Sex and the Single Man
Desiring God 2004 National Conference
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ
This message appears as a chapter in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.
American men are spending a greater percentage of their lives single. There are many reasons for this, including divorce and longer life spans. Yet more and more men are also choosing to delay marriage. The median age at first marriage for a man has risen sharply from a low of just under 23 in 1960 to its current high of over 27 in 2004 (U.S. Census Bureau, “Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1890–Present,” http://www.census.gov).
This lengthened period of singleness brings great challenges to Christian men as they seek to live for the glory of Jesus Christ. In this chapter, we will consider a theological foundation for sex, some practical reflections on physical intimacy, and then suggestions for a biblical relationship between a man and a woman prior to marriage.
The first thing to say about sex and the single man is, there should be none! If you are not married, the Bible clearly teaches that you should refrain from any sexual contact. Sex should not be experienced outside of marriage.
Sadly, heeding the Bible’s instruction is becoming more and more of a problem in our day, not only because people are marrying later, but because our culture values marriage less and less. A recent Associated Press report said that people decreasingly view “marriage” as an indicator of adulthood. Researchers have
found that completing an education was most valued with 73 percent of those surveyed calling it an “extremely important” step in achieving adulthood.
The remainder of the transitions followed: being employed fulltime, 61 percent; supporting a family, 60 percent; being financially independent, 47 percent; living independently of parents, 29 percent; and being married, 19 percent . . .
Those younger than 30 were the least likely to rank being married or having children as important criteria for being an adult.
Grant Lammersen, a 27-year-old San Franciscan, said it’s true that his generation feels less pressure to get married and have kids — perhaps, he said, because so many of their parents are divorced.
“I don’t think those factors are important in defining yourself as an adult,” said Lammersen, who is single and works in commercial real estate.
When it comes to marriage and even buying a house, he said, “There’s more of an attitude that ‘It’ll happen when it happens.’” (Martha Irvine, “New Survey Says Americans Put Adulthood at Age 26,” Associated Press, Chicago, May 8, 2003)
If you are a single man, it is worth asking yourself, do you have an “It’ll happen when it happens” attitude? Is this a Christian attitude? Is it indicative of what God calls Christian men to be?
Of course, not all unmarried men are single for the same reason, or have the same outlook on their singleness. Some men have been married, but in God’s mysterious providence, either through death or divorce, they are now single again. If this describes you, you may thank God that he has given you whatever joys you have known through marriage in the past. You may be content in being single again, or you may desire to remarry. And of course, biblically, you may or may not be free to remarry.
Other single men have never been married, and some of these men have been called to a life of singleness (1 Corinthians 7:7-8). If this describes you, we praise God for you and your selfless service, and we pray that your local church is serving as your family. Other single men have never been married, but they want to marry. Every such man’s calling now is to remain sexually pure, to grow in godliness, and to actively pursue marriage. If you desire to be married, do not just wait until it “happens.” Your role is not passive. If you are not called to celibacy, get married!
Of course, the desire to be married is no guarantee that it will happen. And for that, I have no great answer. If you find that your efforts toward marriage remain unfulfilled, I can simply tell you that we have a loving God, and that he calls us all to be fruitful in whatever state we are in right now. We are to serve him with whatever he gives us: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10, NIV).
“If you are not called to celibacy, get married!” Tweet
Ultimately, our object of satisfaction — whether single or married — should not be our spouse; it should be Christ. There will be no single Christians in heaven. It says in Revelation, “One . . . spoke to me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God” (21:9-11). Christian reader, we will all be married to Christ on that day! In the meantime, single men must learn to live out their sexuality in a way that prepares them for that ultimate wedding day.
