The key to understanding a biblical view of dating is to understand what Scripture teaches about non-marital human relations in general. In I Timothy 5:1-2, St. Paul says:
Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity.
Until a couple is actually married, they should treat one another as brother and sister, “in all purity.” It is really that simple. This simple understanding of things would keep folks out of a whole lot of trouble, folks. But unfortunately, this simple understanding is not understood in many Christian and Catholic circles. More on that in a moment…
The question is: Does this understanding cease when “dating” or “courting” begins? By no means! The purpose for dating (or “courting”) is to discern the Lord’s will concerning marriage. The couple should first become best friends and in that context they can answer the question of whether or not they would want to spend their lives together in Holy Matrimony.
Where sin enters into the dating relationship is when the couple goes beyond courting and begins to act as though they are already married. In my humble opinion, there is nothing wrong with a peck on the lips, hugging, a kiss on the cheek, and things like that. That is nothing that a brother and sister could not do out of a familial love for each other. In many cultures, men even kiss each other on the lips or the cheek as a greeting (though I’m glad our culture doesn’t do that!). Once you get into “french-kissing” or anything more intimate even than that, then you are in sin. You would never do that sort of thing with your sister!
Moreover, a couple that is courting, really doesn’t know if you they are actually going to finally marry, so they must consider the fact that they may well be kissing somebody else’s future spouse. Would you want someone doing those things with your future spouse? I think the Golden Rule applies here!
Courting vs. Dating
I should also speak to the idea of “dating” vs. “courting.” I know I have been equating the two up until now, but they are actually not the same. “Dating,” in my humble opinion, is straight from the pit! I say that kind of… kind of… tongue and cheek. But “dating,” the way it has developed in our culture, is spiritual suicide!
Now, some will get mad at me when I say this, but the idea of sending a young man, say 18, and a young woman, say 17, out on a “date,” all alone, in a car, all alone, is insane! If they are truly beginning to fall in love with one another, their hormones are going to be going through the roof, especially the young man, and, well… you know the rest…
“Courting” is more of a formal process where a couple knows they are going out in order to discern whether they are being called to Holy Matrimony. And in this process, the couple in discernment never goes out alone. “Courting” means a couple always goes out among a group of people, and if they do have “alone” time, it is in a public place and only away from the others they are with for a short time. The group knows where the couple is, and when to come and bring them back to the group. And even this “alone” time is never really alone because the couple’s “alone” time is always in a public place, as I said. It could be at a fair, or a café, for example.
Some will inevitably say I am being extreme here, but there really is a method to the apparent madness. The reason for these strictures is at least twofold. First, and foremost, they are present to protect love. Once a couple begins to really consider marriage, the passions naturally become more and more engaged… and that is a good thing, of course. Human persons are naturally attracted to the opposite sex and that attraction becomes all the more intense as feelings between a man and woman begin to grow and the prospects of marriage begin to take shape.
These feelings must be kept in check, however, because once a couple begins to act on these passions illicitly, their ability to make a free choice with regard to their relationship becomes diminished. In fact, we know now that chemical reactions occur in the body when a couple engages in sexual relations that serve to bond a couple together. God has designed it this way for the good of the marriage bond.
Once married, a couple is bound for life no matter how they may “feel” on a given day. God aids in the relationship by giving us all of these wonderful hormones and various chemical reactions in our bodies that serve to bind us together, especially early in the marital relationship. Later, children serve to aid in the marital bond resulting in a deepening of the love bond between a man and a wife that is less and less dependent upon the sexual bond. And this is not to mention the deepening of the friendship between the man and wife that also serves to this end as well. These serve to prepare the couple for later in life when, often, there is no longer a sexual relationship at all do the onset of old age and/or various ailments.
If these chemicals and hormones that are meant to bond a newly married couple are released before marriage, the decision for marriage can become rooted in hormones rather than a real and free decision based on true love and a deep friendship that must be the foundation of every marriage. Then, once in the marriage, when these chemical reactions begin to wane (scientists say this occurs about four years after a sexual relationship begins), the couple finds that they have nothing that really bonds them anymore.
St. Thomas Aquinas famously defined love as “willing the good of the other.” I would add to that definition, “without expecting anything in return.” St. Paul says, “Love does not insist on its own way” in I Cor. 13:5. It always considers the other, even to the point of giving one’s life for the other. That is the essence of love. “For God so love the world that he gave…” (John 3:16) And, of course, that gift would continue to give all the way to the cross (cf. Phil. 2:5-9).
