Though perhaps written in unnecessarily complex vernacular, I appreciate Paul Maxwell's balanced perspective in “Toward a Biblical Approach to Dating.”
Thinking about it for a moment, though, the article title is basically saying toward approaching the Bible; directly suggesting that there is indeed no Biblical perspective on dating, but only indirect guiding truths.
The first chapter of Tim Keller's The Meaning of Marriage addresses the subject of contemporary culture and dating trends a bit more succinctly than Maxwell, but Maxwell essentially communicates the same conclusion. It is indeed beneficial to consider how culture has influenced our perspective of relationship.
Much of the following has been triggered by reading Maxwell’s article.
Is Dating like National Politics?
Well, it sure can feel that way sometimes. Self-oriented. Pretentious. Overrated. Necessary. . . .
Maxwell writes "Compare how the Bible relates to dating with how it relates to national politics." Though he goes on to explain it pretty well in the article, I believe that using this comparison is too misleading. After all, the Kingdom of Israel’s "national politics" included genocide-oriented conquest, countless polygamist political marriages (especially at its height under the rule of King Solomon), and some serious family strife resulting in violent division (e.g. King David's family), to name but a few. Not that this was all that God really wanted, but national politics is a term that raises loads of unnecessary distractions to a conversation about dating.
Is Dating an Institution?
Like “national politics", I would shy away from referring to dating as an “institution.” Sure, there are social trends that could be compared to political trends—call it an institution, if you will. Perhaps it can feel like an asylum at times.
It seems to me, however, that at the essence of dating is the pursuit of relationship, which has not, is not, and never will be just some institution. Relationship is the essence of our existence. It is the whole point of everything: to connect with others and to love them. That is the mandate that God has demonstrated and given to His people. He is most honored in the context of relationship. All meaning begins here. If that is not true, there was really no point for Jesus to have dwelt among us.
Furthermore, I would contend against a statement like “Dating has no redemptive-historical meaning.” On its own, for its own sake—as a kind of entertainment or sport—which seems to unfortunately be the trend in the United States, dating is indeed rather meaningless. I appreciate how Maxwell considers dating in general to be a transition between singleness and marriage. Such a bridge is necessary and healthy. Dating is incredibly meaningful in its proper expression. Ideally, people learn from it, grow from it, and hopefully ultimately build a holy covenantal marriage from it.
With this view in mind, and at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, could Jesus’ life not be viewed as a kind of courtship of Israel, linking the Old Covenant with the New—an old way of life to the new? The metaphor is flawed because God was actually already in a covenantal relationship with His people before Jesus came. But I think you get the idea.
To consider more practical terms, Maxwell does offer a refreshingly original definition of dating:
Dating is merely our culture's disposable (yet legitimate) mode of expressing interest (to any degree) in entering into the marriage covenant with a particular person. . . . It is a this-world cultural mode of manifesting a legitimate transition that God endorses and delights in.
While he seems to think that dating is something new to this present culture, contrasting it with ancient near Eastern courtship practices, I would contend that the semantics and expression have only changed. Has the idea not stayed the same: people and society generally looking for some way to encourage uncommitted relationship toward committed relationship?
Granted, the long-defined sanctity of marriage is being challenged on a few fronts today, but that is another conversation.
In the second half of the article, Maxwell goes on to outline how Biblical moral boundaries guide the developing intimacy of a dating relationship. He does this very well, which warrants no commentary from me. Read it for yourself.
Yet while some people like to mark their ideas with the "Biblical Perspective" stamp of approval, I would not use the phrase "Biblical Perspective" in conjunction with dating, i.e. "A Biblical Perspective of Dating." The Bible really does not have anything direct to say about dating. Trying to claim a Biblical perspective of dating, therefore, seems to be more like eisegesis—“the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one's own ideas (Merriam Webster)—than exegesis, which is “an explanation or critical interpretation of a text.”
