Fixing what the Church got wrong about dating
The world of dating has changed a lot in the last 20 years, and the world of Christian dating is no exception.
From I Kissed Dating Goodbye and purity culture in the ’90s, to the growing popularity of sites like ChristianMingle.com, it seems many Christians are more confused than ever before about what healthy, godly dating relationships should look like.
To help clear up some popular questions about dating, we set up a conversation between three experts who have written and spoken extensively about relationships.
Debra Fileta is a professional counselor, author of True Love Dates and regular contributor to RELEVANTmagazine.com.
Emerson Eggerichs runs the ministry Love and Respect along with his wife. The ministry puts on conferences and provides resources for people in all stages of romantic relationships. He’s also the author of the national best-seller, Love and Respect. Emerson’s daughter, Joy, was working at the ministry with her parents and then decided to start a branch ministry called Love and Respect Now, aiming to reach the younger generation.
The three relationship experts shared some thoughts about healthy dating, whether there is only one perfect partner for every person, sexual chemistry and how the Church can support people throughout the dating process.
What the Church Has Gotten Wrong—and Right
Debra: It seems Christians are often confused when it comes to the topic of dating and relationships. Why do you think that is? Where do you think the Church goes wrong in this conversation?
Joy: It’s hard to make that blanket statement because there’s just such a wide spectrum of churches and how they do things. I was just with a friend last night who grew up in a church where everyone prophesied over who you would marry, and then you really weren’t allowed to be with anybody else. And she was saying how her sister is 21 and has never dated anyone and doesn’t even know how to interact with someone of the opposite sex.
So that’s obviously an extreme, but that is out there. Often, it comes out of a motivation to do the right thing. Any church that has come up with some kind of doctrine on dating—whether it’s courting or prophesying or “Don’t date” or “Let’s have a singles mixer”—all of those things are out of a motivation to help young people in the Church to not get hurt. I think for that, you can applaud the Church.
I think the reality is that churches need to take stock of where we are and point people back toward, “What do you believe? Where is your heart at? What do you particularly need to help move forward if marriage is the end goal for you? And how can we encourage you as the Body of Christ to do that?” instead of trying to come up with rules to protect everyone.
Debra: The truth is, a lot of what we learn about relating comes from our families and how we were brought up. Part of healing from that comes when we’re surrounded by people who love Jesus who are engaging in healthy relationships. Practically, what do you think that looks like in our generation?
Joy: I think the Church was intended to be more intergenerational. As opposed to actually being the Body of Christ, we’ve separated people into their different classrooms and their different affinity groups. From an overall standpoint, we’re losing the ability to learn how to relate, because we end up only spending time with people who look, smell, act like us. The beauty that can come from people who are in relationship and people who are single, who are male, who are female, having these conversations, hearing recognition from someone who’s in a different stage who says, “Yes, I relate to that”—I think that’s what builds empathy.
If I can learn to relate to just my brother or a male, it’s going to be much easier for me to move into a dating relationship. I think that is one of the areas where the Church has—because of this separation—hurt the ease of dating a little bit.
Emerson: I’ve noticed there are usually two or three couples in every church that have a passion for marriage. They have a healthy, successful marriage. They’re the first to admit that they got that way because they almost killed each other through the early years. They’re transparent, they’re real, but they’re successful. Young people are saying, “You know, we haven’t had it from our family of origin.” But one of the gifts God has given us is, in every local assembly, there are two or three couples who have wisdom and can impart these things in such a way that will give wisdom on learning how to relate.
Debra: One Christian culture question that gets asked a lot is, “Does it matter who initiates the relationship? Should the woman just wait for a man to pursue her?”
Joy: I think it really depends on the person. Sometimes in this whole “men are to be the pursuer” mentality we have, we sometimes abdicate giving off anything that says we’re available or open. We have this mentality that we can just sit at home and knit, then somehow our prince charming is just going to show up at our door.
Then ultimately, are you fostering the type of relationship you want in marriage? If you’re a woman who is the pursuer, the planner and then somehow think that after your wedding day, your husband is going to start planning dates, it’s just not going to happen. Ultimately, you’re free to do whatever you want, but how you date is pretty much going to be how the relationship ends up.
Debra: Another frequently asked question I get is, “Does God only have one person out there for me?” What do you think about that idea?
Emerson: A good Scripture to this is 1 Corinthians 7:39, where Paul is addressing the widow. He’s encouraging her to remain celibate, but he says she is “free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” Paul isn’t saying, “She is free to be married to the one person God has for her, who is out there somewhere, and it is incumbent on her to find that man.” No, she’s got freedom to be married to whom she wishes.
Paul clearly says she is free to marry who she wishes as long as it’s in the Lord, and that should free people up. It’s really not a question of finding the right one, its a matter of being the right one. If you’re trying to find a person out there who’s perfect, my question is always, “Why in the world would a perfect person want to marry you?” It comes back to the issue of me being the person God intends for me to be and to work on that, and usually that’s going to attract the kind of person we want to ultimately be married to.
Debra: With this question, “Is there one person out there for me?” I don’t think it really matters what we believe, because you still have to go through the same process of interacting with someone, of getting to know what they’re like, of becoming healthier. I think singles can let the pressure off and realize they don’t have to know that the person is the one for them within 24 hours of meeting them.
