Dating. Courtship. Engagement. Are these concepts relevant in the 21st century? Or are they relics from a bygone age? Should these concepts be rekindled, repackaged and revived to become in vogue once again, or should they be allowed to “rest in peace,” along with chivalry and the dodo bird? What role do these concepts play in the life of someone who was previously married and is seeking a new marriage?
As a recent article on “Dating: A Christian Approach” clearly illustrated (Living Church News, January-February 2013, pp. 10–13), the dating norms of Satan’s world are far removed from God’s way. Most in today’s world see God’s way as an antiquated and unrealistic “mystery” (1 Corinthians 2:7). In today’s high-tech “hook-up” culture, few have the time or patience to really “date.” Dating God’s way, however, requires character and skill development. It focuses us on serving and giving to the opposite sex. It is fun, engaging, challenging, character-building and rewarding. And it should never—if truly done God’s way—end in feelings of heartache and rejection. Dating God’s way builds up and never tears down.
But if dating should be used to “get to know” brothers and sisters in Christ, and to serve God’s sons and daughters, when is it appropriate to move into a more serious, one-on-one relationship? How does one know when to begin that serious relationship and what a Christian should do to begin and sustain that relationship? What is the next step from friendship, or from dating a friend?
This article will offer scripturally based principles for moving from friendship to courtship—when, how and with whom it should be done.
Are You Ready for Something Serious?
From a very young age, most girls grow up with precise visions of their wedding day. The bride will be dressed in the perfect gown. The flowers will be gorgeous, with an intoxicating aroma wafting from them. The guests will be abundant and rapt in expectation. The music will create the ideal romantic mood. Even the air temperature will be perfect, and the sun will set with its most brilliant display ever! And, the groom—the most handsome man on the face of the earth—will be waiting at the end of the aisle. His eyes will stare lovingly into the depths of her soul, and his outstretched hand will wait, drawing her, leading her into a lifetime of loving matrimonial bliss.
Men, too, grow up with visions of married life. The groom deeply desires to be wed to the perfect woman, with the perfect heart, the perfect wit and the perfect body. She will be his eternal playmate, the queen of his castle, his confidante, his strength, his lover and his friend. She will masterfully direct his castle—the home. She will magnificently raise his subjects—the children. She will always be beautiful, always sweet and always brilliant. She will always look up to and respect him and always be deeply in love with him.
Are these visions of wedded bliss even possible, or are they just the stuff of dreams and romance novels? Is it true that dreams like these come crashing to reality after the wedding day? Or, can happily ever after really occur? Jesus Christ came that we “may have life,” and that we “may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). In fact, referencing our loving heavenly Father, Christ asked: “If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he givehimastone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he givehima serpent instead of a fish?” (Luke 11:11). Christ was explaining that the Father wants to give us good gifts that we desire, even more than a worldly parent does (v. 13)! In the first two chapters of Genesis, God created and commanded marriage. He did it so we have a strong family setting in which to rear godly children (Malachi 2:15), and in which all could be happy, experience His love and understand much more about Him, His relationship with Christ, and Christ’s relationship with the Church. The ideal of wedded bliss in marriage is not some human imagination; it reflects the divinely inspired pattern of our loving Father who wants only the best for His sons and daughters.
So how does one attain the wedded bliss the Father intends? A godly dating foundation is vital. But when is it appropriate and advisable to build on that foundation? The short answer is: “When two individuals are ready according to God’s criteria and their own.” A more helpful answer, though, is much more detailed.
Personal milestones should be reached before any man or woman considers moving forward into a serious dating relationship, or courtship. For this article, we will define courtship as “a special season of romance where a man and woman are seriously weighing the possibility of marriage.” Courtship is not “directionless romance,” but rather, “a romantic relationship that is headed toward marriage”—something that should be clearly understood by both the man and the woman involved (Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl, p. 31).
Entering the serious courtship phase of a relationship requires the commitment and dedication of a man and woman to each other. This commitment, essentially, takes a couple “out of circulation” and means that they will dedicate the majority of their dating efforts to developing a serious relationship exclusively with each other, growing to know one another more deeply with the intent of determining whether or not this is a marriage God wants to occur.
