The Bible tells us that God has given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him” who saved us (2 Peter 1:3). Indeed, the Scriptures say that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found in Jesus Christ our Lord (Col. 2:3). In short, every area of life should be ordered by the word of God and the example of Jesus; including interaction between unmarried men and women.
Now, many will respond to this statement with a shrug; “Of course” they say, “every Christian is to love his neighbor as himself, thinking of others more highly than himself and looking out for his brother’s or sister’s best interests. What’s new?” Well, the biblical principal of self sacrificing love is certainly a good place to start when we look at how single men and women should treat one another. But the Bible also makes it clear that we learn how to walk out selfless love (or any other godly character trait), by imitating the example of the Lord and the example of godly leadership. In other words, if we want to know how a single person should treat a member of the opposite sex, we need to first recognize the example of the Lord and them imitate it (Eph. 5:1, 1 Cor 11:1).
I recently read an article published in a major Christian magazine that discussed the issue of dating. The article stated that dating relationships between Christian singles should be healthy (whatever that means), loving, giving and Christ-like. However, the article never got around to defining any of the recommendations. It did say that when a dating couple breaks up, it can cause a lot of tension if they both attend the same church. This due to the emotional ties that have formed in their healthy, loving, giving and Christ-like relationship – which more than 50% of the time (according to the “latest” statistics), has included healthy, loving, giving and Christ-like physical intimacy. Houston, we have a problem.
I don’t mean to be sarcastic (well, actually I do, but I hope that it’s godly sarcasm), but methinks it’s about time we woke up and smelled the coffee. We like to pretend that if we dress up worldly ways in Christian garb (healthy, loving, giving and Christ-like garb), that we have discovered a godly alternative to the worldly status quo. This simply is not true. As with so many things in life, the Church needs to start from scratch, discover Christ’s example and move forward from there.1
Now, you may be thinking that the Bible doesn’t provide any examples of godly dating relationships. If that’s what you think you’re basically right. Dating, in the modern American sense, is never modeled in the Bible. However, what we might call courtship certainly is. And the example we want to briefly summarize is the courtship of Christ and His true love, the Church.
Throughout the Old Testament we see the Lord God courting and wooing a Bride for Himself from out of Humanity. The outstanding feature of His courtship is His single minded devotion to the one He loves. Even when She turns Her back on Him and plays the harlot with other lovers, The Lord God refuses to give up. Yes She is punished, yes She is pruned and cut back to a faithful remnant; but ultimately God remains faithful to the one whom He had pursued from the beginning.
In the New Testament, God’s purpose becomes clearer and we grow to understand that the pursuer had always been God the Son. Likewise, we see that the Beloved has always been a remnant, a “kernel carried forward by the husk” (Rom. 9:6).2 Finally, the courtship concludes with the Son sacrificing His life for the sake of His Beloved. It is not until He does so that the Beloved is completely enraptured by His love and becomes His Bride.
How then do we imitate Christ’s example in this? Are Christian singles required to avoid any sort of “pre-marriage” relationship with the opposite sex? Yet, none of us are omniscient; how are Christian men and women supposed to know who is the right one without some sort of relationship preliminary to marriage? Obviously we cannot mirror Christ’s example perfectly; we are limited by our humanness. However, we certainly can (and should), come close to the mark – and that will separate us from the ways of the world by a wide margin.
A primary aspect of Christ’s example is in His purpose; He wasn’t pursuing the Beloved just for something to do on Saturday night. His goal was marriage from beginning to end. He wasn’t interested in maintaining His singleness so that he could play the field. I realize that there are Christian brothers and sisters who are called to remain single for the sake of the kingdom. Yet, someone who is called to be celibate really has no business developing close relationships with the opposite sex in the first place. If you do you’re just asking for trouble.3 Celibate brother’s and sisters, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
I suppose we should see this issue as “either-or.” Unless God has called you to remain unmarried, then you should get on the stick and find a spouse. I don’t mean that you should run out and randomly choose someone (“Hi, my name is Harvey – will you marry me?”), and I don’t mean that if you remain single for a long time that you are somehow missing God’s will in your life. I’m talking about an attitude here. If you want to follow God’s example in this, then you need to bag the whole idea of “recreational dating” and focus on finding the one you want to marry. Certainly that will require dating of some sort, but there really is no room for extended relationships without marriage or playing the field just for the thrill of the chase. Furthermore, it may take a while to find the one you wish to marry. The timing is in God’s hands not yours. Your responsibility is to have the mind of Christ and imitate Him as closely as possible. God will take care of the rest.
