BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES FOR COURTSHIP

Some years ago when my wife and I started going out together, my wife’s Bible Study leader in the parachurch group we were in gave her a book on dating. This book, written by Barry St. Clair and Bill Jones, has a very attractive title: Dating: Picking (and being) a Winner (Here’s Life Publishers, 1987). At that time, I did not think much about the book. But now looking back I am glad that my wife did not apply the principles taught in it, or I might not have married her!

Problems of Dating

This book advocates the common American practice of dating. It gives a ‘sanctified’ definition of dating as: “A growing friendship between a guy and a girl which honours Jesus Christ as each person puts the other’s need first” (p. 23). As the book progresses, however, it becomes quite clear that the authors are simply trying to force-fit some biblical guidelines into a questionable worldly practice which is at worst a sensual and meaningless end-in-itself relationship experiment, and at best a rather selfish trial-and-error spouse fishing method. Consider how the authors exalt non-commitment in dating and deprecate commitments. According to them, there are four levels of dating: “group dating,” “couple dating,” “consistent dating” and “commitment dating.”

“Couple dating” is defined thus: “… a guy and girl go out alone. It may be a one-time date, or they may date occasionally. However, neither one is committed only to the other. If they date fairly often, they date other people as well. This is the healthiest stage of dating, because a person builds friendship with many different people…” (p. 126).


“Commitment dating” is defined thus: “… the couple dates no one else because they have a commitment to date only each other. They may or may not have talked about their commitment. Either way, both understand that they will not pursue a relationship with another guy or girl” (p. 126).

One wonders how a commitment could be made without saying anything when all this while the couple has been dating without any commitment to each other. In any case the authors appear to dissuade commitment as they immediately list 4 pluses and 8 minuses for commitment dating! The first of the pluses is: “You no longer have to worry about getting a date”! One of the minuses is: “You are limited in who you can date.… You are committed, so you no longer have the freedom to go out with others. This can create problems if a holy hunk or spiritual fox arrives on the scene” (p. 128).


No, I do not think all dating is sinful. We will be hard pressed to prove that dating is always sinful. But I do believe that the practice of casual dating is one of the causes of moral laxity in the American culture. I also believe that dating without any marriage-focus goal does promote worldly principles of self-centredness, which often results in very painful break-up between couples.

Alternative to Dating

If not dating, then what are the alternatives? Since marriage is an ordinance of God, there must be acceptable activities that lead to it. The fact that Scripture does not dictate any one method suggests that it is a matter of Christian liberty. But, the two biblical examples are: arranged marriages and courtship. The marriage between Isaac and Rebekah was partly arranged. In a certain sense, Jacob’s marriage to Rachel was through courtship (though his marriage to Leah was through trickery!). Now, with the increasing complexity of the modern society, arranged marriages are all but extinct. Few parents are willing to arrange marriages for their children; and few children would be happy to be forced into marriage by their parents. The church, moreover, does not have any biblical warrant to arrange marriages. What is left for us is courtship.


I would define courtship,—in distinction to dating,—as activities between a man and a woman with the goal of marriage in view. In other words, it involves a man and a woman going out together as a couple with a stated or understood goal of marriage. Indeed, I do not think we can make a biblical case for a girl and a boy going out together alone on a date just for fun or for making friends. There are other ways to make friends.

God’s Will in Courtship

Someone may ask: But how do you know it is God’s will for you to marry someone whom you have not had a long time of consistent dating to get to know very well? If not, how could you enter into a relationship with a goal of marriage? My answer would be: how do you know it is God’s will for you to marry someone you have got to know very well by a long time of consistent dating? The point is, it is impossible for you to know if it is God’s will for you to marry someone until you are actually married to the person. I am, of course, referring to the secret or decretive will of God, for what else would our inquirer have in mind?

In so far as the revealed will, or precepts of God, is concerned, Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the Word”(WCF 24.4; see Lev 18; 1 Cor 5:1), and “it the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord” (WCF 24.3; see 1 Cor 7:39; cf. 2 Cor 6:14–18). The Word of God teaches us: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). In other words, we must never seek to know God’s secret will, nor make our decisions based on His secret will. This being the case, if you are single and the person you are courting is a single believer who is not too closely related to you, you may know that it is not against God’s (preceptive) will for you to marry him or her.