To be ready for courtship, both individuals should be mentally, emotionally, educationally, financially and spiritually ready to pursue marriage. Entering courtship should imply that the couple is very likely right for each other, that they have prepared in these areas and that they are both ready for marriage. If either the man or the woman has not adequately prepared, embarking on a courtship is most likely premature and unwise.
But there are a host of other factors to consider in a future mate. Courtship is not the time to determine whether these key factors exist! Courtship is a season to gain a deeper familiarity with a person you already know well—someone you have already determined has the basic qualifications to be a serious candidate to be a marriage partner. Dating, not courtship, is the time to discover whether the basic “big picture” factors (as noted in the list on page 11) are in place.
One very important factor related to marriage is age. Age will help indicate, in part, the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual maturity of the individual. Mr. Herbert Armstrong gave the following timely advice: “Based on actual experience, my judgment is—and I think it is sound judgment guided and approved by God—that until out of the ‘teens’ a boy or girl is too young to marry! And it is also my judgment—and I think it is sound and approved by God—based on lifelong experience counseling on marriage problems of hundreds of people—that even twenty is too young to be the best age for marriage… except in rare cases or circumstances, even twenty is too early an age for marriage” (The Missing Dimension in Sex, p. 227).
Interestingly, recent research on the brain and emotional development strongly reinforces Mr. Armstrong’s observations. Physician Meg Meeker points out that the brains of most men and women, as well as their emotions and ability for rational thought, are not fully mature until their early twenties (Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, p. 208). Mr. Armstrong suggested that most women in his day did not have the full mental, educational, emotional and spiritual readiness for marriage until age 23–25, and that most men were not ready (also including the matter of financial readiness) until age 24–26 (p. 228). In today’s society, however, we often see young people reaching this level of maturity and responsibility even a few years later than Mr. Armstrong suggested.
After a man and woman have prayed and fasted in search of God’s guidance, and have seen that they do have the essential elements that indicate readiness, and after they have received positive counsel from parents, older established couples who know them well, and also the ministry, it is time to commit to the next stage in their relationship—courtship.
Even though prayer and fasting were part of their preparation for courtship, God’s guidance should continue to be sought deeply and deliberately, because courtship is a time when the man and woman must both discern whether or not it is God’s will and His time for them to marry. Mr. Armstrong wrote of this time: “And remember this: It is God who joins together in marriage a husband and wife. Therefore it ought to be—in your own interest—God who selects for you the husband or wife you are going to marry! God will do this, if you ask Him, and then refrain from getting in a hurry and taking it into your own hands! This may require self-restraint and patience, yes, and also faith. But if you rely on God, He will not fail you. And if He selects your lifelong mate, you’ll have the right one!” (pp. 218–219).
Part of seeking God’s guidance involves seeking pre-engagement counseling with a minister who knows the couple well. No couple should assume that they are “too old” or “already experienced” and thus do not need the benefit of pre-engagement counseling. During courtship, a man and woman must be willing to ask and answer deeper and more personal questions about each other as they explore their individual goals, ambitions, perspectives and life experiences.
In my many years of working with and counseling young singles—and with older singles, too—I have learned that it is incredibly important for men and women both to develop a “list of qualities” they feel they must have in a future mate. This must be a personal list, developed by the individual considering marriage, but it should also benefit from input given by others who are older and who know the individuals well. Parents and ministers and older married couples will often identify key qualities that an idealistic person in love may neglect. Some examples are outlined in the list below. Consider that if you do not know what you are looking for, you will not realize you have chosen the wrong person until it is too late.
Remember that there may be some qualities that would be nice to find in a future mate, but that may not be essential. Recognizing the difference between the “must have” and the “nice to have” qualities is vital for making wise and godly decisions without letting the heart lead one into a mistake that will later be regretted.
We should not think that a courtship has failed if the couple discover they were not meant to be married to each other. Courtship should only begin if a couple think marriage is likely. But when a man and woman are truly seeking God’s will, it should be able to end with the couple remaining friends, with only minimal emotional trauma, if they succeed in discovering that their marriage is not God’s will. How can a couple be sure that their courtship is conducted in a godly way that will allow the best outcome? Here are some key points Harris brings out in his book:
- It needs to be God-glorifying and wisdom-guided.
