Biblical Dating: An Introduction
If you’re reading this, you’re interested in dating. You’ve done it, you’re doing it, you’d like to do it, or you need to teach somebody else how to do it. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. In our society, dating has become something of an obsession. It is expected to be a universal phenomenon. It’s just something you do if you’re single and of age (and that age is quickly dropping) in America. It is considered the natural precursor to marriage, and is generally considered something to be desired, whatever form it might take.
It’s also big business. If you were to Google the word “matchmaker,” you would receive something in the neighbourhood of 12,100,000 responses — with a few of these outfits claiming to be Christian, but most making no such claim. “Dating” will get you 462,000,000 hits.
As evangelical Christians, we’re called to be distinct in the ways we think and act about all issues that confront us and those around us. This topic is no exception. So, is there such a thing as biblical dating? If so, what is it? How can Christians think differently about this pervasive issue in media and culture? How are we doing so far?
The answer to that last question is “not well.” Surveys consistently indicate that professing Christians behave almost exactly like non-Christians in terms of sexual involvement outside of marriage (in both percentage of people involved and how deeply involved they are — how far they’re going), living together before marriage, and infidelity and divorce after marriage. In fact, depending on which statistics one believes, the divorce rate for professing Christians may actually be higher than for Americans as a whole. Granted, not all of these people are evangelicals, but we’re not doing so well either. Indeed, the central issue we need to confront — and the reason I write and speak on this topic — is that when it comes to dating and relationships, perhaps more than in any other area of the everyday Christian life, the church is largely indistinguishable from the world. That truth has brought immeasurable emotional pain and other consequences to many Christians. Worse, it has brought great dishonour to the name of Christ and to the witness of individuals and the church.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For Christians, the Lord has given us his Word, and the Holy Spirit helps us to understand it. We have brothers and sisters in Christ to hold us accountable and to help us apply the Word to our lives. If you’re a Christian, that’s the biblical life you’re called to. That’s what I hope this will be about — applying God’s Word to the topic of dating, finding a spouse, and getting married.
OK. Let’s take care of some basic definitions. We may define biblical dating as a method of introduction and carrying out of a pre-marital relationship between a single man and a single woman:
That begins (maybe) with the man approaching and going through the woman’s father or family;
That is conducted under the authority of the woman’s father or family or church; and
That always has marriage (or at least a determination regarding marriage to a specific person) as its direct goal.
The Scriptural support for the idea of biblical dating is largely by example and implication. We will look at a number of passages over the course of our discussions that support various aspects of biblical dating, but for the moment, let me just give you some references to study:
I Corinthians 6:9-7:19 (command to be pure, seriousness of sexual sin and instructions regarding marriage)
I Thessalonians 4:1-8 (do not wrong or defraud one another in relationships — by implying a relationship or commitment by your words or conduct that does not actually exist)
Song of Solomon 2:7 (“do not awaken love before it pleases” — i.e. before the proper time, meaning marriage)
Proverbs 6:20-7:27 (warning to avoid sexual sin and foolish relationships)
James 1:13-15 (temptation is to be taken very seriously)
Romans 13:8-14 (love others, work for their soul’s good; don’t look to please self)
Romans 14:1-15:7 (favour others, not self … value what’s good to their souls)
I Timothy 5:1-2 (treat single women as sisters in Christ, with absolute purity)
Titus 2:1-8 (young men and women should focus on self-control/godliness)
John 14:15 (if you love Christ, you will obey His commands — read: above your own desires — and live biblically)
We may basically define modern dating as a method of introduction and carrying out of a pre-marital relationship between a single man and a single woman:
1. that begins with either the man or the woman initiating with the other;
2. that is conducted outside the formal oversight or authority of either person’s family or church; and
3. that may or may not have marriage as its goal and is often purely “recreational” or “educational.”
