What Is Christian Dating?
Before We Begin…
Allow me to give context to what this is and where it came from.
When I was a college pastor five years ago, I created a way for those in my ministry to send in questions about the Christian life. I would then try and respond to them by writing out article-like responses. One of the first questions I ever received was, “What is Christian dating? How do you set boundaries and remain appropriate while showing love and affection?”
What an easy topic to tackle, right?
The result of that question was a nine page, 4,300+ word response.
I would go on to reference this article several times to those I ministered to who were beginning to start dating relationships. And as far as I know, it was received well. I figured because of how popular this topic is it would be useful to share some of my more refined thoughts. Meaning, what you will be reading is an edited version of what I previously put together (trust me, it’s better this way).
Now that we have that out of the way, allow me to make some statements upfront concerning what you’re about to read, and please do read these before going any further:
1) I am not an expert on this topic, I just want to help people think through things as biblically as possible. I do not claim to have all the answers or know the secrets to dating — I have strong opinions that I have tried to root in Scripture, but that doesn’t make me the prevailing voice on the matter.
2) The scope of this article is not exhaustive. In no way can I cover every intricacy of dating/marriage relationships within a few pages. Volumes of books have been written on this subject.
3) Remember the gospel. There is always grace to access through Jesus. I wrote this for people who have yet to date at all or are newly born Christians trying to start afresh. It’s highly likely most people reading this have already failed. That does not disqualify you from living this out! Follow the pattern of the gospel: repent from sin, receive forgiveness, and strive by grace in God’s ways.
With that being said, let’s dive in!
Dating is a very popular topic for young Christians. It seems like at every college or student ministry camp, conference, or special event there has to be a talk or panel on the subject. Which is good! It’s very possible (and maybe likely) that most people date with minimal to no understanding of what biblical dating looks like. In my opinion, this is very important because this is no small matter concerning our lives physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Dating is one of those life experiences that can have significant effects on a person. Like every area of our lives, we should think deeply about how to do it well in a way that results in the good of ourselves, our neighbor, and to the glory of God. Let’s dive in by addressing what exactly is “Christian dating.”
The Myth That Is "Christian Dating”
Before we dive into discussing what biblical dating looks like, we first need to set a foundation. To many people’s surprise, the Bible does not explicitly speak towards the topic of “dating” in any way whatsoever. No really, you will not, in any book or chapter, find guidelines, advice, insight, or anything at all concerning how to date in a godly way. Why? Because, in God’s eyes, from His perspective, there are two states of a human being as it relates to romantic relationships: single or married. This in-between season we have invented is not a biblical concept (you can find some things regarding engagement or betrothment but still, the people in question are not viewed as a married couple).
What this means is, when you find yourself in a dating relationship, God does not consider you to be “boyfriend" and “girlfriend." Until marriage, you are brother and sister (1 Timothy 5:1). When we are saved, we come into the family of God and receive the privilege of being, “children of God” (John 1:12, 1 John 3:1). Think about it, what then becomes our relationship with one another? Siblings! Jesus made this clear when he said, "For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:35). So understand, if you are in a dating relationship, the person you refer to as your boyfriend/girlfriend is nothing more than your brother and sister in Christ — and it’s incredibly important you understand that.
There’s also a few disclaimers that I think are useful to consider when it comes to dating:
1) Dating is fun and exciting, but it can bring difficulty and provide distraction from your relationship with Jesus and war on sin. This sounds a bit intense but hear me out. This limbo-phase of an experience can easily whisk you away from worshiping the Creator and instead, worshipping the creation (Romans 1:25). This happens, to some degree, in every single relationship - no one is perfect, we are idol making machines. One of our greatest obsessions, especially in our society today, is that of romance. Don't rush into this danger or temptation. And, as you will read when it comes to boundaries, I believe the enemy wants to keep you in this dating stage as long as possible - this is not God's design. To put it bluntly, dating is the devil's playground, don't overstay your welcome.
