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A few weeks ago I received an interesting question on my weekly Q&A show on Instagram. The reader asked: “Do you think dating is just practice for divorce, like many conservative groups say?” I was a little surprised I’d never heard this before, given my own acquaintance with purity culture. It’s the perfect lay-up to the courtship conversation. And it’s a question we really need to answer in an age of temporary love.

Divorce invades all of our lives; some through immediate family, some through friends, some through extended family. We all know someone who has walked through that pain. We also know that divorce is never God’s intention, though He allows it under certain circumstances to protect those involved. Marriage is designed to be an eternal covenant, and hint of God’s covenant love on earth.

So the dating model, which is often used to prepare for marriage, comes under fire because the possibility of one dating relationships ending and another beginning doesn’t seem like “covenant preparation”. So is dating a terrible way to approach marriage? And if it is, what do we do instead?

Dating is the Prequel to Covenant – Not Covenant Itself

What goes unsaid in this argument against dating is the obvious: If you’re not married, you’re not married. Dating is not cheating because you aren’t in a covenant with someone for life. Intentional dating is the prequel to covenant. It is how we get to know someone for who they are, determining if we share values and priorities.

No matter how you attempt to rewrite history, most western relationships in the last three centuries developed through some form of dating: Dances and balls, parlor visits, barn raisings and picnics, group dates, and so on. The strict courtship model we see in some conservative circles today wouldn’t even be realistic in the 1890s. Outside of arranged marriage, there will ALWAYS be a risk when it comes to love.

That’s why you can’t possibly get to know someone without some form of dating, intentional or not. The only way to avoid such a risk of break up would be to 1) arrange the marriage and 2) marry the first person you get into a relationship with, which is not always advisable. The fact that dating is NOT covenant is to our benefit, because we can use that time – and God’s wisdom – to determine if covenant is the best choice.

(Read More: Why Christian Girls Are Done With Courtship Culture)

It All Depends on How You Date

This said, not all dating is created equal. The world’s sexually promiscuous, consequence-free model is not biblical nor God-honoring. It damages hearts, bodies, and souls. But it’s possible to date – to go out on dates with a member of the opposite sex – while following the Spirit’s leading on your life. It’s possible to honor God, yourself, and your date, and even to leave a relationship without regrets because no relationship lived for God is wasted (read more on that here).

Dating, when done well, is never practice for divorce.

The heart of divorce is selfishness. One or both parties has given in to selfish thoughts, motives, and actions, and one or both parties is suffering for it. The same goes for dating: If you date selfishly, you’ll be thoughtless about the permanence of the relationship. But if you date according to the Spirit, you will date selflessly. You will give your best to the relationship, and even if it ends, you will walk away knowing you did what you could to honor God within it.

Spirit-led Dating > Legalism

Legalism – adding rules to the freedom of Christian life – is not a solution for selfishness. Legalism almost inevitably ends in hedonism, the very thing it’s designed to prevent. This is because legalism tries to accomplish the work of God without the Spirit of God (you can read about my journey out of legalism here). This is why things like courtship can never completely prevent sexual promiscuity – because courtship can’t change hearts. And even if a couple follows all the “rules” of relationships, unless they love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, their relationship isn’t founded on a solid foundation. They are at as a high a risk for divorce as the couple who dated selfishly.

If we really want to prevent divorce, we don’t need more rules about relationships. We need men and women who love the Lord and His design for marriage. We need men and women who honor one another more than themselves. We need a reverence for God and for the institution of marriage. And we need to be led by the Spirit of God into all our relationship decisions.

Only then will our marriages – and the dating relationships that brought them about – stand on a solid foundation.