Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2).

“Everyone dates.  Or at least everyone is supposed to date.  Or, if they don’t date, then something is wrong, or someone is ugly, right?”  In our society, writes author Douglas Wilson, “recreational dating is taken to be a positive good, like food, air and sunshine, a necessary, inescapable activity.  It is considered to be a normal and natural part of growing up.”

But, says Wilson, “in reality dating is a custom which began in this century.”  And it has led to enormous problems.  “Relationships between boys and girls, men and women, husbands and wives are a stretcher case,” declares Wilson.  “The starting point for most of our relationships, the modern dating system, can safely be considered as bankrupt.”

That’s an awfully strong statement, isn’t it?  Sure, there may be problems here and there, but how can anyone say that the entire modern dating system is bankrupt?  Isn’t dating one of the best parts of growing up?  Aren’t there people who date and get married and live happily ever after?  How can anyone challenge the very concept of dating and attack our society’s whole approach to romance?  That may sound too radical.  But before you go on taking for granted the common acceptance of dating, please at least ask the question: Is dating dangerous?

That’s a question many young people don’t bother asking, and it’s one many parents would rather not think about. We’d like to think junior high romance is a fun, harmless game.  We’d like to think proms and dances and dates are good for high school kids and aren’t a threat to anyone.  We’d like to think college students are mature and their dating life is responsible and healthy.  But much as we want a “don’t worry, be happy” view of dating, let’s ask the question anyway: Is dating dangerous?

A Nasty Neighborhood

Suppose you were thinking of moving into a new area, and you found out that over half the men in the area were convicted rapists who had been paroled from prison.  Would you think of that as a dangerous neighborhood?  If you were a girl, would you want your family to move there?  If you were a father or mother, would you want your daughters out on the streets at night in such a neighborhood?  Who in their right mind would want to be in an area where over half the men are willing to rape someone?

Well, the fact is that huge numbers of people keep moving into an area where up to two-thirds of the males think they have the right to rape someone: the area of dating!  A survey asked kids in their early teens if a boy has a right to force a girl to have sex if he has spent money on her.  25 percent of the boys said yes. Apparently one out of four boys has the idea that if he pays for dinner and a movie, he has bought the right to rape a girl. He doesn’t call it rape; he calls it his right.  Worse yet, when the survey asked if a boy has a right to force a girl to have sex if they had been dating for six months, 65 percent–almost two-thirds–of the boys said yes.

Is dating dangerous?  It’s hard to imagine anything more dangerous. Most boys and men wouldn’t consider grabbing a woman they don’t know and raping her.  But if a guy can get a girl to date him for a while, it’s another story. If a girl lets a guy pay for a date, or if she or goes out with him for a few months, she may be in greater danger of being raped than a girl walking at midnight in the nastiest neighborhood of the worst city.

Maybe you have a hard time believing that.  The survey was conducted by reputable researchers, but could it really be true that almost two-thirds of teenage boys think they have the right to force a girl to have sex just because they’ve been dating for six months?  After all, even if boys talk this way in a survey, the percentage of girls who go steady and have actually been raped by boyfriends is much lower.  According to a major study involving thousands of young women on college campuses, 25 percent have been victims of rape or attempted rape, mostly by acquaintances or dates.  It’s horrible if one in four women has been attacked, but 25 percent is still a lot less than 65 percent.  Why would “only” 25 percent of young women have suffered rape or attempted rape if 65 percent of boys believe they have a right to force a girl to go all the way after they’ve been dating six months?

Perhaps the main reason is that a great many girls agree with the boys!  When asked if a boy has a right to force a girl to have sex if they’ve been dating for six months, 47 percent of the teenage girls surveyed said yes.  Obviously, girls who think that way won’t need to be forced into anything by steady boyfriends.  They’ll do it willingly. They figure that if you’re a girl who wants to go steady, you owe the guy your body.