Of course, “in the Lord” can and ought be more narrowly defined as in our Confession, so that “such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters:… [nor] such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies” (WCF 24.3). Prudence would also dictate some other qualities to look for, such as godly Christian character with a fear of God and a desire to conform to the Word of God. Personal preferences and attraction may also influence our choices. In a letter to William Farel, John Calvin explained what he was looking for in a wife:

I am none of those insane lovers who embrace even vices, once they have been overcome by a fine figure. The only beauty that attracts me is this: if she is modest, accommodating, not haughty, frugal, patient, and there is hope she will be concerned about my health.

Now, it is also not wrong to be attracted by external appearance, provided reason is not clouded by it. Again, Calvin has some refreshing remarks:

… we see how naturally a secret kind of affection produces mutual love. Only excess is to be guarded against, and so much the more diligently, because it is difficult so to restrain affections of this kind, that they do not prevail to the stifling of reason. Therefore he who shall be induced to choose a wife, because of the elegance of her form, will not necessarily sin, provided reason always maintains the ascendancy, and holds the wantonness of passion in subjection (Calvin’s Comm. on Genesis 29:18).

In any case, it is clear that dating is not going to help you to determine if it is the will of God to marry a particular person. Instead, dating is based on the unbiblical and irresponsible notion that compatibility and ‘chemistry’ are paramount, and that the vanishing of the “cloud nine feeling” is sufficient ground to break up even a steady relationship of many years.

What is the will of God concerning courtship? I believe it is simply this: “Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay” (Jas 5:12; cf. Mt 5:37). In other words, it should be based on commitment towards marriage right from the onset. Yes, it must be entered with the understanding that there could be good reasons eventually to call off the relationship; but the reasons must be biblical. Lost of the “cloud nine feeling,” the appearance of a “holy hunk or spiritual fox,” or even quarrel are certainly not right reasons. Possible biblical reasons for initiating a break-up include: (1) if you discover your date to have a loose morality which is tending towards fornication before marriage is possible; (2) if you find it increasingly difficult to resist temptation and marriage is definitely not possible in the near future; (3) desertion by your date; (4) if you discover your date to be insincere with regards to your commitment to each other; (5) if your parents object to your relationship, especially in the case where a rational or biblical reason is forwarded; (6) if you discover that your date is not a true believer, such as when he or she comes from a church which is lax in discipline, and also demonstrates clear signs of unregeneracy; (7) if you find your commitment to Christ adversely affected by your relationship.

When to Begin Courtship?

Very few Singaporeans actually practise casual dating in the way of the American culture. Our society is still quite conservative in this sense. However, it is an observable fact that many young Singaporeans enter into some form of committed relationship at ages 12 or 13. This, however, is not courtship. It is more like a premature form of consistent or committed dating simply because marriage can hardly be on the agenda in such relationships.

So, when would be a right age to begin courtship? I believe that given the marriage-goal of courtship there are two factors which should determine when is a right time to begin: (1) maturity of the persons as determined by whether they can make independent and responsible decisions; and (2) when marriage is a possibility in the not too distant future, say within 5 years. In other words, I do not believe that teenagers should enter courtship or dating relationships. I do not have dogmatic reasons to buttress my suggestion, but that there is really no biblical grounds for two young persons to be romantically linked unless marriage is in view. Moreover, various statistical studies have indicated that the earlier a young person starts dating, the more likely he or she will commit fornication (seeClair and Jones, Dating, 27). Experience in the local context, moreover, shows that most relationships that begin prior to the completion of National Service (for men, 18 to 20 years old) end up in painful break-ups.

How to Begin Courtship?

Since the husband is to be the leader in the family (Eph 5:23) and the wife ought to have a “meek and quiet spirit” (1 Pet 3:4), it is quite important that courtship be initiated by the man. A man who fails to take initiative in courtship may also fail to take leadership in marriage. A woman who initiates courtship may eventually subvert the headship of her husband. Of course, these are maybes, but a failure to recognise the biblical roles of husband and wife and to resolve to observe these roles early is likely to create problems later in the relationship.

