Dating is actually a relatively recent invention that dates back to the eighteenth century. Before this time marriages were arranged for those involved, and while that may seem archaic and old-fashioned to us, this is still the most common method by which couples around the world get married. In the UK, however, we replaced this with ‘calling’. As its name suggests, this involved gentlemen ‘calling’ at a lady’s house and presenting their credentials, which resulted in them either being cast out onto the street or welcomed in to talk with the lady. This was done under the watchful eye of a chaperone, who, in the event of inappropriate conduct, would no doubt pounce on the man and club him to death or dish out some similar castigation depending on the severity of the offence!
Over time, this ‘calling’ progressed from a private activity to a more public one, known as ‘going out’ or ‘dating’.
Since that time, dating has developed into what we have today. This may take several different forms according to the culture in which we live, but for the most part dating begins with someone deciding to ‘ask out’ a person they fancy – or getting their mates or do it if they lack the courage themselves. Should the other person agree they are then ‘going out’. Of course, this does not necessary involve actually going anywhere, and couples frequently spend most of their time together out of the public eye, shut away behind closed doors. That said, actual ‘going out’ does happen, and popular dating destinations include cinemas and restaurants, pubs and clubs, or, for the less outgoing, libraries and museums.
Exclusivity in dating is generally expected, which means that a couple will only date each other, and there tends to be an expectation that they will spend a large amount of their time in each other’s company, which in turns leads to high levels of intimacy. As a result, sexual touching (also known by the curious term ‘heavy petting’), nudity and sexual intercourse itself are also expected, though the general consensus and unwritten rule is that sex should wait until at least the second, or even the third, date.
Due to this exclusivity and intimacy, ‘dating’ is sometimes referred to as ‘mini-marriage’, a kind of rehearsal of how life will be when we eventually do get married – though, in fairness, this will probably be to someone else. Consequently, breaking-up is a rehearsal of divorce, and it is surely no coincidence that divorce has increased in western society as this form of dating has developed.
Dating is heavily promoted in the media, especially through films, television and magazines, all of which seem keen to dish out ‘dating’ advice. For example, I read an article recently in a men’s magazine which advised eligible young gentlemen on various ways to ensure they get to have sex on the first date. I also read one in a women’s magazine telling girls how to spot a ‘player’, which is basically a guy who is just out to have sex on the first date!
While on the face of it dating has become little more than a recreational activity, where you get to be sexually active without the constraints of a marriage, it still maintains the function of working out whom to marry, or at least, with whom to co-habit. In light of this, we shall use the following as our general definition of dating:
Dating is a tool we can use to work out whom to marry.
Premarital Relationships in Scripture
As mentioned, the tool that was all the rage back in the Bible times was arranged marriages, so naturally the Bible does not specifically mention dating. As a result, Christian teaching on dating tend to be based more on opinion, personal experience and cultural background than on the Bible. However, there are lots of other things the Bible does not specifically talk about, such as television, smoking, mortgages and the Internet, and yet it is full of principles which help to teach us about how to interact with such things. The same is true of dating. And since dating is a tool specifically design for the purpose of pre-marriage, we can unearth applicable Biblical principles simply by observing pre-marital examples, both good and bad, in the Bible.
We will start at the very beginning, with Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2, we have the account of God making Adam from the dust of the ground and stating it was not good for him to be alone, no doubt because we men are incapable of behaving ourselves when left to our own devices! So God put him to sleep, whipped out one of his ribs, fashioned it into a woman, and presented her to Adam as his wife. “For this reason,” it says, “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24)
So, in this example, the only one we have from the time before sin messed up all our relationships, God does the work of arranging the marriage and the couple is made up of one man and one woman.
Leaping forward to Genesis 24, we have the pre-marital story of Isaac and Rebekah. The chapter opens with Abraham sending off his chief servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Having received his mandate, off he went, and from verse 10, we see how this servant went about the task: “Then the servant … set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor. He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water. Then he prayed, ‘O LORD, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham.” (Gen. 24:10-12)
The prayer that follows is very specific, requesting that God show him, through a precise series of events, exactly which girl is the right one. Then along came Rebekah and the rest is history.
We have here a few more important principles. The pre-marriage scenario does not begin until Isaac is ready to get married – when Abraham decided his son was ready, he set things in motion. Also the servant did not start by going straight out and approaching women, but by praying, seeking God’s input and guidance first.