Many girls may be as eager for sex as the guys are, and in their opinion, any girl who doesn’t want sex has no right to go on date after date with the same guy. For millions of teens and single adults, that’s a basic ground rule of the dating game.  If you don’t want to play by that rule, you are dating at your own risk.  Dating is an area where you shouldn’t say no, not for more than a few dates anyway, and surely not after several months of dating. If you keep saying no to sex, your date doesn’t have to take no for an answer. At least that’s how a great many participants in the dating game see it.

Date rape is devastating for many girls, and there’s also serious danger for girls and guys who have sex willingly. About half of high school kids have had sexual intercourse.  And by the time they are nineteen, 81 percent of the girls and 88 percent of the boys have been sexually active, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Almost everybody who gets involved in serious dating ends up having sex before they are out of their teens. This results in the spread of many nasty diseases, including AIDS.  It produces unwanted pregnancies and countless babies who are either killed through abortion or grow up without a father around.  When you move into the area of modern dating, you’re moving into a nasty neighborhood indeed, an area where rape, disease, baby-killing, and fatherless families are dreadfully common.

What’s the Point?

There are other dangers, too–very serious dangers–but before we get into those, we let’s ask ourselves: If dating is so dangerous, why would anybody in their right mind want to start dating?  Why do so many kids and adult singles get involved in one relationship after another?  What’s the point?

Well, let’s first be clear about what dating is.  One author defines dating as “a temporary romantic relationship focused on current enjoyment.”  Dating is temporary, not permanent.  It’s a romantic relationship, not just a friendship.  It focuses on current enjoyment, on what feels good now, not on what is best for the long-term future or on what God says.

What’s the point of dating?  The point is to enjoy the excitement, attraction, intimacy, and pleasure of male-female relationships without the long-term commitments and responsibilities of marriage.  Kids in their teens date for the thrill of it or to feel good about themselves or to impress their friends.  They don’t date with a view toward marriage.  Some, as they get a bit older, may hope a dating relationship will eventually lead to marriage, but even among adult singles, most dating relationships begin with a desire for short-term enjoyment without the goal of marriage in mind.

Sad to say, this pursuit of enjoyment usually ends in pain.  I’m not talking now about the dangers of rape, disease, or pregnancy, although those are very real.  I’m talking about an even more common problem, the pain of broken relationships.

Here’s how dating generally goes.  A girl gets interested in a guy and starts flirting with him, or a guy is attracted to a girl and asks her out on a date.  If the date is lousy and they don’t hit it off, the romance ends almost before it started–a waste of time and a disappointment.  On the other hand, if the date goes well, if they enjoy being together and want to keep dating, then what?  Well, if they go together for a while, the emotions get stronger, and the desire for greater physical intimacy heats up further with every date.  The excitement and pleasure can be enormous.  Eventually, though, one of them decides the relationship has to end, often while the other is still in love. Breaking up can be terribly painful, especially if you’re the one getting dumped by the other person.

However, if you have a number of relationships and break up enough times, it gets easier. In fact, that’s one of the worst things about dating. As Douglas Wilson says, “The modern dating system does not train young people to form a relationship.  It trains them to form a series of relationships, and further trains them to harden themselves to the break-up of all but the current one.  At the very least, this system is as much a preparation for divorce as it is for marriage.”

Some people have the idea that dating is a training ground for marriage, a way for young people to learn how to relate to the opposite sex.  You enjoy a variety of relationships, and if you eventually find one that really clicks, you can settle down and get married.  That sometimes happens, of course, but by then you’ve had a lot of practice in dumping someone any time the excitement wears off or the relationship gets rocky or someone more attractive comes along.  No wonder so many people who specialize in temporary dating have so many temporary marriages.  No wonder our society, which has so much practice in breaking up dating relationships, also has the highest divorce rate in the history of the world.

Not only is the divorce rate high, but more and more people aren’t bothering to get married at all.  Many young men who can get sex without marriage figure, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?”  Why get tied down in a permanent commitment if you can have the fun without the responsibilities? Also, many young women who have been through one relationship after another figure that marriage is only a distant dream and that the most commitment they can reasonably expect is “going steady” or “moving in.”  As a result, the number of households made up of unmarried singles has doubled in the past 25 years, and the number of children living with single parents has quadrupled.

