughout the courtship, the couple will be expected to follow some strict guidelines regarding physical interaction. In general, no kissing, hugging, or hand holding.

The logic of unbelieving dating resembles a “test run” more than the courtship of a Christian virgin. Because of this test run mentality, it is not surprising that immorality is so prevalent. If a man needs to know a woman before he makes a commitment, then why should he be denied the privilege of getting to know what she is like in bed?

In God’s pattern, wisdom is exercised as public information about a suitor, or about a young woman, is carefully gathered. All intimacy follows the commitment; in the biblical pattern no intimacy precedes the commitment. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 1001-1004, emphasis added)

This process is designed to protect young couples from becoming emotionally and intimately attached to each other before marriage. The idea is that if their emotions are kept in check, they will be able to make a more rational decision about marriage. And they will be protected from the dangers of sexual activity outside of marriage.

We must reject the pattern of abdication, disobedience, and sexual immorality which we see all around us; hence, our rejection of recreational dating, or the modern dating system. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 124-125)

Fathers are key in this process. They act as gatekeepers and guardians. No one can court their daughters without their permission and all of the courting activities take place under their supervision.

In biblical courtship, the practical, involved authority of the father over the process is fully recognized and appreciated. With recreational dating, the authority of the father is treated as a vestige of another era, or as a joke. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage Kindle (Locations 315-317)

Doug Wilson explains the protection of courtship:

Apart from biblical dating or courting, there are many destructive consequences-emotional, sexual, and spiritual. But if a young man seeks to initiate a relationship, and takes full responsibility for the relationship under the woman’s father, there is scriptural accountability and protection. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 40-41)

The beauty of biblical courtship is that it never leaves women unprotected. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Location 93)

In courtship, a woman’s fundamental protection is provided by her father. But this does not mean that her suitor has no responsibility to act like a gentleman. Suppose the father has given his permission for a young man to court his daughter. As a godly man approaches a woman, he should assume all the risk. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 437-439)

Wilson also explains the way courtship should work. By its nature, courtship is very public:

With biblical courtship, the courting activity is publicly connected to the life of the family, most likely the family of the young daughter. With recreational dating, the privacy of the couple is paramount. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 322-323, emphasis added)

When a young man is given permission to court a young woman, he is limited in his access to her. He has permission to get to know her while spending time with her family:

If the daughter is interested in the suitor, then the father should come back to him, and say, “No, you cannot take my daughter out, but you may take us out.” Because there is interest, the young man is given permission to spend time with the family. If that goes well, he may begin to spend time alone with the daughter under the watchful oversight of the father. The young man is being invited to spend time with the family. (Kindle Locations 856-859, emphasis added)

If at any point the father (or the daughter) decide that the courtship shouldn’t continue, the father can revoke the permission:

If it becomes obvious during the courtship that the young man is not suitable, then it is the father’s duty to explain to him that he is not free to continue to come around in the same way. He no longer has the father’s permission to single his daughter out in the way he has been doing. (Kindle Locations 867-868)

To summarize, courtship is an alternative to traditional dating that allows young couples to determine if they should get married while seeking and honoring a father’s role as protector of his daughters. It is designed to provide emotional and physical protection for young men and women. It is openly acknowledged, public, and has strict boundaries. There is no physical intimacy.

Given that understanding of what courtship is, let’s consider what happened to Natalie. I will warn you that the details are graphic and disturbing. Natalie explains how things began:

Jamin expressed an interest in me to my parents when I was 14 years old, months after he’d begun grooming me and had already instigated a physical relationship with me. To say I had a crush on him would be an understatement – I was completely infatuated with him, as is very common for abuse victims,  and had been since shortly after I met him at a church event when I was 13 years old. (No one knew the depth of my affection for him, of course, I think told my parents I thought he was pretty cool.) My parents told Jamin he could wait for me if he wanted to and they’d  reassess the situation when I was 18 years old. It was made exceedingly clear that in the meantime there was to be no ‘relationship’ whatsoever. As far as my parents knew there was no relationship … . My parents were naive and foolish, yes. They trusted him to respect the house rules regarding their daughter, partly because he’d been vetted by their own pastor as a seminary student. He didn’t follow the rules.

