LCN Article
Dating: A Christian Approach

January / February 2013

Scott D. Winnail

God’s calling is a special privilege, but it is also an incredible challenge. On the night before Christ was crucified, He prayed that the Father would help His disciples then and now, and protect them from the world around them (John 17:11). The Apostle Paul made it clear that God wants us to live in a way that is “different” from the world around us—walking in “newness of life” (Romans 6:4). And Christ’s revelation through John admonishes us to also be separate from the sinful world we live in (Revelation 18:4). These basic, godly principles apply to every aspect of our lives, including the interesting, intriguing and challenging period of our lives when we are involved in dating.

How does the world today view dating? And are worldly dating practices different from what God expects of Christians? Do God’s people ever inadvertently adopt and practice ways of dating that are contrary to godly principles? In this article, I will draw on my professional training in public health, my two decades of working with teens and young adults, my perspective as a parent, my experience as a pastor—and, most importantly, on God’s instructions in Scripture that form a clear guideline for a Christian approach to dating.

I will explore the godly principles of giving, serving and putting the needs of others first. This article will examine some of the fallacies and pitfalls of worldly dating, and contrast them with godly practices built on godly principles. As Christians, we must recognize that if we are not careful, worldly practices can make their way into our lives—even unbeknownst to us. The social practice of dating is one area that, if we are not careful and consciously working to keep it on a godly plane, can quickly fall into a worldly cycle, complete with all the pitfalls.

Characteristics of Worldly Dating

So, how does the world around us measure up to our responsibility to date God’s way? In this article, I define worldly dating as a one-on-one, emotionally and physically serious relationship between a man and a woman. Godly dating is different, as we will see. Up until the 1960s, dating in much of the Western world was more structured than it is today, and behaviors of men and women were respectful and sexually conservative (Turner, Dating and Sexuality in America, “Background and History”). Following the “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s, dating devolved into a more relaxed pastime with increasing tolerance about right and wrong. Modern dating behavior typically begins in the early teenage years of 13 and 14, and results in most teenagers becoming sexually active. Sexuality in the media has powerfully influenced teenage social norms and perspectives about dating. Today’s young people are raised in a world that is morally lacking and sexually tolerant (ibid.)—a perspective that can impact singles of all ages in the Church. Thanks to media, technology and music, no region of the world is safe from the declining morals that dramatically affect modern dating behavior.

In Satan’s modern world, sexual attraction and loneliness are two common motivators behind dating—not that attraction is wrong. Godly attraction is one tool to find an eventual mate. The problem lies in the motivation. The concept that “it is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35) is a foreign concept in Satan’s end-time world, and far too many are motivated by the selfish notion of “get.” Today, many individuals feel an emotional void and go looking for a relationship to fill it (get). Dating is seldom about building a friendship, or serving another person. Often, the end-goal in dating today is not to “give” to another person or even find a mate, but instead to fill one’s personal needs of loneliness and greed. And what happens once personal needs are met and a person realizes this “special someone” is not “the one” to spend “forever” with? Breakup, heartache, loneliness and a return to selfishly “hunting” for another person to fill the new void. Our “throw-away-society” even results in “discarding” a dating partner when there is no more use for him or her. Heartache and dejection are so commonplace in the worldly dating scene that they are basically expected to be a “natural” part of the average person’s dating experience. Ultimately, worldly dating today consists of “undefined and directionless romance” (romance for the sake of romance, without a godly purpose) that frequently ends in heartache (Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, p. 188).

In today’s Satan-orchestrated world, tremendous confusion surrounds the topic of dating. Sadly, that confusion frequently works its way into God’s Church, leaving many Christians with the same emotional scars that are inflicted on people in Satan’s world. How many people do you know in God’s Church who have emotional scars from dating? Why is this? And what can be done to make dating among God’s people different?

The Worldly Dating Cycle

The sad but true outcome of worldly dating is that it usually results in a cycle of failure and heartache. In Joshua Harris’ bestseller, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (2003), he deftly describes many of the following mistakes made by dating couples today. When we date to “get” and fill personal needs first, we are motivated by selfish and worldly reasons. Frequently, loneliness and searching to fulfill personal need results in identifying a dating partner based solely on sexual attraction. This attraction—and often lust—brings two people together. Some communication usually begins. Exclusive dating quickly follows and as comfort levels and trust develop and individuals fail to guard their hearts, deep emotional and physical intimacy commence. Because attraction and intimacy are the engines driving the relationship, it rapidly intensifies. And with no plan or purpose behind it, the relationship takes on a life of its own.

