Each of you should know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor (1 Thessalonians 4:4 RSV).
I was 24 years old before I had my first romantic relationship, and to this day it’s the only romance I’ve ever had. That romance turned into marriage less than a year after Wendy and I met, and now, in our fourteenth year of marriage, we are more in love than ever.
Why wasn’t I involved in romance until I was 24? It’s not that I was against dating; I sometimes envied guys who always seemed to be going with someone. And it’s not that I had nothing to do with girls; I got along well with a number of girls. Now and then I’d even feel attracted to one, but I didn’t date any. Why not? The main reason was simple: I was a chicken. I was too shy to ask a girl out on a date. I was afraid she might say no–and I was afraid that if she said yes, I wouldn’t know what I was supposed to do on a date and would make a fool of myself. So I never worked up the courage to ask anyone.
I did go on a date once when I was seventeen, but that was because the girl asked me. We already knew each other and were friends, and we had a nice enough time, talking and joking. When I dropped her off at her parents’ house, I even gave her a quick goodnight kiss because I thought that was the thing to do on a date. But that was the end of it. We never went out again. I never had another date until I met Wendy.
That may sound boring: 24 years without even one girlfriend, then the rest of my life attached to the same woman. I’ve never experienced what it’s like to go steady with someone and then break up. I’ve never been emotionally involved or physically intimate with anyone but the woman I married. It may sound like I missed out on a lot. But I gained much more than I missed by not dating.
As a single who didn’t date, I was able to enjoy time with friends, unlike many dating singles who are so involved in the romance of the moment that they ignore friendships. I was able to save money instead of spending money trying to impress girls with expensive dates and gifts. I was able to study hard, develop my talents, and prepare for my future without being distracted by romantic hopes and heartbreaks. I was able to go overseas for awhile without worries about a girlfriend back home. Not being involved in any romance, I had greater freedom to make the most of my singleness.
I was also better equipped for marriage when the right girl came along. When I was single, there were times when I wished I could date various girls, but now that I am married, I don’t feel I missed anything by not dating other girls before I met Wendy. I can’t imagine any romance better than what my wife and I share, and I think that this permanent, married relationship benefits from the fact that I didn’t have temporary romances. I’m glad I don’t have past girlfriends and broken relationships lurking in my memory. I’m glad I’ve never given myself to anyone but the woman I married.
I wish I could take some credit for this. Not dating in high school and college helped me make the most of my singleness and also prepared me to be a better husband, and I wish I could say that I didn’t date because I was so wise and mature, that I had a brilliant insight and made a deliberate decision to avoid romance till I was ready for marriage. But I wasn’t wise or mature; I was just too chicken to ask a girl for a date. Still, even though I can’t take credit for it, I’m glad that the only romance of my life is with the wonderful woman I married, and I think many young people would benefit from a similar approach.
Goodbye to Dating
You might not be a chicken like I was. You might be a young person with enough nerve and charm to start a dating relationship anytime you like, with anyone you want. But even if it’s something you could do, is it something you should do?
Or would you be better off not dating? Would you be better off avoiding romance until you’re mature enough for marriage?
What I bumbled into, unplanned, because of my shyness, is something that a growing number of teens and young adults are choosing deliberately. They don’t want to wander through one temporary romance after another. They know that dating relationships often end with people feeling brokenhearted and used, and they don’t want to do that to themselves or others. They want something better. These young people have made a decision not to enter any romantic relationship until they are old enough to consider marriage, and even when they are marriageable age, they won’t start seeing anyone unless the other person is also serious about finding a marriage partner.
Enough young people have decided not to date that even TV shows and newspapers have taken notice. One article describes how Terra, a 12-year-old girl, stunned her parents with the news that she would never get involved in dating. Instead, she would demand to be courted. Any boy who wanted her attention would have to be interested in marrying her and would have to get the approval of her parents, especially her dad. Terra’s parents were shocked. Her mom says, “When Terra said ‘courtship,’ I remember thinking, ‘Has she lost her mind?’ Then I thought, ‘How are you going to meet any boys?'” Several years have now passed, and Terra and her older sister still don’t date. They remain committed to courtship as the way to deal with romance. “To me,” says Terra, “courtship is getting to know a member of the opposite sex in a family setting. I see no reason in marrying someone if they don’t love my family.”
If this all sounds a bit strange to you, I’m not surprised. Most people nowadays think it’s normal to date many different people and have a number of temporary romances. That seems to be the usual approach. But the usual isn’t the best. Sometimes the unusual is better.
A growing number of young people are deciding that dating is not for them. Some have made this decision without any prompting from the parents, while others have been taught by their parents that dating can be dangerous and that courtship is a better approach. These parents, in many cases, know the dating scene all too well from their own bad experience. They want something better for their children. They want to help their children follow a path that makes it more likely for their singleness to be pure and their marriage to be permanent.
