July/August, 1998 Volume XIII Number 1

Responding to the dating debate

by Cathy Ramey

I remember one of the first calls, "Hi. Are you the people who don't believe in dating, or do you know who they are?" The woman on the other end of the line was calling from New York, looking for a grassroots movement or perhaps a Bible church based in the Northwest that she heard opposed dating and taught betrothal as the only proper preliminary to dating.
Fortunately her phone call came only weeks after our own radio show had featured two guest speakers who had promoted just such a concept. A month or more earlier, and I would have been a bit lost as to how to respond to her question. I simply had not questioned the rite of dating.
Going out on dates, even going steady with someone was a given when I was in high school, as natural as breathing air. In fact, not dating placed one at odds with "normal" teen development.
I went out on my first date the summer following eighth grade, a miserable experience which centered on my extreme naiveté and his understanding that dating meant making out in a big way. Neither of us enjoyed the evening and Robin didn't ask me out again. I was torn between feeling justified in pushing him away and wondering if I had actually done something wrong.
My later dating experiences were not significantly more comfortable than the first, but it never entered my mind that I had a reasonable and virtuous option to not date. Mysteriously, when I turned 30, still single, it was as if an enormous weight was lifted from me. I had passed the age of accountability-that is, being held accountable, in my own mind if no one else's, to date.
If you want to comprehend something of the exalted status that dating or uncommitted romancing have in our culture, turn to the Funny Pages. Amidst the humor of the cartoons is an indication of the energy that is expended in dating; the insecurities that are fostered as one person fails to measure up against another's expectations; and the deceptions and outright lies that are advanced as routine and acceptable.
Not everyone has dealt with dating as a negative experience. But the reason these cartoons are so popular is that if you poke around a bit you'll find that just about everyone can relate to stories about painful, awkward, invasive, and inappropriate dating. Almost everyone who has dated has at least one story they wouldn't want shared in public about the kind of behavior they exhibited while on a date.
All of that doesn't rule out the fact that there are also positive dating stories. If that were not the case, a good number of people would never have gotten married. But dating has a holy status in our society which many feel loath to question.
I offered a news article on the anti-dating phenomenon to a youth pastor, sure that he and his young adult charges would find the debate interesting. One side of his mouth curled into something of a superior smile as he looked suspiciously at me, nearly twice his age, out of the corner of his eye.
The youth pastor's cynical grin communicated clearly that any discussion which might suggest that not dating was normal, healthy, even good would be ill received.
He offered that it was "interesting alright," but that most of the kids would consider the idea to be nothing short of bizarre. He himself was dating a young lady and had been known to date a number of other girls in the past. It was clear that his investment in dating made my offering irrelevant to him at that time.
The reaction of the youth pastor has been played out several times as the no-dating phenomenon has come up now and again over the years, and it is a response that intrigues me. After all, dating is a behavior that is nowhere endorsed in Scripture. Neither is it specifically or categorically rejected. But the fact that indeed Scripture does not lay out the ABC's of dating ought to generate much interest in looking at the behavior and evaluating whether or not it measures up to the Christian witness.
The very word "dating" implies a possessiveness, even an intimacy of relationship which is unique to other relationships. It involves physical intimacy that, even at the most benign level, is not generally acceptable among all members of the peer group. You don't see football players holding hands with each other as they walk off the field, or girls squeezing thigh-to-thigh next to just any boy.
Is possessing or being possessed by a member of the opposite sex demonstrated positively anywhere in Scripture prior to a commitment to marriage?
How about sharing greater physical intimacy, say kissing, with a number of other members of the opposite sex before settling on the man or woman you discover God intended for you to marry?
Is such a search mission demonstrated in Scripture, or are there warnings that obviate even thinking of sexual intimacy with another person?
Does Scripture illustrate a model of search for a life partner which includes experimenting with one person's heart after another before settling on just the right man or woman?
And what impact does dating have on the quest for a life partner; is it possible, being distracted by immature passions, to fall in love with the wrong person?
When Scripture warns of defrauding a brother in matters of sexual purity (1 Thessalonians 4: 3-8), how do we apply the admonition to dating; "how far" can dating intimacy go before it treads on the marriage bed?
What impact does dating have on the spiritual and emotional person; what messages are implied when relationships are intended to be short-term, without a solid marital commitment, and often based on having one's own personal needs met?
Scripture, it seems to me, calls us into relationship where we are less and less for ourselves, and more and more for others. The state of marriage is to characterize that ultimate state of love for another which Christ has for His church. Paul says that a husband ought to love his wife and lay down his life for her (Ephesians 5: 25), and we can assume that the commitment to self-sacrifice ought to be true of the wife as well.
So how does dating one person after another, often ending the relationship out of boredom, fixation on a new potential dating partner, and other like reasons commonly given for breaking up, prepare a man or woman for the spouse they are to serve for a lifetime?
The point, without pretending to answer each of the questions (and there are many I have not listed), is to say that there are legitimate reasons to question and wrestle with the "loss versus benefit" aspects of dating as it is commonly practiced. These questions are valid even when dating is done with the many fine restraints suggested by Randy Alcorn in his article on maintaining sexual purity.
As a people, Christians are to be different. We are in the world, but not of the world. We are, as Paul was, to be all things to all men in order that we might win some to salvation in Christ. But we are not to unquestioningly practice and endorse all behaviors promoted in a culture.
The very fact that there is an unspoken taboo against inquiring into the legitimacy or value of dating means precisely that we are at a point when it is most important to raise such questions.

A line, not a circle
Students burning newspapers (again)
Responding to the dating debate