See this sign right here? It’s for real on the campus of Seminary. Would you ever see anything like this in any other type of place? I can’t think of one. Where did they even get the “please” signs from? How much extra effort did it take to order them and put them up there? This isn’t the only sign like this on campus. Aren’t we Christians so polite?
That would be the question, it seems. Some weeks ago, the Matchmaker wanted to know whether or not dating Christians treat each other any differently than those who aren’t (Christians, I mean–everybody in the question is dating). I posed the question here, and a bunch of you answered and the Matchmaker felt like you were maybe evading his question, and I argued that no, we Evangelicals just have weird, quirky ways of thinking about things, and if he really wanted to discuss this why didn’t he start commenting on my blog, too, for goodness’ sake, but then I thought I wanted to talk about his question some more, because I think what it really was, in spite of the “How would Jesus date?” framing, was, “Are Christians kinder to each other when dating than other daters are?” Maybe he feels that kindness-in-dating should be a byproduct among people who believe that God came down here in person and in kindness and are supposedly trying to live our lives His way (or maybe he’s just trying to figure out why, in spite of my best efforts, I seem to be more drawn to heathens). I guess that expectation might not be totally unreasonable.
I can’t really speak for everybody else here, but my own personal answer would be: Certain specific individual Christians are exceptional in their kindness and other-focused-ness, but it has not been my experience in every case or maybe even most cases. I would even venture to admit that I myself have not been overly exceptional in this regard. I think there are probably a lot of reasons for this, but here’s one:
Here’s the thing. There may be some variations on how dating goes within the secular culture, but in this day of “we weren’t even alive to witness the sexual revolution so all we know is the aftermath,” most secular dating seems to assume that sex is going to happen, sooner rather than later. If abstinence happens at all (and I feel okay about using the word “happens,” because honestly, it’s a lot of work), it’s because of wanting the sex to “mean something,” but there aren’t these glitches in the process (and I suspect the consciences of most people) that come from waiting until marriage because of some kind of religious scruples or something. Even if many people buy into a romantic ideal of finding “the one” person to spend the rest of their lives with, there isn’t an assumption of there being a “one” person that you’re going to exclusively spend all your sexual energy on for your entire life. I suspect, in a way, this mindset takes a lot of pressure off, because you can have the physical fun, not only without the commitment, but without having to figure out if the other person is worth the commitment, or even if you are at this point, or if you’re compatible really, or not. Or you can figure that out while you’re having sex. Supposedly. Things may get confusing, but they don’t have to start out that way. In my limited experience and also somewhat limited hearsay, there are certain “kindnesses” and affirmations that are offered at the beginning of a relationship which may just be an overture for something else that you hope to get out of it not too much later, but at least there’s something of a code, and the kindness offered isn’t necessarily hypocritical, even if it’s also pragmatic.
Enter the Christian subculture. We’re confused from the get-go. Scripturally and traditionally (and according to traditional interpretations of Scripture), we hold and are taught that sex is meant for context of marriage and marriage alone. Not before, not with someone other than your spouse during–just marriage.
But here’s the deal. We live on this side of the sexual revolution, too, and it really goes without saying that our subculture is affected by our super-culture, if you will. What this means is there are a whole lot of conflicting rules that everybody’s living by, and it’s tough to know who’s living by which. When you get to be the age I just turned on Sunday, you’re dangerously close to People-Making-Movie-Comedies-Out-of-Your-Sexual-Status if you’re still waiting. Most single people in my age bracket haven’t always been that way, so they’ve had sex already, and although I can’t say this with any sort of authority, my guess is chances are good they weren’t abstaining before their erstwhile marriages either. This is not a value-laden statement–just a guess at facts.
There is a pretty widespread mindset in both Christian and non-Christian spheres that the validity for sex has more to do with age and emotional readiness than with marital status. In the Christian world this is justified by the fact that all the “rules” about chastity were written in a culture where people got married a lot closer to puberty so there weren’t all these single people milling around into their 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. Nobody really expects you to go without sex that long. It’s just not healthy. All that stuff they tell you in youth group about how your virginity is the best gift you can give your husband is bunk by the time you reach late young-adulthood and early middle-age; most people would prefer someone with a little experience, and would prefer to have had some experience themselves.
I know this, because I’ve had it all said to me, and I’ve thought it myself, and sometimes I’m tempted to agree with it. But I don’t actually agree with it, and though I frequently get a little hacked at God for what seems like a divine hold-out for no good reason, I still think there’s godly sex and not, and that while not all marital sex may be godly (though it should be, and good grief, married people–don’t you know a good thing when you’ve got it?! Yes, I’m being simplistic here, and I know, I know, but here’s a single-never-married person’s confession of what I sometimes feel like when I hear married people complaining about their spouses), I don’t believe that “unmarital sex,” no matter how “good” it is, ever is godly.
Also, for the record, I would like to hypothesise that if we actually heeded the injunction to marry so as not to “burn,” and stopped absorbing the surrounding cultural mores about dating being an end in itself, and about some magical “one” that we’re waiting to marry, and about marriage’s sole aim being our personal happiness (instead of a covenant God-serving relationship which is ALSO supposed to be joyous and . . . heck–fun), there probably wouldn’t be so many Christian singles, at least, in their 30’s and 40’s and 50’s trying to make excuses for ourselves to have sex without being married.
What’s more, although I believe us to be such a minority I’m not sure I even know any single people (men, anyway) who agree with me that even 30 and 40 and 50-year-olds should practice abstinence outside of marriage, I think there still are some.
The point is, though, that everybody comes to the table with different expectations. How these competing standards and expectations complicate Christian dating is manifold, no doubt, but one of the ways is that . . . it makes many of us act like we’re still in junior high. I mean, me. Lately, and more than once, I have been told that I am awkward, which is true across the board (although I’m getting a little sick of being reminded of it). But I’m not the only one. How are we Christians supposed to comport ourselves when we’re dating? Is it appropriate or inappropriate to affirm our date’s appearance? When does a compliment cross the line? When (about seven years ago), a date of mine put his hand on my knee in the car on the way to a concert, was he wrong, or was I when I inadvertently flinched? Does the fact that none of my dates had ever touched me before that point excuse me, and what does that fact say about Christian dating? Is that kinder, or less kind?
How do you find out, if you’re a Christian, whether the Christian you’re dating believes that the sole purpose of dating is to find a someone to marry, and how do you find out what marriage means to them? How do you find out, without misstepping, whether the Christian you’re dating is old-school like me and committed to the idea of “saving sex until marriage,” or someone who would rather “test-drive the car.” (A phrase, by the way, which I frankly think is appalling and which also, from my perspective, says it all.)
What ends up happening are missteps aplenty, and misunderstandings, and people holding back on expressing interest because they’re afraid of what they’ll unleash–premarital sex on the one hand, or a commitment before both parties are ready on the other. It’s enough to make anyone grumpy . . . and not always very kind.
I don’t imagine I can, nor do I intend to try to, sort out this issue, but as someone who believes the ultimate reason for Christian dating is Christian covenant marriage, and ideally really good sex within that marriage, it seems to me that those of us trying to follow Christ in our dating should work on the injunctions to husbands and wives in Ephesians. There are ways we can show love and respect to each other in a premarital context without sex–we can build each other up and encourage each other without sex. I wonder what would happen if the question asked earlier got turned around. Not, “How would Jesus date,” but (dare I say it?) “How would I date Jesus?” It might change our approaches a little bit, I reckon. Well, it might change mine . . .