I am an absolute failure at dating. This is not an attempt at false modesty. My present singleness testifies my total lack of talent and success in this area. My past includes failed relationships and missed opportunities. In my darker moments, I long for the days of arranged marriage. With that system, you see a girl, find her father and arrange a price. Done.
Some people who share my thinking have tried to bring back this historic method of contracting marriages with mixed results. My advice to them, "Forget it." Even if you could arrange a return in some limited way, the society surrounding us so influences our mentality that the romantic ideal would make people in arranged marriages miserable. Western culture finds itself saturated in romanticism. Our language, media, law, and society all echo to the ballad. The only alternative would be an escape from the culture. If you lived in countries with arranged marriages, or formed a commune, it might work, but one requires you to be a missionary, and the other violates other instructions in God's Word.
So what is a failure like me doing trying to teach about the topic? Can I have anything productive to say on this issue. I think so for two reasons. First, the instructions in the Bible stand even if they don't result the way we would like them to turn out. There are instructions in the Bible that provide guidance to us in these matters. They remain true and wise even if they do not result in the outcome we prefer.
Second, you can learn a lot from failure. Failure teaches you what not to do. Battle scars tell the story of experience. Experience may teach, if only we have the wisdom to learn from it. All too often we fail to learn from failure. I confess that what I have to say comes at a price, and I cannot presume that I have fully learned from failure. All I can say is that I am still learning from the past.
First things first, dating is not in the Bible. If you are looking for the biblical way of forming relationships that lead to marriage, the Bible gives us a diverse examples of the arrangement of marriages. This means, that the mechanics leading to marriage matter little compared to the morals practiced by the participants.
It might help counter or romantic prejudice to look at examples of how marriages were formed in the Bible. These we can examine in three groups: those found in the narrative and probably not probably not normative, those found in the narrative and potentially normative in some way, and those found in the law.
For those found in the narrative and probably not normative, we consider the breadth of the manner, the various ways that marriages were accomplished in the OT. Most of the formalities that became normal did not exist in this distant past. For this group, we pass over most of the patriarchs, and perhaps consider best the rather obscure story about the tribe of Benjamin in the book of Judges. In chapter 19, the author reminds us of the dire situation in Israel, no king, every man his own ruler. The depravity of this situation is revealed as a Levite and his concubine, who had left him, travel through Ephraim and arrive at a city inhabited by Benjamites. While there, a repeat of the events at Sodom occur, leading to the molestation and death of the concubine. The Levite takes the corpse home, splits it into twelve pieces and sends her throughout Israel to call for retribution.
In chapter 20, Israel comes together against the tribe of Benjamin. Eventually, the tribe is smitten. The chapter indicates that Israel destroys the entire tribe but for 600 men that hide out in the wilderness rock called Rimmon. (20:47-48) This sets the stage for chapter 21, which begins with a flashback to before the war. Then, Israel had sworn never to marry with Benjamin. This posed a problem. 600 men remained alone of Benjamin, but could have no future place with Israel, as marrying outside would exclude them from Israel.
What would Israel do to provide Benjamin with wives? (21:16-25) The Romans would have a similar story in the abduction of the women of Sabine. This would later be made into a musical called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. We cannot consider this manner of finding a spouse normative.
Another such story appears in the story of Esther. The story begins with the marital conflict between King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti. This leads to the exile of the Queen and the necessity of another Queen. (2:1-4) It was perhaps the earliest form of the modern reality show, the Bachelor.
For narratives that perhaps we can find some normative concepts, we add the story of Rebecca and Isaac. (Genesis 24) The fact that God apparently works at the well to send Abraham's servant to Rebecca indicates some divine approval of this union. Ruth's bold approach toward Boaz, ought be seen as commendable for the twin reasons that Boaz calls her a "virtuous woman" (following Prov.31 in the Hebrew order of the OT) and she is included in the genealogy of Jesus. (Ruth 3; Matthew 1:5)
For the last group, the manner the OT law directs, we must begin by placing this in the right type of law. This is the civil law, that which extinguished at the end of Israel as a theocratic nation, but may apply as far as its equity may require. Exodus 22:16-17 "And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins." Deuteronomy 22:28-29 "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days." We cannot think of this as normative, or advisable as an way of forming marriages, but it does counter our accepted mindset, we often credit to scripture, but has more to do with victorian morality.
When we think about dating, we ought to remember that it's primary purpose is marriage. I have already referred to it a number of times as a method by with marital relations are formed. Dating is a process, and at the end of that process ought to be marriage.
For this reason, we ought to define some terms. One of the key challenges to the dating process is the lack of definition. In fact, it has been my experience that people don't want definitions in this process. There is a feeling that definitions rob the participants of the mystique, mystery, and fun of the process. Unfortunately, that same ambiguous relationship can also lead to sinful behaviors. It also can produce much confusion and pain as the participants inevitably differ on their perception of the progress of the relationship.
