It has been longer than I care to admit since I was an adolescent. But I still remember that the kids in my youth group were consumed with a single question. “How physical can I get with my boyfriend/girlfirend?” The workers in my church had explained that premarital sexual intercourse is not permitted for those who want to follow Jesus, but, like many kids our age, we wanted to know how close we could get to this boundary without violating our commitment to Christ.
Does our question seem silly to you? Does it seem to be beneath the dignity of a seminary blog? In our case, it was certainly motivated by a childish desire to get away with as much as we could. Still, I think that it is a serious concern for many of the people in our churches. Americans marry a lot later now than they did a century ago, and, because of the prevalence of divorce and long life expectancies, a lot of medium and senior adults once again find themselves with the opportunity to date.
The Hermeneutical Conundrum of Dating
Parents, grandparents, and church leaders need to pour some wisdom on this topic into the people we love and lead. The problem is that dating, as we know it, basically did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean basin. Marriages were normally arranged by the families involved. Even when they were not arranged (widows, for example, could sometimes arrange their own marriages), couples usually married for economic and social, rather than romantic, reasons. That doesn’t mean that romance was unknown in the ancient world; even a casual perusal of the Song of Solomon demonstrates that ancient people could have a vivid romantic imagination. Nevertheless, romance often played little or no role in how marriages were constructed.
Since dating was not a part of the ancient Mediterranean cultural script, the Bible has nothing explicit to say about it. That is probably why the church leaders I knew as an adolescent struggled to address the question in an intellectually and emotionally satisfactory manner. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the Scriptures bear witness to a way of thinking and living that can help our single friends navigate the exhilarating and treacherous world of physical affection in dating relationships.
In the paragraphs that follow, I am going to lay out a series of diagnostic questions that will help dating couples evaluate their behavior in light of their devotion to Jesus. We will not be addressing the permissibility or impermissibility of specific behaviors (although I will argue that you should address specifics when you talk to the single people in your life). Rather, we are going to focus on principles of biblical living. These principles point us to a particular way of life—one in which our devotion to Jesus is more important than the physical and emotional longings that we experience.
Diagnostic Question #1: Does Our Behavior Honor God?
The first question that we need to ask ourselves is, “Does my behavior honor God?” There are really two parts to this question. First, would God be proud of what I am doing? Second, would God’s reputation be enhanced by what I am doing?
It may seem unbearably trite to talk about God’s honor when we thinking about whether it is okay to make out with a boyfriend/girlfriend. It is a rather amorphous concept—and one that Western people in particular have a difficult time understanding. More practically, it is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that something we want will please God, especially when our culture celebrates sensuality at every turn.
Still, the desire to honor God above all else stands at the very heart of the Christian experience. It is the motivating factor behind our worship, and it is foundational for our ethics. It is vitally important that we stop and think before we act, and one of the first things that we should think about is whether our actions will bring honor to the God we serve.
Diagnostic Question #2: Does Our Behavior Honor Our Boyfriend/Girlfriend?
In addition to asking whether our behavior honors God, we need to ask whether our behavior honors the man or woman whom we are dating. Here is another way to think about this question. Are we showing our significant other the respect that he or she deserves as a member of the human species and as a child of God? (If our significant other is not a child of God, that is also an issue the we need to address.)
Obviously, showing honor for the person we are dating means respecting the boundaries that they set for themselves. Any act that arises out of coercion or manipulation is evil (and potentially illegal), regardless of its nature or motivation. But I would also suggest that respecting the personhood of our significant other also requires us to consider what would be best for them in all situations. Just because our boyfriend/girlfriend encourages a particular behavior does not mean that the beauvoir honors them. To the contrary, if we know that a specific behavior will harm them emotionally or spiritually, we have an obligation to gently but firmly resist engaging in that behavior. To do otherwise would be tantamount to denying their personhood, for we would be treating them as a means to an end (that is, as a tool to satisfy our own physical longings or emotional needs).
Diagnostic Question #3: Is Our Behavior a Genuine Expression of Affection?
And this point leads us to our third diagnostic question. Is our behavior a genuine expression of affection, or is it merely something that we do because it gives us pleasure? Hugs, kisses, etc. are, by their very nature, bonding activities. They communicate affection, and, in so doing, they serve to create and reinforce the emotional connection between people.
Asking this third diagnostic question forces us to consider the nature of our relationship. The level of our physical involvement should not exceed the level of our emotional attachment. It should also not exceed the level of our commitment to the person we are with. If it does, we run the risk of hurting our significant other in ways that can be hard to predict. We also run the risk of stunting the growth of our relationship with that person.
As an aside, we need to acknowledge that there are other, even more sinister, reasons why people engage in physical affection besides the desire for pleasure. Sometimes they do so in order to achieve or reinforce a certain perception of themselves within their social group. Sometimes they do it to get revenge on someone who hurt them. Perhaps you can come up with other reasons that people engage in physical affection. These are manifestations of evil and should always be avoided.
Diagnostic Question #4: Is Our Behavior a Prelude to Sexual Intercourse?
One thing that the Bible is very clear about is that sexual intercourse is not permitted for those who are unmarried. Those of us who are married know that certain kinds of affection are, by their very nature, preludes to sexual intercourse. It is important that those who are not married avoid such behaviors when they are dating.
Obviously, we cannot expect adolescents and emerging adults to know what these behaviors are. We as parents and church leaders need to help them understand what is being communicated by certain behaviors, and that is going require us to have some honest, and perhaps uncomfortable, conversations. If we don’t have these conversations, others will. And we may not like what our young people learn from these interactions.