2) Dating is not the end all be all. In our highly romanticized and sexualized culture, finding a significant other is seen as paramount. Because of this, a strong lie people believe is that dating is a blessing from God, which only those he favors are allowed to enter into. Considering the first disclaimer above, I want you to try your best to suppress this lie. There is no greater or lesser level of Christianity if you are dating, married, or single. But ironically, Paul considers singleness far superior to marriage (1 Corinthians 7:8).
3) Dating will not satisfy you. Don't think you are being deprived of some measure of fulfillment if you are single, or if you are in a relationship, that it should feel more satisfying than it's intended to be. All blessings God gives us are mere shadows of better things to come or are pictures to depict his character towards us - such as marriage depicting Christ's relationship to the Church. (Ephesians 5:25-27). If you are struggling with contentment, press into the beautiful promise of Psalm 107:9, "For he satisfies the longing soul…”, he alone satisfies, not another human.
Now how to date in a God-honoring way?
How to Date in A God-Honoring Way
Since there is no Scripture directly relating to dating, does that mean there are no rules or guidelines? Absolutely not! God may not have written anything explicitly on dating, but he has written plenty concerning male and female relationships, consideration for fellow brothers and sisters, and of course, marriage. From these topics, we can find a way to properly and safely date.
What’s the Purpose of Dating?
For a Christian relationship, it is imperative that you date for the right reason. If you are in a relationship that is strictly for fun, recreation, satisfaction, fulfillment, or just to test the waters - you should seriously reconsider the relationship. Our aim when it comes to dating should be unified across the board, and it’s really summed up in one question: Do I want this person to be the one I make a covenant-commitment to, for life?
If you are dating for any other reason aside from that, I would strongly encourage you to get out of that relationship - especially if you already know the answer to that question is a “no.” As we will soon discuss, what a romantic relationship can give is not worth your intimacy with Jesus. To be frank, you would be hard-pressed to find a biblical reason to be in a romantic relationship other than to find a spouse. Plain and simple.
But be sure, this does not mean you are to settle for just anyone that will say "yes.” To do so is completely unwise and dangerous. Marriage to a person you can't stand is no gift, it's a jail sentence. Proverbs in several different passages warns against choosing a not-so-preferable spouse (Proverbs 19:13; 21:9,19; 25:24; 27:15). When you’re single, it’s good to be keenly aware of that which does not sit well with you when it comes to choosing a spouse. I was taught it like this: date with both eyes open, when married, close one eye.
Another thing to inform your dating pursuits is our responsibility to marry equally yoked partners. Meaning, God’s desire for his people is to marry other believers, not unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14, 1 Corinthians 7:39). A lot of people want to disregard this standard, but it is for the best. I praise God for the stories of lost spouses coming to know Jesus through the believing spouse, but it doesn’t seem to always go that way and can be extremely painful (with many marriages not making it). In respect to God’s design and for your own good, filter your prospects first and foremost through this standard.
How to Love your Spouse Today, Not Tomorrow
Something to keep in mind is the likelihood that your future spouse is somewhere on this planet, alive, and very real. You may not know who they are yet, but they are living and active (possibly dating someone else right now!). Point being, you can fulfill Ephesians 5:25-33, the passage describing the relationships between a wife and husband in Christ, today, not tomorrow.
Love your wives today by the conduct you have towards your sisters in Christ. Love your husbands by the conduct and manner you have towards your brothers in Christ. Even if you are in a serious relationship with someone else, you don’t know if it will ultimately work out or not, only God does. Too many people (myself included!) have given themselves away to someone because they believed them to be the person they would marry. This only creates more luggage and shame when it doesn’t go as planned. The bottom line is, it's more safe and wise to date cautiously than it is to date recklessly. Date with your spouse’s heart in mind. Think of it this way: in any dating relationship there are four hearts involved: yours, your spouses, the person’s you're dating, and their potential spouses. It’s strange but true, you may be pursuing someone's rightful man or woman.
Like I mentioned above, I’m not someone who did everything perfectly, I didn’t wait until marriage to have sex. And if you are like me, I have good news. Just because you may have already given in, does not mean there is no redemption or hope - that would be true had Jesus not hung on a tree for the very shame and guilt you feel. Don’t let the sting of already-repented sin leak false guilt into your being, God has made it clear, godly grief leads us to repentance which leaves no regret — not residual grief (2 Corinthians 7:10). It was awhile before God got ahold of my life, but eventually I began to strive towards living in accordance with Ephesians 5:25-33 - you can too!
