Sermon text: 1 Cor. 6:12-20
I first heard about the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye when a girl who I was trying to get to go out with me used it as a pious way to say no. “There’s this book you should really read…” I remember her saying. And that was it. I had no chance. Well, I didn’t exactly rush out to get it. The fact that she was dating another guy in a just a few months didn’t make things any better!
Since then, I have read a lot of material on what is called “biblical courtship” or “biblical dating.” I’ve seen strong defenses and harsh criticisms. I’ve met people with every opinion on the matter. My wife and I even “courted,” and it looks like the results were all positive. But people continue to have lots of questions. Is there a biblical way to date? Is there more than one way to do it? How weird is this going to make me, and how much is it going to cost? Those are just the most common ones.
This morning I’d like to talk about this topic of dating and courtship, and I’d also like to talk about how we talk about it. You see, there’s actually not a biblical passage specifically aimed at the question. It might surprise you to hear that, given how popular the topic is. But no, there is no one place in Scripture that singles out courtship and gives direct commands. Instead, what the Bible gives us are moral laws concerning sexual behavior, categories of people-groups and authority, and principles of wisdom.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about things that are strictly forbidden and things which are “indifferent” but which still have an impact on his mission. He writes:
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. The body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. (1 Cor. 6:12-14)
The Apostle Paul says that “all things are lawful for me,” and that can sound pretty radical. He doesn’t mean that the moral law no longer applies to Christians, and we know that because he goes on to give some strong moral commands. But he does mean that there are no particular systems, formulas, or user manuals for all of life, and he also means that no one has the right to impose special religious laws on him. And yet, contrary to the more rebellious modern spirit, Paul doesn’t think that this means “anything goes.” For something to be a rule and tradition of a family or society really matters. It isn’t “law” in the strict sense, but Paul still cares about it. Cultural mores matter. Conscience is important, even the other guy’s.
In the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul is talking about food. “All things are lawful for me” means that Jewish food laws are not binding on him. But he goes beyond the question of torah. In Romans 14:2, Paul also deals with vegetarianism, something that was never a part of Mosaic Law. Some people in Paul’s day were saying that Christians ought not to eat meat. We don’t know why. I’m sure they had their reasons. It was a sort of fad diet or odd ethical stance they had adopted. What’s really instructive is that Paul doesn’t simply respond to them by saying that they are right or wrong. He says that “the weak” should be “received” and that we shouldn’t judge or despise one another (see Romans 14:1-4). One of the two parties is right, and the other is the weaker party, but the two parties ought to find ways to mutually coexist in charity for the larger picture of gospel liberty and unity.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that all things are potentially “available” to him, but that he judges them by their helpfulness. Paul will not “be brought under the power of any,” and that includes both the power of the food and the power of the rules. He is truly free to decide how to handle the situation. But he adds to that the very real fact that God will judge us on how we handle these situations and which concerns we prioritize over others.
This means that God cares about how we decide in matters of Christian liberty, and that’s a very important and challenging point in today’s world. The biblical definition of liberty is not simply the absence of rules. It does not mean “you are free to do as you please.” Liberty in the Bible is the freedom to do what is right as an expression of what you believe and for the good of others. We ought not be looking to stack up lots of extra rules. We shouldn’t judge the family-customs and practices of our neighbors, even if we think they are weaker brothers. We must instead observe the basic moral laws and then prioritize faith, hope, and love.
I did say that the moral law continues to apply to the Christian, and this becomes obvious when the Apostle Paul condemns sexual immorality. That sin really is a big deal for him:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.
Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Cor. 6:15-20)
We can see that sexual practices are not matters of Christian liberty. Paul’s simple answer is, “No!” No sleeping around. Joining together with another person creates a close spiritual bond which also connects you with all of the other people that that person has a bond with. If this is true of one-night stands, it’s also true of longer-lasting relationships. And Paul says that a Christian’s sexual practices also include Jesus. “He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him,” and so therefore, anyone who is a “member of Christ” must not join their bodies to a harlot.