Most of these parents and young people are motivated not only by dissatisfaction with dating but by a desire to do things God’s way. They trust the Lord Jesus as their Savior and Guide, they love him, and they want to do what pleases him. They want to follow God’s pattern instead of the world’s.
There’s a striking statement in the Bible that shows God’s will for romance: “Each of you should know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor” (1 Thessalonians 4:4 RSV). What a splendid standard for true love! Instead of seeking temporary, shallow relationships with one girlfriend after another, God says men should focus on getting a wife to love for life. Instead of selfishness and immorality, God calls for holiness. Instead of phoniness or leading someone on, God says to behave with honor. The aim of Christian courtship is for a Christian man to take a Christian wife in holiness and honor, and for the two of them to build a household of faith. Courtship seeks a holy, honorable way of bringing a man and woman together for marriage. Courtship takes a variety of forms, depending on people’s personalities and circumstances, but let’s highlight some things about courtship that differ from typical dating.
First, the aim of courtship is to cultivate a relationship for marriage. In courtship a man and woman start seeing each other only if both are seriously looking for a life partner. Dating, on the other hand, often aims to cultivate romance for its own sake, for the sheer enjoyment of it, even if both persons expect the romance to be temporary and neither is interested in marriage. Unlike dating, a courting couple spends time together with one goal in mind: to find out if the two of them are meant for marriage.
Second, the timing of courtship is determined by readiness. Since the aim of courtship is marriage, you don’t start courting until you are a marriageable age. You must be old enough and mature enough to make a lifelong commitment. You must be ready to make a living and have the work skills and financial capacity to support a new household before you start courting. With dating, on the other hand, the timing has little to do with readiness for marriage. Kids of thirteen are nowhere near ready to make a marriage commitment, but they may want to date. Even at eighteen or nineteen, many young men and women still have years of schooling in front of them and aren’t ready to start a new home or support a spouse, but they date anyway. It’s a way to enjoy the pleasures of romance before they are ready for any long-term commitment. Dating can occur long before readiness for marriage, or even as a substitute for marriage. Kids who believe in courtship, however, don’t date when they’re too young to marry. They might be interested in the opposite sex and have romantic urges at times, but they put those desires on hold and avoid romantic relationships until the time is right for the genuine, permanent romance of marriage.
Third, the number of relationships is much more limited in courtship than in dating. Kids who believe in courtship avoid romantic relationships in junior high and high school, and often even through college, while kids around them are going from one relationship to another. In dating a person keeps adding to a growing number of romantic relationships, but courtship seeks to keep the number of romantic relations relationships as low as possible. The ideal is just one.
Fourth, family involvement is a big part of courtship. When a young man wants to court a girl, he ordinarily asks his own parent’s advice and then seeks the permission of the young lady’s parents. He gets the parents’ confidence and approval before he tries to win their daughter’s heart. Also, once the two are courting, most of the time they spend together is in the setting of home and family. Many dating couples prefer theatres, restaurants, bars, back seats–almost anyplace they can be together away from parents and home. But young people who believe in courtship try to get to know each other’s family and involve their parents. If the parents aren’t Christians or think courtship is crazy, or if home is far away, it’s harder to involve family, but the goal is to honor parents and to know each other’s household before a young man and young lady decide to establish a new household.
Fifth, postponing physical affection till marriage is a standard for most people who are committed to courtship. In the words of Joshua Harris, “Personally, I’ve committed to waiting, even for a kiss, until I’m married. I want the first kiss with my wife to be on our wedding day. I know that sounds archaic to many, and truthfully, I would have scoffed at the idea myself four years ago. But I’ve come to realize how sinful and meaningless physical intimacy can be apart from the commitment and purity of marriage.” Dating generally leads to various levels of contact, whether kissing or fondling or intercourse, but courtship reserves physical affection for marriage.
Those are some of the ways courtship typically differs from the contemporary dating scene. Does courtship sound kind of crazy and out of touch with today’s world? Well, maybe it’s not all bad to be out of touch with today’s world–especially when the common dating pattern of today’s world has produced an epidemic of date rape, casual sex, unwanted pregnancy, disease, broken hearts, and broken homes. Young people who go through a series of dating breakups are more likely to break up a marriage as well, or never to get married at all. And even where the damage isn’t quite that serious, dating often involves leading people on, using them, and then dumping them. Is it really so crazy to think a different pattern might be better?
Not all courtship is perfect, of course, and not all dating is horrible. But it’s fair to say that the healthiest dating patterns are those that have the most in common with the courtship approach: marriage-oriented and not just playing games, seeing someone only when you’re mature and ready for a relationship, keeping the number of romances to a minimum, involving home and family, and keeping a tight reign on physical affection before marriage. Even if you’re not quite ready to buy into the entire courtship approach, you can learn a lot from it. Then again, you may indeed want to choose courtship as the pattern that you as a young person want to follow. Or, if you’re a mom or dad, you may want teach and train your kids to follow this path, rather than just leaving your children to follow whatever patterns of romance dominate the youth culture.
