The most important decision we will make, after salvation, is probably the decision of marriage. It affects every area and every day of life! God has given each one of us a natural desire for companionship, yet there are essential lessons we can learn from His Word that invite blessing into our lives, regardless of whether we are single or married. Even though we may not know if God has marriage in store for us, we can still learn to honor God’s design for marriage and establish Biblical standards of courtship early in life. But what exactly is courtship, and how is it different from dating?
Courtship, for a Christian, is a relationship between a man and a woman in which they seek to determine if it is God’s will for them to marry each other. Under the protection, guidance, and blessing of parents or mentors, the couple concentrates on developing a deeper friendship that could lead to marriage, as they discern both their readiness and God’s timing for such a marriage.
Courtship is a commitment to honor the Lord and each other as they seek God’s best, for His glory. The couple makes a decision to walk by faith, to trust in God, to honor others above themselves, and to believe that God will deal bountifully with them because He is love. (See II Corinthians 5:7, Psalm 9:10, Romans 12:10, Psalm 13, and I John 4:8.) By embracing the concept of courtship, a couple is making a declaration: “I entrust this vital decision about marriage to the Lord by seeking His guidance. I will refrain from manipulating situations or individuals to fulfill my desires, and instead, patiently wait upon the Lord’s plan for me. I surrender my right to my own will and submit to His will for my future.”
Dating, however, is more common in today’s society and usually involves cultivating a romantic interest in another person through conversations, electronic communications such as texts and emails, or activities, with a focus on immediate gratification. Couples who are dating typically do so without any expressed desire for long term commitment. Although dating is a relatively modern term, similar forms of relationships can be found throughout history. The practice of dating may carry various interpretations, but for the purpose of this article, we are speaking of casual dating relationships.
Casual dating, in this sense, appears to violate several Scriptural principles. First, the concept of dating is not supported by God’s Word. In fact, those in Scripture who entered into dating-type relationships often suffered severe consequences (David, Solomon, Samson). Second, the motive of casual dating typically opposes genuine love (giving to the others’ needs) by encouraging selfish aims (getting pleasure for oneself). The nature of casual dating is usually to have fun without the responsibilities of commitment. Even if someone is looking for a marriage partner through casual dating, he or she is often going from one relationship to another, basing their decisions primarily on their emotions and physical attraction instead of on the leading of the Lord.
Third, dating can have numerous destructive results, the greatest of which is the potential damage it can bring to our relationship with the Lord. Scripture exhorts the single person to focus on pleasing the Lord and the married person on pleasing the spouse (see I Corinthians 7:32–35). In dating, however, the attention of two people is often directed toward pleasing oneself or one another rather than on pleasing the Lord.
One of the greatest tragedies of our culture’s method of dating is the disloyalty and discontentment it breeds. Dating usually leads to young men and women becoming far too emotionally attached. All too often, young couples pair up and try to enjoy the privileges of marriage during years of singleness before they are ready for the commitment that should accompany marriage.
Once marriage does occur, the couple often no longer feels the need to focus on winning each other’s heart. The relationship begins to cool. Typically, the husband focuses on his job and the wife occupies herself with her own job, the children, or other activities. The couple may soon encounter the inevitable conflicts which result when one or both partners neglect the responsibilities of marriage. Through the deception of dating, Satan is often able to reduce the fruitfulness of one’s ministry both in singleness and in marriage!
A Different Purpose
As mentioned above, the main difference between casual dating and courtship involves the goals to be reached by spending time with a potential marriage partner. Men and women who choose to date often have no commitment to consider marrying the other person. Maturity and readiness for marriage are also not considerations in the decision to date. Instead, couples usually date with the goals of simply having fun and enjoying temporary romantic attachments.
In contrast, courtship is undertaken only when both parties are prepared to make a commitment to marriage. For most couples, dating answers the question, How can I find the one who will make me happy? However, should that question be the goal of the Christian? Courtship answers the more important questions we should be asking: How can I serve the Lord now and wait on Him and His timing for marriage? How can I honor God and discern His direction regarding my life partner? Who is the one God has chosen for me so that we can together do more for His Kingdom than we each could singly? Is this relationship bringing us closer to God or distracting us from our walk with Christ?
