We know the question you really want to ask your pastor. “What does the Bible say about dating? Can you tell me about Biblical dating? How do you find a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife? How do I find the person that God has destined for me?”
And the thing is, while these concerns are legitimate, we have to remember that the Bible was written in a different time and culture than the one we live in now.
In ancient Hebrew society, they practiced what we might refer to as arranged marriage, at least in some form or another. This is actually not uncommon today either - many cultures still have a lot of parental involvement in finding a spouse for their children.
This is why it’s so hard to get clear answers out of your youth pastor about “Biblical dating.” There is no dating in the Bible. Marriage in the Bible is often less about romantic walks on the beach and candle-lit dinners, and more about paying cows or sheep to the father of a nice family, in order to get the right to marry whichever of his daughters was next in line to get married.
To many western Christians, this sounds like something we wouldn’t want at all. Or at least, it doesn't fit our conceptions of romance. But wait … what is romance, and why is it even important? What is "falling in love" and where does the Bible tell us to do that?
The answer is complicated, but it’s kind of a big “well actually, no.” We have to look at our own culture and understand that it’s a culture. The Bible says a lot about the importance and power of love - but that love isn’t necessarily what we call “romance.” It’s not a fairy tale, and it’s not a tv drama or a romantic comedy. Real love comes in many forms - strong friendship, the love between parents and children, love for your nation, tribe, or people, and yes, sexually-driven, erotic love. All of these are real forms of love, and most people find that they need all or most of them in some amount or another to have a fulfilled life.
Romantic relationships are good, and the Bible praises marriage as a good thing. But there is not one standard way that people in the Bible go about getting married. Social status, culture, customs, and so on have way more influence on how marriage happens than any clear Biblical instruction. You need to understand how to approach your own culture’s practices in a way that honors God.
While they are not the only thing that matters, romantic relationships are a beautiful and powerful part of life. If you can learn to keep them in the right perspective and priority, you may one day find that you are ready to step into a serious romantic relationship responsibly, and in a way that honors both God and the one you love. But we also need to remember that people like Jesus and the Apostle Paul never got married, and this fact didn’t stop them from having meaningful lives or from experiencing profound love. All real love is a reflection of God, and ultimately none of us can find ultimate love anywhere other than in God himself.
- Read Genesis 1:26-28. What do you think it means that humanity was made in the "Image of God"? Do either men or women have more share in the image of God than the other?
- Read Genesis 2:18-25. What do you think this passage means for marriage relationships? What important lessons can we learn here about vulnerability, inter-dependence, shame, comfort, and maturity?
- Read Exodus 22:16-17. What cultural assumptions and practices are expressed here that are either similar or different from your own culture? Is this a practice that is common or uncommon in your culture? Is this something you have had to think about in relation to your own possible romantic partners?
- What purpose does this kind of practice serve? Why might people want to have lots of parental involvement in romantic relationships?
- Why is there a price involved? Do you interpret this as a negative or positive thing? Note that the rest of the context of Exodus 22:1-15 seems to be about protecting the property of men. Is this a full and complete revelation of God's will for marriage, or is there possibly more that God might want to teach later?
- Read the story of David and Saul's daughters in 1 Samuel 18:12-29. Do you think this kind of behavior represents a good foundation for relationships, or a bad one? Would you want to be in a relationship with someone whose parent(s) caused you great obstruction and frustration?
- Read Genesis 29:1-30, the famous story of Jacob working for seven years (well ... 14 years), to marry the woman he loved. This is an example of a more transactional marriage. However, do you see an element of genuine, emotional affection?
- What problems came about in this story that made for a less-than-ideal marriage situation?
- Note what Jacob says specifically to his soon-to-be-father-in-law in Genesis 29:21. What does this statement say about the way people in this time and place felt about expressing their sexuality in a familial context? Would the same thing be ok today?
- Read Song of Songs 8:6-7. Does it seem that the people in this culture still experienced a passionate and romantic form of love, even though there was a lot of "structure" around their marriage practices?
- For a more detailed conversation about Christian marriage ethics, read 1 Corinthians 7 and notice the rules and exceptions that Paul talks about. What does he say about singleness and celibacy? What does he says about sexual fulfilment? What does he say about physical passion? What does he say about the conditions for marriage? How might those apply (or not) today?
- Read Paul's instructions to families in Ephesians 5:22-33. What points does he make that you find helpful? Are there any that make you uncomfortable? Why or why not?
- Look at the way marriage is used symbolically in Revelation 19:6-9; 21:1-5. What do you think this represents? Note that "The Lamb" represents Jesus himself, and the bride seems to be the New Jerusalem and the people who make up the Kingdom of God.
- How does this picture of an ultimate, cosmic "marriage" affect your understanding of the meaning of marriage now?
- Read Mark 12:18-27. What surprising thing does Jesus say about marriage after the resurrection? What do you think this means? How does this affect the way we think of marriage now?
Header image by Valentin Antonucci on Unsplash