As a side note, it is common practice in Moscow for students at New Saint Andrews and Greyfriars to board with families. Students and families are encouraged to participate in this housing arrangement.

So, Jamin approached Natalie’s father and expressed interest in courtship. At that time, Natalie was 14, and Jamin was 24. Jamin was told that he could wait until Natalie was 18, and if he was still interested, then a courtship might be considered. Based on Wilson’s guidelines for courtship, that should have been the end of Jamin seeking out Natalie. But it wasn’t. You can read the timeline of events that Natalie put together here.

Here are some excerpts from Natalie describing what did happen over the next few years.

The beginning:

Jamin moved into our mansion on B Street and lived there along with 4-5 other boarders. At some point during this process Jamin expressed an interest in getting to know me. My parents discussed what they should do and ultimately my father told him he could wait around for me until I was older, if he wanted, and strictly forbade any development of a physical or romantic relationship. We were allowed to be friends. Two weeks later Jamin kissed me for the first time.

Later:

Let me describe a scene to you, one scene of many, many more just like it. It’s late afternoon in an old house on B Street in Moscow. A 14 year old girl goes bounces down the stairs of her family’s 8-bedroom mansion to get her favorite pair of jeans from the laundry hamper. A 24 year old man follows her down the stairs and enters the laundry room behind her. He sneaks up behind her and grabs her by the shoulders, she shrieks, then giggles. “Shhhhh! C’mere!” He says. He pulls her by the hand into the dungeon-like bathroom adjacent to the laundry room. “Jamin, stop! My mom will hear us!” the girl protests. “Then be quiet” he says, pushing down firmly on the top of her head until she buckles to her knees. She knows what he wants, it’s what he always wants and she hates it. She begins giving it to him and a minute later they hear footsteps coming down the long basement stairs. The man shoves the girl away from him, she falls backward into the laundry room and he closes the bathroom door to finish the job himself. The girl jumps to her feet, wipes her mouth and runs up the basement stairs, shaking nervously as she passes her mother on way. A close call.

The abuse continues:

Jamin began more serious abuse, this included sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse. He was wildly jealous of me, he spied on me, he gave me a strict set of rules to follow regarding my behavior, dress, and social life, he forced me to perform oral sex on him on a regular basis, he oiled the hinges of the doors in our home and frequently snuck into my room in the middle of the night, he limited when I was allowed to leave the house and where I was allowed to go (he did this by privately bullying me, as far as anyone else knew the decisions were my own), he demeaned me constantly and convinced me never to tell anyone about what was happening because he said they’d all know I was a slut and no one else would ever love me, he told me I should not go to college or develop any career or interests because I was to be his wife and the mother of his children someday and would have no need for continued education or a career path, he lectured me constantly on my flirtatious, sinful, tempting ways and convinced me I was an abhorrent girl with few redeemable qualities.

After Natalie’s father kicked Jamin out of the house:

Jamin no longer lived with us but still occasionally stopped by to grab belongings he’d left, and during these brief visits would rendezvous with me in the basement or in a car for sex favors. One time, I stopped him on the front porch and quietly asked him if I was still a virgin because I didn’t know if fisting constituted penetration. He laughed at me, then walked inside. This was one of the last times we ever spoke.

What Natalie describes is troubling and clearly abusive behavior on the part of Jamin. He groomed her, he abused her, and he did it all secretly and privately, hiding his actions from her family. There is nothing about what Jamin did to Natalie that remotely fits Wilson’s description of courtship.

The last question that I want to consider is: even if Natalie’s parents had agreed to a courtship between Jamin and Natalie, would that change anything? No, and here’s why. If Jamin had been allowed to court Natalie, he would have been given permission to get to know Natalie and her family in an open, public, and respectable fashion. He would not have had permission to have any physical intimacy or private dates with her.

