I often hear a lot of different opinions on the meaning and importance of Christian dating. I rarely hear much about "courting". That seems like such an archaic word to me. But could one be more biblical than the other?
Before we begin let me state that I understand that many people might think this is an argument of semantics and that these words can mean different things to different people, which is very true, but I would like to try to expose what is behind some of these words as best I can. I also recognize that strictly speaking dating and courtship are not biblical. They are modern culturally relevant means in which to pursue romance. But I believe our understanding of these things can be more or less rooted in biblical principles.
Now, let's begin with a working definition of courtship. Courtship ordinarily begins when a single man approaches a single woman by going through the woman's father, and then conducts his relationship with a woman under the authority of her father, family, or church, whichever is most appropriate. Courtship always has marriage as it's direct goal.
What then is dating? Dating (a working definition) is a more modern approach, again when either the man or the woman initiates a "more than friends" relationship with each other, and then they conduct that relationship outside of any oversight or authority. Dating may or or may not have marriage as its goal.
So what are the differences between courtship and dating? I would like to propose three main differences:
Differences in Motives:
Dating tends to have one primary motive; self. What can this relationship do for me? How can I gain from this? Many times this is also seen through a sexualized lens, and often sexual criteria is used, overtly or subtly, when making decisions to either enter or continue a dating relationship. And while in the church (hopefully) the overtly sexualized component of decision making is removed when dating, these selfish lenses are often still prominent and even primary when Christians make decisions about how to involve themselves romantically.
Not so when seeing romance through the lens of the Scriptures. Courtship (as I am using the term here) typically has one motive: to find a spouse to partner with to the glory of God. Courtship is the process in which two Christians will discern if this particular partnership is desirable and effective for God. This motive is not in view of romance in the world. Many times marriage is not a goal at all to romantic relationships in the world.
The explicit motive and direction of Christian courtship (or dating if you want to call it that) is to pursue marriage in the Lord. Some practical advice to single Christians is; if you don't see yourself being a happily (and spiritually) married man or woman within a year or so, you are probably not ready to date. The truth is many times single Christians enter into exclusive dating relationships not because they are seriously pursuing marriage, but because they selfishly enjoy the feeling of having someone pay attention to them, or perhaps are simply afraid of the idea of being alone. These are not the right motives in the Lord.
Differences in Mindsets:
"How do I know if I have found the one?" This is often a question I hear, and one that most (if not all) young people spend much of their time and energy fretting over. But what is the unspoken ending to that question? ... "For me." When asking the question "How do I know if I have found the one for me?" we considered things such as; Will this person make me happy? Will this relationship meet my needs? How do they look? What is the chemistry like? Is this person the best that I can do? etc. This type of thinking is a fundamentally selfish starting point when looking at love, romance, and dating, but we know from the Scriptures that Godly love is not primarily selfish (1 Cor 13:1-4).
Have you ever found yourself in a relationship, or even contemplating a relationship, wondering if something better might come along just around the corner? This is not the mindset of Godly courtship. A worldly mindset asks, "how can I find the one for me?", while a Godly and biblical mindset asks, "how can I be the one for them?".
Differences in Methods:
This is where the rubber tends to meet the road. In modern worldly dating intimacy precedes commitment. From a biblical worldview, commitment precedes intimacy, for there is to be not even a hint of sexual immorality among God's people (c.f. Eph 5:3). According to the world, the best way to figure out if you are "compatible" with one another is to "kick the tires", which typically translates to "sexual compatibility" (as if there even was such a thing), God made sexual compatibility when he made them male and female (Gen 1:27), anything else beyond this is a worldly notion that always leads to disappointment. Believe it or not this thinking creeps into the church as well as I have heard of young couples who are pursuing marriage being counseled by older married Christians to "fool around" with each other sexually to make sure they are "compatible". Please, if you are having problems with your sexual intimacy in your marriage, please don't take it out on some young unmarried couple by telling them to sin. This not only unscriptural, but in no uncertain terms it is from the evil one who wants to kill, steal, and destroy (c.f Jn 10:10).
Let me dispel a myth at this point: sex is not as Hollywood wants us to think it is. This euphoric bliss of erotic and emotional passion that magically and mysteriously falls into place after the first kiss 23 minutes after meeting each other is a lie. A bold, emblazoned, charming, lie. Sex, like every other part of life and relationships takes work, mutual sacrifice, genuine compromise, and perseverance. The world thinks that when the sexual component of a relationship grows stale, then they must no longer really be in "love" and its time to move on to the next thing. I for one, am really glad that God does not treat me like that, for God is love (1 Jn 4:8).
The worlds way (often found in the church as well) of figuring out if you want to be with a person is to act like you are married and see if you like it. Spend large amounts of time alone together. Become each other's primary emotional confidantes. Share your deepest secrets and desires. Get to know that person better than anyone else in your life. Grow your physical intimacy and intensity on the same track as your emotional intimacy. What you do and say together is private and is no one else's business, and since the relationship is private, you need not submit to anyone else's authority or be accountable. And if this pseudo-marriage works for both of you, then get married. But if one or both of you do not like how it is going, go ahead and break up, even if it means going through something like an emotional and probably physical divorce. In this self-centered process of dating we want as much information as possible to ensure that the "right" decision is being made. And if we enjoy a little physical or emotional comfort along the way, great.
That is not God's plan. God's plan is that young men would treat younger women as sisters with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:2) and that they would show leadership and willingness to bear the risk of rejection by defining the nature and the pace of the relationship. There should be no physical intimacy outside the context of marriage (what I'm defining as "any physical intimacy" is that born out of an unrighteous, impure, or lustful motive - a good litmus test can be, "Would I feel comfortable doing this physical act with my mother or father?") and the couple should seek accountability for the spiritual health and progress of the relationship, as well as for their physical and emotional intimacy. This includes the topics, manner, and frequency of conversation as well as the amounts of time spent with one another. Within this method both parties should seek to find out before God, whether they should be married and whether they can serve and honor God better together than apart. A man should not treat a woman like his wife who is not his wife, and a woman should not treat a man like her husband who is not her husband. Ask yourself, "Am I interacting with this person in a way that I would be happy for other men (or women) to interact with them"? If you do not end up married, you don't want that person to marry someone else having been emotionally and/or physically marred by you because of your selfishness ... we are all "damaged goods", but let us not add to the damage.
Worldly "dating" is one that is primarily self-focused, while biblical "courtship" is primarily God and other-focused. Obviously you can see why God's methods are far less popular because it demands our humble submission and sacrifice, and yet, almost paradoxically, it is what yields the most loving, fulfilling, meaningful, and satisfying marriages and lives.
*Excerpts taken from: Sex and the Supremacy of Christ by John Piper & Justin Taylor
Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris
Wild at Heart by John Eldredge
Captivating by John & Stasi Eldredge