Matt Chandler is a husband, father, lead pastor at The Village Church in Dallas, and author of several books, including The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemption.
Matt was our recent guest on the Ask Pastor John podcast and answered ten questions on singleness and dating.
We get a lot of questions from young Christian men and women who are “not yet married.” Their season of life awakens many desires and hopes, uncertainties and insecurities, and tricky pastoral questions.
To help find the right questions, we called on three not-yet-married friends who gave some time to thinking about the challenges faced by singles: Lore Ferguson, Paul Maxwell, and the recently engaged Marshall Segal. We ended up with these questions:
- Is My Boyfriend (or Girlfriend) Godly Enough?
- Is There “Too Fast” in Christian Dating?
- Has Facebook Ruined Dating?
- Should My Church Help Me Get Married?
- Should I Date a Godly Girl I Do Not Find Attractive?
- Should a Boyfriend “Lead” His Girlfriend?
- Keys to Sexual Purity in Dating
- When Should a Single Stop Dating?
- Dating and Marriage for the Victims of Past Abuse
- What Hope Does God Offer Lonely Singles?
What follows is an edited transcript of the full conversation with Chandler. Feel free to browse for the relevant questions to your life.
Question 1: Is My Boyfriend (or Girlfriend) Godly Enough?
The Bible commands Christians to marry “in the Lord,” that is, to marry other Christians (1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14). But in a day when so much nominalism passes for authentic maturity, give us a few simple marks of spiritual growth that a man or woman should be looking for in a potential spouse.
I think what you are looking for is seriousness about growth in the person’s faith. And so I think the church really serves and helps Christian singles consider marriage and consider dating. Within the covenant community of faith, there should be those around a person that can speak of their reputation and whether they are serious about growing in the Lord and putting sin to death in their life. And that’s what you are looking for. Is there seriousness in this person to grow in their relationship and understanding with the Lord?
Because what I have tragically found is that Christian singles hit an area of desperation, particularly young women, and they will go: “Yeah, he is a Christian, he comes to church.” And really what they’re saying is this guy comes to church a couple of times a month, but outside of attending a service, he doesn’t have a real seriousness about growing in his understanding of the Lord, growing in his understanding of the Bible, being a prayerful person, no vivication or mortification that can be spotted, and no one who really knows them enough to speak to the growth in their character.
Now practically speaking, this means singles are seeking out people to speak into their lives. They are being discipled, whether that be organizationally or organically, whether they are part of a church’s system for discipleship or they just found an older man or an older woman and invited that person to speak into their lives. And I think those pieces are a much safer gauge than whether they highlight passages in their Bible and show up to service every week.
Question 2: Is There “Too Fast” in Christian Dating?
Is there such a thing as “too fast” in Christian dating? How do you know if a dating relationship is moving too quickly emotionally, or too quickly toward marriage?
I am going to be real cautious about saying there is such a thing as “too fast.” What I would rather ask is this: What’s driving the speed? If mere physical attraction or some kind of emotive, frilly, this-is-the-one weirdness is driving the speed, then, yes. If the relationship is outpacing knowledge of character, reputation, and knowledge of godliness, then that is way too quick.
“Godliness is sexy to godly people.”
But if you are in a context in which you have watched the person’s godliness, you have marveled at their character, you have rejoiced in what God has done in them and through them, then speed isn’t a big factor.
We have a staff person here who met and married her husband in a matter of months. She had watched him do ministry at The Village. She knew his reputation. What drove the speed wasn’t a flare-up of emotions — it wasn’t a fear of loneliness, or desperation, like maybe this is my only shot. None of that. Rather, there was knowledge of his faithfulness to God, his desire to serve the Lord, and his seriousness about the things of God.
I hardly knew they were dating before they were engaged.
Question 3: Has Facebook Ruined Dating?
In your experience, in what ways has technology changed the way young people date today? Do these trends encourage or concern you?
If we are talking about a young man and a young woman who are actively dating, who have defined their relationship, and who know they are in a growing and committed relationship with one another, then I think technology creates an avenue to encourage one another and to connect more frequently. So, in that way, I’m encouraged by what technology has to offer.
If, though, we are saying that technology has changed the game in regards to how single young men and women approach one another, before that relationship is defined, then I have a lot of concern about technology.
The ability to text or to tweet or to just write on someone’s wall enables you to flirt and tease without there ever being a “what-exactly-is-this-relationship” moment. And so, in that regard, when you have not established what the relationship is, I think it can be hurtful to constantly be involved in the technological realm, rather than the face-to-face realm.
