Free to Date


I’ve been meaning to tackle this subject for some time. It was reading Tim Fall’s post about the “Purity Culture’s” lists of oppressive rules that finally goaded me into collecting my thoughts.

Although it was on a different subject, Tim’s reminder that we have freedom in Christ also applies to the issue of dating.

Tim cited Colossians 2:20-23:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

His excellent point was that heaping additional rules (especially when those rules are not against anything sinful) does not keep us from sinning. His explained that the Purity Culture is filled with the “commandments and teachings of men” and relies on list of don’ts rather than the Holy Spirit to lead/teach/convict of sin.

I highly recommend reading his post. But I’d like to build upon that and address a different subject. It is my opinion that those man-made teachings about “purity” affected the larger Christian dating culture negatively. I know other people have shared this view and even written on it before now.

The idea that courtship was the only option for Christians and that dating is inherently sinful came out of that Purity Culture and was popularized by a host of people during my youth. Joshua “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” Harris promoted courtship (although his idea of “biblical courtship” wasn’t as overtly controlling as the kind promoted by the Christian Patriarchy movement. That is even more disturbing and legalistic). There were other people too, although I don’t remember their names. I remember my mom made me listen to cassette tapes about it.

I remember hearing claims like, “dating is just preparation for divorce.” It sounded sort of true at the time, even though it was utter exaggeration.

Although the courtships themselves might have looked somewhat different, the common ground seemed to be stated intent of pursuing marriage from the outset, highly monitored interaction, and strict rules about behavior. (I found this post by a former proponent of courtship rather helpful in refreshing my memory.)

Between the popularity of that and all the “guard your heart” and purity talk that was everywhere as I grew up, I remember being rather confused by how it was supposed to work in practice.

I think many of us who remember the heyday of that thinking were influenced by it and some were truly warped by it. Even those of us who didn’t buy in have struggled to date rightly (or struggled to know how to date rightly).

How did we allow such ideas to take hold and steal our Christian freedom? I wish I knew the answer to that question. I don’t. What I do know is that the “dating is sinful” idea came from people. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were well-intentioned and saw how sinful dating can become and simply overreacted. It doesn’t really matter if they meant to institute legalism or not, in effect, they did. And that took a toll on many of us.

Libby Anne at Patheos wrote that “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” taught her, “that having relationships that didn’t lead to marriage was wrong. As a result, my first romantic relationship was serious from day one.”

Talk about pressure. The intensity, the needing to know from the get go if it was leading to marriage because of made up “rules” about courting/dating/relationships put unrealistic pressure on so many people. I think those questions and pressures and attitudes influenced just about all of us, even those of us who didn’t buy in completely. The ultimate result was to instill fear of dating, guilt about dating and a host of unrealistic expectations about dating.

Some Christians don’t know how to date, so they just don’t. Some of them are afraid of dating and failing to make it the altar, so they don’t.

In the intervening years some of the courtship crowd came to their senses, but Christian dating is no less of a mess than before and I’m convinced some of the problems today are residual impacts from that courtship overreaction.

Here’s the bottom line, getting back to Tim’s point. There’s no Bible passage that says we can’t or shouldn’t date. There are no Bible verse that says group dates are acceptable, but it is a sin to spent time alone with a person. No Bible verse says that a kiss before your wedding day is unacceptable to God.

Sure, it would be a whole lot simpler (in theory) if the Bible had a clear directive about who to choose and where all the boundaries are, because then we wouldn’t have to walk in faith and figure out how to date wisely and with integrity. But God gives us his Word. The Bible shows us what is right and wrong, what good character looks like and what bad character looks like. It says if we lack wisdom we can ask God and he will give us wisdom — and his Word is filled with it.

But because there is no biblical prohibition on it, we’re free to date. God obviously expects us to walk in faith and with His wisdom in this matter.

Great. Now what?

As Christians, redeemed by Jesus’ blood, we should desire to live lives that bring honor and glory to God. God gives us that desire to honor him, and obviously it should apply to all of our relationships and in dating, just as it applies to every aspect of life. So now that we know we have the freedom to date, how do we know what that might look like? Well, the Bible does give us some relevant guidance.

Biblical Guidance

It’s true that the Bible says nothing about dating, but it does talk about marriage. Here’s what I’m not saying: I’m not saying you have to be ready to propose if you’re going on a first date (or even a third!). That’s absurd. But if you intend to marry someday having that in mind as you get to know people by dating them is rather important. Therefore, what the Bible says about marriage matters.

