What Does the Bible Say About Dating?

Aug 24, 2015 |Scott Croft
What Does the Bible Say About Dating?

Three broad principles from Scripture that should inform how we date

In the nearly 10 years since I first wrote the Biblical Dating series on Boundless, I and other Boundless authors have addressed some pretty nuanced and specific questions about dating relationships.

One of the great things about Boundless is that the community here is, within the confines of a clear and evangelical understanding of the Gospel, often pretty diverse in terms of the specific recommendations and approaches to dating represented by various authors. So if you are a regular and thorough Boundless reader, you've had a lot to think about!

Recent months and years have also seen a more robust discussion about whether the Bible really has anything practical or specific to teach us about dating. So I thought it might be helpful to mark the (nearly) 10-year anniversary of the Biblical Dating series by asking again, What exactly does the Bible say about dating?

The answer in a literal sense, of course, is "nothing." Not only do the words "dating" and "courtship" fail to appear in Scripture, but the Bible never depicts the sociological phenomenon of an unmarried man and woman meeting, deciding on their own to become romantically involved, and pursuing a relationship from the stages of acquaintance through marriage. (Song of Songs gets the closest, but it's more of a love poem that teaches the expression of love and sexual desire in the context of marriage.)

It's also important, as I've stressed in other columns, not to inject into Scripture more implications for dating than are called for — especially in the wrong genres and contexts of the Bible. (For instance, the story of Jacob and Rachel doesn't stand for the idea that seven years is the right length of time for a dating relationship — or that polygamy is OK! And the story of Ruth and Boaz is not an example of a woman "initiating" the equivalent of a modern dating relationship.)

So where does all that leave us? Does the fact that the Bible has nothing explicit to say about dating mean that it has nothing practical or authoritative to teach us about how to conduct a dating relationship? To borrow a favorite phrase of the apostle Paul, by no means!

Sufficiency of Scripture

The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture holds that the Bible guides and instructs us authoritatively in all areas of our faith and life, and that there is no area of life about which the Bible has no guidance for us. Second Timothy 3:16-17 teaches us that "[a]ll Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." That teaching, reproof and correction may be only at the level of broad principles in some areas of life (like dating), but it will be there nonetheless.

How can we search Scripture on a topic that may be only indirectly addressed in the Bible (or evaluate what someone else has written on such a topic) without either being overly dismissive on the one hand or inappropriately "proof-texting" on the other? The most important idea to keep in mind is that as we read Scripture for "indirect" guidance, we must make sure that we are conscious about genre, context and authorial intent.

So to take one of my examples above, the story of Jacob and Rachel is found in Genesis, a historical narrative. The author's main point in that part of Genesis is to describe the story of Jacob and Rachel as part of a larger narrative about God and His plan of redemption, not to "prescribe" (to endorse or instruct) anything about their conduct. How does that play out? It means that even though Jacob ended up taking two wives, that fact in a historical narrative does not override Paul's direct teaching on marriage in Ephesians, 1 Corinthians and elsewhere that marriage is to be between one man and one woman.

If you read Scripture and are unsure about a particular passage's genre or context or application to a certain topic, a good study Bible can be helpful (the ESV Study Bible is the best I've ever seen). You can read more about studying the Bible here.

So, keeping things like genre and context in mind, what are some of the broad biblical principles that can guide us in the more specific question of how to date in a way that glorifies God? Some basic ideas follow below. As you'll see, they tend to build on and reinforce one another.I realize that not everyone in evangelicalism would necessarily agree with some of the specific implications I've drawn from these principles over the years, but among reputable, conservative biblical scholars, the basic ideas themselves are well established. 

1. Some levels of emotional and physical relationship are reserved for marriage only.If you are single and keep reading this piece, you may be tempted to think of what follows as principles that limit or restrict the way you act while dating. There may be some truth in that in some sense, but they are even more fundamentally about positively preserving the beautiful uniqueness of the marriage relationship — your marriage relationship — and about positively loving our single brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that prioritizes one another's spiritual good (an ethic with which Scripture is deeply concerned).

Song of Songs tells us in numerous passages not to "stir up or awaken love until it pleases" (2:7, 3:5, etc.). The orthodox, uncontroversial interpretation of this language is that it instructs men and women not to relate in ways that arouse or encourage sexual desire or a high, unique level of intimacy until it is appropriate (i.e., within the context of marriage illustrated in the book).

