Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ditching Dating

Few topics in the church cause as much angst as parenting and few topics turn ugly quite as quickly. Parenting is almost universally considered to be one of the highest callings in the church and many parents are hypersensitive to any suggestion that they way they parent is "the wrong way" because it is seen, and sometimes intended, as a suggestion of being unfaithful in that calling. It is a minefield and so many times we just avoid the conversation because many of us have seen the way things get out of hand. All you need to do is read a widely disseminated blog when it talks about homeschool vs. public school. Anyway, that doesn't change the reality that being Christians and parents at the same time is fraught with peril, bad advice and overwhelming influence from the culture and the world and because of that we need to think about and work through these issues. I don't think it is loving to just shrug our shoulders and assume that every parenting choice is value neutral. There is no silver bullet in parenting but when it comes to raising children I think the Scriptures give us guidelines on how we should approach topics like education, discipline and dating. My post today has to do with dating, something that I am unequivocally and unapologetically opposed to.

I made this comment during a Facebook discussion on the topic of dating today, a conversation that was triggered by a somewhat tongue in cheek post titled So You Want To Date My Daughter? ...

I wasn't a Christian until I was around 30 and I absolutely would not want my daughters dating anyone who was like me when I was young. Did I turn out alright? I think so but I certainly carry a lot of baggage around from those days, baggage that impacts my marriage to this day. I don't believe in having my daughters dating guys that are not in a place where they are thinking about marriage in the hopes that they will settle down and grow up. I know lots of young men who are in their early twenties and are marriage minded now. If one of them is interested in one of my daughters then I would love to have a conversation with him. If they are not in a place where they are ready for marriage, they need to look elsewhere. I am not a believer in dating for the sake of dating.

I am dead serious that I would not want nor will I permit my daughters to date someone who is like me when I was their age. That is a harsh reality check for me to write as someone who has always had a pretty high opinion of myself. When I was in my teens and early twenties I was someone I don't care much for now. Even though I was dating and then married to my wife during most of that time I wasn't the sort of guy that my daughters should seek out as spouses. I think the post about "you want to date my daughter" raises some great points even if I don't agree with all of them or even the premise of dating in the first place. That doesn't mean locking your kids away until you find someone for them to marry but it does mean an intentionality in preparing your kids for marriage that goes beyond teaching them to date without being sexual active. That is part of it, a huge part of it, but the emotional toll of dating is every bit as real as the physical toll of being sexually active. Teaching our kids, especially our daughters, to guard their hearts is every bit as important as teaching them to guard their purity. 

How then should teens and even young adults interact with other teens and young adults of the opposite gender? Giving them some tools and then sending them out to "date" until they find someone they "fall in love with" to marry? I don't think so. Getting that emotionally involved with someone that is just a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" is a recipe for disaster. I don't think that dating and having your heart broken, getting over the break-up and then trying it again with the same eventual result until you finally find someone is a necessary life experience that prepares you for a successful marriage. Quite the opposite in fact. It teaches you that if you don't like the one you are with you can just move on and find someone better. The culture of sexual promiscuity and rampant divorce in our culture is not the result of parents not letting their children date. There must be a better way. Not a uniform, cookie cutter way but a different way.

These words seem foreign to our ears. That is not how things are done. Even in the church we simply modify the "date, fall in love, fall out love, break up, find someone new, repeat" cycle with some youth group activities and some moralistic teachings on abstinence. It is painfully obvious that the church culture utterly fails to prepare young people to find their spouse just as it utterly fails to equip them for the work of ministry. I would hazard a guess that many church going parents have had far more conversations and are more deeply involved in the decision about where their son or daughter is going to go to college than about who they will marry. I would also say that picking one college over another has almost no long term impact on a happy, God honoring life but who you marry is one of the most crucial decision any Christian who is called to marriage will ever make. Just look at a Christian couple you know that has been married 30, 40 or more years and you will see that God knew what He was doing when He made men and women in such a way that they rely on each other.

Your kids don't need to date in high school or even as a young adult. They don't need to "just get out there" and see what they find. There is nothing about the culture of casual or even serious serial dating that better prepares a young person for married life. Nothing. There is also not a black and white either-or dichotomy between keeping your daughters locked up in a closet until their wedding day and a free for all, hope the best approach. Let me be clear that I don't think that means a compromise with the culture. Setting an 11 o'clock curfew instead of midnight is not exactly what I mean. What I am talking about is setting forth clear guidelines to look for in a spouse. My daughters should look for men who are serious about the faith, serious about marriage and family and men who are starting to exhibit the characteristic of godliness. I don't expect a twenty year old to have a fully fleshed doctrine of family and marriage (although men and women used to accomplish more before their twentieth birthday than many of us do in our entire lives today thanks to the prolonged period of "adolescence" that excuses and encourages immaturity. Different soap box.) but they need to be growing in their faith. Likewise my sons need to be the sort of men that a Christian parent would want their daughter to marry. It is absolutely necessary that parents help create opportunities for their kids to get to know other kids of the opposite gender. That requires some work especially if your kids are homeschooled. We are struggling with this but that is our fault, not the fault of this principle. I would expect that any young man who is interested in one of my daughters would first speak to his own father and then to me before he approaches my daughter and that if my sons are interested in a young woman that they would first speak to me and then that young ladies father before approaching her.Most importantly, until a young person is ready to start looking for a marriage partner they have no compelling reason to be "dating" or courting. One on one exclusivity is something that there is plenty of time for when both parties are ready to get married. If one or both parties is not at that stage, why do they need to date? 