- Both people must treat each other with holiness and sincerity.
- Both the man and woman must make an informed and wise decision about marriage.
- The aim should be to grow closer while guarding each other’s hearts (the man’s leadership role in this is vital).
- Fight the urge to assume you are “going to be married”—at which point the heart tends to take over and the brain shuts off.
- Courtship should be entered after counsel with parents (no matter what age), the pastor and a few others who know the other person and you, very well.
- Use a couple of “key” confidants to keep you on the “straight and narrow” during courtship.
- Avoid situations that may allow you to fall into temptation (1 Peter 2:10–12: “Let your conduct be honorable…”)
- Both individuals should guard their hearts and what they allow themselves to feel.
- The couple remains physically and emotionally pure.
Intimacy and Romance
During courtship, as a relationship grows closer and a man and woman share more trust and more details of their lives, they naturally develop greater emotional and psychological intimacy. As a part of this growing together and developing a deeper commitment to each other, romance will and must eventually blossom if a relationship is to lead to marriage. Although premature romance can be temporarily enjoyable, it will eventually lead to long-term hurt (Harris, p. 91). The man in particular must not allow romance to be part of a relationship until he knows for sure that the woman will be his wife in the near future.
At this point, romance can be allowed to blossom slowly in a guarded and pure way. Romance includes the way two individuals treat and communicate with each other. Author Joshua Harris puts it this way: “Romantic feelings and the pure nonphysical expression of those feelings are an essential part of this time in a relationship.… Our goal during courtship is not to stifle our feelings of affection and love, but to submit them to God and to grow in and guard them” (p. 89).
A Note about Physical Intimacy
God created sex as a blessing for marriage and a glue to help unify husband and wife. It is so special that God uniquely designed humans to be able to experience a physical, emotional and spiritual connection through physical intimacy—something impossible in the animal kingdom. If the starting point of courtship and engagement is to honor God and His son or daughter with your body and mind, then passionate physical intimacy should be delayed until marriage. Some mistakenly assume that certain acts of passionate physical intimacy are “no big deal.” But the reality is that “the longer your ‘no big deal’ list is before marriage, the shorter your ‘very special’ list will be after marriage” (Harris, p. 159). Harris goes on to observe, “We can’t make certain parts of sexual intimacy meaningful and others meaningless—it’s all precious!” (ibid., p. 164).
God and His word should be the guide for determining the proper type of intimacy engaged in before marriage, and a man and woman should work together to determine the types of intimacy appropriate prior to marriage, remembering that lust once engaged in is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20)! The exact details may vary slightly between couples and cultures, but certain basics are biblical and universal. For instance, notice what Mr. Herbert Armstrong wrote about passionate kissing: “This is not to say that a fond embrace and a kiss—if not prolonged—are wrong. But remember, the male is sexually aroused in five to ten seconds—or less. Any such embrace or kiss ought never to be prolonged sufficiently to produce arousal and desire. This is a time to practice self-restraint. This is the time to demonstrate honor with power of will” (Herbert W. Armstrong, The Missing Dimension in Sex, p. 238).
It would also be wise for a couple to share their guidelines and expectations about intimacy with a trusted advisor who knows the couple well and can “keep them honest” throughout their courtship (and later engagement, if this applies). Knowing that someone might ask about your behavior can do wonders for keeping it “in line”!
Consider, too, that “public displays of affection” will lead others to assume a couple’s intentions. Not only do they present a temptation and potentially dangerous example to those not yet ready for marriage; they can send an unwelcome and confusing message if the publicly affectionate couple later decides not to marry.
Engagement! The word itself connotes a connection that is not meant to be broken. Engagement signifies that a couple has determined to marry in the very near future. It should mean that a man and woman have taken their time through courtship—proceeding carefully, methodically, and lovingly in gaining answers to their many deep questions, each coming to understand the true character of the future mate. It should mean that they have completed pre-engagement counseling, received loving encouragement from parents and trusted advisors, and confirmed their love for and commitment to each other.