Now, the biblical support for the modern approach to dating … (insert crickets, tumbleweeds, person whistling here) ... That was it. There isn’t any. The very idea of extended romantic or sexual involvement outside of marriage doesn’t even appear in Scripture unless it is described as illicit (sinful). Furthermore, it doesn’t even appear in any society, western or otherwise, in any systematic way until the 20th century! While the principles supporting biblical dating have their beginnings with the very structure of the family, modern dating has its origins with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It is brand new, and yet, seemingly, it is all we know.
Differences Between Modern Dating and Biblical Dating
So, what’s the real difference? Here are some fundamentals:
Modern dating philosophy assumes that there will be several intimate romantic relationships in a person’s life before marriage. In fact, it advocates “playing the field” in order to determine “what one wants” in a mate. Biblical dating has as its goal to be emotionally and physically intimate with only one member of the opposite sex … your spouse.
Modern dating tends to be egalitarian (no differences between men and women in spiritual or emotional “wiring” or God-given roles). Biblical dating tends to be complementarian (God has created men and women differently and has ordained each of these spiritual equals to play different and valuable roles in the church and in the family).
Modern dating tends to assume that you will spend a great deal of time together (most of it alone). Biblical dating tends to encourage time spent in group activities or with other people the couple knows well.
Modern dating tends to assume that you need to get to know a person more deeply than anyone else in the world to figure out whether you should be with him or her. The biblical approach suggests that real commitment to the other person should precede such a high level of intimacy.
Modern dating tends to assume that a good relationship will “meet all my needs and desires,” and a bad one won’t — it’s essentially a self-centred approach. Biblical dating approaches relationships from a completely different perspective — one of ministry and service and bringing glory to God.
Modern dating tends to assume that there will be a high level of emotional involvement in a dating relationship, and some level of physical involvement as well. Biblical dating assumes NO physical intimacy, and more limited emotional intimacy outside of marriage.
Modern Dating assumes that what I do and who I date as an adult is entirely up to me and is private (my family or the church has no formal or practical authority). Biblical dating assumes a context of spiritual accountability, as is true in every other area of the Christian life.
Basically, we can make three general statements about modern dating vs. biblical dating in terms of their respective philosophies:
Modern dating seems to be about “finding” the right person for me (as my friend Michael Lawrence has written on this site); biblical dating is more about “being” the right person to serve my future spouse’s needs and be a God-glorifying husband or wife.
In modern dating, intimacy precedes commitment. In biblical dating, commitment precedes intimacy.
The modern dating approach tells us that the way to figure out whether I want to marry someone is to act like we are married. If we like it, we make it official. If we don’t, then we go through something emotionally — and probably physically — like a divorce. In biblical dating, Scripture guides us as to how to find a mate and marry, and the Bible teaches, among other things, that we should act in such a way so as not to imply a marriage-level commitment until that commitment exists before the Lord.
Stop Test-Driving Your Girlfriend
“How do I know if she’s the one?”
The question is not merely ironic. If what you’re after is a marriage that will glorify God and produce real joy for you and your bride, it’s also the wrong question. That’s because the unstated goal of the question is “How do I know if she’s the one … for me.”
The question frames the entire decision-making process in fundamentally self-oriented — if not downright selfish — terms. And it puts the woman on an extended trial to determine whether or not she meets your needs, fits with your personality, and satisfies your desires. It places you at the centre of the process, in the role of a window-shopper, or consumer at a buffet. In this scenario you remain unexamined, unquestioned, and unassailable — sovereign in your tastes and preferences and judgments.
The problem of course is that as a single Christian man, not only are you going to marry a sinner, but you are a sinner as well.
From a consumeristic perspective, no woman on this planet is ever going to perfectly meet your specifications. What’s more, your unexamined requirements for a spouse are inevitably twisted by your own sinful nature. The Bible reminds us that though our marriages are to be pictures of the gospel relationship between Christ and the church, none of us get to marry Jesus. Instead, like Hosea, we all marry Gomer; that is to say, we all marry another sinner, whom God intends to use to refine and grow our faith in Jesus.
So, what’s a guy to do?
