Tonight's Question Box will be of particular interest to some of you, although I hope it will be instructive to us all. The question is "What are the 'Christian rules' for dating?"
Whenever I get a question like that I'm not quite sure how I should respond. My experience is that for many of us, the most valuable advise deals with things not specific to the Bible: brush your teeth, dress nicely, be on time, don't talk the whole time, take her to a decent restaurant. However, I think the questioner has something else in mind.
We might state the question this way: "What does the Bible say about dating?" The answer is "Nothing." There is no chapter on dating; there is no dating psalm; and Song of Solomon is strictly off-limits for all single people! Dating is not an institution the Bible recognizes at all. The only male-female relationships spoken of in Scripture are brother-sister, father-daughter, son-mother, and husband-wife.
What that means is not that the Bible is irrelevant for those wishing to date, but rather that we will have to approach the matter principially. In this sense, the answer to the question, "What does the Bible say about dating?" is "Everything!" Everything from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 is relevant to the Christian wishing to date.
Let me pick just one passage of the Bible to start working from. In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment. He replied, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." He then threw in another one for free, saying, "And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Mt. 22:37-40). Surely this is a passage that will say much for every topic facing a Christian, including the matter of dating.
Let's start with the second of those commandments, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Already we have entered into distinctly Christian territory. A principal motive when you are on a date, whether you are a man or a woman, is to be concerned for the other person's well-being. You are on the date, I presume, to meet your desire for companionship and perhaps in hopes of marriage. You have anxieties, hopes, fears, likes and dislikes. In other words, you approach the date keenly aware of all the myriad implications of your own healthy self-love. But as a Christian, you must apply equal concern, equal energy, and I dare say equal preparation to love of your dating neighbor. Therefore it is your duty to minister as a brother or sister, to think about and act upon what is best for the woman or man you are out with, remembering that "It is better to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).
Even when a dating relationship doesn't work out, you should ask yourself if your former date is better off for having spent time with you. If not, then you need to think about how God would want you to treat your brother or sister better. Before going out, this tells us to ask the same, "What is going to make this a beneficial experience for this other person?"
Remember, too, that there are other people involved than just the two of you on a date. There are parents, friends, and among others, pastors at the dinner table with you, as it were. I often tell men anticipating a first date to assume that either this is the beginning of their marriage relationship or else they are out with a woman who will be someone else's wife. If the latter is true, they should remember that someone else is out with the woman who will be their wife, so we all benefit from godly dating. The same is true in reverse for women. The point is that men and women should be thoughtful when dating, realizing that, as my wife puts it, "You're not just holding hands, you're holding hearts." If all this talk of responsibility and ministry is taking the fun and romance out of dating for you, let me suggest that you may not be ready to date according to this second commandment Jesus taught. When you are on a date it is with a person, indeed as a Christian it must be with a child of God, and not with a toy.
There are some differences between the genders in dating, analogous to the Bible's teaching on relationships in marriage. Generally speaking, we would expect a man to provide spiritual leadership in dating, that is of the self-sacrificing kind modeled by our Lord. Therefore, a man who just wants to have a good time and never wants to talk about the relationship is not likely to make a godly husband, and should be shunned. A woman is not told to submit to a boyfriend, yet if she is dating a man she does not respect, whom she would not gladly honor in marriage, whose spiritual leadership is not beneficial to her, it is probably a good question why she is going on a date with him. Just as Eve was given to Adam to be a helper (see Gen. 2:18), so Christian women should help the man out. Help make the conversation move forward, help him to act in a godly manner by the way you dress and act, help him if he feels nervous or awkward, as is often the case, help him by prayer for God to bless this man you are willing to go out with on a date.
The other commandment, the greatest one, is that we are to love God in everything. Therefore, the goal or purpose of dating is the same as everything else: to glorify God and enjoy him. All sorts of "rules" fall out from this. We must shun sexual sin, since our bodies are temples of the Lord (1 Cor. 6:19). Since God forbids us to marry non-Christians (see 1 Cor. 7:39), we must not date non-Christians. To date a non-Christian is to start down a road towards a destination we must not arrive at; it is flirting with disobedience and tragedy and is born of an unwillingness to honor the Lord. Honoring God means we will want to pray before and after a date, for our own conduct and for the other person. It means we will trust God and therefore will not play emotional games. Following Christ's example, we will minister in love rather than manipulate in fear. Since we know that God's regular pattern for our blessing is marriage, although there are exceptions, we normally will date with an eye towards marriage, seeking in dating to establish a relationship that will produce a godly home.
The Apostle Paul writes, "Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17). That is surely the rule for Christians in dating, as for Christians at work and in every other human endeavor, trusting God and seeking to please and give glory to his Name.
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