Holiness and Honor
There is no statement in the Bible that says, “You shall not date” or “You shall follow such-and-such a pattern of courtship.” The Bible doesn’t offer an exact description of each precise step to take in every relationship. There is such a variety of personalities, and so many different circumstances, that there’s no “one size fits all” approach. And besides, the love that draws a man and woman together in marriage is too marvelous and mysterious to be reduced to a pat formula. The Bible says “the way of a man with a maiden” is “too amazing” to understand (Proverbs 30:18-19). Romance is not paint-by-number or dot-to-dot. Still, even though the Bible doesn’t dictate every detail, God’s Word does state some basic principles and set some clear boundaries for romantic love.
Earlier I quoted from 1 Thessalonians 4:4, “Each of you should know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor.” Other Bible versions translate it differently: “Each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable” (NIV). In the original language, both meanings are possible, but in either case, the overall principle is much the same: when a man is interested in a woman, he must conduct himself in holiness and honor.
This biblical statement comes as part of a larger teaching on how people who belong to Jesus Christ must put their love life under his authority. 1 Thessalonians 4 says,
You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God for you, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter” (4:3-6 RSV).
A Christian’s love life is to be based on principles of holiness and honor. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage is unholy and violates a boundary set by God himself. Leading a person on in a romantic relationship when you have no intent of marriage is dishonorable, transgresses God’s boundary, and wrongs other people. The Bible makes this plain.
In the Bible’s original language, the warning not to transgress or wrong a brother literally says you must not cross proper boundaries or defraud a brother (or sister). Defrauding means to rip someone off and grab for yourself what doesn’t belong to you. When you try to stir someone’s emotions and enjoy their body in a short-term relationship just for the thrill of it, you may think it’s okay and that nobody is getting hurt. But you are violating God’s boundary and defrauding that person by taking what’s not yours. You are also defrauding that person’s future spouse by taking what would rightly be theirs in marriage. When you play games with someone else’s body, or even if you stop short of going all the way physically but play games with someone’s heart by starting a romantic relationship without mature, permanent commitment in mind, you are defrauding someone and stealing what doesn’t belong to you. You may also be defrauding your own future spouse. You owe your heart and your body to the person you marry, and so you are cheating your future spouse (and yourself) if you don’t save yourself for marriage. In other words, recreational romance is a rip-off for all involved.
Your Relationship to God
You may want to dismiss this instruction from Christ as unimportant or irrelevant, but in 1 Thessalonians 4 the Bible goes on to say, “The Lord will punish all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call you to be impure but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit” (4:6-8). This means that what you do in your love life is mighty serious!
The way you relate to the opposite sex says a lot about your relationship to God. If you get involved sexually or if you go from one casual romance to the next with no concern for the scars it leaves, what does it say about you? If you follow the very same pattern as people who don’t know God, it means one of two things. One possibility is that you do not know God, you are headed for his fierce judgment in hell, and you need to be born again and saved before it is too late. The other possibility is that you are already a Christian and belong to Jesus, but you aren’t acting like it.
If you don’t know God and don’t have Jesus as your Savior and Lord, then anything you’re doing wrong in the area of dating and sexuality isn’t nearly your biggest problem. Your biggest problem is that you don’t love God. You are his enemy, and he will eventually punish you in hell unless you repent of your sin and turn to Jesus for forgiveness. You must trust Jesus’ blood to wash away your guilt, and you must treasure Christ as your greatest love. Once you truly know God, have faith in Jesus, and have his Holy Spirit shaping your life, a great many things will change, including your approach to romance.
At least that’s what should happen. Sadly, though, even if you belong to Christ, you can sometimes get caught up in sinful selfishness and let yourself be directed more by the unholy world around you than by the Holy Spirit within you. God’s Word calls for holiness and honor, but your approach to romance might be unholy and dishonorable. That has to stop. If you are really a Christian, your body is a member of Christ himself; you can’t go on behaving in a way that Christ finds sickening. You can’t go on grieving the Holy Spirit.
So take a hard look at your relationship to God, and then take a hard look at how you relate to the opposite sex. Before you start any romantic relationship, and before every move you make within that relationship, ask yourself: “Is this what Jesus wants? Is this the leading of God’s Holy Spirit? Or am I rejecting God and following selfish desires ‘like the heathen who do not know God?’ Am I playing foolish, sinful games, or am I truly seeking a marriage partner in holiness and honor?”
Father in heaven, your instruction sounds odd to some of us. We’ve never thought much about holiness and honor in our love life. We’ve never been concerned that we might be wronging and defrauding others. We’ve never considered anything like Christian courtship. The very idea seems weird and unreal.
Open our hearts, Lord, to hear the voice of Jesus Christ and sense the leading of your Spirit, so that our love life–and all of life–may be under your authority and blessing. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.