So you've decided you want to start dating. Now what?
Before continuing with this column, please review the preamble included at the beginning of this series, "Biblical Dating: How It's Different From Modern Dating."
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PART 3: Just Friends »
As Christians in dating relationships, we want to avoid hurting one another and dishonoring Christ by "defrauding" (see NASB translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:6) our brothers and sisters in Christ by implying — through word or action — a higher level of commitment to that person than we have made before God. Because this sort of (perhaps unintentional) deception is a particular temptation in a dating context, we need to be deliberate about avoiding it.
That's where the following practical suggestions come in. Note the phrase "practical suggestions." These are not sacrosanct biblical principles. This is not the only way the early part of a relationship might look. These are simply suggested applications of biblical principles. In the end, there is no formula and no rote substitute for intellectually honest Christians seeking to care well for one another and to faithfully apply Scripture to infinitely varied relational circumstances.
So with all that said, let's consider how the principle of caring for one another well in the early stages of a relationship might look.
What Are We Doing Again?
The first thing that should happen if it has not happened during the initiation of the relationship is that intentions should be established. Whatever that conversation looks like, intentions should be clear and it should be the man making them so. Guys, tell her why you have initiated or are initiating with her, tell her that you intend to pursue the relationship to determine if marriage to her is the right choice before God.
In my view, this establishing of intentions should be done near the beginning of any exclusive or romantic time spent together — preferably within the first two or three "dates" during a deliberate conversation on the subject.
Guys, don't wait until you've had lunch or dinner or "hung out" one-on-one four or five times before you let her know what's going on. The idea is to remove that period of confusion or vulnerability for the woman by being forthright from the beginning about what level of intention or commitment exists (a la 1 Thessalonians 4). You probably won't know at this stage how things are going to ultimately turn out regarding marriage (that's why you date), so you need not communicate that right away. But you should know what you're trying to find out and what your intentions are — that is what you, as the man, must be clear about. From there, you obviously need a response from the woman to know whether or not things will go any further.
If you know the woman from church, if you've seen her interact in a group, observed her with others, maybe worked with her as a part of some ministry, that input should be enough for you to think through the decision of whether initiation of a relationship is the right thing. Remember, your intent at this point is not necessarily marriage — and that's not what either of you are committing to at this stage. You're simply committing to get to know her a little better in an intentional way to evaluate whether the two of you should then consider marriage to one another.
Ladies, as uncomfortable as this may sound for the guys, you might be in a difficult position here as well, depending on how well you know the man initiating with you. What if that answer is "not well at all"? Then I'd ask, have you had any chance at all to see him in group settings, or do you know him by reputation? If you don't have even information at that level, feel free to tell him that you want some time to think and pray about it (that is, if you're not sure at that point that you're not interested).
Then — in addition to actually thinking and praying about it — ask one of your pastors or elders whether he knows him and what he thinks. If the pastor or elder you ask doesn't know him well, he can guide you to a trustworthy source that knows him better.
If you know the man well or at least better than what I've just described, but you are not sure whether you are interested in him, I'd encourage you to at least take some time to get to know him before giving an unequivocal "no." Keep in mind that this is different from feigning interest when there isn't any. There are instances in which you can be genuinely unsure about a guy but still move forward this far.
Let me say it again: Agreeing to date is not agreeing to marry. That's why you date. We're trying to make intentions clear, here, not asking anyone to commit to go the distance with no information.
There are biblical and unbiblical reasons for a man to initiate with a woman, and there are biblical and unbiblical reasons for turning a man down. If you feel that you are not initially attracted to a man who initiates with you, OK — but at least ask yourself why that is. Are you considering biblical characteristics in that decision? Do you have enough information to know that you could not marry this man? If a man initiates with you, ladies, think and pray and seek counsel before simply dismissing him. If nothing else, treating men who initiate well will encourage other men to initiate.
So ... Here We Are
If we are concerned about defrauding one another (again, this idea applies to both genders but particularly to the men as the initiators), another one of the early issues to address is how much and what kind of time couples spend together.
What kind of time should couples spend together in the early stages of a relationship?
