21st-Century Love: Introducing ‘Dateship’

couple sitting at a cafe
There is no perfect path that leads to marriage. It takes persistence, prayer and courage.

With certain things in life, it’s just hard to get going. For some, the act of beginning a writing project is near torturous. You look at your writing program; your writing program looks at you. The cursor blinks; you blink. You write a word, delete it, sip coffee, walk around your desk, do 25 jumping-jacks, carefully craft two more words, do the dishes, and before you know it, three hours have elapsed, and you have a grand total of three words. Perfect: this is a one-word-per-hour ratio. Nice and balanced.

Writing may be fearsome, but few processes in our day are harder to get started than Christian relationships. Things used to be relatively simple: You got to know someone, went out several times under close parental supervision (with Dad eyeing a young suitor warily), and if things clicked, you ended up getting married, eventually. There was a rhythm to things. In 2014, there doesn’t seem to be much of a script anymore. Why is this?

The Strange World of Modern Romance

I think the reasons for this shift are many. Let me list a few briefly:

  • Many families have been ravaged by divorce. In many families, there isn’t a father figure in the picture, and — furthermore — divorce leaves children skeptical and hurt.
  • The culture of extended adolescence has encouraged both men and women to delay responsibility and maximize opportunities to have fun while young.
  • We live in a risk-averse age, when both men and women struggle to commit themselves to big things and fear making the wrong decision.
  • Our age thirsts for instantaneous, even anonymous, sexual gratification. We’ve been conditioned to think that marriage is one long make-out session. Young men in particular have bought into “porn culture” and as a result struggle to be interested in real, flesh-and-blood women around them.

Take these and other factors together, and the prospect of getting married today can seem daunting. This is why I propose what follows: I believe that dateship can help the fearful, galvanize the risk-averse, and fight against sexual sin by providing some romantic infrastructure (there’s an odd phrase if there ever was one). I’ll spell out why I think this in what follows.

What on Earth Is Dateship?

Dateship is a combination of two romantic systems: dating and courtship, each of which has a major strength and a possible weakness (or more).

With dating, the strength of the system is that young men and women can get to know one another in a low-key way. The young man doesn’t have to feel pressure to chart a course for the next seven decades of wedded bliss. The young woman doesn’t have to feel like saying “yes” to coffee after church is indicating that she is more or less ready to leave father and mother and make a life together. The possible weaknesses of dating are well-known: It invites a lack of seriousness, it doesn’t necessarily lend a sense of structure to things, and if a couple isn’t careful, they could fall into sin because of the structural looseness. This is a serious weakness indeed.

With courtship, the strength of the system is its carefully defined roadmap. Both guy and girl know exactly what they’re getting into. The steps involved in courtship give a helpful sense of definition to the relationship. There is a strong emphasis on involvement, wherever possible, by family members and church members. Courtship only occurs when a young man obtains permission to “court” a young woman from her father (or a father figure, perhaps a church elder). He then gets to know her in purposeful settings, often with family and church members around. Of course, it is also possible to feel a sense of pressure to make the major decision of whether to marry or not throughout the courtship phase.

While courtship is on balance a vastly better system than dating, blending the two can overcome some obstacles. We have freedom to do so. The Bible does not prescribe any one direct path to marriage. Among other duties and practices, it does prioritize holiness, familial involvement, and sacrificial care on the part of the man. We don’t get an exact system from Scripture, but we can identify core principles that we put together in our own age and culture to honor the flow of the Bible. Keep these principles in mind as you read what follows.

If you blend dating and courtship, here’s what you end up with:

Step One: Interested Friendship.

Men and women go on dates in a low-key, low-pressure way, but with accountability to others. This isn’t secular dating — if anyone does that anymore — but is instead a wise and godly means of getting to know one another. You do things like go to coffee, play Ultimate with friends and then talk afterwards, or listen to a sermon together and discuss it.

Step Two: Purposeful Dating.

If the first date goes well, the man asks the woman’s father (or father figure) if it’s OK to go on a few more dates. If yes, then you do. This can happen, by the way, even if both sides are wondering about the other. The woman might find the guy odd in certain ways. The man might find the woman confusing. That’s OK. There’s no major pressure if the dates end, and nothing further takes place.

Step Three: Serious Courtship.

If all goes well, and the man and the woman are warming to one another, then the man begins to think about courtship. If he decides to take the plunge, then he approaches the woman’s father (or a father figure) and asks for his permission to “court” her. If he gets permission, then he takes the woman out and asks her if she will court him. If she says yes, then they enter into a time of seriously considering whether they should marry (you don’t have to use the word “courtship” — the point is that you seriously consider marriage together). The couple continues to get together with friends and family and to carefully, wisely get to know one another.

Step Four: The Big Ask.

If things continue to click, then the man asks the woman’s father (or father figure) for permission to marry her. If that is given, then he asks the woman to marry him. If she says yes, then they get engaged and then married. They don’t feel any need to wait for vast sums of time (or vast sums of money) to marry; they recognize that marriage, not the wedding, is the point.

What Is Needed for Dateship to Happen

Too many Christian churches — and especially Christian families — have allowed young men in particular to maintain an eighth-grade mindset. Fathers (and church elders) have not trained young men to be, above all, responsible, disciplined, clear, noble, direct and courageous. But on the other hand, we can also allow young women to be so selective that the ideal man exists only in the heavens.

We can fix this situation, though. Before churches or parents encourage “dateship” or some other system like it, they should teach young men to A) pursue the Lord with abandon in the Spirit’s power and B) to take risks. At the same time, they should teach young women to A) pursue the Lord with abandon in the Spirit’s power and B) encourage young men by giving them a chance (as much as possible) when they take risks. Too many churches allow their singles to languish.

For singles who presently find themselves desiring marriage, it is worth thinking afresh about your role in things. Is there a step of faith to take when it comes to the opposite sex? Can you as a young woman give a guy a chance? It may be possible that no actual human man could meet your standards. Or, you might be more than willing to give a guy a chance — you just need the right guy to come along. If so, keep praying for a spouse. Can you as a young man take a risk and ask a girl to coffee? It may be that you get turned down. But perhaps there’s a young woman who hasn’t been asked out 25 times who loves the Lord and will love a man well.

Conclusion: The Goal of Dateship

Whether the process of dateship (or any other system) concludes in marriage or ends after one trip to the candlepin bowling alley, the focus is on holiness, godliness and caring for one another well. It is always hard, of course, when things don’t work out. But dateship isn’t ultimately about “yes” in human terms. It’s about seeking marriage in godly ways such that the man is ennobled, the woman is treated well, and Christ is honored. The Gospel is no less the center of dateship than any other part of life.

There is no perfect path that leads to marriage, just like there is no perfect way to write words on a page. It takes persistence, prayer and courage. Even as our culture gives in to the natural hunger for sexual gratification and to icy tension between the sexes, I see tremendous cause for hope. In Christ, let’s fight lust and defeat apathy. Let’s stop staring at each other across a vast distance. It’s time to wipe the sweat off of our hands and to give love — and God’s mysterious kindness — a chance.

Copyright 2014 Owen Strachan. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is the executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, a professor at Boyce College, and author of Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome (Thomas Nelson).


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