In 2nd Corinthians, Paul extends this beyond romance. He says that believers ought not to form close and important bonds with unbelievers:
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? (2 Cor. 6:14-16a)
Paul uses that very important word “communion” in that section. “What communion has light with darkness?” Communion refers to the sharing of one’s life with another, and Paul says that we ought not to share our lives with unbelievers. A few verses later he quotes the Old Testament and says, “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you” (2 Cor. 6:17) We know from many other parts of Paul’s writing that he isn’t trying to tell us to literally keep our distance from unbelievers, to separate our communities and live on religious reservations away from everyone else. But he is telling us to keep a spiritual distance from nonbelievers, and this includes close and intimate bonds, both of friendship and romance. Bonds are very important, and Christians must form their bonds in the right way and for the right reasons.
Principles for Guidance
So far what I have said is only generally related to the topic of courtship and dating. That has been by design. Sometimes, well-meaning Christians, looking for specifics, will point to situations, usually in the Old Testament, from which we are supposed to find all sorts of laws. But we have to be careful with that methodology. Sometimes a moral principle is obvious, but other times it requires a little bit of work. If we look at all of the examples, we will see Abraham sending his manservant off to find a wife for Isaac. Certainly Isaac was allowed to confirm this, but it was a still a bit different from the picture of the young man going out and pursuing his potential wife. The torah assumes that the father has jurisdiction over his daughter until she is married, but it never gives specific instructions on how this decision is to be reached, which party bears responsibility for initiating a courtship, or if a family’s jurisdiction comes to an end under various circumstances. In the book of Ruth we even have an example of a woman initiating a courtship. Instead of looking for a handbook of all of life, we need to instead look for underlying principles which can be applied in diverse circumstances.
What are biblical principles for dating and courtship, and how can we say that they really do matter without being legalistic? Let me begin with a series of negatives, and then I will end with some affirmatives and some perspective to keep in mind.
Thou Shalt Nots
1) No Immorality
The negative principles are pretty easy and pretty basic. No immorality. This means that there can be no sexual activity before marriage, and once you are married, then your spouse is the only appropriate object of your sexual activity. You need to think of this in broad rather than narrow terms. This doesn’t mean that you do everything short of crossing the line. And while this isn’t the place to get into specifics, you should know that there actually isn’t just one boundary line. Sexual morality exists on a spectrum.
If you are called to avoid immorality, then you need to actually think about how you are going to do that. Don’t enter into activities or situations where temptation is going to be powerful. Don’t set yourself up to fail.
2) No Selfishness
You should also apply the golden rule here, as everywhere else. Treat the other people involved —and that means boy, girl, and both families— the way you would like to be treated. Too often a young man simply wants a girl, and he doesn’t care how he treats the other people who might get in the way of that. Sometimes he doesn’t even care about how he treats the girl! He just wants something for himself. Don’t use people. Christians should approach dating scenarios by asking themselves, “How can I love my neighbor here?” While this is subjective in a sense, it’s also not all that difficult. You can tell if you are trying to honor someone else or if you are really just trying to find self-satisfaction.
3) No Non-believers
This one is really clear in the Bible, and it’s clear in church history. We are to marry “in the Lord.” Do not yoke yourself with an unbeliever. This is because, as we said earlier, you are forming a close spiritual bond with another person, and who you worship will be immediately impacted. And if you cannot marry an unbeliever, then you also have no business dating or otherwise “trying out” a relationship with an unbeliever. Missionary dating is always a bad idea, as it usually confuses the gospel with human passions, and it runs the danger of turning the other person even further off from Jesus if things go sour.
But what about areas of theological disagreement between Christians? This is a question that comes up frequently. You should think of it as a sliding scale. The more basic or essential the disagreement is, the bigger the “problem” it poses for the relationship. There are going to be big challenges if one person doesn’t really go to church, or if one doesn’t really believe the Bible is authoritative. There are even big issues between serious and conservative Christians. If Baptist Billy and Lutheran Lizzie start to talking after they finish their strawberry shakes at the Drive-In, they’re going to end up disagreeing a whole lot. My advice in these scenarios is to be pretty realistic and decide which disagreements are things you can agree to disagree about and which ones are going to be an ongoing problem. Also, pay attention to practical matters. Identify things which are going to show up a lot in relationships and in decision-making and prioritize them.