A Theology of Sex
As we explore the topic of sex and the single man, we need to begin by establishing a theology of sex. Now, when you think of sex, theology is probably not the next thing that comes to mind. Morality might come to mind, or a list of do’s and don’ts. After all, sex is an activity, and whether you are a Christian or not, your sexual activity is going to be governed by some set of moral rules. As we have already said, the biblical standard for your sexual behavior is that sexual intercourse is reserved for the marriage relationship that exists exclusively between one man and one woman so long as they both live (see Genesis 2:24; Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 20:10; Mark 10:6-12; 1 Corinthians 6:12–7:9).
The problem is not that men — whether single or married, Christian or non-Christian — do not understand this standard or are unaware of it. The problem is that too many of us do not live up to it. Why? Well, on the one hand, our culture finds this standard hopelessly antiquated and unreasonable, and many of us have been influenced by our culture. Our culture reasons that such restrictions on personal pleasure and freedom might have made sense before the advent of birth control or the ability of women to support children on their own.
In those days, sex was the prize that women controlled, and the only way to win it was through the commitment of marriage. A quid pro quo was in place: the privilege of sex in return for the promise to provide and protect. But in our day and age, the argument runs, why should sex be quarantined on the reservation of marriage? The ill effects of sex outside of marriage can be dealt with painlessly, so why should two consenting adults not feel free to enjoy something that is obviously pleasurable and good? Besides, it’s cheaper than dinner and a movie, and loads more fun.
On the other hand, our bodies agree with our culture’s assessment. So even as Christian men, we engage in all sorts of physical intimacy with women, from “making out” to “hooking up” and everything in between. Often, we justify our sexual activity on the basis of the commitment level of the relationship. The more commitment that is present in the relationship, the more sexually involved we allow ourselves to be. One of the most common things I hear in pre-marriage counseling is couples saying they managed to refrain from physical activity until they got engaged. At that point, all the internal restraint they had felt suddenly disappeared, and they found themselves struggling — sometimes failing — to stay out of bed.
Have we misunderstood God’s standard? Does increasing commitment legitimize increasing levels of sexual intimacy even outside of marriage?
This is precisely where a theology of sex becomes important, and a theology of sex requires far more than a list of do’s and don’ts. As it turns out, sex is not the arbitrary reward you get for getting married, and sexual intimacy is not tied to a sliding scale of commitment. Rather, sex has a God-given theological meaning and purpose that transcends “my” experience and opinions about it.
According to the first chapter of Genesis, God created men and women in his own image. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). What this means is spelled out in the following verses. Like God, men and women are to exercise dominion over the earth; they are to be creative as they bring order and productivity to God’s creation. They are also to live in fruitful relationship with one another. This is the clear implication of God’s command to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28, NIV).
The point is made even more explicitly in Genesis 2. In the middle of God’s perfect creation, God plants a garden, literally a paradise (verses 1-14). Then God places the man he has made in this paradise of paradises and gives him a task (verse 15). He commands the man to tend and protect this garden. Almost immediately after he gives the man this basic calling for his life, God declares for the first time that something is not good: It is not good for the man to be alone (verse 18). So God creates woman and brings her to the man. And the man is no longer alone. Adam takes one look at Eve and says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). We then learn that we are witnessing the first marriage, as Adam and Eve are united and become one flesh (verse 24).
The Bible teaches us that marriage is a covenant that establishes a relationship between a man and a woman who have no natural obligations to each other, as a parent and child have, but who voluntarily take on the permanent obligations and commitments of a family relationship. Before two individuals marry, they are not related; they are not one flesh. But in marriage, those two individuals voluntarily become related in a union so close, intimate, and permanent, that the only language for it is the language of the family, the language of flesh and blood.
Our ability to form this kind of covenant relationship is part of what it means to be created in the image of God. Just as Christ is united to his people in such a way that he is the head and the church is his body (Ephesians 5:23, 30), so God created us to reflect his image as we relate to another person in a covenantal one-flesh union. To be one flesh does not mean to become one person. A husband and wife remain distinct people. But it does mean that as a result of the covenant of marriage, a husband now relates to his wife as if she were a part of his own body, caring for her and protecting her just as he cares for and protects himself.