What does a man mean when he asks a woman to dinner? The problem with answering this question is that I can give you a wise answer, but one that probably doesn't exist in most minds. Most men will think on some part of a spectrum between, "I'm lonely and would like another human to eat with and this is another human," and "This is my future wife." We might safely assume that there is an element of attraction and desire to get to know the woman better.
For me, I get involved in a mind trap game. I often cater my behavior according to how I perceive it will be perceived by others. Basically, I ask how I think, they think, that I think. This kind of "I know, that you know, that I know" thinking runs in circles without stopping.
From this, I conclude that dating as a process of forming relationships that lead to marriage arose from a generation of intellectually averse people, or at least people who don't think like me. It may not have been a failure to think or an inability to think, but rather a preference for emotion over thought; a generation averse to emotional definitions, a generation who prefer feeling to thinking. There is a reason why Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers asked the question, "Why do fools fall in love?" (1956) I think they understood, or at least their writers considered falling in love the absence of sense and intellect, perhaps of wisdom. This is not a criticism, but an observation. This mentality is woven so tightly into the culture, that we think this normative without criticism.
Christian writers during the "free love" movement of the 60s and 70s and onward have been so shocked by the fruits of this thinking, that they have tried to reverse the culture without avail. They were attacking the method they themselves used to form their positive marriages. You cannot attack the pillar upon which you stand without care or catastrophe. The most significant salvo in the past thirty years was probably best expressed in Joshua Harris' book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Ironically, Mr. Harris has retreated somewhat from this book.
This attack has had a deleterious affect on Christian youth. We have made young people scared. I remember reading an article in World Magazine a few years back where they remarked about this very thing. Christian singles are scared of marriage, making the wrong choice, and overthinking their initial steps. It's not that their relationships are failing, its that they are not even trying. They are too scared to take the first steps toward any type of relationship.
I'm going to say something I really don't like. A conclusion that I have reached after much soul-searching. It is something that I think corrects the presumptions present in Christian society. In order to wisely survive dating, you have to not think. You have to not ask, "how will this be perceived?" You have to just act on feeling. You have to give in to the folly...
..for the first date. On the second, the wisdom must come back, but we will get there in a bit. I hate this reality, but I can see no other course. It really bothers me how I see so many excellent single men and women who stay single, scared, alone, and miserable. I have to imagine, that what I see in my experiences, also has some bearing on what others experience. We have been so often cautioned about the dangers of "giving your heart" to the wrong person that we have turtled. So, I say, don't ask all those pesky emotional/relationship inventory questions, before or on the first date.
Later, think. It may be the second, third, or fourth date, but soon, you have to answer the question if this relationship is going somewhere. If you intend to progress the relationship past the initial stage, it's time to think about the reality of what you are doing. I think it relatively safe to leave this calculus for the second date. I think it rather unlikely that major emotional damage would occur if the relationship terminates after one date. Mileage will differ in some respects, but the alternative is rather more objectionable.
Let me also suggest a first date criteria. Ask/accept any evangelical Christian who asks. Consider Roman Catholics. Reject anyone with a false idea of who Christ is or who rejects the gospel altogether. You have no business even starting the process with those who do not share your commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I will add this. If she is a Christian woman, ask. If he is a Christian guy, accept, if he doesn't weird you out. We need to conquer the initial fear.
To continue the relationship, the brain must run back into the driver's seat. At that point, you know that this relationship is proceeding down a path, and must exercise wisdom in deciding whether you want to go down that road. For this analysis, many factors may be considered. Acres of forests have given their lives for the books written on these subjects. I don't think it efficient to rehearse them here. I will say that the most important involve spiritual agreement and family organization.
For the actual conduct during the dating relationship, much has also already been written and said. During each of my years in college, I could expect the same event at the end of every fall semester. Officially, the administration titled the event, "split chapel." To the students, it possessed a completely different name. We knew that the content of the chapel involved dire warnings against sexual immorality during the Christmas break. Why these warnings were not repeated for the summer, still remains a bit of mystery to me. For most of we students, the event meant an opportunity to catch the speaker in a plethora of verbal faux pas. We considered it a colossal waste of time. Having grown up in the church, we had heard innumerable such warnings, and these added nothing to what we already did not know.
Therefor, I must ask pardon for yet another reminder. The present reality, the ever increasing laxity toward the biblical directive tells us that these warnings are still relevant. The author of Hebrews reminds us, "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge." (13:4) The Seventh commandment forbids any sexual activity outside marriage.
In aid of keeping this commandment, some have added prohibitions on conduct between the genders. Some have ignorantly used Paul's word to the church at Corinth as a guide. "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman." (I Cor.7:1) The absolute prohibition of touching finds no justification in this verse or in any other teaching of Scripture. While I shall not start drawing arbitrary lines for conduct, care, discernment, and discretion ought characterize our behavior in the dating relationship.
How we go about forming the relationships that lead to marriage matters. It, as all other human activities, demonstrates our character. It provides another opportunity for us to glorify God through our activities. (I Cor.6:20) It matters how we conduct ourselves in order that we may live Christian in an unchristian world.