Think About it This Way
1) Families are Families
The average American thinks about dating as involving two people, the boy and the girl. But in reality, dating and courtship is the intersection of two families, and if things go well, it creates a third. This means that the boy and his family are involved, and the girl and her family are involved. Since that is the case, the appropriate authorities need to be honored. I don’t think this works in some strict and wooden way, where the father can simply make or break things, but I do think that ordinarily he needs to give permission, even at the beginning of things. “Honor your father and mother” does not somehow stop when you think about romance. In fact, it gets more difficult, because you get to add an extra father and mother to the equation.
Christians are called to be loyal people, and loyalty lies at the very foundation of a marriage. Since that is the case, you should begin training yourself how to be loyal. This means that you cannot enter into romantic relationships quickly. It also means that you shouldn’t have a bunch of them. Ideally, you should only have one person to who you feel romantically loyal in any strict way. The modern practice of having boyfriends and girlfriends wants to claim the loyalty, but it also wants the freedom to end the loyalty and create new loyalty, usually quickly and cheaply. Christians always need to honor their commitments, and so they need to be careful to only make wise commitments.
3) Let’s Get Real
Dating and courtship is always going somewhere. You are either moving towards marriage, away from marriage, or towards trouble. Biology is pretty powerful. If a boy and girl are spending a lot of time together, the chances are very good that one of the two is going to be attracted to the other. If either one of them is cute, then those chances go up to 100%. There’s no real point in denying this or pretending otherwise. Admit it and act wisely. You also shouldn’t put yourself in a position where there will be a natural tendency towards physical interaction if you cannot actually have that interaction. In other words, it’s a very bad idea to stir up the feelings of love many years before they can be acted upon. Long courtships are a bad idea.
You are called to be in control. Christians should never fall in love by accident. We are called to be in control of our passions.
Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-16)
We cannot be ruled by whatever emotions and sentiments come over us, and so we need to treat “falling in love” as an active choice that we make and as a commitment that we go on to keep. Fall in love on purpose, and use that love to help the other person and to glorify God.
Now parents, you need to get real too! Obviously you are interested in your child’s well-being. You want to guide them and do right by your family. But there are some things you need to keep in mind as well. Marriage is where your child leaves you and starts a new family, and dating or courtship is preparation for that. In fact, it’s the beginning of a process which ought to end with that conclusion. Don’t be surprised by that. Don’t get scared halfway through the process. And don’t try to prevent your child from leaving, becoming independent, and starting their own lives. That’s what they are supposed to do.
Also, and this point is especially for the dads with daughters, you want the future spouse, if the courtship is successful, to, you know, like you. It makes us feel tough to tell stories about greeting the date with a shotgun in hand, but we really shouldn’t try to make courtship some harsh rite of passage. We shouldn’t pose ourselves as the enemy. Instead, we should assume a sort of parental role and help guide both boy and girl along the godly path towards a happy marriage. If you don’t think you can support the suitor, then say so right away and be firm and clear about it. Don’t try to obstruct a process once you start it. But for those good and happy matches, you should joyfully support them and help them be able to become successful marriages with happy in-laws.
Well, this has run the danger of moving from sermon to seminar, and so we had better bring it back to the basics. Dating, courtship, and marriage is hard work carried out by sinful humans in a fallen world. We will make mistakes. Sometimes our mistakes will be unintentional. Sometimes, however, people will just plain mess it all up. But that’s the world God puts us in. We have to remember grace in all of this. Parents need to remember grace, and children need to remember grace. The truth is that we are all sinners and we will all make mistakes. We will all have to be forgiven from time to time.
And perhaps that’s exactly why God gives us these relationships. He wants to teach us how to grow in holiness, but He also wants to teach us how to grow in grace. He wants us to learn humility. He wants us to love one another. And we can do this on one condition, that we trust Him. Trust that God’s grace is enough for you, that His word is true, and that His providence is in control. With that knowledge, a humble spirit, and trusting heart we will find that scary, passionate, absurd, and empowering relationships all work together for our good and God’s glory. Nobody really has it figured out or knows just how to do it. But go out there and make a mess anyway. God knows how. Follow His word, keep in mind those basic principles drawn from it, and make your decisions with Him in mind first. If you do that, even if you do make a big mess, you won’t be able to mess it up.