What to Expect and Not to Expect from your Significant Other
Let’s be honest, dating can be a bit of a nightmare. Why? Because it attempts to display future potential of marital functions without proper permission or expectation to exercise those capacities. (That was a lot, go ahead and read that again slowly, maybe a couple more times.) In other words: boys try to play husband, and girls try to play wife, but they aren’t to do so. So to be brief, out of Ephesians 5:25-33,
Husbands are to expect respect and submission from their wives as they lead them spiritually with the Word, prayer, and love. Boyfriends are not to expect respect and submission from their girlfriends, nor be responsible or accountable for their spiritual health. They are to pursue them in purity, with careful consideration of their heart. Should they encourage spiritual growth? Sure. Is it their duty? Nope.
Wives are to expect sacrificial love, affection, and service from their husbands as they submit and respect them. Girlfriends are not to expect this type of behavior from their boyfriends, nor should they be held to that standard. Furthermore, girlfriends are NOT to submit to their boyfriends. If some Christian boy has tried using this, slap him.
Remember that when dating someone you are not one with that person, you are individual beings. Don’t feel the need to live in tandem with one another. I’ve seen this happen with a lot of young couples.
What Boundaries to Set?
So then, what about boundaries? Since we are brothers and sisters in Christ and have commands concerning our behavior towards one another, we can infer what's acceptable and not, what's wise and what's foolish.
Discern The Game of Temptation
I heard once that we must discern our enemy in order to combat our enemy. If we do not know what we are fighting, how can we effectively defend ourselves and each other? Ephesians 6:11 admonishes us to take on the armor of God to defend against "the schemes of the devil." To know how the enemy will strike or, at least what his goal is, is immeasurably valuable. Notice the contrast of what seems to be the devil's schemes as it relates to dating and marriage,
The enemies' goal for dating:
Join together that which God has made separate.
The enemies’ goal for marriage:
Separate that which God has joined together.
Prior to marriage, it is normal that people crave romance and physical affection like incurable addicts. It's almost unbearable at times, and no, this is not just a male struggle, ladies crave this interaction as well. I think there are two things at play here: 1) God’s good design, and 2) the devil’s deceitful temptation. This is why Paul said marriage, in one sense, is a defense against sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 7:2).
But when people marry, the game switches, now the enemies’ strategy is separation (Matthew 19:6). Where God desires us to abstain, the enemy provokes us to indulge (dating). Where God desires us to come together, the enemy provokes us to abstain (marriage). This is why I believe people who are single crave marriage more than even that of married people, and why married people all agree that marriage isn’t the end all be all. Do you see these two schemes at work?
The purpose of drawing these observations is to demonstrate why it’s important to fight temptation and sin while you date. It’s not wrong to desire the person you are pursuing, again, that is part of God’s good design. But make no mistake, the devil will happily keep you infatuated with one another to lead you deeper into sin which generally speaking looks like sexual immorality or idolatry. I may be extreme in thinking this, but in my opinion and experience (both personal and observational), dating can easily become one of the greatest tools the devil uses to keep people within sin’s entanglement. If you understand this, you will understand the need to set serious boundaries to defend against him and to protect each other.
Our Responsibility to Protect One Another Before Enjoying One Another
Consider Romans 14:20-21, "Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
Allow me to give some context. Paul here is combating the difficulty of having Jews and Gentiles living among one another in unity within the church. Some Jewish food laws were still being practiced, not because they had to be, but because some recently converted Jews have adhered to these laws for generations upon generations. Understandably, their culture was deep-rooted. Paul writes these verses with the "strong" believers in mind, being those who have no convictions concerning what food to eat since, in Christ, all food is clean (Mark 7:19; Romans 14:14).
How does this relate to boundaries? Well, because, Paul uses this instance to teach a universal truth concerning our lifestyle choices and the consideration of others. We are free in Christ, but we are exhorted to live by the law of love. Galatians 5:13 says it like this, "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” We aren’t to use our freedom for our pleasures, but for the sake of others — it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother or sister to stumble.