One thing the Bible says about marriage that is tremendously important when it comes to dating is that Christians are only to marry other believers. Applying that principle to dating is also important.

2 Corinthians 6:14-15 says:Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?”

A first date with someone you don’t know is or isn’t a believer isn’t what I’m talking about. But choosing to continue dating and pursuing that kind of relationship with an unbeliever is sinning.

And I say this from personal experience. Just don’t do it. Don’t keep on dating someone you know isn’t a Christian. I’ve committed this sin and I can tell you that it will put a rift in your relationship with Jesus and that alone will wreck you. Dating and breakups are hard enough, without the added pain and shame of knowing all along you shouldn’t have been dating them at all. Although it humbled me and God bring good out of it by improving my character, the distance from Christ that resulted during this time in my life from my knowing and willful sin was emotionally devastating.

The Bible is also clear on what kinds of behaviors are sinful: sexual immorality, lying, selfishness, vanity and a host of others. Cruise through the epistles if you need a refresher course on what holiness v. immorality looks like.

This morning I was reading in the book of Matthew, chapter 22. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

We will never do this perfectly, which is why we need Jesus. However, if we are believers God can give us the desire to love Him and to love our neighbors, and it will be reflected in the way we live and the way we date.

Beyond that, looking to the Bible to understand the purpose of marriage is a good idea. So is letting God shape your character and make it more like His own.

And then, to quote one of my favorite books on the subject of finding God’s Will “Just Do Something.”

My Take: Dating as Christians

Okay, if you’re still reading great, but just know that everything I’m saying from here on out is my opinion. I’m just sharing some things I think will help Christians date better and be more Christlike in the process. This is not intended to be some new mandate or list of rules to follow. Nor is it in any way comprehensive. I’ve just been single long enough that I’ve done a lot of thinking, reading, trying and failing and these are some of the things I’ve learned or am trying to learn.

We should date differently than the world. Non-Christians don’t share a Christian worldview on the purpose of dating (or marriage), biblical ethics regarding character and behavior or sex. Lying and manipulation, dating for self-gratification, ego, status or for stuff is all part of the way the secular world dates. Plenty of non-Christians and Christians date for the wrong reasons. (I’ve also noticed that some Christians choose not to date –or get married — for wrong reasons too. Reasons like selfishness, comfort and out of fear)

Christian dating should look different because the life of a Christian should look different from other people’s. The most dramatic difference should be holding firmly to a Biblical view of the time and place for sex (only within the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman). But there will likely be differences in how we treat other people since we are commanded to love others, to have compassion and be forgiving.

We are not to act out of selfishness, but consider others more important than ourselves. If we are striving to walk in the Spirit, although we will certainly fail and need God’s grace, then it should carry over into our dating life. Honesty and kindness should prevail and the relationship should honor God as much as possible.

Ditch “the list,” except for biblical non-negotiables. Yes, they need to be a Christian. No, sexual immorality is not okay. I went over some of this earlier so I won’t repeat myself. Physical attraction is important (although it is not the only thing that’s important). If your list has a specific height, or career, or other random wishes about your future spouse that stem from selfishness on your part, ditch them.

It’s a date, not a marriage proposal. This is one of the holdovers from the courtship craze. The problem is courtship demanded you know and state upfront you were interested in marrying this person. That’s downright terrifying! So even though many of us want to date instead, there’s this carry over fear that asking someone on a date or going out with someone on a date is a whole lot more than just spending some time getting to know someone. Yes, dating with marriage in mind is important in the long term sense. But we shouldn’t have to make ourselves crazy on the first date or early in a potential relationship trying to ensure this will lead to marriage. A first date should not feel like it has to lead to a proposal. That is a crushing and unreasonable burden.

Let go of the legalism.  Adding man-made rules to dating is just as wrong as adding them to other parts of our lives, no matter how tempting or rational they may seem at the time. Rules don’t keep up from sinning, God changing our desires from wanting to sin, to desiring holiness is what keeps us from sinning. Seek that transformation instead of creating an extra-biblical list of do’s and don’ts.

