When do I date? Who do I date? Is physical attraction important? Can I date a non-Christian? Can a girl ask a boy out? How long should I date? How far can we go? How do I know if he or she is the one?
The Bible doesn’t answer any of these questions directly. And that’s because dating is not a biblical category. It’s not in the Bible. If we stick strictly to biblical categories, you really only have two options. You can either throw the nearest single lady over your shoulders and take her home like the Benjaminites in Judges 21, or you can sneak into your crush’s threshing floor while he’s sleeping and lay at his feet like Ruth did in Ruth 3. Both proved effective, but somehow I don’t think either is going to fly in our current context. So where does that leave us?
Well, just because dating isn’t in the Bible doesn’t mean it is wrong. Dating is helpful. And the Bible does gives us wisdom for how to navigate it. This article won’t answer every question you have about dating, but hopefully it will provide a framework to guide your thinking.
What Dating Should Be
Let’s start with a working definition of what dating should be (not what it necessarily is). Here’s my working definition:
Datingis a culturally-determined means by which two single people figure out whether they want to marry each other.
Fundamental to this definition is that dating is a movement from singleness to marriage, rather than a state between them that exists in its own right. According to the Bible’s ethical categories, you can only inhabit two relationship states: you are either single or married.
Terminology is important here because in acknowledging that there are only two relational states, I’m not saying that we can’t identify multiple relational statuses or stages (e.g. dating, engagement, pre-dating, post-pre-dating, post-dating-pre-engagement, or whatever Facebook is touting these days). I’m merely pointing out that regardless of what labels you use, those labels will all fall into one of these two relational states.
The movement from singleness to marriage differs from culture to culture. Back in Ye Olde Bible Times, your parents chose your spouse for you (for example, Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24). You might have some say in the matter, but ultimately it was out of your hands, and the transition was usually relatively swift.
Today, in a Western culture influenced by individualism and personal freedom, you choose for yourself, and the shift from singleness to marriage can take a long time. After the obligatory two weeks of Facebook stalking, you might spend three months trying to figure out whether he likes you, and then, if you even get into a relationship, you end up dating for, like, six years, because someone told you it was necessary to save up for a big wedding and a house deposit before you even get engaged.
Because of this, dating (a relationship status) has transformed into a third relationship state that exists between singleness and marriage, a state which the Bible never entertains.
As I mentioned above, this doesn’t void the cultural practice of dating. But it does call for biblical wisdom in how we practise it. And when we bring to bear the Bible’s two-category view on dating, two key principles emerge.
Principle #1: When I date, my intention is marriage
This doesn’t mean that the dating process will necessarily end in marriage. Sometimes we figure out we don’t want to marry someone—or vice versa. But we aren’t in it just to have a good time, or for the Disney dream of self-fulfilling romance. We’re in it because we are pursuing a sacrificial relationship that reflects the relationship that Jesus has with his church. And this means two very important things.
First, it determines when we date. Date when you’re ready to get married. You don’t date because everyone else is doing it, or because you’re lonely, or because someone is making you feel things you’ve never felt before. Those things might be happening, but they aren’t the reason you start dating. Start dating when you’re actually prepared to get married.
Second, it determines who we date. You should date a godly Christian. Why? Because that’s who the Bible tells us to marry.
In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul says not to be yoked with unbelievers. To be clear, he isn’t specifically talking about marriage, but the principle applies. Paul asks:
What fellowship does light have with darkness?
What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?
If you are serious about building a Christ-centred, God-honouring marriage, what makes you think you can do that with someone who doesn’t follow Jesus?
If you want one sure-fire way to lose your faith, then date a non-Christian. So aim higher. Don’t settle or be short-sighted. Find a godly Christian man or woman whose faith and example encourages your own. No matter what pain you may feel in your singleness, you are better off single and saved than dating and dead. However much you love her, whatever promises he makes, the fallout lasts for an eternity.
Principle #2: When I date, I remember I am still single
This means the most important thing for Christian dating is godliness.
When you date, you’re exploring the possibility of a sexually intimate, life-long, romantic union. There is romance in dating. And emotions. And hormones. And that means an increased danger to sin before we’re married. If we aren’t clear on our single status, then we’ll start to think that we have certain privileges, usually physical, that we just don’t have. Until you say “I do”, your boyfriend is a brother, not a lover, and your girlfriend is a sister to treat with all purity rather than for personal gratification (cf. 1 Tim 5:2).
Your task when you date is to help guard your boyfriend or girlfriend’s purity for their wedding day, whether or not it’s you they end up marrying. Until you make your vows, you can’t be certain of marriage. One of my friends has a fiancé who pulled out three weeks before their wedding. She didn’t see it coming. Thank God she was godly.
So the question, “how far can we go?” is the wrong question to ask. Your priority is clarity, not intimacy. Intimacy is for marriage; clarity is for dating and needs to be cultivated and protected. The sooner you start touching each other, the quicker any objectivity goes out the window. Your emotions will cloud your judgment. This doesn’t mean you can’t grow in emotional closeness, nor does it mean you can’t hold hands. But it does mean: be wise, set boundaries, be accountable to someone outside your relationship—establish safeguards to promote clarity and protect purity.
So, ask yourself: am I dating well?
It’s easy to let our culture dictate how we date, which is why we need to ensure these two principles frame our thinking and behaviour. None of us will follow them perfectly, of course, and when we lapse into selfishness and lose sight of this biblical vision we will need to repent: first to God, and then to the one we’re dating.
In some cases, we
may need to reassess whether we’re ready to be dating. But usually we can
continue in God’s grace, seeking to let these principles shape our attitude and
behaviour. And when we do, we will pursue relationships in a godly and
wholesome way, and—if the Lord wills—find one that lasts a lifetime.
 Josh Mulvihill, Preparing Children for Marriage: How to Teach God’s Good Design for Marriage, Sex, Purity, and Dating (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2017), 201–2.
 The Bible actually acknowledges a number of statuses, but all boil down to either single (including unmarried, widowed, legitimate divorce, and certain forms of betrothal [as in 1 Cor 7:36-38]) or married (including illegitimate divorce, and other forms of betrothal [as in Matthew 1:18-19]).