A Different Level of Accountability
In a dating relationship, there is little, if any, accountability for the couple and little or no interaction with family members. The dating couple is merely attracted to one another in some way and pursues an exclusive relationship that is likely independent of others’ influence or counsel. Since the boundaries of the relationship are self-determined, the couple may easily succumb to temptation and fail to consider their responsibility to honor each other in purity and genuine love. Often, “meeting the parents” is the last step of the relationship before entering into engagement or marriage.
A couple participating in courtship first seeks the blessing of their parents upon the courtship itself and then welcomes the accountability of their parents or other mentors as the courtship progresses. As the couple establishes guidelines for their relationship, they can more easily recognize that God also holds them responsible to honor one another. Receiving God’s grace and the support of others strengthens them, not only in maintaining their commitment to purity, but also in evaluating their values and other compatibility factors more objectively.
A Different Commitment to Purity
In a casual dating relationship, self-gratification is normally the basis of the relationship. Instead of focusing on God’s pleasure, the couple is often looking for personal pleasure. This self-centeredness can lead only to discontentment, as they attempt to meet their needs in their way rather than allowing God to meet the deepest needs of their heart.
Consequently, dating opens the door to many temptations. When temporary fun and enjoyment are the driving motivations behind dating, a couple can turn their focus to mental, emotional, and physical pleasures, quickly leading to the giving away of affections that should have been reserved for a life partner. Defrauding, or stirring up desires that cannot be righteously satisfied, can become a main component of the relationship, with intimacy frequently preceding commitment.
A couple practicing courtship can avert numerous temptations by choosing to be accountable to God-given authorities. The dangers of defrauding can be avoided more successfully, and an honest, open friendship can be nurtured and protected. As a couple deepens their relationship in unguarded ways, they may more easily “give away” their hearts to each other prematurely. If they have a dating mentality—having one relationship after another—the series of emotional attachments can be damaging, leaving scars and regrets that may affect their future marriage relationships. With courtship, you are better able to preserve your heart to be given to your life partner in God’s time. The couple can be encouraged to focus on the spiritual component of the relationship first. They can get to know one another in ways and places that afford protection from temptation, with a goal of commitment preceding intimacy.
A Different Focus
Since one of the most important decisions we will make is the decision of marriage, we should make every effort to know and do God’s will in this area. A dating relationship is usually based only on what the dating couple presently knows about each other. In contrast, a Biblical courtship is based on what God knows about each partner and on His plans for their futures.
Jesus gave this instruction with a promise: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). When a person makes a growing relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ the foundation of all decisions—as he or she seeks God’s Kingdom—God will provide all that is needed, including the marriage partner prepared by Him just for that person at the right time.
Common Courtship Questions
Is there only one method of courtship?
Because each individual, family, and set of circumstances is unique, each courtship will be unique. While those who choose courtship will hold to general guidelines for the relationship, their specific choices about when, where, and how to court may differ according to their needs and circumstances. The basic principles that are typically followed are a greater involvement of parents or counselors, a commitment to moral purity until marriage, and seeking God’s will in the decision of marriage.
What if my courtship “failed”?
If, during the courtship, one or both parties realize that marriage is not God’s will and they end the relationship, the courtship has not “failed.” On the contrary, the courtship was successful, because God gave the direction that was sought through the courtship process.
Although the termination of a courtship most likely will be painful, the damage and hurt which can lead to bitterness can be avoided. Both parties, as well as their families and all the people who love them, should continue to trust in the Lord and accept the grace He gives to deal with any disappointment or unfulfilled hopes. (See Romans 5:1–5.)
How can I start over?
What if you are now learning about courtship for the first time, after years of dating? Maybe you were in a relationship, even with another Christian, and you went beyond God’s standards of purity. What if you have been in several courtships but realize that you were still trusting in your plans or “formula” and not resting in the Lord and seeking Him with your whole heart?
Whatever your situation, you can know that God loves you and that He has a special plan for your life. He is less interested in “where you are” than in the “direction you are heading.” He is a God of mercy, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. He is the answer to every problem, question, doubt, and yes, sin. Jesus came to give “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).
Ask the Lord to show you where you have strayed from His will for your life. Repent, ask His forgiveness, and renew your commitment to follow Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Dedicate your body to Him as the temple of His Holy Spirit. We are promised in I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Purpose to give Him this area of your life and commit to the principles of courtship: a different purpose, a different level of accountability, a different commitment to purity, and a different focus. Focus single-mindedly on pleasing the Lord until He brings along the right life partner! “Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart” (Psalm 37:4).