A recent discussion around the Consistory table revealed that the elders in Smithville are concerned about the ease with which our Young People (and some not so young) strike up a romantic relationship with a person outside the church. As a result of that discussion, the elders have encouraged me to republish a Bit to Read first published in early 2015 about dating. The brothers wish the members of the congregation to remind each other that dating someone outside the faith is sin before God. The brothers wish the congregation to understand too that dating someone from an unfaithful church is also contrary to God’s revealed will. In the slightly reworked article reprinted below, I’ll draw attention first to what the 1st commandment says about dating, then to what the 2nd commandment says about dating, and then I’ll wrap it all up with some specific detail.
The Lord was emphatic to his people Israel that they were to “have no other gods before Me” (Ex 20:3). As God’s people, they were to be so devoted to him that they were not to develop friendly relations with the nations around them. “You shall make no covenant with them…. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Dt 7:2-4). Notice the reason the Lord gives for this instruction. He says Israel is too weak to stand up against the religion of the nations around them. There’s something in the human heart that finds the un-God-liness of the Canaanites more attractive than the gospel of the redemption-from-sin-through-blood as taught in the tabernacle.
The apostle Paul builds on this instruction. “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:14-16). Paul’s reference, of course, is not just to marriage, but is to any alliance between believers and unbelievers, children of God and children of Satan. But his words most certainly do apply to marriage also. And if they apply to marriage, they obviously apply also to the dating that leads up to marriage. Let’s face it: two people date not for entertainment (isn’t it?!) but in order to grow closer together with a view to marriage.
Perhaps you say: but isn’t connecting with an unbeliever a good way to bring her to the faith? I know I’m strong, we say to ourselves, and I’ll do what it takes to show her the privileges and glories of the faith. If it turns out she doesn’t want to serve God with me, I’ll break it off. There are a couple of things to say in reply.
1. In different yet parallel circumstances, Paul challenged people who thought they could convert their loved one: “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor 7:16). His point is simple: you have no guarantee you can; on the contrary. The point is identical today: what makes you think that you can bring your boyfriend to faith? Or your girlfriend? That’s ascribing to yourself the work that belongs to the Holy Spirit.
2. But if your boyfriend does not become a believer, you obviously can’t marry him. Meanwhile, in the months of dating you have entangled your hearts around each other’s so that breaking up is exceedingly painful – too often too painful to do. So you end up stuck between a rock and a very hard place. The inevitable result of the pinch will be wounds and scars. There’s wisdom, then, in making sure you don’t set yourself up for finding yourself in that spot to begin with.
The long and short: the Lord forbids that his people establish a romantic relationship with someone not committed to him. You simply can’t date an unbeliever.
The Lord was equally emphatic in the second commandment He gave his people at Mt Sinai: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything…” (Ex 20:4). The point of this command is that we’re not to form an image of God in our minds as if He’s like _________ – and then you fill in the blank; for Israel it was a calf, for us it can be an indulgent, forgiving grandfather figure. For if He’s like ___________, then He is no longer different, unique, holy. But if we form a mental image of him as if He’s like, say, an indulgent grandfather who quickly forgives his grandchild’s foibles, then we’ll end up serving Him as one who doesn’t take our sinful quirks seriously. But God is too much God for that. So He tells us in detail how we are to serve Him. That’s why the church confesses in Lord’s Day 35 that in the second commandment the Lord instructs us not to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.
Part of how God has commanded us to worship him is the question of where we are to go to church. The Lord has revealed that he works and strengthens faith through the Word (see Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25). It’s not that God is limited to the Word; if he could create the world from nothing, he can create faith in my heart through nothing – and strengthen and grow that faith through nothing too. Similarly, he is mighty to work and strengthen faith through a warped presentation of the Word, a presentation (for example) that doesn’t talk about sin, or that insists that Jesus was a social reformer who died for his cause and arose only in the minds of his disciples. With God nothing is impossible. And yes, across our country there are plenty of churches that proclaim such messages, and perhaps plenty of people in these churches who still know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
But the fact is that to work and strengthen faith God is pleased to use the Word as He revealed it in Scripture. So it’s my obligation, according to the second commandment, to be where the Word is fully and faithfully proclaimed. Where I go to church is not a matter of personal choice, but is a matter of obedience to God. Again, if I am obliged before God to be in that particular church of town where the Word of God is proclaimed and has the final say, then my neighbor is equally bound to frequent that same church. A couple of consequences follow:
1. I am not allowed to be Canadian Reformed (or whatever church it is I attend) on the sole ground that my family and friends attend that church. That reason will do for a child, but not for an adult (and that includes those of dating age). Before God I need to make a conscious decision that I frequent this church because I’m convinced that in this church the Word of God is proclaimed fully and faithfully. My spiritual health and so the glory of God demands it.
2. The person one dates is equally bound to the second commandment. She too has to be in that church where the Lord is at work through his self-designated means of the Word. But if she answers the question of where God’s Word is faithfully and fully proclaimed differently than I do, we have a fundamental clash right from the start. It is a clash on that very commandment in which the Lord speaks about being jealous, and visiting iniquity of the fathers upon the children. Marriage wants children, and I am foolish to set my children up for being on the receiving end of God’s jealousy.
Of course, one could say: but I’m going to take him to my church. And one can add: if he doesn’t want to join, I’ll break off the relationship; for my part I’ll never leave my church.
Actually, the comments made above in relation to one’s ability to bring about obedience to the first commandment would apply just as accurately to one’s ability to bring about obedience to the second commandment. None of us have any idea whether we can convince a dating partner to join ‘our’ church and become a living member of it. Meanwhile, the longer you go out, the more hearts get entangled (what else is dating for!). To disentangle hearts when you find out that she will not eagerly join your church will invariably hurt. It’s far wiser not to set yourself up for that ordeal.
The long and short: as the Lord is particular in how His people serve Him, He would not have his people develop a romantic relation with a person who serves Him differently than He has commanded.
Please do not conclude from the above material that any person will do provided he or she is a member of your church. The simple but sad fact is that in the church too are persons who are not committed to the Lord alone (contrary to the first commandment), and there are also persons who worship the Lord in their own self-chosen manner (contrary to the second commandment). As one looks for a partner within the circle of the church, one needs to be convinced that the person of your choice in fact serves the Lord God alone in all of life, and does so in a manner consistent with God’s instruction.
Perhaps ask yourself these two questions: Could that girl be a fitting help to me in God’s service? Would I love to entrust my children to her care and instruction for the first 20 years of their lives? And flip side: Could that guy be a fitting leader for me in God’s service, so that with him I feel cared for, protected and safe – emotionally, physically, spiritually? Would I love to see him guide, lead, and develop my children through their childhood and teenage years? You need to be able to answer those questions with a confident Yes – and if you doubt you can, don’t start a relationship.
Of course, one always needs to leave room for growth. And growth, by the grace of God, will happen within the heart of one committed to God. But if one is not committed to God, there is no guarantee that repentance and commitment will one day occur.
Where does this leave us? Let parents from time to time make the matter of who their children should date a matter of conversation and family prayer. Giving the topic that kind of profile helps impress on the children that they need to factor God’s will into the matter. It helps too in teaching the young to trust that the Lord in his time will provide the boy/girl of His choosing. There is something so rewarding about receiving a partner from God’s hand.