As mentioned above, even if we are dating each other, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. So how can we apply this rule to our dating? It’s simple, do nothing that causes your boyfriend or girlfriend to stumble.“Stumbling,” meaning to lead or cause someone to fall into sin. Furthermore, we shouldn’t provoke or tempt one another to do anything that will cause such stumbling, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another…” (Galatians 5:26). This is why I think dating must be done with high guardrails in place because there are ample opportunities for these things to happen, both unintentionally and intentionally. For instance, Matthew 5:28 or Proverbs 6:25 makes it clear that desiring a woman (or man) in your heart is sinning. So both people in the relationship must be aware of that, are you causing your boyfriend or girlfriend to stumble in mind, heart, or actions? Paul made a good plea, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.” Applying this to dating we could say:
Do not, for the sake of romance, destroy the work of God.
Do not, for the sake of pleasure, destroy the work of God.
Do not, for the sake of physical desire, destroy the work of God.
I think the “book of love” put it best, "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases (Song of Solomon 8:4).” Translation: don’t do anything that awakens emotions, desires, or evokes intense longings that aren’t to be active until marriage. Reason being, of course, is because you can’t rightly satisfy those desires.
By God’s awesome design sexual acts are intended to be a spiritual adhesive between a husband and wife (1 Corinthians 6:15-20, 1 Corinthians 7:2). It’s not merely a physical endeavor between two people as an exchange of pleasure. Our society may want to believe that’s all it is, but it’s no mistake that some of the most traumatic experiences people deal with are related to sex. Why is that? Because sex is a spiritual and emotional binding between two human beings. But let’s make no mistake here, sex is a great and beautiful gift! It shouldn’t be a shameful topic to discuss as it may have been for previous generations. The reality and point is it serves a greater, higher purpose than that of pleasure. When a couple prematurely engages sexually and the relationship doesn’t last, there’s significant fallout for a reason. Because of this, all sexual conduct or activity should be avoided until married.
By implication this means all things leading to sex should be avoided as well. This may mean no kissing, handholding, cuddling, being in certain situations that allow for promiscuity to take place — the possibilities are endless. Each couple is different in their tendencies, but at the end of the day humans are going to be human. Again, there is a GOOD design to desire one another. The more you grow as a couple, the more these desires flare up. This isn’t just spiritual theory — it’s science! The rules apply to every person, not just those who are incredibly touchy or prone to PDA.
I know the thought is that you can have self-control, or maybe you are someone a little older — you probably don’t think you need to set such boundaries. I’d strongly caution against that. Ask yourself, are you trying to stay as far away from the line as possible, or seeing how close you can get without crossing? Wisdom would encourage the former. Remember, Jesus diced no words in detailing the extreme measures to fight sin (Matthew 5:30).
I think you would be surprised if you ever sit down and talk with a God-fearing, married couple and hear their thoughts on how they dated. You’ll learn they will hardly ever say, “we were too strict.” To much surprise you’ll probably hear they wish they had been more prudent. You must pray through how God leads you in your convictions of what boundaries should and need to be set in your relationship. But give careful consideration to these verses and thoughts above.
How Do We Show Love & Affection?
With everything above in mind, how should couples go about expressing love and affection? I would say because of its intended purpose physical affection may not play a vital role in the dating relationship. Instead, you should aim to know the person you are pursuing as a friend. Physicality will become a footnote in the novel of marriage. It is infinitely more important that you enjoy someone for who they are not what they are. Looks and physical attractiveness will not sustain your marriage, companionship will. In fact, I believe the more you love the person for who they are, the more beautiful they become.
I’ve had some people voice concerns about not experiencing their boyfriend or girlfriend in a physical way because they felt it necessary to see if they, you know, work. This doesn’t always mean sex, but for example, kissing. Do you need to kiss your boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage? No. What if they are a bad kisser? What if the first kiss is awkward and weird? To which I reply, it will be okay. The truth is, humans are designed for physical companionship, it’s natural. Will awkwardness be present in the beginning? Maybe. Is that reason to break off your marriage? Probably not.