Ask the right questions
To begin with, start with a different question. Instead of asking if she’s the one, you should ask yourself, “Am I the sort of man a godly woman would want to marry?” If you’re not, then you’d be better off spending less time evaluating the women around you, and more time developing the character of a disciple. Start by considering the characteristics of an elder that Paul lays out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and work toward those.
Then you should ask another question: “What sort of qualities should I be looking for in a wife so that my marriage will be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church?” If you’re not sure what those characteristics are, then spend some time reading Proverbs 31, Titus 2:3-5, 1 Peter 3:1-7 and Ephesians 5:22-33.
Once you’ve asked the right questions, and once you’ve found someone you suspect fits the biblical description of a godly wife, you now need to decide whether to get married. And men, though this is a big decision, it’s not a decision that should take too long. How long is too long for a dating relationship? The Bible doesn’t provide a timetable (after all, most marriages were arranged during Biblical times). But it does provide principles that point us in the direction of making a decision to marry or break up in the shortest appropriate time.
Think like a servant, not a consumer
In 1 Thessalonians 4:6, Paul warns the Thessalonian Christians against “taking advantage” of their brothers or sisters. The larger context in the first eight verses makes clear that what Paul primarily has in view is sexual immorality, in which you take from one another a physical intimacy not rightfully yours.
But the text also suggests that there are other ways you can take advantage of one another in a dating relationship and one of the primary ways men do this is to elicit and enjoy all the benefits of unending companionship and emotional intimacy with their girlfriends without ever committing to the covenant relationship of marriage.
Too often in dating relationships we think and act like consumers rather than servants. And not very good consumers at that. After all, no one would ever go down to his local car dealership, take a car out for an extended test drive, park it in his garage, drive it back and forth to work for several weeks, maybe take it on vacation, having put lots of miles on it, and then take it back to the dealer and say, “I’m just not ready to buy a new car.”
But so often, that’s exactly the way men treat the women they’re dating. Endlessly “test driving” the relationship, without any real regard for the spiritual and emotional wear and tear they’re putting her through, all the while keeping their eyes out for a better model.
The Scriptures are clear. We are not to take advantage of one another in this way. Instead, as Paul says in Romans 13:10, “Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”
Remember that love is never easy
One of the myths out there is that if you just spend enough time searching, if you can just gather enough information, you’ll find a woman with whom marriage will be “easy.” The fact is, such a woman doesn’t exist, and if she did, she likely wouldn’t marry you. And that means that you don’t need as much information as you think you do.
No matter how long you’ve dated, everyone marries a stranger. That’s because fundamentally dating is an artificial arrangement in which you’re trying to be on your best behaviour. Marriage on the other hand is real life. And it’s only in the context of day-in, day-out reality, with the vulnerability and permanence that marriage provides, that we learn what another person is really like. Some of the things we learn about each other aren’t easy. But who ever said that love and marriage were supposed to be easy?
Men, the point of marriage is that we learn to love our wives as Christ loved the church. Yes, as Revelation 21and Ephesians 5 tell us, one day, Christ’s bride will be perfectly beautiful, without spot or blemish, altogether lovely and loveable.
But the church is not there yet. First, Christ had to commit himself to us, even to death on a cross. This is the model we’re called to follow. It’s not an easy model, but it is worth it.
So, your goal should not be to date her long enough until your confident marriage won’t be hard, but to date her just long enough to discern if you’re willing to love her sacrificially, and if she’s willing to respond to that kind of love.
Remember that to commit does not mean to settle
Does this mean you should just “settle” for the first Christian woman who comes along? No, not at all. You should be making this decision in light of the qualities held out in Scripture for a godly wife, and you should marry the godliest, most fruitful, most spiritually beautiful woman you can convince to have you.
But you also need to be aware that you live in a culture that says the ultimate good in life is to always keep your options open, and that any commitment is inevitably “settling” for less than you could have tomorrow. You must reject that kind of thinking for the worldly garbage that it is. Did Jesus Christ settle for the church? No, he loved the church, and gave his life as a ransom for her (Mark 10:45).
