04 July 2018

Christian Dating: An Introduction

by Hohn Cho

One of the things that I so appreciated about Pyromaniacs back in the day was the sheer breadth of topics that Phil, Dan, and Frank covered. I was regularly blessed by biblical critiques of the latest evangelical fads, solid thoughts about theology, timeless quotes and passages from Spurgeon, formative articles on seeing our culture through a Christian worldview, and incredibly helpful practical pieces like this one from Dan Phillips, on Christians dating non-Christians, which I've cited many times, as recently as yesterday.

In that spirit, I think it's important for this blog to speak to a variety of matters. And while I'm no polymath like Phil, I've spent the great majority of my Christian life in ministry alongside primarily single folks, and so I'm passionate about the topic of singleness and marriage. So having written my first two posts on the innocuous and uncontroversial subject of "race," I've now decided to dip my toes into the far more placid waters of Christian dating, and this post will serve as an introduction to an occasional series.

As an initial matter, please note that I'm using the term "dating" somewhat loosely, in that I'm really talking about any intentional process that two Bible-believing Christians might follow in figuring out whether or not they ought to get married. One could call it dating, one could probably even call it courtship in certain contexts. In fact, Josh Harris, who over 20 years ago (when he was a 21-year-old single man) wrote "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" (a book which was widely credited with starting the "courtship" craze in Christian circles) subsequently defined courtship in a 2005 sermon as "a purposeful relationship in which a man and a woman are intentionally considering marriage" . . . which sounds a lot like what I would call intentional dating.

Even just a few months ago, Harris said, "I learned that intentionality can be taken too far, to where people can put the relationship under a microscope: Is this the person I'm going to marry? With such tremendous pressure, it's devastating when the relationship doesn't work out. It makes it hard for single people to get to know other people in a more relaxed environment . . . We don't do well with complexity. People latch on to movements for simple answers and promises. Even now as I revisit this issue, I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking this is the real answer. We need to go to God humbly as a community and recognize there's no one-size-fits-all approach."

Given how intensely the courtship concept has been applied in certain conservative evangelical circles, it's very interesting to see Harris' evolving views on this topic. And I wholeheartedly agree with many of his more recent comments, particularly that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. And one of the main reasons why is that we need to remember, the specific topic of dating isn't even in the Bible! We do have some descriptive examples and civil laws of Old Testament Israel relating to how people got married in the Ancient Near East, and some of those examples might even be helpful as we consider Christian dating today . . . but to be candid, some of the examples are, shall we say, not so helpful.

In the absence of clear imperatives on how specifically to go get a spouse, we're left with some excellent and timeless biblical principles, as well as some commands on general Christian behavior. The commands are straightforward. I can declare with confidence that in dating, one must abstain from sexual immorality, because that's what 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says. But it gets harder when we move to broader biblical principles, and that's because in any given situation, people apply biblical principles differently, they apply them with greater or lesser degrees of emphasis, and they sometimes even dare to apply entirely different—but still valid—biblical principles.

This means there's necessarily a lot of Christian liberty when it comes to dating. And so despite the yearning we've seen in the courtship culture and elsewhere to turn dating into a rigid, easy-to-follow formula, the reality is that there is no biblical formula. Speaking generally, there is no "you must approach it this way" or specific how-to guide in Christian dating. That can be one challenging part of Christian liberty, and it can become even more challenging when one realizes that certain things might be fine for one person in his liberty, but they might not be fine for another person in her liberty. And when we get right down to it, many times, we're merely talking about competing preferences that need to get hashed out.

In light of all of that, in future articles in this series, I'm going to be offering some observations and viewpoints. And as with any topical series, there are any number of specific biblical principles we could discuss—so I'm not saying the points I ultimately choose to highlight are the only important ones, or that it will be anywhere close to a complete word on this subject. They're not at all intended to be dictatorial edicts from on high, but rather as words intended to help from a fellow laborer and brother, speaking to his family in Christ.

Now, my genuine hope and prayer is that the perspective I'll be presenting will be centered on biblical principles, and that the opinions will be at least slightly informed, based on my over 13 years of experience in singles ministry. But at the end of the day, if you find something I say to be helpful, great, and if you don't, no problem. No offense taken if you don't follow my advice, I promise. Next time, I'll start the series with a discussion of the importance of Christlike character, and what that might look like practically in the context of Christian dating.

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Jim Pemberton said...

My oldest two kids are out there now working on future spouses. I dare say they've been exploring this topic.

My wife and I don't get a chance to date as often as we would like. That's another aspect of Christian dating as a broad topic. While my kids are practicing pre-marital dating, my wife and I are trying to practice post-marital dating now a couple of decades after the marriage.

What's interesting with this observation is that kids either learn dating habits from their parents, from their friends, or from pop media (typically TV and movies in our day). I wouldn't trust them to pop media. I would hope that they have the kind of friends who date well. There are elements of post-marital dating that are fundamentally, if subtly, different from pre-marital dating from a Christian perspective, not to mention that the kids don't really go on our dates with us to see what we actually do on a date. I fear the greatest influence on dating is pop media.

On the other hand, we could let our kids practice the old-fashioned bed-courtship of the Amish. That seems a bit racier than any of us would like to advocate.

Bobby Grow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bobby Grow said...

Will you be engaging with online dating (like tinder etc.)? That has become a serious problem for not just the world and the 'hook up culture,' but Christians who are imbibing the same mode.

Hohn C said...

Jim, thanks for reading! I plan to cover "pre-marital" dating but I'm also a big fan of date nights for married couples... not to the level of "one must do these" but my wife and I (and pretty much every other married couple I know) are really blessed by them. And I hear you on how people learn dating habits. The worldly mindset is totally messed up on this as a general matter, I just don't want to see the pendulum swing too far the other way as a reaction to that. (No plans to advocate for Amish bundling, though.) ;)

Bobby, thanks for reading as well. I will at least touch on online dating for sure, although perhaps not to the level of its own article. I'd be interested in any thoughts you or anyone might have on the matter, though. Thanks!

Andrew D said...

Looking forward t your posts! I’ve Bren married for 10 years and my wife abandoned me a couple of years ago to pursue other men (and the faith I would say). I’m caring for my young children and feel like I need a good wife to support, but want to follow the Lord’s will no matter what it costs. Your introduction left me wanting to hear more.