Then, while the relationship rapidly intensifies, more meaningful communication and deeper awareness finally occur. This more thoughtful analysis reveals incompatibility factors, character flaws, and a lack of common vision and purpose between the two individuals. But because the relationship is grounded on attraction and physical intimacy, there is little to hold it together and a “break-up” often results, followed by heartache and emotional pain. In today’s high-tech, shallow society, many even lack the courage to speak face-to-face with the person they break up with. Instead they frequently use the phone, email, a social media tool, or even a simple text message, to inform the other dating partner “it’s over.” This heart-rending breakup leads back to loneliness and searching, and a need to fill emotional and physical voids left by selfish and ungodly dating actions. The destructive worldly dating cycle starts all over again! And because of the extensive physical and emotional intimacy, any hope of a future friendship between the two individuals who have broken up is dashed.

Does anything about this worldly dating cycle sound familiar? Is there anything godly and truly Christian about this painful cycle? Can this Satan-inspired cycle of selfishness, impatience and hurt be prevented? And, is dating in a godly or Christian way even possible or realistic? The exciting answer is yes! Dating can be done in a Christian and godly way. But it takes looking at dating through the lens of God’s word and not through the eyes of Satan’s society.Graph showing worldly dating cycle

WARNING: Some will consider the perspective I am about to offer odd, unrealistic, old-fashioned and perhaps even a bit “revolutionary.” Indeed, the following guidelines will be considered foolish and confining by Satan’s worldly standards. However, true Christians should find the following tactics purposeful, respectful—and even fun! And, if followed carefully, they will prevent much heartache.

A Christian Approach to Dating

Godly values are a “mystery” that is typically directly in conflict with worldly values (1 Corinthians 2:6–8). They are based on the way of “give” and not the way of “get.” They require putting others first, practicing restraint and patience, and ultimately seeking God’s will over our own. Our hedonistic society teaches us: “Obey your thirst!” and “If it feels good do it!” God’s way is not “cool.” In fact, the world often views God’s way as antiquated and unrealistic. So, will we follow the crowd and predictably experience the worldly cycle of dating despair, or will we follow God’s way? Will we swim against the stream and experience the freedom and blessings that come with rightly applying God’s principles? A converted Christian mind knows the answer, but do we have the courage and character to direct our hearts down the straight and narrow path that ultimately leads to a life of joy (Matthew 7:13–14)? Do we have the faith and determination to override the elements of our heart that often guide us—elements that are “deceitful… and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9)?

We must first remember who the members of the opposite sex really are—God’s potential full children (1 John 3:1–2). Baptized fellow Church members are our begotten brothers or sisters in Christ (Luke 8:21). The worldly fallacy of viewing them as a “conquest” or “prize” is wrong and Satan-inspired! Each of us is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), with the potential of becoming Spirit members of His family one day (1 Corinthians 15:52, 1 John 3:2). “The premise of [worldly] dating is ‘I’m attracted to you; therefore, let’s get to know each other.’ The premise of friendship, on the other hand, is ‘We’re interested in the same things; let’s enjoy these common interests together.’ If romantic attraction forms after developing a friendship, it’s an added bonus” (Harris, p. 39). In getting to know the opposite sex, our motivation should be to find out more about them, learn about their likes and dislikes, learn about their spiritual motivations and aspirations, learn about their life-goals, learn how to help them become even more successful Christians, and ultimately develop lasting friendships! During this time, we can also make mental notes regarding our future with this person—but that motivation must be secondary.

Although worldly dating allows only for “getting” a serious, one-on-one relationship, godly dating should initially be about serving another person and “giving” them a fun, enjoyable, and interesting time as both individuals get to know each other better. Godly dating does not begin with intimacy and an expectation of romance, based primarily on physical attraction. These wrong expectations are worldly, selfish and misleading. Godly dating should be about giving, serving and getting to know. The concept of “giving a date” should be central—not “pairing off” or seriously committed one-on-one relationships involving emotional and physical intimacy. Passionate and repeated kissing has no part in such relationships.

Let me be clear; I am talking about a “cultural shift” away from the norms of the world around us! “People who sincerely want to find out if someone is potential marriage material need to understand that typical [worldly] dating actually hinders that process… Their priority shouldn’t be to get away from real life [through pairing off]… They need to see each other in real-life settings of family and friends… How does he interact with the people who know him best? How does she react when things don’t go perfectly? When considering a potential mate, we need to find the answers to these kinds of questions—questions that dating [pairing off] won’t answer” (Harris, p. 45).