Marriage is fundamentally a means to glorify and serve God, not by finding someone who will meet our needs and desires, but by giving ourselves to another for their good. So if you find yourself hesitating about committing to a godly, biblically-qualified woman, then ask yourself, “Are my reasons biblical, or am I just afraid that if I commit, someone better will walk around the corner after it’s too late?” Consumers are always on the lookout for something better. Christ calls us to trust Him that in finding a wife, we have found “what is good and receive favor from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22).
Marry true beauty when you find it
Finally, the Scriptures call us to develop an attraction to true beauty. 1 Peter 3:3-6 describes the beautiful wife as a woman who has a gentle and quiet spirit, born out of her faith and hope in God, and displayed in her trusting submission to her husband. Men, is the presence of this kind of beauty the driving force for your sense of attraction to your girlfriend? Or have you made romantic attraction and “chemistry” the deciding issue?
Now don’t get me wrong. You should be physically attracted to the woman you marry. This is one of the ways marriage serves as a protection against sexual immorality (1 Cor. 7:3-5). But we get in trouble, both in dating and in marriage, when we make physical beauty and “chemistry” the threshold issue in the decision to commit (or remain committed) to marriage.
Physical beauty in a fallen world is fading and transient. What’s more, the world narrowly defines beauty as the body of a teenager, and scorns the beauty of motherhood and maturity. But in which “body” is your wife going to spend most of her years with you? Personalities also change and mature, and what seems like “chemistry” when you’re 22 might feel like superficial immaturity 10 years later. Even over the course of a long courtship and engagement in the prime of your youth, physical attraction and chemistry are sure to go through ups and downs. We must resist the temptation to value the wrong kind of beauty.
No one lives in a perpetual state of “being in love.” But in marriage, our love is called to “always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere” (1 Cor. 13:7). If mere worldly, physical beauty is the main thing attracting our love, then our love will prove as ephemeral as that beauty. But if we have developed an attraction to true beauty, then we have nothing to fear. Marry a vibrant growing Christian woman, and you have Christ’s promise that he is committed to making her more and more beautiful, spiritually beautiful, with every passing day (Rom. 8:28; Phil. 1:6).
More questions to ask
How then do you decide, in a reasonable amount of time, whether or not to marry the woman you’re dating? Let me conclude with some more questions you should be asking.
Generally speaking, will you be able to serve God better together than apart?
Do you desire to fulfill the biblical role of a husband outlined in Ephesians 5:22-33 with this specific woman? Do you want to love her sacrificially?
Does this relationship spur you on in your Christian discipleship, or does it dull and distract your interest in the Lord and his people? Are you more or less eager to study God’s word, and pray, and give yourself in service as a result of time spent together?
Do you think she will make a good discipler of your children?
What do other mature Christian friends and family members say about your relationship? Do they see a relationship that is spiritually solid and God-glorifying?
If you can’t answer the questions at all, then you may need to spend some more time getting to know each other. But if you can answer them (and others like them) either positively or negatively, then it’s time to stop test-driving the relationship and either commit to marriage or let someone else have the opportunity.
Navigating The Early Stages of a Relationship
One principle that bears repeating here, however, is that as Christians in dating relationships, we want to avoid hurting one another and dishonoring Christ by “defrauding” (see NASB translation of I Thess. 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.
So 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 I Thess. 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 in order 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”? In that case, look to the biblical characteristics. 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 be spending 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 the families and church families of the two people. 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 be spending long hours looking into each others 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 are spending 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 e-mailing 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.
Biblical Dating: To Kiss or Not to Kiss
Where to draw the line in a premarital relationship.
I believe the Bible to teach that all sexual activity outside of marriage is sin, and all romantically oriented physical activity is sexual activity. In my view, this includes premarital kissing.
As the questions above indicate, however, many single Christians have questions about whether premarital physical activity at some level beyond kissing is OK. We need to address the whole spectrum (“just kissing” included).
Let me offer a caveat or two at the outset. First, the fact that “romantically oriented” is in italics above is important. I am obviously not saying that hugs and kisses of affection or greeting to relatives and the like is out of bounds.