Drop the soul mates nonsense. I’ve infuriated people by saying this in the past, but if you search the entire Bible there is absolutely no biblical basis for the concept of soul mates. There is no one “right” person out there for you. There is no one person who is going to “complete” you. You’re a whole person, a whole person who is a sinner saved by grace, but a whole person nonetheless. Belief in this concept can lead to problems such as A) never committing to anyone because you’re not sure they’re “the one.” B) unrealistic expectations about your relationship (that it will be perfect or always easy) and C) choosing someone and then later walking away claiming you were wrong. They weren’t your soulmate after all and this other person is so I need to be with them instead.

Stop trying to find a perfect person to date or marry. Lots of dating and marriage books and advice columnists point this out and they’re right. There isn’t a single perfect person out there, so stop waiting for them. If they seem perfect you just don’t know them well enough yet, and before you’re tempted to write them off for their imperfections, sins and quirks take a hard look at yourself and remember your own sins. I’m convinced unrealistic expectations keep many people from finding God-loving, but imperfect fellow believers to spend their lives with.

Honesty is the best policy. This one is hard, and I’ll admit that out of fear I sometimes struggle to live this out. But I think we would all be served better by striving for honest communication in dating when we want to date someone and when we need to stop dating someone. Sure, it can be risky and scary and rejection can hurt like crazy, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Grow in Christ and keep growing. This is purpose of the Christian life and should obviously continue as we date. All relationships have a way of refining our character, if we let God use them. I think that’s actually one of the greatest purposes of marriage.

No two love stories are the same. I love hearing the stories of how married people met, fell in love, got married and have stayed together — often through very difficult trials. The stories are always different and so are the lessons learned. It gives me hope and helps me not look for a specific type of story for my own life.

So you want to be married, let God prepare you. I foolishly believed in my 20s that I was ready for marriage. I thought I was so very mature. The opportunity never came along and looking back now I’m relieved. Now that I’m older, I understand far more about dating, relationships and marriage than I did then. Part of that difference has come from reading about marriage and having married friends. I’ve asked my married friends questions about the things that matter and don’t matter in their relationships and how to get through tough times. God has also had many more years of working in my heart and on my character. I still don’t know if I’ll ever be fortunate enough to marry, but I do know I’m far more prepared now than I would have been back then.

Extend grace. As Christians we recognize the depths of God’s grace. We comprehend our sinfulness and the price Jesus paid to forgive us. We did not deserve it. And the people we date (or marry) will sin against us and we’ll sin against them. In such situations we should strive to show grace and forgiveness, remembering our own sin and the depths of Christ’s love.

Allow for failure. It needs to be okay that some dating relationships fail. It’s an unfair and unreasonable expectation that your first relationship will lead to matrimony. If it was an unwise choice (or worse, a sinful one) it’s a good thing it ended. Some relationships will fail because of sin (yours or theirs). However, in dating there’s also going to be failures that have nothing to do with sin. I have gone on dates with some great Christian men. They loved Jesus just like I do. But ultimately we had personality or other differences that would have made us a bad fit for marriage, so it had to end. That’s not sinful failure.

Stop waiting for lightning to strike (seeking God’s will). God had not promised you a sign from heaven regarding who you should date or marry. It’s just not that easy. There’s a lot of confusion about finding God’s will for our lives. Many people who have a sincere desire to find God’s will for their life get tripped up here.

If that’s you, go read Pastor Kevin DeYoung’s book, “Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to finding God’s Will.” It’s one of the most helpful books I’ve read on the subject and it’s short.

Writing about marriage, DeYoung says, “For Christians there is another delaying factor: searching for the will of God in marriage. What decision, we think to ourselves, is more important than picking a husband or wife? Surely, God wants to, in fact, must tell me who is the right guy for me. Such an approach sounds spiritual, but wisdom points us in a different direction.” He then lays out four steps to apply wisdom to the situation (and many others): 1) Search the Scriptures 2) Get wise counsel 3) Pray (on this point he advises you ask God for pure motives and less that God would show you if the person is right, and more that God would make you the right kind of person) 4) Make a decision.

Sure, a lightning strike might be handy, but it’s not coming. Stop looking for signs and do the harder job of seeking wisdom from the Scriptures, seeking his transformation of your own heart and stepping out in faith by making decisions when it comes to dating and marriage.

It isn’t too late. People are getting married later than ever for a variety of reasons. Some reasonable, some unwise, and some downright wrong. However old you are, it’s not too late. It’s true that marriage later in life may be much different than it would have been if you’d married sooner. That’s okay.

Ultimately, friends: don’t give up hope, trust God and remember failures will happen but God’s forgiveness is always available.

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