The answer turns on what you are trying to find out about this person at this stage of things. You're trying to find out whether this is someone you should know more intimately en route to figuring out whether this is a person you could marry. Did you catch how I phrased that? You are trying to figure out if you should get to know this person more intimately; you are not at the outset trying to get to know this person intimately. The difference is subtle but important.
One suggestion I have for couples starting out is that the majority of your time together should be spent with other people, preferably with your families and church families. Get to know one another in groups, find out how the other person reacts to people, spend time with the people he or she cares about. This will provide you a chance to get to know him or her well and will also provide a buffer and accountability against getting too emotionally intimate too early.
Many people want to start out a relationship by spending a huge amount of time alone together. This is understandable but unadvisable for a number of reasons. Spending too much time alone promotes a high level of intimacy on a number of fronts, can lead to some level of isolation from other friends, and puts undue emphasis on the relationship in the lives of both people, even before any significant commitment has been voiced.
If you do spend time alone, spend it in activities, read a book together, be in public places, etc. In these early stages, people should not spend long hours looking into each other's eyes over candle-lit tables or being alone together at one another's apartments. To do so courts temptation (so to speak) and implies a level of commitment that's simply not there yet.
Think not just about the kind of time you spend together, but how much. Even if you spend the right kind of time together, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Don't get together (even with other people) four or five times a week. Leave space in your life for other activities and relationships. And don't spend every moment that you're not together on the phone or even emailing or texting or IMing back and forth. Build the momentum (if it will build) slowly.
What Should We Talk About?
Have you thought about the fact that there are some topics that are inherently intimate and that almost automatically promote deep intimacy between two people? What do I mean?
For starters, let me suggest that you not go out in the first week and tell each other the long, teary versions of your testimonies and the greatest personal pain that the Lord has delivered you from in your life.
Don't immediately make that person your confidante in matters personal and emotional. Don't articulate your deepest feelings with respect to your life or even how you feel about that person. Also (and this may seem counterintuitive), I advise folks not to spend long periods in prayer together. Prayer is a wonderful thing, but it's also inherently intimate. Pray for the relationship, but don't spend hours holding hands and pouring yourselves out before the Throne. That may come.
What should you talk about then? Talk about a book you're reading, your interests, your faith (in more general terms or along the lines of issues), things going on in your life. Talk about your values and priorities, ambitions and plans you may have, your families and things that are happening in your church or in the world.
All right. Does this sound cold, uninviting, even deceptive? I admit it's not the stuff of movies, but the very point that I'm making is that at this point it shouldn't be. You are not yet that other person's main provision from the Lord for spiritual, emotional and physical intimacy and companionship. That role is reserved for the person's spouse. You are not that yet. You are in the early stages of seeing if that is a role that the Lord would eventually have you fill in one another's lives, but you're not there yet, and the kind of intimacy I've described is not to be engaged in on a trial basis. Even if it looks more fun or stimulating to go there — and I know it does — it's also defrauding your brother or sister.
This brings me to the larger principle bound up in these suggestions: Deep emotional intimacy should not be established in the early stages of a relationship.
It's not that you're being dishonest or cold, it's simply being cautious about living out a deeper commitment than truly exists between you. Song of Songs 2:7 tells us not to awaken love before it pleases: Do not start what you cannot — without sin — finish.
The modern, secular idea of dating relationships is to test the waters of marriage by acting as much like you are married as possible until you both (in the very heat of that temporary emotion and passion) decide what you want and either get married, or until one of you decides it's not a good fit and you go through something like a divorce (at least emotionally, if not physically — though that's pretty common, too).
The biblical idea of marriage holds that such level of relating to one another begins when you are married. It's one of the things that makes marriage unique. Our goal should be prayerfully to decide whether the person we are dating should be the one we marry without having to go through a de facto divorce if the answer's no.
Will there still be disappointment and sadness and emotional pain if a "biblical" dating relationship doesn't work out? Of course. There's no perfect way to do this. I assure you, though, that the pain will be lessened by the honest, mutual, spiritual concern for one another that results when two people treat one another like brothers and sisters in Christ first, and potential spouses second. This is for the protection of the people involved (especially the woman), for the witness of the church and for the glory of God.
Part 5: Principles for Drawing Boundaries
Copyright 2007 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.