So, if I think about my daughters, to have a young man constantly texting them and constantly engaging them on social media without any real clear “I’m pursuing you,” any real clear desire to want to establish a shared knowledge of this relationship, I have concerns.
I see a lot of our young women at The Village Church get teased by guys who simply “like” every Facebook post of theirs, or constantly text the young woman, without ever having defined the relationship.
Question 4: Should My Church Help Me Get Married?
What can members of local churches practically do to help godly marriages happen, instead of just telling men, “Man up and get your life together,” and telling women, “Stop waiting around and be active in your singleness?” What role should the church community play in deciding who and when to marry? Any advice for inviting others into a relationship to that end?
I love this question because I’m such a big believer in what God has called the covenant community of his people to be in a local context. I think the way that local churches can practically help godly marriages happen outside of telling single men to “man up” and telling single women to “stop waiting around to be active in your single life” — though I do think there is a space for telling single men and women this. . . .
But I think what we want to do is work really hard in our churches to create a culture of discipleship. In this culture, the norm, the air we breathe, is that older men are serious about seeking out younger men to train them; not just train them in the Bible, but really train them in what it looks like to apply the Scriptures to their lives. What does it look like to serve, love, and encourage your wife? What does it look like to romance her? What does it look like to be a man of God in relation to your wife?
Personally, I try to do this by having single men into our home. Lauren will almost always cook the meal. I will help set the table, and then afterwards that young man gets to help me do the dishes. And that is just my way of going: “Hey, this is a way that I serve my wife.” And then, while we do dishes, I tend to just talk about the ways that I try to make space for Lauren’s gifts.
So, this is an intentional, organic kind of culture of discipleship that I hope is woven into the life of The Village. On top of that, my hope would be that young men would seek out older men. And I have told them before: Hound older men. Ask: Can I get in your space? Whatever you normally do, can I just come and join you in that?
The appeal of youthfulness in churches is so heavy and celebrated, and yet I have found, without a good mix of generations, you are going to get lopsided and silly. And the worst possible thing imaginable in my mind is a bunch of 24-year-olds sitting around talking about life. If I can get that 24-year-old single guy with a 38-year-old married man, then I have high hopes for how that 24-year-old will see, understand, and desire marriage.
But then on top of that I think what you celebrate and how you celebrate is important. So, we want to celebrate marriages at The Village Church. And I want to celebrate women and men who have given themselves over to make disciples, whether they are married or not.
In the “Beautiful Design” sermon series I finished this fall, I wanted to constantly come back to single women and single men who have given themselves over to make disciples and celebrate their labors. So, it’s more than me saying, “Hey, get over your singleness.” It’s me celebrating those not sitting around on Valentine’s Day wanting to be taken out for a movie, but having their lives wrung out in making disciples, for their own joy. They are still desiring marriage, and desiring a spouse, but they are not sitting on their hands until they get one.
Question 5: Should I Date a Godly Girl I Do Not Find Attractive?
A common question from single men: If I am not physically attracted to a godly woman, should I still try to romantically pursue her in order to cultivate those feelings? If so, for how long: until it becomes unwise or even hurtful?
I don’t encourage a young man to pursue a godly woman romantically if he doesn’t feel physical attraction at the time. But I do adamantly encourage young single men to pursue godly women for friendships in the hopes that it grows into more.
“The culture tells us physical attraction is first, then character, godliness, and compatibility follow. I think we get it backwards.”
I did a wedding this past year of one guy that spent time at my house and who has been around Lauren and me a lot, and he saw a young woman at our church that was faithful to observe the Lord and a godly woman — but the physical piece wasn’t there. But he loved hanging out with her. So, I just encouraged him to stay in proximity, to grow in his friendship with her, and to hope something would grow from there.
For her sake, I wouldn’t want him to say, “I’m going to romantically pursue you in the hopes that one day I will be physically attracted to you.”
I keep saying it: Godliness is sexy to godly people. And so, if you get in proximity, and you see the godliness and character of a woman, you begin to take compatibility and godliness and gospel partnership more seriously than just physical attraction.
In the first part of Mingling, I really address attraction as a good thing, but not at the level to where our culture has put it. Gravity always wins. We are all wrinkling. Our nose and ears never quit growing. It is only a matter of time till that little component that we are basing so much on starts to vanish and must be replaced by attraction founded on character and covenant.
When I got cancer, everything that was sexy about me vanished — my strength, my vibrancy, my sense of humor, my creative romantic pursuit of Lauren. All of that was gone for two years. And my hair was gone. I became a shriveled up version of what I was before the cancer. Lauren entered into covenant with me, loved the character that God had formed in my heart, and now it was my character and godliness that fueled her attraction to me physically.