The importance of the courting relationship can hardly be overstated because it paves the way for the development of a true love that gives without the “getting.” The prospective spouses living in a chaste relationship can not only demonstrate that they truly love one another with a disinterested love (which is the essence of what love is, and it becomes a very important component in the discernment process. If, for example, a man cannot control himself sexually, is he really the right choice for marriage? ), but more importantly, they develop that kind of love in their relationship that can then serve their relationship as a foundation for the rest of their lives together.
Talk about a “win-win?” This is it!
Secondly, courting serves to protect true friendship. Often, in popular culture, we hear tell of “friendships” being “complicated,” or “ruined,” between men and women because these “friends” fall into sexual sin. There is a profound truth here. Plato considered “phileo,” in Greek, or a “friendship love” between two men to be the highest form of love. The reason for this is that two men do not want–or shouldn’t want–anything more from the other beyond friendship. It is an example of giving without getting. And, of course, there is truth to be found here. There is an inherent goodness and purity to a true friendship that is truly “ruined” by a sexual encounter. God’s love for us is the ultimate example of this kind of love because God loves us unconditionally, knowing that the beloved cannot add anything to him whatsoever. Talk about giving without getting? That’s God!
And that is what we are called to as Christians.
The Sign that is Celibacy
This is one reason among many why Celibacy is such a great and crucial gift to the body of Christ. The celibate serves as an eschatological sign for all of us, reminding us of the fact that sexual relations die when we do, but love is eternal. And the love that is eternal is a love that gives completely of the self without asking for anything in return. It’s a self-less love.
This is not to say that married couples cannot have a disinterested love for each other. Not only can they; they must! But it is more difficult to accomplish. The daily sacrifices involved in marriage, and to a much greater degree, the gift of children, stretch the married couple and more and more give opportunities for there to be self-less love in marriage. But again, for the celibate, the opportunities are more effectively built in to the celibate’s way of life.
Shot Down in Flames
During a Q and A session years ago at a conference, someone asked me a question about whether or not “dating is a sin.” The answer was (and is): not necessarily. As I began to answer the question, I explained, we have to be careful here. What do we mean by “dating?” If by that term we mean going out alone with a member of the opposite sex that we are attracted to, and that becomes a near occasion of sin for us (that is, it places us in a place where we know there is a real probability that we are going to fall into sin), then that would be a sin.
I explained that this is where the idea of “courting” comes to the fore. Whether you call it “dating,” or “courting,” it is essential that “dating” occurs in groups and “alone” time is never really alone. There is always someone nearby for accountability’s sake, etc., as I said above.
I explained that the key for each individual is to be honest with him or herself and to put God and the other person in the relationship first. Whatever is necessary to keep a relationship pure, as I Tim. 5:1-2 says, is what you want to do.
The inevitable follow-up question was: “How far is too far?” And when I explained, as I said above, that “French-kidding,” or any kind of passionate kissing is a definite no-no, I got interrupted by the questioner saying, “That is ridiculous! How are you going to know if you are compatible for marriage, if you never experience any passion in the relationship?”
It was very difficult to keep things calm as I responded, but my response was basically this: The world tells us that you have to have sex before marriage in order to find out whether you are “sexually compatible,” but that is based on a fallacy. As important as sexual relations are to marriage–in fact, they are indispensable for there to be a consummated sacrament–the foundation of marriage is not sex; the true foundation is a love that gives without expecting anything in return. Moreover, love must have as its foundation a free and full commitment of the man and woman. Sex before marriage, for reasons already stated above, inhibits a truly free and loving commitment between the couple.
Oh, boy! I thought I made a great point, but I got hammered. And ironically, the questioner accused me of being a Fundamentalist, and that I was inhibiting the freedom of young couples to “discover one another.”
In retrospect, I wish I would have added something like this: “I know that in my relationship with my wife, Valerie, we did not have sex before marriage. I married my best friend. Eight children later (two in heaven, and six on earth), I can say we continue to “discover one another” as we grow in our love for each other in so many ways. But I can also say that our foundation is not sex. It is love! Why in the world would I have wanted to “complicate,” or, yes, even perhaps “ruin,” our friendship before it could even begin to flower into what it is today?
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