Sex and Marriage – Article Series
1. The Bride and the Bridegroom
2. Sexual sin and purity
3. Purpose of marriage
4. Shape of marriage
5. Futility of marriage
6. Marriage or undivided devotion?
7. Dating for marriage
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
~ Romans 12:1-2
Having spent the last 6 posts considering sex, marriage, and the Bible’s teaching on it, this post is an oddity. ‘Dating’ is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of civilisation and a relational concept that is not mentioned in the Christian Bible. In all honesty, I would have preferred to write this article series without this post. However, given the degree to which people discuss the topic of dating and wish to faithfully honour Christ in this culture, I present to you this article that I pray will help some to combat the cultural trends and assumptions. Many Christians seek to speak authoritatively on the topic of dating – there are numerous books and articles posted about it. Much of what is, in my opinion, unhelpful. Married men or women love to share their experience and personal guidelines, and offer them as a set of rules to guide you forward. The problem is that one person’s experience may not be indicative of the experience of others. Additionally, so much is written about dating that we can forget that the emphasis should be on the topics of marriage and undivided devotion to God. We should take marriage more seriously and dating less seriously, especially since only the former is spoken about in Scripture. Furthermore, I see no inherent problems with arranged marriages.
With all that said, how can we follow Romans 12:1-2 and seek avoid being conformed to the pattern and trends of the world? How can we be transformed by the renewing of our minds and please God with our lives and how the topic of dating is approached? I will now offer a Christian correction to the definition of dating, four words of wisdom that come from what we have seen throughout this article series, and ten questions that Christians can ask if they wish to date, or are dating, someone. Ultimately, since the Bible is silent on the topic of dating, we want to have a clear understanding of what marriage is and what it means to be sisters and brothers in Christ and avoid mixing the two in a way that is more shaped by culture than Christ.1
Firstly, Christians can2 define dating as:
two people prayerfully considering whether they will commit to faithfulness in marriage.
Notice some aspects of this definition. Dating can be entered into in a variety of ways, but it usually comes about when two people communicate with each other and agree to enter into a relationship. Christian dating, as I am proposing a possible definition, gives a purpose to the relationship. Christians can actively endeavour to find out whether they wish to get married or not. Saying yes to dating is a matter of saying to someone “I’d like to figure this question out with you”, and when a woman or a man expresses interest in another person they are asking “will you join with me in working out if we should get married?” To a world that sees romantic relationships as casual, this may seem too serious and almost ‘unromantic’. However, remember that Christians are called to serve God in all aspects of life, and romantic attachments and marriage should not be seen as an expected outcome. If we aren’t considering marriage, then why bother with the dating relationship? The question for the Christian is whether or not they will get married or remain undivided in their devotion to the Lord. If dating is to be entered into, then it wants to track a possible trajectory towards marriage.
Consider the alternative – entering into a dating relationship just for the sake of companionship, distracting your attention from serving God without any clear path laid forth. Or seeing a man and woman date for years without any direction to where they are going, without any thought as to how they will partner in glorifying God, and continually tempting each other with the promise of further affection without the righteous ability to fully consummate their desires for one another.
Moreover, agreeing to date is not agreeing to marry. So two people can date without clearly knowing the answer yet. Also, this kind of definition means that if the answer is “no” then the dating relationship is still successful. In other words, if two people come to accept in their dating that they should not get married, then the dating relationship has fulfilled its intention – it is not a ‘failed relationship’. Once again, we should take marriage more seriously than dating. On the flip side, if two people come to agree that the answer is ‘yes’, then that means that the dating relationship has also fulfilled its intention and they should get married as soon as possible. Delaying after this point is dangerous because the emotional attachment can seek to manifest itself in physical affection without a righteous channel. Granted, there may be a host of reasons why marriage may not be immediately feasible for a woman and man once they are willing to get married, but the goal should be to do so as soon as possible after they have decided.
Secondly, let’s establish four words of wisdom that are derived from our reflections on marriage.
- You are free to date or not date. – We must avoid the cultural obsession with romantic attachments and sexual pursuits. Christians who constantly speak about dating, marriage, and sex play into the cultural assumption that these three aspects are crucial aspects to our human experience. Human marriage and sex are important gifts that God has given humanity but it is not the basis of our existence. And we are free to get married or not, as we saw in 1 Corinthians 7:29-35. Consequently, we do not need to feel the pressure to date or to get married. We can choose to date and we can choose not to date. This choice can change over time, but we have freedom in Christ to make decisions.
- Christians should seek to date another Christian whom they can serve God with. – If the purpose of marriage is to serve God, then why would a Christian date someone who isn’t already seeking to serve God? The only time the Bible gives a command regarding the choice of who to marry, the command given is that the person ‘must belong to the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7:39). More broadly, how can the shape of marriage be accomplished in grace and with the culture of Christ-modelled forgiveness if only one spouse is a Christian? Let’s be clear – a Christian dating a non-Christian is not a sin, but it is supremely unwise and would cause one to question their devotion to Jesus. In 2013 I heard of a Christian man who was dating a non-Christian woman because he believed that Christ’s love could transcend their differences. But when she found out that he voted for the Liberal Party in Australia during the 2013 Federal Election she ended their relationship with him because she could ‘never date someone who voted Liberal’. He claimed to follow the one, true, living God who had given everything to save Him, and yet he was willing to compromise his beliefs. Meanwhile, this woman wouldn’t compromise her political beliefs for anyone. Suffice it to say, he was profoundly hurt, but realised that her devotion to her beliefs were stronger than his. Christians, as a matter of wisdom, should never seek to date someone who doesn’t want to serve God. After all, this is what marriage was given for.
