With divorce rates in the church matching or exceeding those of mainstream society, some conservative Christian groups are looking to reverse the trend by advocating the ancient and biblical process of betrothal.
Captain Bret Smith, a licensed sea captain and independent businessman in Griffin, Ga., is one of the leaders of a Georgia group that believes parents particularly fathers have a responsibility to help their children choose the right spouse.
Some men and I have been carefully going through the Bible and seeing how the Bible speaks to things we take for granted, and one of them is how do we expect children to find mates, said Mr. Smith.
Among the other Christian groups and leaders advocating biblical betrothal are Wisdom s Gate in Covert, Mich., and writer-educator Jonathan Lindvall of Springvale, Calif.
Mr. Smith, who also is president of the Home School Advantage and creator of the nationally broadcast program Captain Bret s Christian Movie Show, said the prevailing American system of dating, engagement, and marriage clearly is not working.
The cultural wisdom is that they try out one partner after another and of course the result is that in the churches the divorce rate is well over 50 percent, he said. Extended families are in turmoil as sons and daughters fall in love and marry partners that distress their parents.
He and members of his ministry group, called Fellowship of the Father, are promoting the betrothal process online at www.biblicalbetrothal.us and have hosted three-day workshops, called the Biblical Betrothal Camp, to explain the concept to interested parties.
I definitely see an interest among the homeschooling Christians that we associate with a lot, he said. The typical modern church family who does not live much differently than the world may think it sounds dorky or dumb, but there are a whole lot of families out there who are saying, We don t want to live like the world. We want to go back to a biblical lifestyle. So I think there is a niche for this.
Mr. Smith, 47, and his wife, Jacqueline, have 11 children ranging in age from 24 to 2.
He said he helped his oldest son and two oldest daughters find their spouses by using a process developed through an intense study of the Bible and marriage.
All three of our children that are married all went through biblical betrothal, Mr. Smith said. We ve just been so pleased with how the process works out and how you actually look at the Scriptures and say, What would it look like if you did this in a biblical fashion?
For their two daughters who were married, one at age 18 and the other at 17, he said that when they came of age he gave them each a heart-shaped necklace with a keyhole, and told them it represented the key to their hearts.
I said if she desires, she can give me the key and if she does so she is making a vow that she will give me all her affection and allow me to guard her heart until the day of betrothal, and that she will not be talking to young men or entertaining ideas about young men but will give me her whole heart, Mr. Smith said.
He then spread the word among all the godly men I know that his daughters were available to be courted.
The fathers would come and talk to me, and then we d pray together, Mr. Smith said.
If a potential suitor was not interested in his daughter, his daughter never knew about it and therefore her heart was protected, he said.
When a suitable partner was found, someone of whom both Mr. and Mrs. Smith approved, the parents then arranged for their daughter to spend time with the young man.
I told him specifically that I m not giving him permission to win my daughter s heart, just to ask her questions and things he needs to know to make a good decision, Mr. Smith said. I told him, Don t tell her things you think she wants to hear. Be honest. And I don t want this period to go on for too long, it would be dangerous for my daughter s heart.
He said it took about two weeks before his oldest daughter concluded that she believes it s God s will that she marry the young man.
The Smiths followed the same basic principles for their second daughter and their son, who married at age 22.
And although the parents screen the potential spouses, the child ultimately makes the decision, Mr. Smith pointed out.
Kevin Anderson, a Toledo-area psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling, said betrothal is essentially a cultural issue.
While arranged marriages are common in some cultures, particularly in India and some Arabic nations, most American youths would consider their father as being over-controlling if he picked their mate.
Everybody has a world view that is shaped by the culture they grow up in, Mr. Anderson said. In this culture, our world view is that marriage is essentially about romance, passion, and individual freedom.
While not endorsing the betrothal concept, Mr. Anderson said there is merit to the idea that choosing a spouse should be decided on more than just the passion factor.
The cultural model of love is not sufficient to make it a lifetime with somebody. Marriage is more complex than that, he said.
Mr. Anderson said he uses four key components to assess a marriage: day-to-day affection and friendship; an emotional connection; passion and sexual connection, and a spiritual connection.
I will often say that romance and early passion are just the first tank of gas in the vehicle of marriage. It only takes you so far, he said.
Mr. Smith said there are many biblical examples of betrothal, including Abraham purchasing a bride for his son and Samson asking his father to make arrangements for him to marry.
He said the Bible speaks of Jesus Christ someday returning to Earth for his bride, and that human beings were created to follow God s example.
It says in Revelation 19:9, Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb. That will be the culmination of all human history, Mr. Smith said. It s a mystery and I don t know what it s going to be like, but it s going to be a tremendous thing in the future. I believe God intends for every wedding and every marriage to be a living example of what the relationship is supposed to be between Christ and his church.