Now if marriage is a covenant, then that covenant must have a sign, something that makes visible the invisible reality of this one-flesh union. This is the way all covenants work in the Bible. When God covenants with all of creation not to destroy the world again by flood, he puts the rainbow in the sky as a sign. When God covenants with repenting sinners in the New Covenant, he gives us the sign of baptism, in which he visibly portrays the invisible reality of our being buried with Christ, being cleansed from sin, and being raised to newness of life in Christ. And so it is with the covenant of marriage. Once married, a man relates to every other woman in the world as if she were his sister or his mother — people you do not have sex with. He relates to this one woman as his wife, uniting to her in a one-flesh relationship of mutual love, loyalty, and intimacy. The sign of that unique covenant relationship is the physical act of becoming one flesh in sexual intercourse.
What this means is that the intimacy and pleasure of sex is not the reward we receive for getting married. That would be like saying baptism is the reward we receive for becoming a Christian. No, sex is the sign of the marriage covenant itself. And to engage in sex is to call God as witness to hold us accountable for our covenantal commitment. So regardless of whether it makes sense to our culture or to our bodies to reserve sex for marriage, and regardless of whatever lesser commitments we have made to a woman, as Christians we must realize that having sex outside of marriage makes a mockery of the covenant God instituted and to which he is witness.
The rest of this chapter will be spent explaining what this means for men, and specifically for single men. But let me make two observations at the outset.
Sexual Intimacy and Relational Commitment
To begin with, as I mentioned above, many assume that sexual intimacy and relational commitment are connected on a sliding scale, in which the greater the commitment, the greater the liberty a couple has to engage in physical intimacy. You can see this in Fig. 6.1, “Typical Slope of Physical Intimacy,” where the slope of intimacy gradually increases from no physical intimacy all the way to intercourse as commitment levels increase from no commitment to the ultimate commitment of marriage. Of course, Christians are more likely to follow the lower dotted line, in which intimacy is delayed longer. And these days, non-Christians are more likely to move much more quickly to intimacy, as the top dotted line indicates.
Yet if sexual intimacy is the sign of the marriage covenant itself, rather than the reward for increasing levels of commitment, then the graph should look more like Fig. 6.2, “Biblical Slope of Physical Intimacy,” in which the line moves in one big step, from the physical intimacy that is appropriate with a sister/mother to the physical intimacy that is appropriate with a wife. After all, every woman a man is in relationship with is either one or the other. Biblically speaking, there is no inbetween area here, where a woman is sort-of-a-sister, or sort-of-a-wife.
Now I expect some readers are wondering, “Are you saying couples should refrain from kissing or holding hands until married?” I am not trying to draw a new set of boundaries that should not be crossed. That misses the point. Rather, I am suggesting that all of us need to rethink the purpose and meaning of physical intimacy between a man and a woman, and I think the best way I can make this point is to look at it practically, from the other side of the marriage vows. All of the things that dating couples engage in physically, short of intercourse, married couples engage in too. The only difference is that the married couple has a name for this activity. They call it foreplay. So while the unmarried couple console themselves by saying, “This is okay, because it is not sex,” the married couple says, “This is great, because it is part of sex.”
The fact is, God not only created sexual intercourse, he created all the things that lead up to sexual intercourse too. And they are all linked together. Foreplay is a one-way on-ramp onto the highway of sexual intercourse. In our cars, we are not meant to slow down on an on-ramp, and we are not meant to go backwards. That is not what on-ramps are designed for. They are meant to get the car up to speed. So it is with foreplay. God designed foreplay to get a man and a woman up to speed. And it works. So if you are not married, what are you doing on the on-ramp? It is not meant to be a place where you hang out in idle, revving your engines, but not going anywhere.