Emerson: If you have this idea that God’s going to lead you to that special one ... and this is now going to lead to an easy relationship, it’s not. If you think this is going to be easy and you have one doozy of a fight, what are you going to conclude? You’re going to conclude that you made a mistake or God misled you.
Debra: I recently read an email from this guy who basically said there’s this girl who is godly, wonderful, amazing, everyone says she’s a great fit for him, but he doesn’t feel “chemistry” with her. How important do you think it is to have sparks or chemistry in a dating relationship?
Joy: I think chemistry is real. That’s part of God’s design, and it’s beautiful. There is a real natural sexual chemistry we can have. However, obviously, within Christianity, you want to be with someone [who loves God].
But [I don’t agree with] people who want to ignore the fact and say, “It doesn’t matter about chemistry—this is a great person” and just dive into that relationship anyway. I would rather be alone the rest of my life than force myself to marry someone I had no spark or chemistry with—but I do believe it can grow.
Emerson: Unquestionably, God designed us to be attracted in a sexual sense, Song of Solomon clearly unpacks the beauty of that. The Lord clearly intends for the husband and wife to experience that. We would be foolish not to acknowledge beauty—Scripture warns against beauty on one hand, but it acknowledges and rejoices in it in another sense.
But, at the end of the day, there are things that attract us that have nothing to do with some of these superficial physical features. There’s more to this than meets the eye. The Lord knows what He’s doing.
Debra: A lot of times, we’re influenced by what we find to be the spark or this chemical reaction based on what our culture tells us it’s supposed to feel like or look like, when really you can have attraction to so many different parts of a person. It’s important for our generation to be aware of that and ask what kind of things are spoiling our perspective of attraction.
Relationships in the Light
Joy: One of my key phrases is: Are we living our relationships in the light? I always find it so amusing when I will meet someone, and they will have just started dating and I’ll say, “Oh, that’s so exciting. What do your close friends or parents or mentors think?” And people will often be like, “Oh, I haven’t introduced them yet because they just get so annoying.”
Yes, some people in your life are annoying because they ask you so many questions. But if we can remember that our close friends and our parents and these people most likely want the best for us, then just let them be a little annoying. There’s freedom when we bring things into the light. If you’re not hiding anything, then there’s really no fear in letting people in on your relationship.
Emerson: If we say “I don’t want to bring that into the light because it’s going to create so much hassle,” that means you’re probably not feeling good about this and you don’t want to be honest. A lot of times, people convince themselves they can love this person into changing, but it doesn’t work that way. If they have some godly people in their life who can honestly speak to them, it will save a whole lot of heartache. If there’s any degree of humility and teachability, it’s going to protect us from a lot of pain. But there’s so much isolation today and so much autonomy that we’re losing a gift God has given us by receiving this kind of input.
Joy: Also, sometimes we need people in our lives to say, “Do not leave this relationship. You are sabotaging this relationship. This is a healthy godly, good person,” or whatever it is you need to be told to keep pushing through. Get people in your life who love you, who will tell you if you need to stay in something, if you need to work on something and who will give you hope for an area that you feel very wounded and broken in.
Debra: One of my college professors totally spoke into my life. I will never forget during our mentorship moments, she would pull me aside and talk about the relationships I was in. She would ask some hard questions and she would have me make a list. She would say, “What are the things you love? What are the things you’re cautious about in this relationship? And let’s be honest, what are the things that are stop signs?”
It doesn’t come easy because you have to be so genuine, you have to be so real with another person. I feel like those relationships with people before marriage prepare us for marriage. We have so many significant relationships that we need to tap into in order to prepare us for a healthy dating relationship and a healthy marriage.
More Complex Than it Needs to be
Debra: Sometimes people will ask me, “What’s a biblical approach to dating?” Well biblically, that includes a couple herds of goats and your extended family, and that would make for an awkward date at Starbucks. Really, the culture of dating changes a lot with the culture and time. We don’t get too much about dating in Scripture, but we do get a lot about what is it to be a godly person and how that plays out in our lives. I think sometimes we make it more complicated than it needs to be.
Emerson: One of the things we say to singles is, “If you want to know what God intends for you in marriage, listen to what He has said to the married in Scripture.” There are only two major teachings to the pre-married; sexual purity and being married in the Lord. But there are so many salient passages to the married.
We take the position from research as well as some Scripture that love and respect are the two foundational attitudes that make for a successful relationship. In other words, when there’s hostility and contempt, that’s what kills a relationship. At the end of the day, hostility and contempt undermine intimacy.
Joy: Whether it’s in relationships with our family, our friends, or whatever, we can start practicing [love and respect] now and it will impact our marriage. So that comes back to that relating over dating, because this topic of love and respect does transcend the marriage, and it will greatly benefit if people can figure it out before marriage.
Emerson: Part of what we’re also addressing here is what role does the Church have? Do we create events for young people to come together? Do we encourage them to get on eHarmony? There are a lot of ways of trying to create relationships, but once those relationships form, it’s more of an issue of relating. And how is it that God intends for us to do relationships? That’s really the critical question.
I don’t think God intended it to be complex. It’s simple at some level. And once we understand some of those basic principles, we can have a confidence that if we can just keep on this, at some point, we’ll find someone who feels the same way.