Another important point has to do with culture. In some cultures, kisses of greeting — between members of the same sex or of the opposite sex — as well as hand-holding and other forms of physical expression during normal, non-romantic social intercourse, are more common. Fine. You might even be able to talk me into the notion that brief, “non-leaning-in” hugs of greeting, sympathy, etc. between men and women who are not romantically involved are OK.
We all know what we’re talking about here, and these are not the things I mean to address in this column. The game changes when two people are romantically involved or “semi-involved” (a fascinating phrase I recently heard).
All right. Before you start throwing things at your computer — I can’t feel it you know, you’re just hurting your own computer — let’s go to Scripture. It is certainly true that no passage of Scripture says — in so many words, at least — “thou shalt not kiss before marriage.” Having said that, I submit that there is a strong argument to be made from Scripture that there is no room for any sexual relationship outside of marriage. The argument becomes clearer when we look at some of what the Bible has to say about (1) sex, (2) our relationships with other believers and (3) sexual immorality itself.
The “S” Word
As a good initial principle here, we should affirm that sex itself (and sexual activity in general) is not inherently negative or sinful. On the contrary, in the proper context, it is a kind and good gift of God. Michael Lawrence and other able Boundless authors have written before about the wonderful gift of sex, so I won’t belabor the point except to repeat that the Scripture passages on sex, taken together, make very clear that God instituted sex within marriage for purposes of procreation, pleasure, intimacy, holiness, and — ultimately — for his glory.
God instituted sex within marriage as part of his design of the family (Gen. 1:28). In 1 Cor. 7:3 and following, Paul says once we are married, our bodies literally belong to our spouse; he also instructs spouses to meet one another’s sexual needs and to be together regularly so as to protect ourselves from falling into ungodly lust and extramarital sexual activity.
If you have any doubts about God’s intention to give us sex as a wonderful, pleasurable gift, Song of Songs should put them to rest. In Song of Songs, God has given us a holy and beautiful picture of a marital sexual relationship, and everyone seems to be having an excellent time. Even there, however, God is clear that sex is uniquely for marriage: “Do not arouse or awaken love before it so desires (i.e., before it’s appropriate — within marriage).” (Song 2:7) A blog comment or two emerging from the last column suggested a different interpretation of this verse and Song in general, but the orthodox interpretation of the book suggests both that an actual sexual relationship is part of what the narrative relays, and a context (at the time of the sexual part of the relationship) of marriage.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ
So marriage is a unique relationship, and the good gift of sex is not only allowed but commanded within that relationship. Still, the overwhelming majority of believers will only share that relationship with one person in their entire lives. How are we to relate to everyone else (especially believers), and how does that question inform the topic of premarital sexual activity — including kissing?
The simple answer is that every believer to whom I am not married is my brother or sister in Christ, and I am to act accordingly.
There are too many passages to mention in this space that communicate God’s command to live for God’s glory and to “love” one another — defined as putting the spiritual good of others above our own desires. We are to do this in light of what God has done for us in Christ and in light of Christ’s impending return. Just a few examples: Romans 12, especially vv. 9-13 (“Love must be sincere…. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.”); Romans 13:8-14, especially vv. 9b and 10a (“Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor.”); 1 Cor. 13:4-7, especially v. 5 (love “is not self-seeking”).
More specifically, 1 Tim 5:1-2 reiterates the “family” metaphor among believers and instructs us about how we are to treat our fellow members of the body of Christ:
“Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”
This is a didactic (teaching) passage generally instructing us about how to relate to other “family members” among God’s people. We should note this analogy with care. With the exception of husbands and wives, there is no sexual dimension to “familial” relationships. Also, look at that phrase about how younger women should be treated — absolute purity. As a lawyer, I almost never see absolute statements. It’s the strongest possible language Paul can employ.
1 Thess. 4:3-8 gets even more specific:
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to lead a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his holy spirit.”