Thus, when a man is ready for courtship, he should speak to the woman of his choice (after praying and seeking guidance on whether she be the one he should ask). He should naturally have observed her for quite a while in social settings, such as in the church or at work. He should also know her Christian character somewhat, before asking her out.

On the part of the woman, when a man proposes courtship, she should not immediately accept the proposal. Remember, that courtship is a committed relationship that should ordinarily lead to marriage. It behoves the woman, therefore, to spend sometime to think, pray and seek godly counsel about the proposal before agreeing to go out with a particular man. She should, of course, consider his commitment to Christ as indicated above.

Involvement of Parents and Church

At this point, it would be most helpful for the parents to be involved. A son who honours his parents will naturally want to let them know and approve of his courtship with his girlfriend. A filial daughter would do the same. It is therefore wise and prudent for a courting couple to meet each other’s parents at the earliest convenient time. If at all possible, parental involvement should be more than just approval of the relationship, they should also take an advisory and perhaps accountability role. This is especially so if they are committed believers themselves. But what if they are unbelievers? Then any believing older brothers or sisters may also fulfil the role. In the Songs of Solomon, we have a very beautiful picture of the way in which the brothers of the Shunnamite woman protected her until she was married off:

We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for? If she be a wall, we will build upon her a palace of silver: and if she be a door, we will inclose her with boards of cedar (Song 8:8–9).

What does it mean for her to be a wall? Perhaps, it means that she is one with a firm and steadfast character. That being the case, the brothers resolve to adorn her. But what does it mean for her to be a door? Perhaps, it means that she is one who is weak or morally lax, in which case they would protect her purity from men who would defile her.

But what if both parents and siblings are unbelievers? In this case, I believe, the couple should seek the guidance and counsel of the pastor or elders of the church they worship in. This does not negate parental approval for the relationship, but it does provide for accountability for a Christ-centred relation that can only be provided by believers.

Whether, it be parents, siblings or church, it would be most helpful for the maintenance of purity and direction in the courtship for the couple to be accountable to someone who is interested in seeing that the relation is Christ-honouring. This person or persons should be kept aware of how the relationship is developing and should meet with the couple on a regular basis for counselling if necessary.

Activities in Courtship

Since courtship is with a view to marriage, it is useful if the activities in courtship be more or less designed to get to know one another. Going to a movie or taking a nap together, for example, would hardly help the couple to get to know one another, not to mention being occasions for temptation. On the other hand, doing some meaningful activities together such as walking, Bible study, baby-sitting together, hospital visitation, tracting, baking, etc., can be very helpful to the developing of the relationship.

Naturally, for the sake of maintaining purity in courtship, the couple must recognise that physical intimacy should only be reserved for marriage. Are you in courtship? Keep your courtship pure. Avoid all situations which may give rise to temptation. If you set yourselves in a room alone, for any length of time unless it is for a brief moment or you are expecting someone soon, then you are courting trouble. Heed the Apostle Paul’s advice: “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). And remember: “Flee fornication” (1 Cor 6:18a; cf. 2 Tim 2:22; 1 Thes 5:22). If you are ever in a situation of temptation, flee. Flee like Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him.

Some physical contact such as hand-holding in courtship is generally pleasant and usually harmless. However, couples must be careful not to allow physical contact to degenerate into sensual lust. Indeed, if the couple, especially the man finds himself sexually aroused just by hand-holding, he should also avoid doing so. The principle to remember is that purity involves not only the physical act, but the heart as well.

Notice how our Lord hints at the involvement of the eyes and hands when there is a failure to maintain purity:

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee… (Mt 5:28–30).

Of course, the Lord is not telling us to literally pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands. But that drastic actions are sometimes necessary to maintain purity. In a courtship, this may involve the suspension of touching and hand-holding.

Also, a couple should not delay marriage if they find it increasingly difficult to maintain purity (1 Cor 7:9).

Conclusion

This short article is hardly enough to treat the subject of courtship exhaustively. However, I hope that this introduction will serve as a gentle reminder to reform and conform our lives, including our courtship, to the biblical standards. Those who desire to read a bit more on maintaining purity in courtship may consult the useful booklet by David W. Merck, entitled Maintaining Dating Purity (Truth For Eternity Ministries, 1996).


JJ Lim