The other issue I want to briefly touch on is masturbation. This is an issue many men deal with, and the theology we have laid out addresses it. Many single men think of masturbation as an outlet for pent-up sexual desires, and they assume this issue will fall away once they get married. Many men also assuage their consciences by telling themselves that the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns masturbation. Well, it is true the Bible does not speak directly to masturbation. But it does speak to some other things.
First, it teaches that lust is wrong (Matthew 5:27-30). Does a man masturbate without lust? Second, as we have seen, the Bible teaches that the sexual act is not meant to be experienced alone or for selfish reasons. It is meant to bind a man to his wife in a covenant relationship, so that every time they have sex they renew that covenant. Masturbation perverts God’s covenant-making andrenewing intent. It teaches people mentally, physically, and emotionally to satisfy themselves. This is why marriage does not solve the problem of masturbation. Masturbation is easier than sex with one’s wife, because it is not really about sex. It is about a man’s lazy, self-centered desire to satisfy himself, rather than give himself to and for his wife.
Masturbation is as lazy as it is self-centered. Tweet
How much better to reserve physical intimacy for the place and context for which God designed it: as the sign of the covenant relationship God has established between a man and his wife. Inside marriage, sex is like a good steak dinner. It not only tastes good, but it is good for you and builds up a marriage. Outside of marriage, sex is like candy. It may taste good, but it does not last, and a steady diet of it will make you sick — sick in your soul and sick in your relationships with women.
Physical Intimacy and the Single Man
I have been married for sixteen years and have four children. Here are several questions I want you to consider:
Do you think it would be acceptable or unacceptable for me, a married man, to have sex with a woman who is not my wife?
Do you think it would be acceptable or unacceptable for me to kiss, caress, and fondle a woman who is not my wife (something short of intercourse)?
Do you think it would be acceptable or unacceptable for me to have a meal with a woman not my wife and engage in extended conversation about each other’s lives (likes/dislikes/struggles/pasts)?
If you answered “unacceptable” to three out of the three, or even two out of the three questions — “yes, it would be unacceptable for you as a married man to do those things” — I want to suggest that a double standard may exist in your mind. Many people who answer “unacceptable” with regard to me, as a married man, would not say “unacceptable” for the single man.
Four Reasons Not to Have Any Physical Intimacy with Any Woman to Whom You Are Not Married
Let me give you four reasons why physical intimacy with a woman — at any level — to whom one is not married is potentially fraudulent, dangerous, and just as unacceptable for a man prior to marriage as it is after marriage.
1. We Are Made in the Image of God
First, as we have already seen, we are made in the image of God, and everything we are and do images, or represents, God. Therefore, we should be careful in what we do with our bodies. This is particularly true for the Christian, who has been united to Christ who is the perfect image of God. As Paul writes:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:15-20, NIV)
Now to the male reader who says, “Lying with a prostitute is a black-and-white issue, and of course I would never do that,” allow me to reply: You are missing the point. Being bought at a price by God should compel you to honor him with everything you have and with everything you are, including your body. You are an image-bearer. And if you are a Christian, you are a name-bearer. Are you bearing well the image and name of a holy God by the way you conduct your relationships with the opposite sex?
2. We Are Called to Protect, Not Take Advantage of, Our Sisters in Christ
Second, Christian men are called to protect their sisters in Christ, not take advantage of them. Consider 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6 (NIV):
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.
Where the NIV says, “no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him,” the NASB says, “no one should defraud.” Defraud means “to deprive of something by deception or fraud.”
What do I mean by defrauding in this context? Simply put, a man defrauds a woman when, by his words or actions, he promises the benefits of marriage to a woman he either has no intention of marrying, or if he does, has no way of finally knowing that he will. The four authors of this chapter often speak on this topic because we know that brothers in Christ in our church and yours are defrauding (taking advantage of) sisters in Christ, and as the apostle James says, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10).