Another facet of Christ’s example that stands out is His refusal to become physically intimate with the Beloved prior to the wedding. Obviously we are dealing with symbolism here; Christ and His Church do not have a physical relationship per say.4 However, when we recall that the marriage relationship of a man and his wife is symbolic of the relationship of Christ and His Church, we can engage in a bit of reverse application and arrive at the same conclusion. In other words, the covenant sexual relationship of a husband and wife illustrates the intimacy of Christ and His Church; we are one with Him, He is the head of the Body and we are joined to Him.
Now then, when did we – or do we – enter into this relationship with Christ? Speaking corporately, intimate relations between the Bride and the Bridegroom did not commence until He died and rose again and had gone to receive a kingdom. Once that “event” had taken place, the Church was of age, the marriage feast was celebrated and the relationship was consummated. There was no “making out” before The Lord had accomplished His task.
From the point of view of the individual, we don’t enter the relationship until we have been taken from the kingdom of darkness and reborn into the kingdom of light. Christ doesn’t “mess around’ with us before we confess Him as Lord and believe that God raised Him from the dead (Rom. 10:9). There is no holding of hands, petting or arousal before the wedding. Indeed, until we are a new creation in Christ, we are at war with God, hating everything about Him and desperately trying to suppress all knowledge of Him (Rom. 1:18-ff, 8:7, Col 1:21 and etc.).
In short, we have another either-or situation here. Either a man and woman have been joined in marriage, or, their relationship should be strictly “hands off.” There is no good reason for a physical relationship – of any kind – before the wedding night. Without the protection of the marriage covenant, a physical relationship causes emotional and spiritual harm (primarily to the young woman), and is at its core selfish, self centered and self serving (primarily on the part of the young man).5
So that this essay will not grow too long I will end with this final observation: Christ did not pursue His beloved until He was in a position to care for Her as He should. Clearly God the Son was ready for marriage from all eternity. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make His example any less relevant. Christ was ready for marriage when He pursued His Beloved. He was not unemployed, emotionally immature, or a school boy struggling to pass advanced math. He was “grown up” and prepared to take on the responsibility of a Bride. Go and do likewise.
In his letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul enjoins Corinthian believers to “imitate me just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). It’s time for Christian singles to follow the example of Christ so that others might in turn follow their godly pattern. It is also high time for the Church to provide the teaching – and emotional support – which our single brothers and sisters need in order to be successful in the battle. I pray that this brief essay will be a step in that direction.
1. I’m fully aware that several books have been written on the subject of dating, courtship and marriage from a biblical perspective. See for instance; Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodby, (Sisters OR.: Multnomah Books), 1997; Robert Andrews, The Family: God’s Weapon for Victory, (Rice Wa.: Sentinel Press), 1995, Douglas Wilson, Her Hand In Marriage, (Moscow: Cannon Press), 1996 and etc. My aim here is to provide a nutshell discussion of the issue for those who may not have not considered the topic before.
2. Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, (1929; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), 1991, 2:52.
3. The Bible does not say that if someone is called to be celibate they lose all sexual desire. Obviously God could eliminate a person’s sexual desire if He so chose, but the Bible nowhere indicates that such a thing is the norm.
4. Certainly there are physical aspects to our relationship with Christ. We participate in a communion meal that utilizes physical bread and wine. We may enjoy physical blessings of health or material gain and so on. The point being made here is that the Bride (a corporate entity), does not sensually experience the Lord’s caress; it is a spiritual reality.
5. In truth both parties are harmed emotionally and spiritually in a premarital physical relationship. The nature of the damage is specific to gender however.