How should we respond to all this?  One so-called expert responds by saying that with marriage in decline, the answer is to provide child care and try other measures to support single parenting.  “We’ve only had a generation to figure out how to make the modern family work,” he says.  “It’s going to take some time.”  Well, single parents may need help, but instead of just calling this “the modern family,” let’s call it what it really is: the muddled family.  Instead of focusing only on how to make the best of disaster, let’s find out what’s causing the disaster.  Let’s face the possibility that the current approach to dating is a factor in the widespread collapse of the family unit, and let’s see if there’s a better way.

Divinely Different

God knows all about romance.  He’s the one who invented it!  He’s the one who created us male and female.  God designed love and sexuality to flourish in the setting of a life-long marriage commitment between a man and a woman.  Romance isn’t bad; it’s beautiful–too beautiful to squander on a bunch of short-term relationships.  Sex isn’t wicked; it’s wonderful–too wonderful to waste on someone who isn’t committed to you for life.

God designed marriage as a setting for love to last a lifetime.  But fewer and fewer of us are willing to wait for love that lasts.  We’ll take romance in whatever form we can get it, even if we don’t expect it to last.  We may quote the saying, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” The average person goes through at least five fairly intense dating relationships (not counting casual dates or one-night stands).  Do we really believe it’s better to have loved and lost, and loved and lost, and loved and lost, and loved and lost, and loved and lost?  That’s what happens in the current dating scene.  Instead of saying it’s better to have loved and lost, God’s message is that it’s better to love and win!  Why look for love in temporary romances that flare up and then burn out one after the other? God wants to spare us guilt and grief and give us a flame of love that keeps blazing.  The place for that kind of love is marriage.

The Bible never advises temporary romantic relationships focused on current enjoyment. The Bible never mentions recreational dating.  Is that because the Bible is out of touch with reality?  Or is it because the common approach to dating is out of touch with reality?  The reality is that romantic feelings are so strong, and sexual urges are so powerful, that you can’t play games without somebody getting hurt.  The reality is that children need to grow up in stable families, stable families need to be based on strong marriages, and strong marriages depend on pure, permanent commitment.  The reality is that God designed marriage to reflect the loving relationship between Christ and his church.  Recreational dating and disposable relationships are a battle against reality, a losing battle.

God is the ultimate reality, and God’s way is divinely different from the world’s way.  The Bible speaks of pleasing God as an unattached single who abstains from sex and romantic relationships, and the Bible also speaks of pleasing God as a committed spouse who is one in flesh and spirit with the person you marry, but the Bible never recommends temporary romance just for the fun of it.  As for sex between singles, God calls it immorality or fornication and warns that it characterizes people who are outside his kingdom and headed for hell (1 Corinthians 6:9, Galatians 5:19-21).  This doesn’t mean sex before marriage is unforgivable, but it does mean you won’t be forgiven if you won’t repent and change.

If you know what God says in the Bible and believe what he says, you know sex before marriage is dead wrong.  Scripture is absolutely clear on this point.  That’s why Christian pastors and parents urge kids to remain virgins until marriage.

For some reason, though, few pastors or parents question the dating system itself.  They assume dating relationships are harmless, even healthy, as long as the kids don’t go all the way.  It’s fine to enjoy temporary romance and to indulge in kissing and other physical intimacy with a variety of people as long as there’s no intercourse.

When kids are told that dating is fine as long as they don’t go all the way, they are being set up for failure.  Kids who start pairing up in their teens, years before they can realistically consider marriage, are almost sure to start having sex eventually–even if those kids are Christians and try to remain virgins.  What sense does it make for kids to look for romance long before they are ready for a lifelong commitment?  What sense does it make to get involved with deep emotions and kissing and caressing and yet insist that sex is a no-no?