Executives from the corporate giants Enron and WorldCom were recently on trial for fraud. They had painted a picture of business health, growth, and prosperity when in fact it was all false. The single men in our churches must be encouraged to ask themselves, “In your relationships with single women, are you painting a false picture and committing fraud?” What may be considered innocent — holding hands, putting an arm around her in the pew, some “light” kissing, long talks over Starbucks coffee — all send the message to a sister that reads, “You’re mine.”
Single men must be careful here. A Christian woman is first and foremost a sister in the Lord. I trust none of us would do anything inappropriate with our own flesh-and-blood sisters. How much more a sister in the Lord! She may or may not become the man’s wife. But she will always be a sister. Her heart, the “wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23, NIV), must be guarded as if it were the man’s own!
Statistically speaking, a single man should recognize that any single woman with whom he speaks will probably be someone’s wife, and he will probably be someone’s husband — maybe each other’s, maybe not. So there should be no difference in standards of physical intimacy between the single man’s conduct with a single woman and my standards as an already married man. Single men must conduct themselves in a way that will not result in embarrassment or shame in the future.
3. We Need to Guard Our Eyes and Hearts and Bodies for Marriage
Third, single men need to guard their eyes and hearts and bodies for marriage. “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thessalonians 4:7, NIV). A person will not fully know how critical this is until marriage, but trust us old married guys and know that what is done with the eyes, heart, and body before marriage matters. Too many times we have seen a Christian man and woman fall in love, get engaged, and then discover, during pre-marriage counseling, that their past relationships are no small factor. Too often, past physical relationships become impediments in the marriage bed.
We do not want a brother standing at the altar on his wedding day looking at his beautiful bride only to imagine behind her the boys and men who took advantage of her and robbed her of the trust and confidence that she now needs for her husband. We do not want a sister standing at the altar on her wedding day looking at her handsome groom only to imagine behind him a string of relationships with girls and women he failed to honor, and knowing that images in his head from pornography use and past flings may stick with him for a long time.
If I have just described you, you may have a painful road ahead of you, but our God is a great deliverer. The grace of God displayed in the shed blood of Christ on Calvary is more than sufficient not only to forgive you of past sins but to fit you for offering the comfort you have received to others, whether you eventually marry or not. If you have failed or are failing in this area, then remember your calling and resolve to stop now and prepare yourself for marriage. Guard your eyes and heart and body.
4. We Need to Make Good Deposits in the Marriage Bank
Fourth, we need to make good deposits in the Marriage Bank. What do I mean? The wedding day is the formal ceremony used to charter, if you will, a new bank, the Marriage Bank. Both deposits and withdrawals will be made at this bank. Men will make deposits with their actions of holy living, faithfulness, gentleness, compassion, strength, prayerfulness, and washing their wives in the Word. And wives will draw on those deposits. They draw trust, confidence, and faith. What most men do not understand is, although the Marriage Bank is not officially open till the wedding day, deposits can be made early.
The husband who goes into the workplace among attractive, unbelieving women may find that his wife will be tempted to doubt his fidelity because of how he treated her when she was not his wife. Or, he will find she trusts him because he was so careful to protect her when she was not his wife — emotionally, spiritually, and physically. To the single reader, then, let me encourage you to live now in light of the future you desire. Treat all women in a way that ensures, when doubt arises, that the one woman you do marry will be able to draw confidence and faith from the pre-marriage deposits you made through prayerfulness and holy living.
In short, single men must know now that what they do prior to marriage is not inconsequential to what happens in marriage. They will reap what they sow. So they must decide now to sow well. The short-term pleasures of physical intimacy outside of marriage must not be allowed to damage the prospects for long-term joy inside marriage.
What Does a Biblical Relationship Look Like?
Given this biblical theology of sex and marriage, what does a healthy, biblical dating or courting relationship look like in practice?
The attempt to answer that question has brought about a literary flood over the last several years, with different works bearing different levels of usefulness. A few examples include Boundaries in Dating; Boy Meets Girl; I Kissed Dating Goodbye; I Hugged Dating Hello; I Gave Dating a Chance; Her Hand in Marriage; The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right; and Wandering Toward the Altar.