So even if there had been a courtship, that would not have given Jamin the right to treat Natalie the ways in which he did. It would not explain or excuse any of his behavior. And it should not have been used to minimize the sentence Jamin received.

Jamin’s abuse of Natalie was not in any way a courtship. I’ve written before about the abusive tendencies of patriarchal systems, but I sincerely hope that emotional, physical, and sexual violation are not common behavior in Wilsonian courtships.

When a man initiates and a woman responds with her father’s approval, everything is wonderful. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Location 1008)

Theology has consequences

One of the reasons that Reformed theologians consider good doctrine important is that what we believe about God has a direct influence on how we act and behave. My college RUF pastor would say, “Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.” The corollary is that bad doctrine also has an effect. And it can show up in interesting ways.

Recently there have been news stories about Doug Wilson’s involvement in the wedding of a known, convicted pedophile. There is quite a bit of information out there regarding this, but I want to highlight just a few things. There will be many links that have more details if anyone is interested. [Probably the best summary is found at Wartburg Watch. Many of the links below come from that post.]

First, though, I want to consider some of what Doug Wilson has written that might give clarity to his actions. Not that I agree with his actions, but that it might help us understand what he’s done.

Doug Wilson teaches, in numerous places, that the cure for sexual temptation is marriage and having sex frequently with one’s spouse:

3. I am beset with sexual temptations. Does God have a solution for me? Yes. The love of a good woman who is willing to make love to you for the rest of your life. 4. But I am not married. What should I do about sexual temptation in that case? You should find out her name, and ask her. – Wilson, Douglas (2015-02-04). How to Exasperate Your Wife (Kindle Locations 951-955). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.

And,

Now God has provided a very practical help for Christians as they struggle with sexual temptation; that help is called lawful sexual activity. In order to provide satisfactory protection, sexual relations with a godly spouse should be robust and frequent. There needs to be quantitative protection, particularly for the husband. At the same time, the benefit of sexual relations should not be measured merely in terms of frequency or amount. There needs to be qualitative protection, particularly for the benefit of the wife. – Wilson, Douglas (2009-04-01). Reforming Marriage (p. 22). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.

Doug Wilson also explains that in criminal issues in the church, like child abuse, the church decides whether or not to involve the civil authorities:

He [the pastor] should always (of course) be discrete, but there will be times when he has a moral obligation to inform the elders of his church, or in drastic circumstances, the civil magistrate. If a man has molested children who are in his home, then those children must be protected from him. Unfortunately, we live in a time when the social workers who rescue the children might treat them as unbiblically as their foster father did. This adds to the weight of the man’s sin—he has left them horribly unprotected. But there is a sense in which there is a biblical confidentiality. The decision to inform the civil magistrate is a decision which is made by the church and not by the magistrate. A worthy pastor would defy any subpoena which tried to force information from him. But if the situation warranted it, the subpoena would have been unnecessary because he would have already presented the information. – Wilson, Douglas (2011-03-07). Fidelity (Kindle Locations 1748-1757). Canon Press. Kindle Edition. (emphasis added)

What does this have to do with the wedding of a convicted pedophile? Well, I believe that Wilson’s ideas concerning the curative powers of marriage, and his belief in the primacy of the church in deciding how to address criminal behavior may have influenced his actions in the case of Steve Sitler.

In 2005, Steve Sitler was a college student at New Saint Andrews College. He had been boarding with area families while he attended college. In March 2005, he confessed to Doug Wilson to having molested very young children over a period of years, including in the homes he had boarded or visited. According to an article from the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Wilson and college officials told the newspaper that they had immediately kicked Sitler out of school and notified police of his crimes, but decided not to inform members of the public because of concerns for victims’ privacy.

Another news article from 2006 reports that Wilson requested leniency in Sitler’s case:

On August 19th, 2005, three or four months before notifying his parishioners of Sitler’s crimes, Doug Wilson wrote a letter on Christ Church letterhead to Judge John Stegner. In that letter, Wilson requested leniency for Steven Sitler, writing:

‘I would urge that the civil penalties applied would be measured and limited. I have a good hope that Steven has genuinely repented, and that he will continue to deal with this to become a productive and contributing member of society.’

