Last night my wife and I sat and did a rough tally of the number of couples we have known as they have gone through dating and engagement. It's a pretty good number of friends, family, and fellow church members. Then we thought about how many of them maintained healthy and God-glorifying physical boundaries and how many had confessed that they had not. The numbers were suddenly not looking nearly so good. This is one of those areas where contemporary Christians so often do very poorly and this is exactly why there have been so many recent books on dating, courtship, purity and all the rest. Christians are failing and desperately looking for a better way.
It has been some time since I have read a book on dating and relationships, probably because it has been some time since the subject has seemed urgent to me. But recently a local pastor told me that as he pastors young adults toward marriage, he has been helped by Sex, Dating, and Relationships by Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas. I decided to check it out and I am glad I did so.
Hiestand and Thomas call their approach to relationships "a fresh approach" and this is an accurate way of describing it. They don't kiss dating goodbye and they don't advocate a return to the courtship of years gone by. Instead they encourage Christians to form "dating friendships." In this little phrase "dating" is the activity and "friendship" is the relational category. You are not boyfriend and girlfriend, but friends, and you spend time together (i.e. date) as friends for the purpose of seeing if there is mutual interest and compatibility. Romance and sexual activity and commitment can wait; for now, it is simply "two friends getting to know each other with a view toward marriage."
Think of a dating friendship as a precursor to a marriage proposal but without all the romantic, sexual overtones that so often accompany a dating relationship. A couple in a dating friendship, regardless of their attraction to each other, doesn't pretend there is more to the relationship than is warranted. They consciously refrain from sexual and overtly romantic activity and don't become naively optimistic about the commitment level of their friendship. Thus, the main goal of a dating friendship is to explore the viability of marriage while preserving the guidelines of sexual and romantic purity required by the neighbor relationship.
Integral to the argument is an understanding of how the Bible guides and restricts sexual activity. God gives us clear sexual boundaries to guide marriage relationships (sex is required), neighbor relationships (sex is forbidden) and family relationships (sex is forbidden). The authors want dating couples to understand that until they are married, their relationship to the person they are pursuing is a neighbor relationship in which any sexual activity or even the awakening of sexual desire is inappropriate. What is conspicuously absent from the Bible is a category that falls between neighbor and spouse. Yet this is where so much of our relationship confusion comes from--an invented category that is more than one but less than the other and lacking any clear biblical guidelines.
Even more foundationally, the authors want the Christian to understand that the marriage relationship, and sex within marriage, has been given by God for the specific purpose of serving "as a living witness of the spiritual oneness between Christ and the church." When we get marriage wrong, and when we tear sex and sexual activity from marriage, we serve as a false image of the very thing we are meant to model. "We tend to believe that God's commands are given to us merely for our own sake. But this is not true. As those created in the image of God, our very nature as image bearers explains the reasons behind God's commands. Not only is sex a divinely appointed image of the gospel, but also man himself is an image of God. We are walking sermon illustrations, if you will." In this way the book's greatest strength and greatest desire is not in avoiding sexual transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy, but in preserving holiness and the purity of this powerful image of the gospel.
At a time where there is so much confusion about sex, dating and relationships, this book provides helpful, timely counsel. It offers clarity to the nature of relationships and encouragement that purity is not out of reach. Kevin DeYoung's endorsement nicely summarizes my take: "This is a straightforward, yet provocative little book. You'll find a lot of practical, sane, biblical wisdom that will explode a number of our cultural assumptions about dating. If you are single or care about someone who is, you really should read this book. The result may just be a simpler, more God-honoring approach to dating than you thought possible."