That noted, Jesus does teach us a lot about moral purity, which lends itself to a discussion of healthy boundaries—once again, as Maxwell clearly outlines. When we talk about boundaries, what most people are really talking about has to do with sexuality. There is a minor degree of subjectivity in what some of those boundary lines are for people (e.g. hand holding being too arousing for some, while kissing is too arousing for others, etc.). I appreciate the challenge that Pastor Steve Clifford made two weekends ago when discussing "The Power of Love" (i.e. Sexuality) at WestGate Church: When the desire or arousal cannot be righteously fulfilled, you must stop right there. "Righteously fulfilled" refers to the holy covenant of marriage. Or another way that Clifford phrases it is that "there are no righteous orgasms outside of marriage."
This statement is a challenge to masturbation, pornography, sexting, and just about any sexual expressions regardless of whether it involves vaginal intercourse or not (e.g. oral sex, anal sex, etc.). This is not to disclaim other forms of affection like hugging, hand-holding, or kissing, unless, of course, they arouse a desire that cannot be righteously fulfilled.
Finally, I will not address homosexuality here because it deserves its own focused discussion. In the meantime, I have found that one great place to begin the conversation is with the wise words of Ravi Zacharias when he responds to the question, “Can someone live a sincere Christian life as a homosexual?”
Beyond the Conversation about Dating
Once again, I am not sure that “Biblical perspective” is well suited to a conversation about dating. That is, unless the encouragement relates to understanding moral boundaries within a relationship and/or dating in the context of its goal being a healthy marriage.
The response to “What is dating anyway?” is much more subjective, and thoroughly and imperfectly tied to culture. For example, one has only to read Jeff Taylor’s Friendlationships to get a sense that there is no universally accepted definition of what dating actually is.
Dating is messy. It can be frustrating. It can be ridiculous. And it can be pretty darn fun.
I would also like to suggest that some Christians too often discredit personal experience. That attitude seems to dishonor the work of the Holy Spirit in and through a Christ-follower’s life. Like dating, or like marriage really, truth and experience are united in an imperfect, untidily journey together. I believe that the Bible was mostly written from that context, which is not to suggest that experience trumps the Bible or that the Bible should not be Christianity’s universal guiding text. Biblical interpretation, on the other hand . . . well, that is another subject. Again.
For now, let us focus back on the original question. How do we encourage singles?
Actually, let me also note that there are equivocally numerous books and articles already written that address this subject. I do not really feel like chiming in because most of what needs to be communicated has already been communicated. Not to mention that the subject is an ambivalent one at that, and I am undecided as to whether the Apostle Paul helps or just compounds the issue with his blatant affirmation of independence from romance. Also, we cannot forget that Jesus was single.
Rather, the most important message that I wish to affirm when it comes to encouraging singles—or anyone, really—is that each person has a unique story. Discard all that I previously wrote if it means you are now paying attention.
A Story for Stories
With a human story comes a mass of subjective complexity: emotional scars, physical scars, heavy burdens on the spirit, incredible defenses around the heart, hopes, despair, bitterness . . . The list is endless. There are common threads, but the important truth to remember is that each person needs to receive love and to give love. Each person desires intimacy. What that means for each individual may vary, but without some form of intimacy the human life is empty.
Healing is essential. But where does healing come from?
Jesus Christ offers the clearest of answers.
Love is essential. But where does love come from?
Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is the definitive starting place. He offers us unmitigated, gracious, unceasing love. He offers us healing. Each of us only needs to acknowledge him to receive it: acknowledge that I am helpless without him; that without his guidance I will just fall again and again—for the rest of my life. That he is flawless. That he is selfless. That he is powerful. That I need the intimate relationship that he offers if I am to even begin to hope that truth and love can be shared with another human being.
From that attitude of repentant humility, I am called by Jesus to be filled with the Holy Spirit of his truth and love, to let it fill my heart and overflow to others. Not only do I need the truth in love given to me by God through Jesus, and to give it, but for some uncertain reason I also need it from others—beyond what just God can give (Genesis 2:18). It is a multi-directional offering. It is about serving one another. It is about relationship—with a family member, with a trusted friend, with a spouse. With anyone.
Singles need love. Singles need relationship.
Just like everyone else.
Soli deo Gloria.
And has anyone actually ever heard of "flirtexting" anyway?