Similarly, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 warns us that we are to abstain from sexual immorality and to use our bodies in holiness and honor rather than lust, and that we should not "transgress or wrong" one another in these matters. Other translations render that word "wrong" as "defraud" (see the old RSV, among others).

Numerous scholars have suggested that beyond the clear sexual implications of this passage, there is a broader relational application that we are not to "defraud" one another in areas of sexuality and relationships by implying a marital level of commitment by our words and actions that does not exist. In other words, we should not "act" married in our emotional and physical intimacy until we have undertaken that level of commitment.

The idea that some levels of relationship are unique to marriage should get our attention as we engage in relationships that present a constant temptation to tread into "marriage" areas regarding emotional and physical intimacy, companionship, and the special status that dating partners tend to occupy in our lives. Once we acknowledge that dating is not an "anything goes" enterprise with regard to intimacy, we're in a better position to think through what a godly, responsible level of intimacy is. The Biblical Dating series takes a shot at that question in detail, as does the column "Principles for Drawing Boundaries."

2. Sexual immorality is a serious sin against God and one another, and it should be actively avoided.

The Bible talks about sexual sin as extremely serious, both as a sin against God and against the one with whom we sin. Again, Romans 13 talks about doing no wrong to our neighbors and then names sexual sin as just such a wrong. Several passages tell us that the (unrepentant) sexually immoral will not enter the kingdom of heaven (see Galatians 5), and Proverbs presents numerous warnings against such sin (for example, Proverbs 6:20-7:27). First Corinthians 6:18 directs us to "flee [that is, turn and run] from sexual immorality," and Ephesians 5:3 (in the NIV) warns that there must be "not even a hint" of such immorality among believers.

As it relates to sexual immorality, the Bible also makes a powerful argument from silence: There is no example anywhere in Scripture of any romantic, physical activity outside of marriage that is not described as sinful and that does not result in negative consequences for the people involved.

The Bible seems to offer the strongest guidance it can that sexual sin is to be actively avoided and, positively, that the only godly context for any sexual activity is marriage (Song of Songs 2:7).

3. We should treat every believer who is not our spouse as a brother or sister in Christ.

Call this the positive corollary to the sexual sin principle. Scripture treats marriage as a unique and exclusive relationship, not just in its status, but in the means of relating within that status. As already discussed, Song of Songs seems to be one long illustration of that idea. Ephesians 5:22-33 also holds marriage out as unique in its level of commitment, relational bond, intimacy and as an illustration of the Gospel. Everyone who is not our spouse seems to fall into one of several other categories that are devoid of erotic love and fall into some type of "familial" analogy.

First Timothy 5 instructs us to treat older men "as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity" (1 Timothy 5:1-2). That short passage covers just about everybody, and none of those relationships involves an erotic component. In fact, the NIV renders that phrase "in all purity" as "absolute purity." And the author makes no exception for the category of boyfriend or girlfriend. We should not assume that because modern western society grants special status to dating relationships, Scripture does. As far as Scripture seems to be concerned, "dating" is just another sub-category within "brother and sister in Christ."

Another part of this ethic of loving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ is positively pursuing one another's spiritual good. First Timothy 5:1 instructs us to "encourage" one another in our relationships. Romans 13 and 14 instruct us to love one another as neighbors, to avoid causing others to stumble spiritually, to work for the good of the souls of others — and Paul names sexual immorality (i.e., sexual activity outside of marriage) as an example of the very opposite of such love.

The bottom line is that even as we date one another with the purpose of finding a spouse, we should do our best to guard one another spiritually and to preserve the uniqueness of marriage by minimizing the extent to which we depart from the brother/sister relationship and begin to treat one another the way we will someday treat our husband or wife.

So those are some broad, basic principles in Scripture that would seem to inform "how" we should date. My point in this piece has not been to take the next step and give specific practical implications of these principles (though I trust you will see a strong connection between these principles and my suggestions in the Biblical Dating series and advice columns). I trust we will continue to work those out in blogs and columns and podcasts (oh, my!) until the Lord returns. Should be fun.

Copyright 2015 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.

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