The culture tells us physical/sexual attraction is first, then character, godliness, and compatibility follow. I think we get it backwards. I think once character, compatibility, and godliness are there, those fuel attraction in the way that pleases God, and is much safer for our souls.
But at the same time, I want to protect the hearts particularly of young women from godly men teasing them with pursuit. So, pursue them as friends and hope that it grows into more. Want it to grow into more. And I am confident that, over time, character and godliness will win the day.
Question 6: Should a Boyfriend “Lead” His Girlfriend?
Do you think it’s wise for a boyfriend to “lead” his girlfriend? Should a dating relationship reflect the complementary structure of marriage to any degree? It seems biblically and practically wise, but it also seems covenantally inappropriate at this stage. What would you say?
Yes, a boyfriend should lead his girlfriend in some ways, but definitely not to the degree that a husband leads his wife. So, what I possess, when it comes to the covenant I am in with Lauren in marriage, is headship. I have been called by God to lead, to cover, to provide, to protect in ways over Lauren that a boyfriend is not. However, a boyfriend should be leading his girlfriend in regards to godliness, and encouraging her in regards to her giftedness. I think he should be encouraging her in prayerfulness and encouraging her towards an understanding and growing knowledge of the word of God.
I can get my own preferences mixed up in this, so let me just kind of put a little asterisk here. What Lauren wants from me is for me to ask, “Hey, would you like to go out Thursday?” If so, then what she wants is for me to say, “Hey, we are going to go to dinner and we are going to do this.” She doesn’t want me to come home Thursday night and say, “So, what do you want to do?” And so, for a boyfriend to be leading in planning dinners and for him to lead out in protection of their purity, for him to lead in their growing understanding of what their relationship is, I think the man should be driving those things, even as a boyfriend.
Question 7: Keys to Sexual Purity in Dating
Speaking of sexual purity, what are a couple of practical helps for staying sexually pure in a dating relationship that actually work?
Maybe because I have been married for fifteen years, but this question of purity feels like common sense. One of the things I say at The Village, on repeat, is that nothing good has ever come from a boyfriend and girlfriend cuddling on the couch watching a movie from 11pm to 1am. It has never ended in a discussion about cinematography in the history of watching movies on couches. To put yourself in that position to begin with is a foolish one.
What works is being in public, guarding space alone, not putting yourself in situations. I think singles have a tendency to think more highly of their own self-control than they should. So, I think dating in groups, or dating in public, is important, and we see that in Scripture. In Song of Solomon you see a growing desire to be physically intimate, and yet she describes their date as being under this canopy of leaves and this rug of grass (Song 1:16–17). They are outside. They are at a park. They are in a forest. They are in the public eye, because they have a growing passion to be intimate physically. And yet, it is clear that they don’t want to awaken love before it is time (Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). And so, they have positioned themselves publicly so as to not give themselves over to their lusts.
Question 8: When Should a Single Stop Dating?
If a man or woman is trying to stop looking at pornography, but seems they cannot (many Christian men struggle here), are they ready to date, or not? If not, what is the line between ready and not ready to date for a Christian porn addict?
This is an extremely complex question that is hard to answer outside of actually knowing the people involved. My knee-jerk reaction is: No, you are not ready. Let’s get this handled. But I think I would want to know more about what’s going on. Where is mortification happening? Where is vivication happening?
What do we mean by “porn addict”? Are we saying that this guy, or this girl, stumbles once a year, or a couple of times a month? And where are we in relation to frequency, healing, victory? I think all of those questions would come into play on whether or not I would encourage someone to be in a relationship while they wrestled.
And so, without that kind of information, it becomes hard to just lay down an answer. The truth is that every one of us are coming into our relationships with the opposite sex needing further sanctification, needing growth, needing our identity in Christ, and needing to have parts of our flesh mortified.
I have read almost everything I could on the horrific issues porn addiction is bringing into a man’s or woman’s ability to emotionally connect with people. So, if this is serious — several times a month you are giving yourself over to this, and you are actively seeking it out — then I don’t think you have any business dating.
Are there any other circumstances in which you, as a pastor, would tell others that they have no business pursuing a dating relationship?
When I am telling someone or leveraging my relationship with someone in regards to dating or not dating, I am always doing that within the covenant of me being their pastor and them being a covenant member of the church. From the beginning, our relationship is not just one where I have a cursory view of their life, but also one where I know where they are.