Next up, in Genesis 29, is Jacob, Isaac’s son. This is a fairly well known story with some typical underhand trickery. Jacob was working for his uncle, Laban, who had a couple of daughters, Rachel and Leah. Jacob fancied Rachel, so he made a deal with Laban to earn her hand in marriage by working for seven years. This may seem an outrageously long time, but Jacob desired her so much that we are told those seven years seemed like only a few days!
On the wedding night, however, the lady under the veil turned out to by Rachel’s sister, Leah – Laban had tricked him, and so Jacob had to work another seven years in return for Rachel.
Apart from the obvious principle: ‘Don’t trust uncles’, there are other things we can learn here that relate to dating. Attraction is important. Jacob desired Rachel, and so he pursued her, and he was willing to work and to wait so he could marry her – 14 years in total.
In Joshua 15, we are introduced to Othniel, who eventually became the first and foremost of Israel’s judges. Caleb, the giant killer, offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who took the Canaanite city of Kiriath Sepher. No sooner had the words left his mouth than we are told, “Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage.” (Josh. 15:17) He did not wait around to see if anyone else would have a shot first. He did not ask questions or enter into negotiations. He went in, took the city and got the girl! Othniel made the first move.
Much of the book of Ruth is concerned with the pre-marital relationship of Boaz and Ruth. Ruth was a widow who lived with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and while out gathering leftover grain in a field belonging to Boaz, he approached her and said, “Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with my servant girls.” (Ruth 2:8) Basically, Boaz asked her out.
So that night, at home, Ruth discussed this encounter with Naomi, who advised her to take Boaz up on his offer – he was a good catch. And Ruth did as she said.
On further advice from her mother-in-law, Ruth went to see Boaz while he was sleeping on the threshing floor with the other harvesters, keeping their meeting public, and talked with him about the possibility of marriage. Boaz was definitely up for getting married, but due to the complexities of the Jewish Law, another man had first refusal. Wanting to go through the proper channels and ensure everything was done in the open, Boaz assured Ruth that he would deal with this situation. Then he sent her back home so her presence there would not be considered inappropriate.
In the end, the other guy was not up for taking on the burden of a wife and the potential problems associated with such a union, so Boaz announced to the townsfolk of Bethlehem that he intended to marry Ruth himself – job done!
The Book of Ruth is basically the story of this couple’s pre-marriage process, so there is much for us to learn here. The main principles, however, are that Ruth sought and took the advice of Naomi, her wise and godly mother-in-law, and that Boaz and Ruth ensured everything was done out in the open, for all to see, so that nothing inappropriate would take place and no allegation of immorality could brought against them.
These have all been GOOD examples – people whose actions were commended. However, before we consider how these principles might apply to dating today, we need to look at two individuals who were not commended for their pre-marital actions and decisions.
The first is Samson. Judges 14 opens saying, “Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. When he returned, he said to his father and mother, ‘I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.’ His father and mother replied, ‘Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?’ (Good advice. Godly advice, since the Lord had told the Israelites not to marry foreigners) But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me. She’s the right one for me.’” (Judges 14:1-3)
Samson got his wish and married this girl, but she spent their wedding night in another man’s bed and ended up being killed by the Philistines just to wind Samson up. Not a good choice! Samson refused to take the good, godly advice from his parents, and he chose to pursue and marry a non-Israelite – someone who did not worship God.
Our last example, Solomon, also did this – in spades! 1 Kings 11 tells us he had seven hundred wives, listing them as, “Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.” (1 Kings 11:1-2)
Solomon loved them! How could that be wrong? Well, clearly it was, as they did indeed turn his heart away from God, with the result that the kingdom of Israel was split in half after his death and was never again a single nation! Solomon pursued women who did not worship God.
Biblical Principles for Dating
From these few pre-marital examples in the Bible, we are able to draw out nine clear principles that we can apply to Christian dating today:
1. Do Not Date Until You Are Ready To Marry
When Abraham decided it was time for Isaac to marry, he then set things in motion, sending out his servant to look for a suitable wife. If you consider our original definition of dating as a tool we can use to work out whom to marry, then dating before you are ready to marry is not using this tool for the right reasons, but more as a recreational activity, which is potentially dangerous for all concerned.
