Do you have any advice for guys who seek to glorify God in their dating relationships by taking on the biblical mandate to lead their (possibly) future wives in a closer walk with Christ?
Thanks for writing. This is a good question, and I understand why you’re finding it a hard line to walk. Let me offer some ideas about how to think through leadership in a dating context, then some practical suggestions about how to carry it out.
First, a couple of principles to orient us. I don’t want to quibble with your question too much – it’s great that you want to build your girlfriend up spiritually and I commend you for that. But just to be clear, there’s no “biblical mandate” in a dating context for a boyfriend to “lead” his girlfriend by actively discipling her in her walk with Christ in the same way he would once they’re married. In fact, pursuing that level of discipleship outside of marriage can sometimes be problematic.
Ephesians 5:25-27 instructs husbands as follows: “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Plainly, these prescribed husbandly duties involve elements of both self-sacrifice and active spiritual discipleship, but the high level of spiritual and emotional intimacy inherent in such discipleship means that it is best reserved for the marriage context Paul is talking about here. Regular, extended, one-on-one times of prayer and worship trigger a level of intimacy that can actually be unhelpful in a dating context because such intimacy implies a level of commitment (i.e., marriage) that doesn’t actually exist between the two of you yet. That can lead to emotional and spiritual hurt later if the relationship doesn’t work out. Too much spiritual and emotional intimacy can also lead to temptation and sin by naturally encouraging physical intimacy.
In other words, studying the Bible or reading good books together for encouragement or to determine whether you are on the same page theologically is one thing (after all, the purpose of dating is to figure out whether the two of you should be married!). But if you’re attempting to be a primary discipler in your girlfriend’s life or you’re regularly engaging in activity together that in marriage would be called “family worship,” you’re jumping the gun a little.
Also keep in mind as a guiding principle that leadership as defined in the Bible is really just synonymous with faithfulness and humble service. Jesus, the head of the church, made it very clear that He had come “not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45), and He demonstrated that principle by literally washing His disciples’ feet (John 13) and ultimately, of course, by “giving his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28) on the cross. When you become a husband, you will “lead” your wife and children day in and day out not primarily with profound teaching or what you might call “up front” leadership skills, but by loving, humble, sacrificial, servant-leadership.
So, to your question then, the main way you can demonstrate faithfulness and servant-leadership is simply to exercise it toward your girlfriend and others. I don’t mean that in a showy or contrived way. Just be yourself and aspire to serve in ways that you should be doing anyway. If you look at most of the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy and Titus (“sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable . . . not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money”), what should strike you is that they are things all men seeking to follow Christ should embody at some level. Be a faithful and deliberate member of your church. Get there early and stay late to encourage others. Serve in ministries where there are needs – even if those ministries are not up front or don’t line up perfectly with your “gifts.”
Lead in your relationship by putting your girlfriend’s needs above yours; by setting a tone of “absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:2) as it relates to physical intimacy and faithfully holding to that standard in the face of temptation; by being clear about your feelings and where you hope the relationship is headed. If your girlfriend has specific questions about you with regard to theology or maturity, you can (in addition to talking through the issues yourself) encourage her to talk with an elder or more mature person in the church who knows you. Invite her to talk with someone you are discipling.
I could go on, but you get the point. You will demonstrate your walk with Christ and your journey toward being an “Ephesians 5 man” not primarily by words you say or by showing proficiency at family worship, but by living like a faithful Christian and showing your girlfriend that you know what it means to sacrifice for her spiritual and emotional good.
It’s a tall order, but so is being a husband! Every man needs the Lord’s help to do it. I will pray for grace and wisdom in your relationship.
For his glory,
Copyright Scott Croft 2015. All rights reserved.