What kind of standards ought to govern a dating relationship?

Dating coupleA couple of weeks ago, I was asked to respond to a young lady who was looking for some biblical advice about her dating relationship.  There is a lot of discussion about this subject in Christian circles.  While there are some points on which there can be little debate because the Bible provides such clear answers, on other points, good people often arrive at different conclusions.  What follows is my attempt to address her questions about the subject…

Let the Bible Guide You

We should be up front about the fact that the Bible never uses the word “dating.”  That’s because the practice of dating is a rather recent development within the past few hundred years in Western culture.  In Bible times, marriages often began as the result of an agreement between families.  However, just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention dating, that doesn’t mean biblical principles shouldn’t guide the way we approach the practice.  The Bible is God’s guidebook for our lives and it speaks in great detail about the way in which we—especially brothers and sisters in Christ—are to relate to one another.  Because a dating relationship is nothing if not a testing facility for “relating to one another,”  the Bible’s counsel is essential.

Defining the Relationship

The first question a single person considering or already involved in a dating relationship ought to ask is:  What is the primary purpose of dating? Should a dating relationship serve solely as a platform for determining a couple’s suitability for marriage?  Can a dating relationship be entered into for the mutual enjoyment—whether intellectual, emotional, or physical—of its participants?  Both of these questions pertain to the purpose of dating, and the Bible has teaching that can help us address this issue.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, the Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to take care in the way they relate to members of the opposite sex.  He urges them not to “defraud” their brothers and sisters.  The word “defraud” carries the meaning of selfishly taking something for personal gain or pleasure at someone else’s expense.  Because of the time men and women spend with one another while dating, couples inevitably develop progressively deeper levels of emotional intimacy.  You could say that dating relationships are like intimacy incubators.  As intimacy deepens, the opportunities increase for couples to defraud one another by stirring up passions that cannot righteously be fulfilled.  Paul’s admonition serves as an apt caution for couples to guard against deepening levels of intimacy when righteous outlets for the expression of such intimacy do not exist.

For these reasons, I believe couples ought to enter into dating relationships with the expressed goal of determining whether they should be married. There is certainly no problem with couples enjoying the time they spend with one another as they date.  (If they don’t enjoy spending time with one another, that would serve as a pretty clear signal that they should not proceed into marriage.)  However, mutual enjoyment of the time spent together should not be the primary goal.  As the relationship progresses, each person should seek to determine whether the other possesses the traits of character and personality that would make him/her a suitable spouse.

But what kinds of traits should a person be looking for in a potential mate?  The Bible lays out several criteria.

Being “Equally Yoked”

In marriage, Christians are to be “equally yoked” with their spouses.  The Apostle Paul says,

2 Corinthians 6:14-15
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?  Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?

The Bible is pretty clear about this requirement:  Christians should never consider marrying someone who does not profess Christ as his/her Savior.  And if a Christian cannot marry such an individual, he/she should not consider dating such an individual.  Before beginning a dating relationship, the very first thing a Christian should seek to determine is whether there has been a definite time in the prospective partner’s life when he/she has…

  1. Admitted his/her sin against God.
  2. Recognized that he/she would never be able to do anything to blot out even one of his/her sins.
  3. Acknowledged that Jesus has made complete payment for the sins of all mankind through His death on the cross
  4. Embraced Jesus as his/her Savior, Lord, and only hope of heaven.

Without first being able to make such a determination, the idea of dating the person in question should not be entertained.  And if it is determined that the prospective partner is not a Christian, then the question of dating that person must be ruled out altogether.

“But,” you say, “how can you determine whether someone is a Christian without knowing them first?”  Good question.  The answer is:  you can’t.  Some level of relationship—prior friendship, introduction by a mutual acquaintance who knows each of your beliefs, etc.—must exist prior to the start of a dating relationship.

Growing in Christ

The potential spouse must be growing in his/her relationship with Christ.  The question of “equal yoking” is not answered once you know what the other person’s believes.  He/she must also be striving faithfully grow as a follower of Christ.

As two individuals each strive to become more like Christ, there will be a deepening commitment to a common set of goals and values between them.  As they draw closer to Christ, they will necessarily grow closer to one another.  However, if one Christian is striving to faithfully follow Christ and the other is not, they will have fewer and fewer things in common as each progresses on his/her chosen path.  The believer who is serious about honoring God should never consider partnering with someone who will not encourage and stimulate his/her spiritual growth.  Such individuals would not be equally yoked.

What Women Should See and What Men Need to Be

God calls men to be lovers (Ephesians 5:25-30), learners (1 Peter 3:7), and leaders (Ephesians 5:23-24) of their wives.  Christian women should be looking for men who will be committed to sacrificially loving them as Christ sacrificed Himself for the good of the church.  They should be looking for men who will commit themselves to living with them in an understanding way.  And they should be looking for men who will seek to lead them (and any children that may result from the marriage) to bring glory to God.

Vice Versa

God calls women to help and support their husbands (Genesis 2:18), to reverence them (Ephesians 5:33), and to follow their leadership (1 Peter 3:1-6).  Christian men should be looking for women who will partner with them in the accomplishment of their daily tasks and family goals.  They should be looking for women who will speak to them and of them with respect, who will honor them as the God-appointed leaders of their homes.  And they should seek women who will joyfully follow their leadership even in times of disagreement.

Fish or Cut Bait

As each person in a dating relationship evaluates the character of the other, a clear answer to the question of suitability for marriage should become evident.  If it becomes clear to one person that the other does not possess the character traits outlined, he/she may lovingly encourage the other person to give attention the areas of deficiency.  Encouragement to seek out the counsel and discipleship of more mature believers is always helpful. 

However, if after a period of time, it becomes apparent that the other person is not acting to sufficiently correct the perceived deficiencies, the relationship should be ended.  Though ending a relationship may be difficult, it is often necessary to  prevent individuals from developing deeper levels of intimacy that would cause them to defraud one another—either emotionally or physically.

Helpful Safeguards

Within the dating relationship, it is often helpful for Christian couples to establish certain dating standards by which they agree to abide throughout the course of their relationship.  It is also helpful for couples to ask other Christians to hold them accountable for faithfully following the agreed upon standards.  The Bible does not provide specific lists detailing what a couple’s standards should be.  Rather, couples seeking to bring honor to God in their dating relationships should honestly discuss the kinds of situations, settings, activities, and behaviors that might tempt them violate the Scriptures and establish boundaries that would help them to safeguard against temptation.

For further help on this question, I would recommend reading the book Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris.  It contains many practical helps for couples striving to glorify God in their courtship.

Trey Garner
Trey Garner is the Pastor of Children's Ministries at Faith Church. He has been married to his wife Deb since 2001. They have two children named Noah and Lauren. Originally from Texas, Trey appreciates barnwood, armadillos, and Blue Bell Ice Cream.