I live in the UK, where you are not allowed to get married until you are at least sixteen, so it is worth waiting until you are at least this age before you even consider dating.
2. Dating Should Involve One Man And One Woman
We can not assume this goes without saying today, but the pattern God laid out in the beginning was of one man and one woman being joined together in marriage. We will consider this further in the closing chapters on sex and homosexuality, but same-sex weddings or those which involve a goat or suchlike fall outside the biblical confines for marriage, and therefore outside the boundaries of Christian dating.
3. Pray Before You Start Dating.
Think back to Abraham’s servant. Before approaching any of the women to find out who would be a suitable match for Isaac, he sat down and prayed, asking God for His guidance and input. And in the account of Adam and Eve, God specifically created the couple for each other! As our relationship with God is fundamental to our lives as His children, it only makes sense to be sure of God’s leading and His input before you start dating, and of course throughout the whole process.
4. Christians Should Not Date Non-Christians.
Both of the ‘bad’ examples, Samson and Solomon, went after women who did not believe in God, and both suffered the consequences. So too did their relationship with God. 2 Corinthians 6:14 says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers”, and while the context of Paul’s statement is not specifically marriage, it is certainly included, since the context is, in fact, all areas of life.
This term ‘yoked together’, is agricultural. It specifically relates to joining animals together to plough fields. Whether a ploughman used horses, oxen or other creatures, he would want to ensure they matched in strength and suitability. Deuteronomy 22:10, says: “Do not plough with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” The reason is obvious. An ox is strong and is going to want to move forward across the field. Meanwhile, the weaker donkey will dig in its hooves, refusing to move. The result will either be that the donkey is dragged along by the ox and the plough ends up going all over the place, or the donkey is pulled over and simply ploughed to death. What they will not do is pull in the same direction for the same goal.
This is what happens when Christians and non-Christians are yoked together – eventually they will pull in different directions and the results can never be beneficial!
If God is central to our lives and we are passionate about our relationship with Him, there is no way we would even consider dating a non-Christian, because the most important thing to us would mean nothing to them. Rather, dating such a person would suggest we do not really deem our relationship with God to be that important, or that we have fundamentally misunderstood what marriage is all about (more on that in chapter 3, when we look at marriage and divorce).
No doubt we have all heard of Christians who dated non-Christians and thanks to their influence the non-believing date became a Christian. While such stories are great to hear, because they speak of the wonderful grace of God towards us, even when we’re being foolish, this does not make it acceptable for Christians to date non-Christians. God does not need us to date someone in order to bring them to faith. We should witness to them, certainly, but not date them.
5. Be Attracted For The Right Reasons.
Physical attraction must not be the number one reason for a Christian to date. Samson saw the Philistine woman, found her physically attractive, and purely on this basis he pursued her. I am not suggesting physical attraction is a complete irrelevance, but it probably does not have as much of a part to play in the process of falling in love as we might be given to understand. Consider the countless couples who have had arranged marriages. Many such people hardly know each other before they are thrust together as husband and wife, and yet this does not prevent them growing to love each other just as much as those who go through the dating process.
As Christians, physical attraction cannot be the number one reason for dating someone. Spiritual attraction must come first. By this I mean, if we are passionate about God, and He is central to our lives, what should attract us to someone else is their own walk with God. The most attractive characteristic in a potential husband or wife should be their love for and devotion to God.
This will also help to guard us from being tricked by someone pretending to be a Christian, which has certainly been known to happen. If one of the criteria for dating someone is that they are passionate about God, it should be obvious fairly quickly if they are trying to fake it!
6. The Man Should Be The Instigator.
We saw this in the accounts of both Othniel, who took the initiative to win Achsah’s hand, and Boaz, who first approached Ruth and took the lead in dealing with the obstacles to them getting married.
This is not chauvinistic political incorrectness, but is based on the biblical principle that the husband is the one who bears the responsibility for a couple’s marriage and household. The buck starts and stops with him. If you are a woman who is eager to get married, but no one is asking, and so you feel you need to ask a man out instead, there is certainly nothing to forbid this. But you need to think about what sort of man you are looking for. Do you want someone who is going to take his responsibility seriously? The man should be the instigator, but failing that, watch to see if the man you have asked is going to be someone you can trust to lead you and take responsibility both for your marriage and your future family.