Initial steps to physical intimacy (such as passionate, romantic kissing) should only come after a couple is in a committed courtship—or, more appropriately, an engagement. Even then, such intimacy should be engaged in with great caution. As can be demonstrated from simple facts of biology and human physiology, physical intimacy such as kissing, combined with attraction, is designed by God to trigger a cascade of hormones in the male and female brains and bodies, that ultimately prepare the body for sexual intercourse. Additionally, physical intimacy can often send powerful messages to both the person one is dating and to those who are watching. Passionate and intimate contact tells the person you are dating that he or she is yours and that you are seriously committed to and very likely in love with them.

Women, especially, are likely to interpret passionate kissing in this way and quickly develop an expectation of marriage. Joshua Harris makes a very important observation about physical intimacy: “You might say that intimacy between a man and a woman is the icing on the cake of a relationship headed toward marriage [emphasis added]. And if we look at intimacy that way, then it becomes obvious that most of our dating relationships are all icing” (p. 29). By the way, this book, although not perfect, is a must read for anyone who is dating or who is planning on dating. It is also an excellent tool for parents to review, maybe even with their children—who will be dating in the future, and may already be dating and learning the lessons of the world’s wrong ways!

In its earlier stages, godly dating can and should often be done in groups—even among older singles. Note that older singles should take special care when dating, as they may feel particular pressure to find a mate and marry quickly. Because of such perceived pressure, people can easily make the mistake of skipping the more time-consuming stage of friendship development, and move rapidly into courtship. Failure to build a relationship on the foundation of friendship can have long-term implications that are damaging and even ultimately destructive to a relationship.

Group dating eliminates the pressures of a one-on-one situation (Remember: godly dating should not involve intimacy early on, so dating in a group is not “weird” or “strange” as the world may imply). Couples or groups of young people can share meals, hikes, an evening of board games, a good Christian movie (occasionally), a picnic, sitting together during Sabbath services, or the like. These dating activities should always involve a lot of talking (In the case of a “Sabbath date,” obviously the conversations should occur prior to and following services). Activities that “prevent” or “limit” communication, and that are not productive and prevent friendships from forming and deepening (activities like watching movies), should be limited!

A Christian date can be as simple and inexpensive as inviting a woman to sit with you during services, or as complicated and costly as taking her out for dinner and a show And, yes, the guys should take the lead in planning and asking a woman out on a date! A man should learn to plan a date and make it interesting and enjoyable, but also pressure-free. He should plan topics of conversation, as well as activities. Women should also learn how to make a date interesting for a man, including engaging in fun and interesting conversation. She should learn how to say yes to a date on occasion, even to a man she is not initially attracted to.

Remember, dating should be first and foremost about getting to know your brothers or sisters in Christ! Frequent one-on-one, or exclusive, dating (as opposed to dating in groups or as couples—e.g., a “double date”) should also be fun, interesting, and relatively pressure-free, but this is an activity to be avoided until a person is of the age and maturity level (emotionally, spiritually, and financially) where he or she can pursue matrimony if the relationship goes in that direction. This is because exclusive dating is more intimate and creates pressure that has the potential to force or speed up the relationship.

Society today “pushes” young people to date. If a teenager does not have a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend,” he or she is often viewed as strange. Often the same conclusion is made regarding older singles, too. Nevertheless, true Christians should be careful not to create—or even allow—situations where a serious dating relationship can develop until they are in a place in life where such a relationship is appropriate. Men especially should take a proper, godly lead in this area. Parents, grandparents and friends should all send this same, godly and consistent message. Serious, intimate dating before baptism and before both the man and woman are emotionally, spiritually and financially prepared for marriage, is not only unwise but also selfish!

Note the following strong and wisdom-filled admonition by Mr. Herbert Armstrong: “Enough, also, has been said about ‘going steady’ [serious one-on-one dating]. This should not be done by teenagers. After one is mentally, emotionally and spiritually mature and qualified to assume the responsibilities of marriage, steady dating with the most likely choice for an engagement to be married becomes a different matter” (The Missing Dimension in Sex, p. 218).

