For many years I’ve actively advocated for sexual purity. Experiencing sexual love both the world’s way and God’s way turned me into a riotous supporter of God’s kind of romance. When I first turned from the siren song of lust to the more excellent way of Jesus, I felt confident that “courtship” constituted the perfect replacement for dating. I myself courted and married, as did others I knew. But over the years, little red flags began to dot the map of my perfect route to marital happiness: a pitfall here, a gaping chasm there. I saw couples court and marry too soon. I watched promising young people move hastily from joyful singleness to energy-sapping enmeshment. I saw a few “perfect” courtship-based marriages end up in divorce. Now I’m beginning the process of reforming my philosophy of how good, godly marriages are formed. This is my first attempt to provide a third alternative to dating and courtship. I’m calling it “intentional dating.”
First, let me establish some definitions:
Dating as a common practice among Christians involves pursuing someone the pursuant finds attractive; typically physical attraction ranks very high in this process. Usually—but less and less so—the male initiates this process, asking the female out on “a date.” If accepted, the two dress attractively and spend time together, usually engaging in a romantic activity such as a candlelit dinner. A date insures as few irritations and interruptions as possible.
If the dating continues, the couple may or may not become physically involved. Christians typically feel guilty about sexual intercourse before marriage, but may indulge anyway. Or they may stop short of sexual intercourse, engaging in deep kissing or petting.
Courtship involves more restraint than dating. Ideally, qualities of character rank higher in importance than physical attractiveness. The male most often initiates, asking the female to “court,” but not before consulting with trusted leaders and mentors, as well as those who know well the character of the female. The female respectively counsels with others about the male before she makes a decision. If the answer is “yes,” the male and female spend time together for the purpose of ascertaining their compatibility. They most often “court” in the context of their active lives, as opposed to idyllic surroundings. Courting couples ideally avoid physical involvement until they become certain of their future together. If courtship leads to engagement, the couple may or may not show physical affection, but usually it is of a retrained nature, avoiding sexually arousing forms of touch.
Even as I write this, I see that courtship improves greatly upon dating. My intention here is to improve on what’s good rather than discard it. In 1997 Joshua Harris published his famous courtship book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Since then a plethora of books have advocated his position; I agree with 99 percent of them. I would simply like to suggest a few improvements that I think would correct some of the extremes and pitfalls that can develop in courtship.
1. Let’s change the name. Courtship summons up images of men in tights and women in pointed hats. Dateship, maybe? Or Dourting? Hummm. . . How about something like intentional dating? “Intentional” provides distinction from generic dating. In common with most people, disciples of Jesus want to find the love of their lives. We’re just proposing a “more excellent way.”
2. What about a prelude to an intentional relationship? Why not give young people permission to have short, light-hearted, “dates” without any romantic or physical involvement, or even serious commitment? Courtship began when people lived in small, tightly-knit communities. Today’s world is far more large, transient, and complex. People need a chance to get to know one another apart from the serious near-engagement of courtship. So perhaps we could encourage a time of “friendship dating” where both parties purpose to become acquainted, and nothing more?
One objection to this goes something like: “For those with strong sexual drives, especially those with previous sexual experience, even spending time alone with a member of the opposite sex presents an irresistible temptation.” First, I let me opine on that a bit. If we imply that we can’t possibly resist sex the first time an opportunity presents itself, aren’t we implying that people are basically animals in constant heat who operate by instinct rather than reason and choice? Aren’t we belying the gospel truth that God made us in His very own image?
But as a concession to those who may need greater physical barriers to temptation; this “friendship dating” doesn’t have to be dating per se. It can be forming friendships within the canvassing program, the summer camp staff, or any other work or ministry situation. In fact, much of Christian friendship formation can be done in groups. It’s just that because of geographical distance, jobs, school, and other circumstances, group forums aren’t always available and one-on-one outings become necessary. Then proper boundaries, such as avoiding late-night meetings and time alone behind closed doors, will help ward off undue temptation.
Take a very important broken-heart prevention measure: Be clear about your intentions! I mean utterly, completely up front, as in, “I’m not interested in a committed relationship yet. I’m getting to know you as a friend,” or the harder-to-say, “We’ve spent some time together and although I like you, I’m not interested in anything more than friendship.” This kind of transparency can be tough, but it’s worth the discipline!
3. Once two individuals wish for more than friendship, they can begin to pursue a more serious, committed relationship. This should be done with prayer and counsel, similar to the courting model. If a person prays twice a day, they should pray four times a day when pursuing a committed relationship. They should gather all the information possible about the other person—even the “dirt.” Jesus said count the cost. Go into a serious relationship with your eyes wide open.
If the lights are green, you must begin the messy business of seeing if the other person is interested. In the courtship model, the man typically initiates this process. There are merits to this: men’s self-confidence tends to be more resilient. Men often support the family when the children are small and need to have sufficient drive and courage to pull this off. A man’s drive to acquire a relationship can indicate that he possesses sufficient strength of personality to make it in a very dog-eat-dog world. But all this man-doing-the-initiating thing can be overdone. Godly romances often unfold with much mutuality. True, men tend to be initiators and women responders. Okay. But while you respect gender differences, try not to exaggerate them.
This period of intentional dating has an intention (how ‘bout that?)—to ascertain whether the couple would compliment one another sufficiently to form a synergistic marriage, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And just as importantly: could they love one another for a long, long time? Could they make each other happy? Could they have fun together, solve problems together, and just generally do life together? Remember, it’s not marriage yet. The purpose of intentional dating is to see if you’re meant to be together. If the answer is no, and you go your separate ways, then intentional dating served its purpose and was a success!
Because of potential for breakup, I think it best not to become physically involved during this phase of the relationship. If physical involvement occurs, keep it to a non-sexual nature. Your self-restraint before marriage preempts your self-restraint after.
4. The third and final phase of godly marriage formation is engagement. During this period individuals are fully committed to one another but not officially a married couple. Engagements may still be broken, but with considerably more grief than dating relationships. One important tip: Keep the engagement short so as not to tempt yourselves.
The only really new concept here is that I’m encouraging non-committed relationship formation, called “friendship dating,” as a preface to a serious, more committed relationship. I’ve seen too many young people rush into a serious courtship before they’d even fully developed as individuals. I respect the need for restraint, and the danger of casual dating and playing with hearts, but in my estimation some who believe in courtship have gone too far in avoiding these things and have missed out on healthy, social-skill-building interactions with the opposite sex. It’s as if they’ve skipped a step in the process and gone straight from Rapunzel’s tower to the arms of the Prince.
To minimize the danger of “friendship dating” going bad, here are three simple guidelines:
1. When possible, do it in groups.
2. Avoid late nights and long-term isolation.
3. Be honest and up front about your intentions. Verbalize the fact that you’re just friends and make sure the other understands this.
Okay, now, get out there and have a blast!