(For the next few weeks, I’m quite busy preparing for the Fall semester. I’ll be out of the office a good deal for various retreats and speaking engagements. Instead of writing new material I will be re-posting some of my more popular articles, as well as some of my personal favorites.)
I’m about to open up a can of worms, but here goes…
Some time ago, a friend of mine sent me this article from World Magazine about the challenges faced by Christian college students as they approach the subject of dating. While the culture around them encourages random “hook-ups” and sexual immorality, Christian students often retreat to the opposite extreme, refusing to date until they are fairly confident they’ve found The One. The reasoning is something like, “If I avoid dating, I can avoid immorality, heartbreak, and insensitivity toward others. I’ll just wait until I really, really like somebody — enough to probably marry her — and then ask her (and her parents) to consider beginning a serious relationship that’s headed toward marriage.”
In the past ten years that mindset was most notably popularized by Joshua Harris in his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. The book is referenced in the article as one of the factors causing the current confusion many Christian college students have about dating. As a college pastor for the past seven years, I’ve observed that many, if not most, Christian students do in fact take an approach similar to the book. Even if they don’t agree with its principles, guys and girls are afraid to simply go on a date, for fear it might be construed as the prelude to something much more serious. And it isn’t only men who are guilty — men often don’t ask, but I’ve known women who won’t go on a single date unless they feel confident that the guy is their one true love.
This paralysis troubles me for a few reasons:
The Bible never addresses the subject of dating. Before you write that angry comment, let me clarify. The Scripture does talk about male/female relationships quite a bit. It draws clear boundaries around sexual behavior — not even a hint of sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3). The only appropriate context for sexual activity of any kind is marriage (Hebrews 13:4). The Bible is also quite clear that Christians are to marry only Christians (1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14-18).
But the Bible never prescribes a certain way to find your mate — that wasn’t the concern of Scripture, since arranged marriages were the cultural model. Before you advocate returning to that model (and as a father of two daughters it does seem attractive to me at times), talk to a Christian woman from a strictly Muslim background and ask her if she favors arranged marriages. Every model has its drawbacks. My point is simply that the Bible does not provide a clear statement for us regarding dating vs. courtship vs. arranged marriages.
Dating does not always lead to immorality or emotional heartbreak. It is true that in our culture, dating is often accompanied by sexual immorality, deception, mindgames, and emotional devastation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to have lunch with a person without leading them on, sexually misusing them, or playing emotional games. Sin is not so much a consequence of a particular model of dating as it is of sinful people who hurt and misuse other people. Notice that the people in the article who are practicing courtship are still playing deceptive games — trying to show up at the right times in the right places, flirting, lurking, etc.
How can we avoid those outcomes when we date or court? I think there are a couple of ways. First, young men and women should involve their parents in the dating process, if possible. I realize that not every parent is a wise one, and not every parent is even a Christian, but if you have godly Christian parents I’d encourage you to ask their feedback about your dating life. When my kids reach dating age (around 47 years old), I plan to meet their dates, help them set boundaries, and assist them in evaluating marriage prospects. If your parents are non-Christians or won’t give good input, seek wisdom from the Christian community: pastors, godly friends, mentors. Second, use the Scripture as a model. When I preach on dating, I use Proverbs 3:3 as a guideline: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.” Are your actions toward dating partners straightforward and truthful? Are they consistent with Scripture? Are they kind, seeking the best interest of the other party? If so, you’re probably doing alright.
Finally, I think the way many students are approaching dating right now is born out of fear rather than trust in the Lord. As I read the article in World, I got the impression that these students were crushed by pressure and fear. Particularly interesting was Brett Harris’s comment intending to defend guys who don’t initiate — these men are afraid of rejection so they simply avoid the risk.
Avoiding dating will certainly help you avoid certain kinds of pain, but it will lead to other kinds of pain. There is simply no way to avoid pain if you’re interacting with other people — we don’t seek it out, and we do all we can to keep from hurting others, but it happens. Learning how to deal with conflict, misunderstanding, and even rejection is a part of the sanctification process. We don’t want to be reckless, but relationships do require a degree of risk. No way around it. The upside is that risk can often pay off — I can’t tell you how glad I am that I risked asking out Shannon. And that she risked going out with me in the first place, even though she felt a bit uncertain whether I was really marriage material.
I do agree that the purpose of dating is ultimately to find a mate, but you can’t really know in our culture if a person is a suitable mate until you spend some time together. Especially in college, most people don’t live with their nuclear families. We don’t live in small towns where we’ve known the same people for 20 years. A different culture might require different models of dating than we saw in 19th century New England or 1st century Palestine. That’s not bad, as long as you follow the clear Scriptural commands about sexual morality and Christian marriage.
Bottom line: I think fear of mistakes and lack of trust in the Lord has led Christian college students to withdraw from developing healthy and godly relationships with the opposite sex. Men, I’d challenge you to take a few risks and go out on a few dates. Be clear with your intentions and above reproach with your actions, but don’t operate out of fear for your reputation or what everybody might think about you. And ladies, don’t be afraid to say yes, even he’s not your picture of the perfect mate. There might be more in there than meets the eye.