Was Mr. Armstrong just “spouting” his own ideas, or is there truth to his recommendation? Brain research demonstrates that, for many people growing into adulthood, the portion of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) responsible for long-term planning, managing intense emotions, directing appropriate behavior, delaying gratification, setting long-term goals, clearly considering the future and making overall wise decisions, is not mature until about age 25 (“Maturation of the Prefrontal Cortex,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

If a Christian man is not yet ready to lead a wife and family spiritually (meaning that he is baptized, and converted-enough to do so), provide financially for a wife and family, and have the character to love and lead in a godly way (requiring God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in him), he is not in a position to ask God’s daughter to consider him seriously. The command for husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25) translates the Greek word agapao into the English word “love.” This type of love flows directly from God’s Holy Spirit, and is a “fruit” of His Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Without God’s Spirit in him, a man cannot fully fulfill God’s command to “love” his wife in the Christian way He intended. One cannot “work up” godly love; it comes only through God’s in-dwelling Spirit.

At the same time, if a woman is not prepared to properly love, teach and spiritually lead her children, she is not ready to rear a Christian family. And, if she is not ready to emotionally support a husband, appropriately submit to him and follow him, she is not ready to ask God’s son to support and take care of her in marriage. Doing so will virtually always result in relationship difficulties and heartache. In a few cases, it may result in a premature marriage and a host of difficult trials that come from moving ahead of God’s timeline. Scripture makes plain that a godly wife “makes herself ready” for her future responsibilities (Revelation 19:7) and does not “rush” into them prematurely.

Although this Christian approach to dating may seem unusual from a worldly standpoint, the results of proper Christian dating are godly—and are worth the effort! Christian dating results in maintained friendships, and never ends in a hurt-filled, emotional breakup. Even after two Christians stop dating each other, they should be comfortable remaining friends. If a couple can no longer be friends after they stop dating, they have not dated in a godly way. How different this is from the worldly dating cycle! We can see that dating God’s way goes contrary to what the world teaches about dating and intimacy.

Need for a Godly Dating Culture

In a world that is rapidly heading for disaster, members of God’s Church must conduct themselves so as to develop and encourage a godly “dating culture.” That culture should be governed by godly expectations and actions, and must be based on biblical principles. Christian men and women who “dare to be different” from Satan’s world—who desire the blessings and fulfillment of living a truly Christian life—must help create and continue this godly dating culture. However, in order to do this, worldly dating habits must be identified clearly and discarded. The Satan-inspired lie that “it’s not really feasible” must be cast aside. God calls Christians to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), to “be separate” from the world and to avoid its sins (2 Corinthians 6:17; Revelation 18:4). He directs us not to be “conformed to this world,” but rather to be “transformed by the renewing of” our minds (Romans 12:1–2). God’s way of living separate from the world involves how we conduct all aspects of our lives—including the way we date His sons or daughters.

One way to recognize Christian dating is by its emphasis on character development and service to one another. As young Christians mature, they should plan to really get to know many others of the opposite sex—appreciating them for who they are and who they hope to become. In our modern environment, where Church members are widely scattered, this requires patience, restraint and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). And it requires a heartfelt desire to please God in all our interactions with His potential family members. It requires speaking and acting in a way that protects the feelings and the emotions of the people we date. Dating should be fun, interesting and engaging, and should help us grow in character and the skills and character traits of leadership, communication, service and submission. The Christian approach to dating should not lose sight of our focus on serving our brothers and sisters in Christ—with the ultimate expectation that, after we have adequately prepared ourselves spiritually, emotionally, socially and financially, God will bless us with the hand of an individual whom He has prepared especially for us! Yes, we ultimately want God to arrange our marriage, and the way we date should prepare us to serve that future mate for the remainder of our physical life.

Note to Parents: Christian parents need to understand the principles of Christian dating, and help their children grow up with these concepts as part of their way of thinking. When they do so, teenagers will clearly understand what is and what is not appropriate for them at each stage of life. Young adults will understand the importance of reaching appropriate stages in their emotional, spiritual, educational and financial development before seriously looking for a future mate—guarding their hearts and emotions until the time is truly right. These principles, when taught from childhood, will pave the way for a successful process of Christian dating that God will be pleased with. They will ultimately help lead to a godly courtship—and to a godly marriage, where God guides the selection of the future mate as well as the right time for marriage.

For parents who may not have previously taught these concepts to their teens, do not be afraid to introduce them now! This is a topic your teens want to talk about and in which they want instruction. As you make the rationale behind Christian dating more clear to your children, and you demonstrate the pitfalls of the worldly alternative by identifying real-life examples, expect them to “catch the vision” of dating in a Christian way. Your teens will need encouragement to fight the pulls of Satan’s society, wait for God’s time, and—in the meantime—properly prepare themselves for the opportunities to come. And with your instruction they will come to see for themselves that Christian dating not only works—it makes sense!