Steven Sitler is sitting right now in the Latah County Jail, serving a one-year sentence. Twice a week, Sitler drives himself, unsupervised, to his court-ordered therapy in Clarkston and Pullman. For 18 months, Sitler was a member of the Moscow community. He was a student in good standing at New St. Andrews College. He was not then and is not now a registered sex offender: his face won’t appear on websites like Watchdog until he’s released back into the community — a community Doug Wilson seems to believe should welcome the return of Steven Sitler not as a criminal; not as a serial pedophile; not as a dangerous man, but as a repentant sinner.

Doug Wilson has written that he believes Sitler was delusional when he was molesting children. Wilson has no training in psychology or counseling, not even ministerial training. Wilson is not ordained. In response to criticism that he did not warn his congregation or the greater Moscow community in an adequate or timely fashion, Wilson writes: “I am a pastor. I cover up sins for a living.

According to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Sitler was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 but only served one year:

Sitler, 30, of Moscow, was sentenced to life in prison, with retained jurisdiction, in September 2006 under a Rule 11 plea agreement with the state for lewd conduct with a child under 16. He served one year with the Idaho Department of Corrections’ retained jurisdiction treatment programs and less than a year in the custody of the Latah County Jail before being released onto probation. Under the terms of his probation, Sitler is prohibited from associating with anyone under the age of 18 without supervision of an approved chaperone.

In 2011, Steve Sitler became engaged to a young woman from Christ Church, Doug Wilson’s church. Because of the terms of his probation, concern was raised about him marrying and having children:

The discussion amongst Latah County Prosecutor , Bill Thompson; Judge Stegner; and Mr. Wallenwaber, focused, in part,  on the legal consequence if/when Steven Sitler and Katie Travis have children.  It may be the case that Mr. Sitler will not be allowed to share a home with his wife and child or children.  This remedy may be utilized in Idaho when the father is a convicted pedophile. Judge Stegner ruled that the wedding could go forward and issues regarding the protection of children will be addressed if and children are a factor in the marriage.

On June 11, 2011, Steve and Katie were married by Doug Wilson. Last year, Steve and Katie had a baby. The terms of his parole required that Steve be chaperoned at all times when with his child. His wife, Katie, was one of the approved chaperones. It appears that these measures were not successful in protecting their child.

The news story this week states:

During Tuesday’s review hearing, Latah County Prosecuting Attorney Bill Thompson said the state originally requested a review of Sitler’s conditions of probation to provide guidance on how to move forward given the fact Sitler had fathered a child and the results of a polygraph test had disclosed concerning actions.

Thompson said information the court now has “shows (Sitler) has had contact with his child that resulted in actual sexual stimulation” Thompson said the incidents in question occurred while Sitler was chaperoned.

“In some extent the state’s worst fears appeared to be realized by some of the recent disclosures in the polygraphs,” Thompson said. “The actions that he has engaged in and disclosed are a compelling basis that he cannot have anything close to a normal parental relationship at this time with his child,” Thompson said. “Everybody would love for Mr. Sitler to become a normal person, but the fact is he is not. He is a serial child sexual abuser.” The best way to protect is to prohibit contact except in direct line of vision with a responsible, approved chaperone. At this point in time, that means he would not be able to reside with his wife and child.”

During a review hearing Aug. 1, Sitler was allowed to continue living with his son until a second review hearing could be held. However, during the past month, Thompson said, Sitler’s wife was disqualified as an approved chaperone for failure to report disclosures related directly to the couple’s son and Sitler was required to move out of their home.

This is a very sad and disturbing situation. Doug Wilson has promised that Christ Church will release a statement regarding these new developments. But at this point I’m not sure how his actions can be defended. I hope Wilson will reconsider his teachings on the sexual temptation and marriage as a cure. I hope he will reconsider the primacy of the church in deciding how to deal with these types of cases. And I seriously hope someone will act to protect this child.