Look closely at verse 6. Some translations render the word “wrong” as “defraud.” To defraud someone is to deceive that person — in this context, to imply a commitment that does not exist by committing acts with someone that are appropriate only in the context of a particular relationship (i.e., marriage) in order to satisfy my own “passionate lust.” To commit sexual immorality with and against someone, far from showing the “love” to which Scripture calls all believers, is to act like those “who do not know God,” and this passage calls such acts “sin.”
Now, one obvious counterargument to the point I intend to make is that the Scriptures I’ve cited above just beg the question of whether kissing and other sexual activity violate those passages. The argument might run thus: “Of course I want to be loving to others. Of course I want to care for their spiritual good. I just think I can show genuine affection by engaging in kissing and/or other sexual activity (short of intercourse) with someone I clearly care about and still obey those passages.”
Fair enough. Let’s explore that idea. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it is theoretically possible to engage in extramarital romantically oriented physical activity and obey the above biblical standards while doing it. Have you ever met that mark?
Think about the times you have engaged in any type of physical activity with someone not your spouse. It might have been last night or last week or last year or back in high school or college. Maybe one or both of you achieved orgasm even though you didn’t actually “have sex” as you define it. Maybe you explored one another’s bodies but were only partially naked. Maybe you just caressed one another above the waist as you kissed. Maybe you just kissed passionately for awhile. Maybe it was just a long, lingering kiss goodnight.
Would you describe whatever you did as “holy and honorable,” or was it done to satisfy the “passionate lust” of you or your partner or both (1 Thess. 4:4-5)? Were you honest with the person about making a commitment to him or her before the Lord, or did you defraud or deceive that person in some way? Was your purpose for doing what you did to build that person up spiritually — to make that person “more holy” (Eph. 5:28-29)? Do you believe that you and your partner “honor[ed] God with your bodies” in doing what you did (1 Cor. 6:20)? Whatever you did, did that interaction reflect “absolute purity” (1 Tim 5:2)? Was there “even a hint” of sexual immorality in what you did (Eph. 5:3-5)? Whatever you did, as you now think about it, does it inspire a comfortable peace or an uncomfortable shudder to remember that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit observed it all? Do you believe God was glorified or grieved by what he saw?
How’d your answers come out? I can tell you from literally hundreds of e-mails and personal conversations that the only people who really attempt to justify premarital sexual involvement (with a few exceptions for “just kissing”) are those who would like to engage in it in the future or who are currently engaging in it. I have never heard any believer, single or married, defend their extramarital physical relationships from a position of looking back on them.
Keep in mind that the idea of holy, God-glorifying sexuality is by no means an impossible standard once you figure marriage into the equation. While no person stops being a fallible, broken sinner just because he or she gets married, the context of marriage makes it possible — even normal and likely, in the case of two walking Christians — to answer well the questions I just posed. Sex within a godly marriage is holy and honorable before God (1 Cor. 7, Song of Songs, Hebrews 13:4). It is part of the process of building one another up spiritually in marriage and should be done to that end. It is also meant, among other things, for sexual pleasure. And marriage — including the sexual relationship within it — reflects the covenant and the joyful, loving, intimate relationship between the church and her Savior. Not to put too fine a point on it, good sex within a godly marriage actually reflects God’s character and brings him glory. It meets the mark.
The Problem with “How far can we go?”
For those who have not thought about the passages above or who disagree with my argument from them, “How far can we go?” is still the big question on many minds. A brief tour of Christian blogs and bookstores will provide several different answers to the question, attempting to compose lines and boundaries somewhere on the sexual continuum behind which singles must stay. Some don’t even draw lines beyond sexual intercourse, inviting singles to think it through and let their consciences guide them in the context of a committed relationship. I realise there’s disagreement here.
In my view, the problem with asking “How far can we go?” is that if we want to positively pursue godliness, it’s simply the wrong question. What that question really asks is “How close to the line (sexual sin) can I get without crossing it?” The problem is that Scripture explicitly tells us not to try to “approach” the line at all, but to turn and run from it.
The Bible and Sexual Immorality
“Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18).