Of course not every Christian teen that dates is going to end up heartbroken and sexually active just as the opposite charge that Christian teens who grow up in a "strict" household are going to turn into wild sex crazed adults as a backlash against their repressive parents is not true. Ultimately the measuring stick is not pragmatism or even results. It is how we as parents should raise our children. Dating is completely absent from Scripture and is a fairly modern invention. Having a more permissive parenting culture has obviously not led to happier, better adjusted adults but any suggestion that perhaps it is unhealthy is met with scorn and often anger. There is a better way. It requires work and it requires patience but that comes with the territory of being a mom and a dad. The culture and the world don't have any say over how you raise your kids. You do. God gave these kids to you to raise. Not to the TV, not to the government or the schools or even the church. They are your calling, your ministry and outside of seeing them come to Christ as God wills there is nothing more important you can do for them than preparing them and guiding them in finding their lifelong spouse.


Jessica Auner said...

So our oldest is 8, and while I hope we have many years before that stage in the game we have talked to him about girls a bit and marriage and dating. Then a few weeks ago my best friend and Isaac's godmother relayed a conversation they had when she took him to a Jazz concert. He confied that there was a girl in his class that he really liked. She asked if Isaac was going to do anything about it and he said no. Knowing the girl Kysia then asked why not. Isaac said " I really like her and shes really smart and she's nice to me at recess but I don't know if that's who God has planned for me and I don't want to lead her on, besides I don't have a house yet so what would I do with her? I don't have anywhere to put her."
Ok so we have to work on the whole objectifying women literally thing but in that moment I was amazed and felt truly blessed. He's 8 and he got it. I have no idea how we will handle the dating thing, like you I did it and do not want our boys to participate in it at all, but other than that, I have no idea. But I do know this, for Isaac at least, I think we're on the right track.

Arthur Sido said...

I like the idea of having no where to put her, like she is a new sofa! He has the right idea though.

Arlan said...

Do you know older married couples who started their marriage "right"? I mean beyond not dating.

I am genuinely curious. I keep looking for people who got married the right way so I can say "See! That's how it's done!" but all I am finding are people who did it the wrong way. (My idea of right and wrong is going to be significantly different than yours here, but for the purposes of the question it doesn't matter.)

Everyone in my parent's generation seems to have fumbled their way into marriage and everyone in the generation before seems to have done it rather as a matter of shoe-shopping; a certain amount of good fit and aesthetic appeal is involved, but basically you need (shoes/wife) so you get (shoes/wife).

Don't get me started on the Old Testament! Abraham sent his servant to get a woman of the right ethnicity and Isaac married her on first sight. Ruth married a man probably old enough to be her father after a late night game of footsie (or something... not really clear on what the sneaking around a bunch of sleeping men and covering or uncovering feet was about). Abigail rode after David straightaway after her husband died and he married her on the spot. Esther won a beauty pageant. On and on...

Anyway for my part my conclusion has been getting more and more that the actual Biblical teaching is almost all about how to be married and not how to get married because the former is important and the latter is almost irrelevant. Obviously we are told not to enter marriage with an unbeliever but that after all is not nearly as much as most Christians think of for "right marriage." There is much ado about provision, expressly against some of Jesus' teaching, but in the main a lot of invented and self-comforting rules because the Bible doesn't say much.

It's disappointing, really. I'd rather a 12-step program.

But.. back to my question. How many marriages that have a decade or two behind them started out "right"? Not just sans-dating, but spiritually well-founded?

Debbie said...

I've thought for a long time that the cycle of dating, breaking up, and dating someone else is practice for divorce, not preparation for marriage.

Seth said...

I'm not sure my wife and I started off completely "right." And I wouldn't call myself an older married person (7 years today). But neither of us ever dated before we got married. Actually we never even dated each other, strait from friends to engaged. We've had ups and downs like any marriage, but no baggage and I'd have to say I'm happy with how it worked out.


Arthur Sido said...

Arlan, I don't know of many people my age that did it "the right way", although certainly there are a lot of people my age who didn't and have regrets about it. I do know quite a few couples in conservative Anabaptist circles that courted and married rather than dating and they seem to have happy marriages and kids that are well adjusted and well trained.

Now certainly being married the right way is the ultimate issue but it is unquestionable that getting married the right way helps that.

Arlan said...

I am no fan of casual dating or experimental relationships. I have never fit into anyone's definition of 'courtship' either. Courtship as I have known it is very man-authority based and I just can't find that in the New Covenant (and as I mentioned before, the Old Covenant example is by no means worth following).

I agree that sorrow and pain comes from a fractured relationship, but the Gospel priority doesn't seem to be on avoiding pain. Courtship programs seemed presented as guaranteed methods of avoiding heartbreak but it's not a guarantee backed by a promise of God.

Certainly, though, the contemporary dating model seems based only on self-pleasure, and as such is well outside the Gospel ethic.