Kids as young as fourteen or fifteen leave the house on a date, and the only message parents have–even Christian parents–is, “Glad you kids like each other!  Now don’t touch anything for at least eight more years!”  Yeah, right.  Douglas Wilson points out the folly of a father sending his daughter “off into the dark with some testosterone bundle” and hoping it won’t lead to sex.  “The modern dating system expects a certain amount of physical involvement,” says Wilson.  “True, the Christian version of this system allows only enough foreplay to get everybody concerned all messed up.  We think a godly Christian is one who can pre-heat the oven without cooking the roast.”

You can’t buy into the world’s pattern of dating and expect to end up with God’s kind of purity.  God calls us to trust his love and mercy in Christ to forgive our sins, and then he calls those who trust Christ to be divinely different.  “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God,” says the Bible.  “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2).

Better Possibilities

We’ve looked at the dangers of dating, not to spread gloom and doom, but simply to face that fact that the world’s approach to romance is not working.  It’s not working!  Movies and TV shows may keep pushing it, but you don’t have to fall for it.  People around you may keep playing around with recreational romance, but you don’t have to do it.  It may be the pattern of this world, but it’s not God’s pattern, and it’s not working.

So instead of flirting with disaster, offer your body to the Lord.  Don’t follow the pattern of this world.  Instead, be transformed by a renewed mind, a different way of seeing things.  Be willing to consider better possibilities.  Explore whether, instead of pursuing dating as a temporary romance for present enjoyment, there might be a better pattern for romance, a pattern which honors God, protects against many dangers, and is best suited to get you ready for a lifelong romance in marriage with the special person God has in mind for you.

We’re running short of time, so we’ll have to wait until next week’s program to explore the possibilities in detail and do a more careful study of what the Bible says about finding a marriage partner.  For now, though, let me at least briefly mention a couple of alternatives to dating that some Christians have been pursuing.

Courtship is an approach in which two people start seeing each other only if both of them are seriously looking for a life partner.  Both must be of marriageable age, both should have the blessing of their parents, and both must enter the relationship with one goal: to explore whether they want to get married.  Kids who believe in courtship don’t date when they’re too young to marry.  They avoid romantic relationships in junior high and high school. Why play games with people’s emotions and bodies?  Why put yourself in danger and do damage to others?  It can actually be a relief not to seek any romance at all until you’re thinking about marriage.  You don’t base your value on how many dates you can get. You don’t go through the turmoil of falling in love and breaking up over and over. Who needs a bunch of dead-end romances when you can simply wait until you’re ready to get serious?  What’s the point?

[Young people who believe in courtship also value the family. When they court each other, they don’t just sneak off to some dark place to be alone.  They get to know each other’s family.  They want their parents to approve of the person they are courting, and they seek their parents’ blessing on their marriage.  Why?  Because they honor their parents and know that a marriage flourishes best when the wider family is supportive.]

Some people who reject the dating game go even beyond courtship.  They believe in betrothal. In betrothal, even before a young man lets a young lady know he’s interested in her, he asks his parents if they believe this young lady is the one he should marry.  If they say yes, he goes to the young lady’s parents and asks their permission to seek her hand in marriage.  If they agree, he asks the young lady if she is willing to be betrothed, which means they are engaged to be married.  Only they both promised to each other do they begin to cultivate a romance and seek a strong emotional bond.  Once the marriage has been agreed upon, the time of betrothal is a period to develop a relationship and cultivate romance.  During this time, they do not engage in physical intimacy.  That is reserved for marriage.  Now, betrothal may sound strange to you, but it was practiced in Bible times and in many societies through history, and it has a far better track record in producing happy marriages and strong families than the present dating system.

With all the dangers of dating, more and more parents are looking for alternatives to help their kids avoid the parents’ mistakes, and more and more young people are opting out of the dating scene.  It may sound weird to give up dating and wait for the person God wants you to marry.  But if such wonderful weirdness catches on, if we stop trying to fit in with the dating patterns of this world and are transformed by God’s way of thinking, we’ll taste the joy of pleasing God and discover the thrill of romance the way God intends it to be.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.