The Greek word for “flee” in this passage is an exaggerated form of the word “repent” that means (roughly) to turn and run from something. I once played golf on a course in Florida that was home to many large alligators (don’t get distracted — my lack of judgment is not the point here). Every hole had big blue and white signs on it that said (I’m paraphrasing): “DANGER: ALLIGATORS PRESENT. DO NOT FEED OR APPROACH ALLIGATORS. IF YOU ENCOUNTER AN ALLIGATOR, FLEE IMMEDIATELY.”
Now, we could quibble about exactly what “flee” means here. It might mean “run in the other direction.” It might mean “walk in the other direction.” What it certainly does not mean is “attempt to carefully indulge your interest in alligators by taking your 5-iron, walking up to the alligator, and seeing how many times you can poke it without becoming its mid-afternoon snack.”
Scripture is replete with statements that sexual immorality leads to death, that it is idolatry, and that those who are characterized by it will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Check out 1 Cor. 6:12 and following, among many others). In addition to 1 Cor. 6, other passages explicitly tell us that sexual immorality is not something to flirt with. Romans 13 (right after speaking positively of how and why to selflessly love one another) admonishes us not even to “think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Ephesians 5 tells us that there must not be “even a hint of sexual immorality” among the followers of Christ. If you want to think through this idea well, take your concordance and look at what the Bible has to say collectively about sexual sin of all types. It’s intensely sobering.
The question is not “How far can I go in indulging my desires for sexual gratification or intimacy without getting too close to this thing the Bible utterly rejects?” The question we should all ask — in any area of our lives — is “How can I best pursue that to which God in His Word has positively called me?” He has called us all to pursue holiness and purity in our personal lives. That leaves little room for intentional flirtation with any sin, sexual or otherwise.
Let’s talk about two practical arguments that have implications for “just kissing.” The first is that all sexual activity is sex. God’s design of sex doesn’t merely include the act of sexual intercourse. It’s also everything that leads up to that act, and everything on the sexual continuum is meant to end in that act. It’s called foreplay, and it’s a fundamental part of God’s design for sex. To borrow (and embellish) an analogy from Michael Lawrence, sexual activity is like a down-hill on-ramp to a highway. It’s one way, you gather momentum the second you enter it, and according to the Great Engineer’s design of the highway system, there’s only one reason to get on it.
This truth bears itself out not only in our emotions, desires, and common sense, but literally in our physical bodies. The moment two people begin kissing or touching each other in a sexual way, both the male and female body — without going into unwarranted detail here — begin “preparing” for sex. God has designed us that way, and when we begin any sort of sexual activity, our bodies know exactly what’s going on — even if our self-deluding minds deny it.
I’ll simply call the other argument the “wisdom argument.” Even if we assume for a moment — just for the sake of argument, mind you — that kissing without doing anything else isn’t sex and is therefore OK. When two people care for one another, it is natural to want to consummate that affection physically. In the right context, those desires are good and right and God-glorifying. In any context, they are some of the strongest desires known to human kind. Kissing will only make you want to do more than kiss. It will make you want to indulge in sin. That desire will be strong enough in both of you without blatantly tempting yourself by trying to put just one foot on the on-ramp. It’s simply a physiological and emotional reality. If courting such spiritual danger is not sin itself, it is, at the very least, an unwise invitation to sin, what Proverbs calls “folly.” Why put someone you claim to care about at spiritual risk?
Remember the Gospel
I’ll be the first to admit that this column has been a pretty rough slog through a type of sin many of us (myself included) have fallen into at one time or another in our lives. Let me close by reminding us all that while God hates sin, and while sexual sin — like all sin — is destructive to us and grieving to God, there is hope and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. If we truly repent of our past sins and turn from them and believe in the atoning blood of Christ, we are not “damaged goods,” but new creations. What was red as crimson has become white as snow.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
OK, folks. Per your many questions, that’s my view of premarital sexual activity — including kissing — in light of Scripture. I and the brilliant Boundless editors look forward to your questions and comments and posts. Challenge, affirm, question, whatever. They can be on this topic or any topic related to dating. If the Lord tarries, we’ve got at least 10 of these columns to go.