To be clear, I am not saying you can’t kiss (although Hannah and didn't and I do recommend it due to everything I’ve laid out above). My point is that when dating, physical acts are like emotional microwaved meals that don’t require real intimacy and effort. It’s much easier to engage physically instead of having a real conversation about legitimate things that matter. But I promise, from my relationship with Hannah, for every kiss the Lord held us back from, He supplied a belly-aching laugh or joy-filled conversation that deeply satisfied us in ways kissing and things alike couldn’t.
What if you are someone who requires a great deal of affection? This may be a real thing, but it isn't an excuse to overstep boundaries. There are ways to meet your needs in healthy and godly ways without forsaking God’s Word. God will take care of you; His ways are not designed to rob us of joy — but the exact opposite.
What is Love?
As I close this brief survey of dating relationships in a Christian context, I want to say something about the word, love. This wasn’t exactly a part of the question in the beginning, but I believe it to be significant in the pursuit of spouse.
In our dating relationship, Hannah and I agreed to abstain from kissing or telling each other we loved one another until engagement. This wasn't always fun, in fact, it was quite difficult, but now that we are in marriage, we both agree we wish to have done it even better. I do believe that it's those boundaries that truly helped Hannah and me to know one another and see if we were compatible in marriage.
But I want to explain our reasoning for refusing to use the word, love, until engagement. In today's culture, we think love is something we fall into, it's a special feeling that indicates that we have found "the one." I want to first tell you that the idea of "the one," is completely false. There's no way God would hold us to a standard of discovering the perfect person in a world of billions of others. And if we fail to fall in love with that one person — every other love relationship gets thrown off. Unlikely and, more importantly, unbiblical. Notice Paul’s filter for choosing a husband to this widow in 1 Corinthians 7:39, "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
Did you catch that? “she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” Paul’s one filter: make sure that man is a believer in Christ and have at it! Does that sound like a euphoric adventure to find your soul mate? Or just good ole fashion discernment? Like I said in the beginning, the idea of marriage has been romanticized in our world. Love has never been about emotions - but choice. Biblically speaking as well as practically - God’s love wasn’t feeling, He freely loved us and gave us His son. He asks us to imitate that same unconditional love towards each other, but more specifically, husbands and wives exercise a covenant love (Ephesians 5:25-33).
Hannah and I understood that to say, “I love you,” meant more than just, “I like you.” When I was able to drop my knee on January 9th of 2016 and tell Hannah I loved her - it didn’t convey, “I like you a lot, do you feel the same?”. No, when I said I love you I was saying, “Out of every woman in the world, I choose to love and pursue you until we are called home or until our King returns. I want you to be the one I lay my life down for and selflessly serve. I want to say ‘yes' to you and ‘no' to all other women. Will you enter into this covenantal and unconditional love with me and our God?”. In regard to romantic relationships, that is what love means - and unless you are married, you can’t fulfill or partake in any of that.
So until we were able to be betrothed to each other — we resisted to "awaken love" until the time allowed. I encourage you, whether you are single now or in a relationship, redeem the magnitude and meaning of the word love. It’s well worth it.
I pray this speaks to many of you and encourages you to live with intentionality and caution as it relates to dating. My goal was to simply lay down a biblical foundation for you to take up and build from. I think anyone who is thinking about dating (regardless of age or season of life) or who is currently dating can find some nuggets of truth in this little article.
If you disagree or think what I have said is utter foolishness — that is quite all right. But let me challenge you, if you think or feel that way, let Scripture be the foundation for all of your convictions and beliefs — not feelings of what seems right. Do not just settle on, “because I think you are wrong.” I understand the feeling, but we must be careful to not disobey scripture because we don’t find it fitting or pleasurable to us. The authoritative Word of God will stand forever (Matthew 24:35), let it be what you stand on. This is the essence of living with a biblical worldview.
As I said in the beginning, I am not an expert and don't pretend to be. If you dated differently than what I laid out above but believed it was the best way in light of God's Word, that is enough. That is the goal! And remember, there's always more grace (James 4:6).