Guest Blogger: Zachary Garris
In one sense the Bible says absolutely nothing about dating. This is because the modern practice of dating was not around 2,000-3,000 years ago when the Bible was written. People married much younger back then (around 15 for Hebrew girls, 18 for Hebrew boys), and their marriages were arranged. Parents would set up marriages for their sons and daughters, and with their agreement, they would marry. There was no need for dating.
Now the Bible may not directly address the practice of dating, but it does say plenty about marriage. And these teachings should be applied to our practices that lead up to marriage. But notice this assumes that dating has the purpose of marriage. The Bible leaves no room for “recreational dating” or dating simply for the sake of dating. The Bible expects people to marry. And whatever practice we have that leads up to marriage, it must have marriage as the goal.
The Problem of Modern Dating
This of course reveals a significant problem with the modern practice of dating. For dating is often done today as an end in itself. Sure a dating couple may get married years down the road. But you don’t want to get married too young, they say—you should wait until you’re out of college and financially stable. And you want to get to know the person before marriage, right? That can take time, at least a couple years. So once a person hits 15 or 16, they date. They couple off and commit to one another as boyfriend and girlfriend (at least until they decide they don’t like the other person anymore). Then, if the relationship lasts four or five years, they marry.
Now if you are a Christian, you are put in a very difficult position. Because most people today who date for any length of time have sex before they get married. And this isn’t much of a surprise—as a relationship between a man and a woman grows, so does their desire to be physically intimate. But the Christian has to fight this desire. As every good church teaches, “Don’t have sex before marriage.”
But we must ask—is the modern practice of dating really conducive towards purity? Is it realistic to pair off with someone of the opposite sex for months or years, spend time alone with them, and then not have sex? The world says “no,” and so they fornicate. And I think they are right—sexual abstinence is not a realistic expectation within the modern practice of dating. But I disagree with their solution. We shouldn’t result to immorality. Instead we should abandon the modern practice of dating.
The Novelty of Dating
The fact is, dating in the Western world is an invention of the last century that has its roots in feminism and the sexual revolution. And the practice would have been unthinkable in most societies throughout history for two reasons. First, modern dating ignores the role of parents. Historically, part of raising one’s child was finding him or her a suitable spouse. Marriage completed a child’s transition into adulthood. Parents were to protect the virginity of their children until marriage (especially daughters), and they were also to help their children find suitable spouses. The autonomy of modern dating is possible only in an extremely individualistic society like America. We live in a culture where parents don’t want to “control” their kids, and kids don’t want to listen to their parents. Parents are completely left out of the dating scene.
The second reason the practice would have been unthinkable in previous societies is that modern dating is not very conducive towards marriage. In the past, people desired marriage for the sake of children, companionship, and financial stability (women usually had to marry for this purpose). Both men and women therefore needed the long-term commitment of marriage. But modern dating lacks such commitment. It is a semi-committed relationship that may or may not lead to marriage. A dating couple can agree to date exclusively, but they also understand that either one can break things off at anytime. In this sense, dating is better preparation for divorce than marriage. Modern dating trains young people to form relationships without commitment and then break off those relationships when things get rocky.
Is it really any surprise then that we have such a high rate of divorce in America? Did you think there was no correlation between our dating practices and our divorce practices? We live in a society that casually dates, casually gets engaged, and then casually marries. Commitment and loyalty are rare virtues today. We break up with boyfriends and girlfriends, we break off engagements, and we end our marriages in divorce.
And what is the result? Hurt. People suffer serious emotional pain from break-ups. Sometimes they have trouble entering another relationship. But usually they just get numb. And then it’s not so difficult to end another relationship—even if it happens to be marriage. On top of this, when people do finally marry they bring in all sorts of baggage from previous relationships. When they have become “one flesh” with previous partners, marriage is no longer the exclusive relationship God intended it to be. All of this has serious physical, emotional, and spiritual repercussions.
How Then Should We Date?
I hope it’s become clear that we as Christians need to rethink our practices that lead up to marriage. The modern practice of dating causes a lot of problems, and it therefore should not surprise us that the Bible has no category for such a “dating relationship.” There’s no such thing in the Bible as a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” The Bible only speaks of three categories for members of the opposite sex: family, spouse, and neighbor. This means if someone of the opposite sex is not your spouse or part of your family, then God considers that person to be your neighbor. You can call them your “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or whatever else you want, but God does not give you any special rights over that person. Until you get engaged, you have made no formal commitment and should treat that person like a brother or sister. Physical and emotional intimacy are not permitted.
Now this only addresses how we should not do things. But how then should we date? The most important thing we should do is involve parents in the dating/courting process. Parents are to raise their children in the ways of the Lord (Eph 6:4) and thus prepare them to be godly husbands and wives. And this means parents should also provide help in the seeking of a godly spouse. Parents should regularly discuss marriage prospects with their children, and they should oversee any dating/courting relationships that take place.
