Dating – is it right for Christians?

Some of my best blog posts seem to start as comments on someone else’s blog. This one was a comment I posted over at The Happy Husband, in his post titled Courtship is now in session. Here’s what I said:

Josh Harris certainly started a whirlwind of discussion with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, didn’t he? I think you’re [The Happy Husband is] perfectly right that much of the heated argument is coming from mutual confusion over definitions, especially about the word dating.

I think to Harris, and many other people, dating means “what the secular world calls dating”; in other words, a euphemism for shallow relationships built around premarital sex. No wonder they’re against it — we all should be! It’s not surprising, then, that they swing around to the other extreme and say, “Christians just plain shouldn’t date; they should find other methods of courting potential spouses”.

There’s also the fact that when people write books on dating, the first audience they think of to address (it seems to me) is high school and junior high students, who are either just going through puberty or only a few short years past it, and still in the middle of an onslaught of hormones. They’re noticing for the first time in their lives that the opposite sex looks really, REALLY good, and trying to figure out what to do about it. But most of them are years away from having the emotional, spiritual, or social maturity for marriage. For that audience, a book that says, “Don’t date, there are better ways of relating to the opposite sex” may be very good advice.

But I think there’s another segment of the Christian population middle ground that these authors are missing: adult Christians. People with the social, emotional, and spiritual maturity necessary to make a good marriage work. And that, I think, is the group of people who are probably saying to Harris and other “Christians shouldn’t date” proponents, “What are you talking about? You’re just plain wrong.” And again, it probably boils down to different definitions.

When I think of dating, I think of spending some time alone with a Christian woman I’m interested in getting to know better. We’d go out to dinner, or on a walk, or ice-skating, or some other activity that allows for plenty of time to talk. And we’d ask questions, find out about each other’s families, each other’s relationship with God, and each other’s interests, dreams, and passions. All the while, the question would be at the back of my mind, “Could she make a good wife for me?” And she’d be thinking the same thing: “Could he make a good husband for me?” If the first date was enough for a clear “No” for either one of us, the right thing to do would be to share that, politely of course, at the end of the date. “Thanks for a fun evening. I probably won’t ask you out again, but I’ll see you around at church.” Or, when I drop her off and say, “Let’s get together again sometime,” she might say, “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass. I appreciate the compliment, but I just don’t think it would work.”

(Incidentally, it’s a lot kinder to let someone down, gently but firmly, sooner rather than later. If you’re wanting to avoid hurting their feelings, consider this: they’ll be hurt, at least a little, no matter when you tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks” — but if you tell them as soon as you’re sure, you’re sparing them the pain of having the “What if…?” drag on, and on, and on.)

Christian dating, as I see it, should be all about evaluating the other person as a potential marriage partner. It should only be undertaken by those who are themselves ready for marriage, and it should be undertaken with the greatest of respect for the other person as a fellow child of God. That means, among other things, back off on the physical. Don’t kiss on the first date, or even on the second. Only kiss when you mean something by it, when there’s already some level of emotional commitment and you both know you’re getting serious about each other. Exactly what level of commitment is something you’ll have to decide for yourself, but you should at least have known each other for a while and know what you’re getting into. For myself, I’ve decided that I only want to kiss a woman after I’ve asked her to marry me. I’m not saying that everyone should follow that rule, but you should at least know that you plan to date only this woman for a while. In other words, you should be “going steady” before you kiss. (Now there’s a useful phrase that should be brought back into the language!)

I’ve come to this opinion gradually, though reading books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Passion and Purity by Elisabeth Elliot, Boundaries in Dating by Cloud & Townsend, and A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit. I’ve also had long conversations with other Christian guys, some married and some not, about their dating relationships, mistakes they’d made in the past, and pain they’d suffered. One thing I was surprised to learn is just how much of an emotional bond is established just by kissing. But when I thought about it, I realized that I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The process of becoming one flesh isn’t just about sex and physical intimacy, it’s also about emotional, mental, and spiritual intimacy. They’re all connected. One married friend of mine (male) put it this way: “Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual intimacy in a relationship are like four sliders tied together with a rubber band. If one of them gets too far ahead of the others, the rubber band is stretched. And if it’s stretched too far, it’s in danger of breaking. The thing is, the other sliders have to be pushed, but the physical-intimacy one has a motor driving it forward.”

There are many ways of dealing with that motor that tries to drive physical intimacy forward. Some of them involve putting very careful limits — chaperones and the like — on opportunities for any physical involvement at all. Others involve setting limits for yourself, and then getting good friends to check up on you every once in a while: “How are you doing with your boundaries?” Ultimately, though, the goal is that once you get married, you know your soon-to-be-spouse well enough on all levels — mental, emotional, spiritual, and yes, physical too. The physical should be held back some, but I think it would be a mistake to hold it back all the way down to “No physical intimacy whatsoever,” the way I’ve seen some people suggest. Shalit, in A Return to Modesty, mentions people who don’t even kiss until their wedding day — the kiss at the altar is their first kiss. Shalit makes that sound like an ideal to live up to, but another married friend of mine (actually, the wife of the person I mentioned in the previous paragraph) said, “That sounds like a supremely bad idea to me. Unless you want to wait a few weeks before you have sex, that is.” Expanding on her husband’s analogy of the sliders and rubber band, she explained that holding the physical back so much is going to put a lot of tension on your relationship, and pushing it forward all the way from “no kissing” to “sex is OK” in one day is also far too much change at once, and would put its own kind of stress on the relationship.