Engagement is not marriage—there is no wedding vow. It is a commitment that begins what will generally be a relatively short period of time (usually not more than a year) during which a man and woman continue to grow closer to each other while growing spiritually closer to God, and at the same time making plans for a wedding.
Even though there has been a kind of commitment, and the man and woman are growing in trust and outflowing concern for each other, they are still not married—and thus must remain pure before God and each other. A Christian couple must reject Satan’s false societal notion that the engagement period brings all the rights and privileges of marriage.
When God created human beings almost 6,000 years ago, He said their creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). He intended that, in marriage, a man and woman would build their own entirely new family (Genesis 2:24). He intended husband and wife to work together as a unit—serving each other, encouraging each other, and helping each other grow.
God intends for most men and women to marry (Genesis 2:18), and He wants to be involved in the process. He desires to bless us for seeking His will and remaining faithful and true throughout the process of discovering who His choice for our future mate will be. Marriage points us to the pure and unified union that will one day take place between Christ and His undefiled bride, the Church (Revelation 19:7–9).
Courtship and engagement, when done God’s way, should be enjoyable, enriching and character-building—and should help us grow spiritually. God wants to bless us in and through this process. But we must first be ready and mature. We must attain the proper training, skills, education, spiritual maturity and financial stability before we consider making a lifetime commitment to a potential future mate—one of God’s sons or daughters.
When done in true Christian love—according to God’s will and timing, keeping one’s ultimate focus on seeking first God’s Kingdom and righteousness—courtship and engagement can be all that God intends them to be! God expects us to strive continually to separate ourselves from the dysfunctional ways of Satan’s society. We must endeavor to practice Christian behaviors that demonstrate we truly are God’s disciples. God’s way is the only way that really works, leading to true happiness!
Are You Ready For Courtship?
- Have I known this person for long enough and in a broad enough context to have an accurate understanding of his or her character?
- Do we have the same religious beliefs? Are we both baptized? Are we both converted (remember Paul’s admonition in 2 Corinthians 6:14)? Are we both in the sameChristian fellowship?
- Do we come from a similar racial and cultural background? [Note: The Church highly discourages interracial dating and marriage and encourages people to ask: What is God’s will and desire?]
- Are we both relatively close in age and “stage in life”?
- Do we have a similar family background and similar views and expectations on the role of the family?
- Do we have similar views on having children and child rearing?
- Are we unified on our views about the roles of a husband and wife?
- Do we have similar views and expectations regarding large financial issues?
- Do we have similar views on how to spend leisure and recreational time?
- For a man: is he emotionally and mentally mature? Is he spiritually mature enough to become the spiritual leader of his family? Does he have adequate training and education and is he in a position to financially support a wife and family?
- For a woman: is she mentally, emotionally, and spiritually mature enough to submit to her husband? Is she emotionally and educationally prepared to lead a home and family?
—Adapted from the Living Church of God Pastoral Manual, Section 11
"Qualities of My Future Mate"
Note: These are example characteristics to seek in a future mate. Make your own list, and have parent(s) or an older friend who knows you well make one (or contribute to yours). You may be surprised at what they offer.
- Deep conversion (not just baptism)
- For men, the necessary training and education to lead and support a family
- For women, the necessary skill, education and training to manage a home and rear children
- Ambition to continue to grow spiritually
- Fruits of God’s Holy Spirit, and a desireto “grow” these fruits (Galatians 5:22–23)
- The humility and desire to put spouse and family first
- For men, the desire to and actions to support a deep love for his wife
- For women, the desireto respect and submitto and follow her husband
- A good reputation among family members, brethren, the ministry, and co-workers
- Excellent and godly character
- Patience and humility
- For men, the ability and character to “take the lead” when necessary
- For women, the ability to humbly follow and allow the husband’s lead when necessary
- The ability and desire to work as a “family team”
- Strong spiritual habits (“regular” prayer, study, meditation and fasting)
- Oriented toward serving others
- Faithfulness in tithing and giving offerings
- Dedicated to the truth and God’s Work
- Values the priorities of: God, spouse/family, job
- Has emotional maturity
- Has a similar family background
- Values family relationship
You fill in the rest…