The pattern in Scripture is that sons “marry” and daughters are “given in marriage” (Gen 24:4; Jer 29:6; Matt 22:30). This means parents should raise up sons who are looking for an “excellent wife” (Prov 31:10-31). Parents should suggest suitable mates and then encourage their sons to pursue a woman of interest. They should teach sons to respect a woman’s father and therefore seek permission to court his daughter. Sons are to then leave their parents and hold fast to a wife in marriage (Gen 2:24).
Daughters though are to be given in marriage. This means parents have a greater role in the oversight of their daughters. The Bible teaches that fathers have covenantal authority over their daughters (Num 30:3-16). And this authority is transferred from the father to the woman’s husband in marriage (Eph 5:22). This means a woman is not independent before she marries, for she is still under her father’s authority. There’s nothing magical about age 18 that suggests a woman can now ignore her parents and live autonomously. This practice stems directly from modern feminism.
Instead, parents should be seeking to marry their daughters off. Parents should regularly discuss suitable marriage prospects with their daughters. But parents should also be protecting their daughters. Men have the God-given task of protecting the women in their lives, and this means a father must protect his daughter. It is foolish for a father to allow his unmarried daughter to spend time alone in private with a man who is not her husband. Rather, the father should require the man to court his daughter under his permission and oversight. This doesn’t mean the girl can’t go out on dates. But it does mean the father is involved in the relationship. Fathers must not abdicate their responsibility to protect their daughters. They should therefore oversee their daughters’ dating practices. Of course, this is difficult to do when a family sends their unmarried daughters out of the home simply because they turn 18. This is another modern cultural practice that we may want to reconsider.
So parents should implement such a practice of being involved in their children’s dating/courtship. But seeing that many parents do not do this, children should seek to involve parents in their dating. It’s not ideal, but a young Christian woman should ask her father to oversee her dating practice. And a young man interested in a young woman should seek the permission of the woman’s father. We must not follow the culture’s rebellion against the Fifth Commandment. We must honor father and mother, and this means parents should be involved in our dating practices.
Dating with Purpose
The final point is that singles should date with the sole purpose of marriage. This means two things: (1) People should not date unless they are ready to get married; and (2) People should marry early in a relationship. The first point should be obvious. If we reject the practice of “recreational dating,” then dating should always have marriage in mind. And if dating is done in order to marry, then someone not looking to marry should not date.
Of course, this raises the issue of when one is ready to get married. Many parents today set the arbitrary age for marriage at college graduation. Until then, marriage will only cause serious financial difficulties, or so they say. Now there is no denying that marrying in college can be difficult—but is this worth the risk of sexual impurity? Couples often meet in college, and there is no reason to make them wait four years before they can get married. If they are going to date, then they should get married and endure the financial challenges of marriage. They’ll face them regardless of when they marry. Money is not a good reason to encourage fornication.
The second point is that people should marry early in a relationship. This is met with the objection that it takes time to get to know someone in order to decide if you should marry him or her. Now it is true that it takes time to get to know someone—that is why you have a lifetime of marriage to get to know the person! But all you need to know before marriage is that the person is marriage material and that he or she will make a suitable spouse. And hopefully you are not only getting to know someone through spending time with him or her one-on-one. People are on their best behavior on dates, and this sets people up for deceit.
You should therefore get to know someone even before you go out on a date. You should be familiar with their reputation among their family, friends, and church. Ideally, you have access to these connections. But you can also get to know a person in groups and at social functions at church. These are opportunities to find out if a person is marriage material (Is he or she godly? Loyal? Hard-working? Do you have major theological differences? Etc.).
After you have made an effort to get to know someone in these ways before dating, there is little that you need to know in dating. If you are both solid Christians and you both like each other, then you should probably get married. It’s not about whether you are a perfect match but whether you are both willing to commit to marriage and to each other.
So don’t couple off too early in life. Wait to date until you are ready to marry. And if you like someone, try to get to know him or her before dating and find out if they are marriage material. Make sure the person is a Christian (1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14; Ex 34:16) and that you are on the same page theologically. If that seems to be the case and you are a guy, then ask the girl out. And try to involve her parents. This will provide protection against sexual sin, as well as show that you are serious about marriage. Then if things go well after a few months, you should get engaged and set a wedding date. Don’t settle for dating, but have marriage as your goal. It will be for the good of both of you. For marriage, not dating, is God’s good means for companionship (Gen 2:18), children (Gen 1:28), and sexual purity (1 Cor 7:2-5; Prov 5:15-20).
For further study
Douglas Wilson. Her Hand in Marriage.
This book is an excellent guide to courtship for parents, but it is also helpful for young men and women. The introductory chapter on the failure of the dating system is invaluable. Every Christian parent should own this book and put its teachings into practice.
Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas. Sex, Dating, and Relationships.
In the case that parents are not or cannot be involved in a dating/courting relationship, I highly recommend this book for singles. Hiestand and Thomas advocate “dating friendships,” where singles get to know one another without the physical and emotional intimacy of modern dating relationships. The book emphasizes the importance of commitment and getting married in a timely manner.
 The Bible also speaks of “betrothal.” This was similar to modern engagement, but it was much more serious and breaking it required a divorce (Matt 1:18-19).