So that’s what I think of courtship and dating. Basically, understand that physical intimacy will pretty much drive itself forward, and concentrate on pushing the other three — mental, emotional, and spiritual intimacy — forward in your time together. And figure out how you’re going to hold physical intimacy back to a proper pace: slow, but not completely stalled. Talk about your physical boundaries with each other, agree to respect each other and hold each other accountable for them, and then (because you’re both going to be strongly tempted at much the same time, so just holding each other accountable won’t always work) find a few good friends who can help. And then spend lots of time together, and talk a lot. And the last thing, which I haven’t mentioned yet although I really should have said so from the beginning, bathe the whole process in lots of prayer. If you do that, you probably won’t go too far wrong.

6 Comments

  • janine says:

    I strongly believe that dating is for mature people only; I also believe that dating is given the wrong connotation. I agree that there are many other ways to get to know people of the opposite sex, but I consider dating as the simplest way of doing so. Dating is like wading through the many prospects, and by doing this you also get to assess and to wait before you decide to marry whoever it is you think is your perfect partner.

  • lean says:

    Thanks for the thoughts.
    Good to be reminded of the need to pray, the need to set boundaries, the need to find friends to whom we can be accountable to.. Esp when my fiance and i struggling are against being too intimate physically . Thanks again

  • Jay S. says:

    Good thoughts! Tough to determine which is more in keeping with the mind of Christ. Waiting until kissing “means something”, holding off ’til engaged, or the big one – the wedding day! I’m holding out for the wedding day, but the engagement day seems pretty tempting, too.

  • Robin Munn says:

    That same married friend (I’ll call her Mary, and I’ll call her husband Joe), said later on in that conversation, “When I was dating Joe, that was one level of commitment. We were dating each other exclusively, but we also knew that a lot of dating relationships don’t end up in marriage, so there was a good chance that I’d end up married to someone else, not Joe. So we kept in mind, what would I regret having done with Joe if I ended up married to someone else? Now, once we were engaged, that was a different level of relationship and intimacy. We drew a different line. Still well short of sex, but further along than before.”

    Joe then chimed in, “I thought about how I’d feel if Mary had dated someone else before she’d met me. Or what if she’d been engaged before she met me? Would I have felt robbed of something special if she’d had sex with her previous fiance? Absolutely. Would I have felt robbed if she’d kissed her previous fiance? No; I would have considered that to be a perfectly appropriate level of intimacy for that relationship.”

    After thinking it over, I tend to agree with them. A kiss expresses a good deal of commitment — but getting engaged actually expresses quite a bit more than that same level of commitment. So not kissing your fiancee, I think, would actually be denying her something you should be giving her: one particular expression of your commitment.

    Now, having said that — kissing is a mighty powerful thing. In a very real way, it’s preparation for sex, and it does a great job of creating desire. So you should be aware of its power and treat it with respect: don’t get into long necking sessions, for example. Bad idea. Find a different line, but do draw the line, and get friends to check up on you.

    The physical-intimacy line I’ve decided to draw for dating is a pretty simple rule-of-thumb: nothing I wouldn’t do with my sister. That means no kissing, for example. Maybe one exception to the rule: holding hands. I wouldn’t do the fingers-entwined kind of hand-holding with my sister, but I wouldn’t consider that inappropriate for a dating relationship.

    For engagement, another fairly simple rule of thumb: nothing we’d be embarrassed doing in public. Kissing yes, but long, drawn-out kissing that turns into a necking section, no. And so on. Plus another rule, to make sure that temptation doesn’t run away with us. Touching each other may only be done in public. When we’re alone together, NO touching. And get friends to check up on us and ask us, regularly, if we’ve broken any of those rules.

    Now, that’s my line. Where you draw the line is between you and God. And, if you’re currently dating or engaged (I’m neither), your girlfriend or fiancee, of course. But I’d advise you to consider just how much of a distance there is between “no kissing” and “everything, including sex, is perfectly O.K.”, and just how fast you’d be bridging that gap if you wait until the wedding day for the first kiss. It seems to me that engagement, rather than the wedding day, is the right time to start allowing physical intimacy to move forward. Keep in mind that not all engagements are successful, and don’t defraud each other of anything that really should be saved for the wedding night. But withholding all physical intimacy during the engagement is, I think, going too far.

  • For me of course it does dating is right for christian not only christian it is where we can meet our partner that God would give. and maybe it will make our faith stronger for the name of God. thanks for the post and much love and thanks again.

    desireemay

  • Ellie says:

    Wow, I love everything about this post, its clear cut and well thought through. I agree with it all, now I just have to find a guy that does too :P