These volumes can be divided into two groups. One group generally supports the method of “dating” and attempts to instruct readers how to date in a “Christian” way. The other group rejects the current dating method altogether as biblically flawed. It advocates an alternative system, which most describe as “courtship.” In my reading, the book on this topic that seems the most sound theologically and practically is called Boy Meets Girl, by Joshua Harris (he is also the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye).
Single reader: live in light of the future you desire. Tweet
What is the difference between courtship and dating, and is one more biblical than the other? I will provide a working definition of each, describe how the two methods are broadly different, and then recommend why one method is fundamentally more biblical than the other.
Defining Courtship and Dating
Let’s begin by defining 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 the woman under the authority of her father, family, or church, whichever is most appropriate. Courtship always has marriage as its direct goal.
What then is dating? Dating, a more modern approach, begins when either the man or the woman initiates a more-than-friends relationship with the other, and then they conduct that relationship outside of any oversight or authority. Dating may or may not have marriage as its goal.
The Differences Between Courtship and Dating
What are the differences in these two systems? For our purposes, there are three broad differences between what has been called biblical courtship and modern dating.
1. The Difference in Motive
The first difference lies with the man’s motive in pursuing the relationship. Biblical courtship has one motive — to find a spouse. A man will court a particular woman because he believes it is possible that he could marry her, and the courtship is the process of discerning whether that belief is correct. To the extent that the Bible addresses premarital relationships at all, it uses the language of men marrying and women being given in marriage (see Matthew 24:38; Luke 20:34-35). Numbers 30:3-16 talks about a transfer of authority from the father to the husband when a woman leaves her father’s house and is united to her husband. The Song of Solomon showcases the meeting, courtship, and marriage of a couple — always with marriage in view. I am not advocating arranged marriages; rather, I am pointing toward the biblical purpose for why young men and women associate with one another. These passages do not argue that marriage should be the direct goal of such relationships so much as they assume it.
Modern dating, on the other hand, need not have marriage as a goal at all. Dating can be recreational. Not only is “dating for fun” acceptable, it is assumed that “practice” and learning by “trial and error” are necessary, even advisable, before finding the person that is just right for you. The fact that individuals will be emotionally and probably physically intimate with many people before settling down with the “right person” is just part of the deal. Yet where is the biblical support for such an approach to marriage? There is none. How many examples of “recreational dating” do we see among God’s people in the Bible? Zero. The category of premarital intimacy does not exist, other than in the context of grievous sexual sin.
The motive for dating or courting is marriage. The practical advice I give the singles at our church is, if you cannot happily see yourself as a married man (or woman) in less than one year, then you are not ready to date.
2. The Difference in Mind-set
The second major difference between biblical courtship and modern dating is the mind-set couples have when interacting with one another. What do I mean by that? Modern dating is essentially a selfish endeavor. I do not mean maliciously selfish, as in “I’m going to try to hurt you for my benefit.” I mean an oblivious self-centeredness that treats the whole process as ultimately about me. After all, what is the main question everyone asks about dating, falling in love, and getting married? “How do I know if I’ve found the one?” What is the unspoken ending to that question? “For me.” Will this person make me happy? Will this relationship meet my needs? How does she look? What is the chemistry like? Have I done as well as I can do? I cannot tell you how many men I have counseled who are courting a wonderful woman and are terrified to commit, worrying that as soon as they do, “something better will come walking around the corner.” Selfishness is not what drives a biblical marriage, and therefore should not be what drives a biblical courtship.
Biblical courtship recognizes the general call to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3, NIV). It also recognizes the specific call that Ephesians 5:25 gives men in marriage, where our main role is sacrificial service. We are to love our wives as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her. That means loving sacrificially every day. Biblical courtship means that a man does not look for a laundry list of characteristics that comprise his fantasy woman so that his every desire can be fulfilled, but he looks for a godly woman as Scripture defines her — a woman he can love and, yes, be attracted to, but a woman whom he can serve and love as a godly husband. In other words, modern dating asks, “How can I find the one for me?” while biblical courtship asks, “How can I be the one for her?”