7. Seek Out Advice And Input From Wise, Godly People.
Ruth did this, going to Naomi for advice, and she ended up marrying an excellent husband. Samson, on the other hand, refused to listen to his parents’ godly advice and he ended up in a right old mess!
Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.” Seek advice, weigh it, and use it. Godly advice does not typically include the articles on dating found in secular magazines or the opinions of our non-Christian friends. Psalm 1 says “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1) – ‘wicked’ here being a general term for those who do not know God. We should seek counsel and advice from those Christians we trust to give us good, sound, godly advice. It could be Christian parents or relatives, or others in the Church, and there is a wealth of great knowledge to be obtained through such people that can help us in the quest for a life partner.
8. Be Prepared To Work And To Wait.
Maybe not for fourteen years like Jacob, but at least as long and as hard as is necessary. Now that arranged marriages have been replaced with dating, we have got to do the hard work of finding a suitable partner ourselves – with the help of God and other Christians of course. As with all relationships, finding and dating someone takes hard work and patience, so bear in mind Paul’s opening characteristic of love: “Love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4).
9. Keep Your Relationship Pure And ‘In The Open’.
Boaz and Ruth set us an excellent example of purity and openness in a pre-marital relationship. Paul made the following important statements on purity:
1 Thessalonians 4:3, “avoid sexual immorality.”
1 Corinthians 6:18, “Flee sexual immorality”.
Ephesians 5:3, “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality”.
Unfortunately there seems to be some misunderstanding on just what ‘sexual immorality’ is, and the general definition given is ‘sex outside of marriage’. While this is certainly part of sexual immorality, it is by no means a complete definition. It is better defined as follows:
Sexual immorality is engaging in anything that arouses sexual desire outside of marriage.
This is an important definition to keep in mind as we look at sex and relationships. Sexual immorality is engaging in anything that arouses sexual desire outside of marriage. Any married couple can tell us, sex does not begin with the actual act of intercourse. It begins with maybe a kiss, or a touch, maybe a word spoken or a look given – something which arouses desire and leads eventually to the act itself. This is all part of having sex.
Imagine being on safari on the African plains, where the giraffe and zebra roam free. And where there are lions. Now just suppose your guide pointed out across the savannah and said, “Just over that ridge, there are lions. Hundreds of ferocious, hungry, man-eating lions! Avoid them! If you see one in the distance, flee – run for your life! Make sure that in your vicinity there isn’t even a hint of a lion.”
Would you assume that all your guide meant was that you should not climb into a lion’s mouth? Would you feel his advice meant you could at least try and sidle up to those lions and see how close you could get before one munched you up? You would have to be crazy to even think like that! His advice is clearly to keep you from anything that might lead to you being killed and eaten by one of those lions.
The same is true of Paul’s advice. He calls us to keep ourselves from anything that could awaken sexual desire. Outside of marriage, all such things are ‘sexual immorality’. “How far can I go?” is a common question about Christian dating, but it is the wrong question. “How pure can I keep myself?” is the real question we should be asking.
For some this could mean even holding hands is out. Or kissing. Or cuddling. Even just our words can cause arousal. And we know when we are aroused – our bodies scream it out at us. The moment that happens, we have gone too far and need to back off.
Keep your dating pure, no matter what it costs, and keep in mind that we are responsible for our own purity. Like Boaz and Ruth, we need to keep our relationships out in the open. Dating is not the time to be developing intimacy, and it is this which causes such heartache and trauma when it comes to breaking up. If we avoid being alone with our dates and spending too much time together, these things will be help us in our quest to keep ourselves pure for our future husbands and wives.
Many Christians do not like dating, and when we consider the ‘try before you buy’ mentality of secular dating it is easy to see why. Imagine if a young man turned up on a father’s doorstep and asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, saying, “I don’t want to marry her right away, though. I’d like to try her out first – get my hands on her, maybe have sex a few times – just to see if she’s decent wife material. If not, you can obviously have her back.” I dread to think how the father might react to such a candid request, and yet this is the tacit demand behind most dating today.
But dating does not have to be so mercenary and unbiblical. The Bible has given us clear principles which, if we follow them, will ensure our dating is good and godly, and an excellent way to work out whom to marry.