- Pursue a person, not the goal of a dating relationship. – When Jesus laid down His life, He did it for His church (Ephesians 5:25-27). He specifically gave this act of love for His bride; He knew who he was seeking to love. Similarly, if two people wish to get married then they will specifically seek to love and be faithful to each other. What’s my point? Some people speak about ‘wanting to get married’ or ‘really wanting to find a girlfriend/boyfriend’, but without any particular person in mind. The effect is that their desires are directed in pursuit of a relationship instead of any one, particular person. In doing so, their affections can become wildly unfocused, attaching to anyone they come across and always fixating on the possibility that ‘this person might be the one’. We see this when people jump from one relationship to another, or when they always seem to be romantically interested in another person (these can be symptoms of the real problem). Instead, Christians should seek to pursue a person if and when they are interested in the potential of partnering with them. Love must be intentionally directed and wholeheartedly committed, not selfishly given with the intention of filling a hole in your desires. Sometimes people ask “when am I ready to date?” to which I tend to answer “even if you’re ‘ready’, what makes you think that there’ll be anyone who’d want to date you?” My point (admittedly, intended to be humourous) is meant to bring attention to the fact that dating is not something that you pursue – you pursue a person and enter into a dating relationship only if the other person agrees to date you. In a real sense, you’re ready to date when you’ve found someone who you want to date and who wants to date you.
- Compatibility is overrated because everyone sins and is in need of grace. – A lot is written about compatibility but, regardless of how alike two people may think they are, grace will be needed in the marriage relationship because of their sin. The Bible reminds us that Christians still sin (1 John 1:8-10), and so marriage will be difficult in different ways for a variety of reasons. Yes, dating can seek to determine the relational ability of two people, but it is more important to clearly see that each person is committed to Christ and growing in Him. Compatibility is a good thing, but what is better is faithfulness and a commitment to living lives of grace and truth no matter what comes. That’s why compatibility is ‘overrated’, not useless.
Bouncing off that last point, here are ten questions Christians can ask if they are dating, or seeking to date, someone. This list is not exhaustive, but my goal is that if you have read through this article series then none of these questions will surprise you because you have seen how they have been biblically derived:
- Will this person see me as an equally valued, dignified, and accountable image-bearer of God?
- Will this person pursue God and ground their identity in Christ and His people (and not in marriage and sex)?
- Will this person seek to lovingly serve me in a way that is sacrificial instead of selfish and self-centred?
- Will I choose to give my body to this person?
- Will I join with this person to model the shape of marriage that God has given His people?
- Will this person see children (through our own procreation or through adoption) as a blessing rather than as a hindrance or an unnecessary addition?
- Will this person desire to serve God through our union and help me glorify Him with all that He has gifted me with?
- Will I choose to re-orient all my plans and priorities to serve God with this person?
- Will I choose to leave my family and be joined to this person as one flesh?
- Will I be faithfully committed to this person, and will they be faithfully committed to me, until death parts us or Jesus returns?
Notice that the questions are meant to be asked between people. It is a set of priorities that should be discussed and worked out, by relating with each other, speaking with each other, and seeing each other in different seasons of life. Two people could work through these questions and realise that the kinds of answers they are seeing are enough to dissuade them from getting married. And what may be a ‘no’ for person A and person B may be a ‘yes’ for person A and another person C. It is important to mention that these questions are also ones that the communities around dating persons should also be considering for their sister and brother. In seeking to encourage one another to love and obey God (Hebrews 10:24-25) Christian communities cannot avert their gaze from the relationships around them, being it families, friends, etc. Included within this are dating relationships. Dating, while being a deeply personal matter, is not a private matter.
And that concludes this article series on Sex and Marriage. God has made us for the ultimate marriage of the church and Christ. Human, male and female, marriage is a gift He has given to all humanity as a gracious sign of what the ultimate marriage is meant to look like. Most of the world does not recognise this purpose. No Christians can perfectly demonstrate how it should look. But in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can prayerfully seek to honour God and live out the purpose and shape that He has revealed to us. Not everyone should pursue marriage, because all of us should consider how we will glorify God with our lives. I finish with this section from Revelation 21:1-4 that shows us the consummation of the ultimate marriage of the church and Christ, where the hopes, desires, and expectations for the Christian life are satisfied and completely fulfilled to be enjoyed forever.
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” ~ Revelation 21:1-4
- For instance, in a world that says that you should find the most attractive person, or the most intelligent person, or the most fun person, we must avoid adopting this same mindset but switching the categories. Christians can adopt this culture of elitism and merit-based attraction by seeking the ‘most godly’ person, or the ‘most servant-hearted’ person, or the most ‘prayerful’ person. Being godly, servant-hearted, and prayerful are excellent and commendable qualities, but the idea of always seeking the ‘most’ or ‘best’ of everything is a cultural expectation that is overturned in Christ who makes us all one in Him (Galatians 3:26-28). What happens if someone is no longer the ‘most’ or ‘best’ in some category? Should the love be shifted towards the new holder of such titles? Absolutely not! ↩
- Note that this is not my attempt to lay down a definitive definition that must be adhered to. ↩