3. The Difference in Methods
Third, and most practically, modern dating and biblical courtship are different in their methods. And this is where the rubber really meets the road. In modern dating, intimacy precedes commitment. In biblical courtship, commitment precedes intimacy.
According to the current school of thought, the best way to figure out whether you want to marry a particular person is to act as if 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.
Such is the process of finding “the one,” and this can happen with several different people before one finally marries. In the self-centered world of secular dating, we want as much information as possible to ensure that the right decision is being made. And if we can enjoy a little physical or emotional comfort along the way, great.
Clearly, this is not the biblical picture. The process just described is hurtful to the woman that the man purports to care about, not to mention to himself. And it clearly violates the command of 1 Thessalonians 4:6 not to wrong or defraud our sisters in Christ by implying a marriagelevel commitment where one does not exist. It will have a damaging effect on the man’s marriage and hers, whether they marry each other or not.
In a biblical relationship, commitment precedes intimacy. Within this model, the man should follow the admonition in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 to treat all young women to whom he is not married as sisters, with absolute purity. The man should show leadership and willingness to bear the risk of rejection by defining the nature and the pace of the relationship. He should do this before spending significant time alone with her in order to avoid hurting or confusing her. He should also seek to ensure that a significant amount of time is spent with other couples or friends rather than alone.
The topics, manner, and frequency of conversation should be characterized by the desire to become acquainted with each other more deeply, but not in a way that defrauds each other. There should be no physical intimacy outside the context of marriage, and the couple should seek accountability for the spiritual health and progress of the relationship, as well as for their physical and emotional intimacy. Within this model, 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. The man should take care not to treat any woman like his wife who is not his wife.
Of course he must get to know his courting partner well enough to make a decision on marriage. However, prior to the decision to marry, he should always engage with her emotionally in a way he would be happy for other men to engage with her. In all these ways, a biblical relationship looks different than a worldly relationship. If this is done well, Christian women will be honored, even as they are pursued. Christian wives will be honored. And God will be glorified.
Some of these ideas will seem obvious to some readers, and revolutionary to others. We have heard objections to parts of this teaching, but none that have caused us to doubt the wisdom of it. And we increasingly hear wonderful testimonies.
I talked recently with an unmarried friend in his mid-thirties who had just finished listening for a third or fourth time to a 9Marks Ministries interview with Joshua Harris, Al Mohler, Scott Croft, and myself on dating (available at www.9marks.org). He said that he was beginning to think he had wrongly approached finding a wife. (He also said his age was leading him to the same conclusion!)
Not too long after that, I was in a seminary bookstore, and a young couple came up to me and announced they had become engaged soon after hearing this same interview. They simply wanted to thank me. The young man in particular said that such marriage-focused teaching on male-female relationships had shown him his responsibility and had given him courage.
And now we pray that you, our unmarried readers, will not despair, but that you will be blessed as you pray, study God’s Word, discern God’s will, seek godly counsel, and either pursue finding a godly wife or embrace a life of celibacy. We also pray that our married readers and church members generally will better know how to counsel and encourage our single brothers and sisters in Christ as they approach God’s wonderful gift in marriage.
How true the words of Solomon: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22).
More Messages from Desiring God 2004 National Conference
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ: Part One (John Piper)
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ: Part Two (John Piper)
The Goodness of Sex and the Glory of God (Ben Patterson)
Making All Things New: Restoring Pure Joy to the Sexually Broken (David Powlison)
Homosexual Marriage as a Challenge to the Church: Biblical and Cultural Reflections (R. Albert Mohler Jr.)
Sex and the Single Woman (Carolyn McCulley)
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