I have oftentimes recommended someone hold off dating until the season that they were in with the Lord has changed. I told a young man last year that, because of where he was in his relationship with the Lord, he should hold off pursuing a girlfriend until he had given himself back over to growing in his relationship with the Lord. It wasn’t just that he was in the desert or just stagnant, but that he had really, I believe, been walking in sin. He wasn’t in God’s word, he wasn’t praying, he was hit or miss in the weekly gathering, and he was hit or miss in his home group. Guys were pursuing him and he was avoiding them. He had a relational conflict with some guys, and he was refusing to connect with them and reconcile. I recommended to him that this would be a really foolish time to date, and it would end in heartbreak — either his heart or the heart of some poor girl at our church.
Question 9: Dating and Marriage for the Victims of Past Abuse
If you’re willing to address this, how does the gospel help those who are dating, who have been victims of past sexual abuse? Large numbers of men and women in the church represent this population. How does Jesus Christ help the unique struggles that those Christians face in a dating relationship and as they look forward to marriage?
First, I’m grateful to answer the question, because I’m present in it. The home I grew up in was wrought with just about every type of abuse imaginable. And it does leave some marks, and it creates some baggage — not only for dating, but then into the marriage — that will need to be gospel-ed.
For the one that has not endured abuse, but is free from that type of baggage, the gospel should create patience, compassion, and empathy to walk alongside the person who has borne the brunt of this abuse.
For the one that has borne the abuse, the gospel begins to reshape our identity, it begins to reshape our hearts and wounds, and it enables us to begin to trust again, slowly, but surely.
So, when the gospel is at work, both in the one that was not abused and in the one that was, you have a person who is patient and empathetic and compassionate, and a person who is being reshaped and healed by the gospel in such a way that there is an opportunity to grow into intimacy that wouldn’t have been possible outside of the gospel.
This is how the gospel has worked in my own life and in my own marriage. Lauren was able to be very empathetic and compassionate and gracious and not demanding while the gospel did its work of healing and repairing the broken parts of me.
Question 10: What Hope Does God Offer Lonely Singles?
Many Christian singles who cannot find a spouse end up dating non-Christians and compromising themselves. What does Christ offer a Christian who is tired of the weirdness of Christian dating, who longs to be married, who is sick of being lonely, but who doesn’t have any Christian prospects, and isn’t getting any younger? What would you say to them?
First, I just want to totally affirm the desire to be married. I don’t want anybody to ever feel guilty about that desire. I feel like so often, particularly single women — God bless them — they feel like the only message they get is: “Find your contentment in Christ. Isn’t Christ enough for you?”
And I think that’s such a terrible response, because the desire to get married is a good desire. It may even be a desire woven into them by the Creator of the universe. If the Bible says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing” (Proverbs 18:22), that’s all I need to affirm a desire for marriage in men and women.
But like all desires, they have to be placed where they belong. I want to affirm the desire for marriage and I want to warn against the fear of loneliness becoming a desire so far up in your list of desires that you would be willing to compromise and put yourself in a situation that would be more horrific and far more lonely for you in the future.
“I want to celebrate women and men who have given themselves over to make disciples, whether they are married or not.”
Unfortunately, a lot of godly women get to a place where they are tired of the “weirdness” of Christian dating and the apathy from Christian men to actually pursue them, and it has led them to marry — I won’t even go as far as to say “lost guys” — but what I will just call “neat Christian boys” who go to church a couple of times a month and own a Bible. And on that basis, a woman justifies getting into a relationship with a man — a man who will not lead, who doesn’t really love the Lord, but who does come to church.
This ends almost every time in heartbreak. Now they are in a marriage where she feels trapped in that covenant relationship, and so she tries to “fix” her husband. That’s not working, so she hopes maybe having children will fix their marriage. They have children, and now the father is discipling their children not toward the Lord, but away from him.
So, in all of this, the way I have tried to counsel our singles at The Village Church is to give themselves over to ministry and to serving the Lord.
Women, give yourself to ministry. There’s a woman who lives with us. She’s in her mid-30s. She leads a ministry, running discipleship groups of women all over the country, in eleven or twelve states, pouring her life into fifty or sixty leaders. She walked these discipleship groups through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and more recently though the book of Genesis in a robust study of God’s word. And she would love to be married, but she is not waiting to be married for her life to matter, for her life to count.
And even when I think of the young woman who helped shape some of these questions, she has given herself over to serve the Lord, to write and to teach and to disciple and to open up her home to care for other women and to encourage other women to grow in biblical literacy. And I think that that is what Christ has for them: fulfilling, soul-stirring, soul-satisfying, gospel ministry.