I recently read Tim Challies post on dating without regret. In it, with a nod to Dean Inserra and his book Pure, Tim offers four guidelines for dating that should leave couples without shame or regret. In the most part, I agree with what Tim says in the post. Certainly, I go along with the four principles outlined.
But there was one area where I would want to offer a little, gentle pushback. One of the principles outlined is make intentions known when dating. For the record, an excellent principle. It is deeply unhelpful to be unclear with people. And I am afraid the Christian world is awash with such lack of clarity.
Some of this may be the differences between British and North American culture. We don’t quite have the same culture of dating; at least, not in the same way. But I also think it stems from ultra-tight strictures that, ironically, make every sideways glance, smile or grazed arm into some sort of sexually charged pass in the minds of many. Under those sorts of conditions, lack of clarity is bound to prevail. Some will think they are being very clear with their intentions when, in fact, they are being painfully opaque. Others will think they are doing nothing to lead someone on at all while another person is seeing “signals” everywhere. The call to make intentions clear – actually and obviously clear – is really important.
But Tim notes that being clear about your intentions ‘is not the same as declaring an intention to get married!’ Now, of course, dating someone is not the same as getting engaged. Engagement is your declaration of intent to marry, not dating. Let’s just be clear about that. So, Tim is right, dating of itself ought not to take on the weight of an engagement.
But as much as dating is not a declaration of intent to marry, I would want to encourage people to think about whether this is a person that you could see yourself marrying, as far as you can tell as it stands, and that the ultimate goal – even if you are not clear about everything that matters to make an informed final decision yet – is to marry. Again, that is not to say that dating someone is a declaration of intent to marry. That would be premature and – as Tim rightly says – dating is not the same as either engagement nor marriage. You can legitimately bail out (and, sometimes, that is exactly the right thing to do). But it is to say, you have no business even entering into a dating relationship if you already know that you cannot or will not ever marry this person.
I appreciate the call that Tim makes to not make dating more than it is. I think he is absolutely right that people dating should not act as though they are married, or that it is basically marriage without the sex. It isn’t and the relationship is necessarily different. But it does seem important to say that marriage ought to be the ultimate goal. It may prove, some point during the dating relationship, that marriage would not be right or appropriate for a whole host of reasons. That is absolutely okay. Indeed, that is somewhat the point of dating – to find exactly that sort of thing out! But there surely has to be an intent that, starting out, the aim is for this to end in marriage. Otherwise, what business have we got entering into the dating relationship at all?
The reason I say that is that people’s hearts are too fragile to mess with. If you enter a dating relationship either in the sure knowledge that this will not, or cannot, end in marriage, you are entering into a dating relationship that you know you will have to break at some point. Another person, who may be fully invested, will be unnecessarily hurt and damaged by that. If you know that marriage is definitely not on the cards, you have no business entering into a relationship with someone that you will necessarily leave down the line.
Again, I want to re-emphasise, dating is not marriage. Going out with someone is not a declaration of intent to marriage tantamount to engagement. I am not, therefore, suggesting that unless you marry someone you have dated, you have led them on unfairly or unreasonably. So, hear me well – it is not wrong to end a dating relationship, it is neither marriage nor engagement and ought to be understood as such. Ending such a relationship might well be the best and right thing to do and you are entirely free to do that for all sorts of reasons that are too numerous to list or discuss. Let me just be totally clear about that and my agreement with Tim on this point.
But I would go a little further than him regarding intent. I think the underlying assumption when two Christians are dating is that the hope, the goal, is for this relationship to end in marriage. There are all sorts of reasons why it may not. There is no compulsion to see it through to marriage if it becomes apparent it is not right. You have not entered a dating relationship with a promise that this will, necessarily, lead to marriage in the end. But if that is not a possibility, nor a fundamental aim as you enter the relationship, I want to suggest you have no business starting it. Otherwise you are simply starting a relationship you will necessarily break down the line and there are people’s feelings and emotions – who may well be far more invested – that you are toying with. And that is no way to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Along with being clear about intent, I think we ought to be clear about where we hope things will head. I agree that we are not announcing our engagement from day one nor making any promises. But dating ought, surely, to be the period of time in which you work out whether it is appropriate for these two people to get married. That has to be the underlying assumption. The goal is to figure out whether marriage is the appropriate thing for this couple. It may well not be, but the possibility of marriage and the desire to get there (as far as you can for now tell based on limited knowledge) has surely to be there. If it isn’t, I would want to suggest that this particular relationship is one you ought not to start.