I am praying that my bright, beautiful daughters will get happily married. I have been concerned that they may be more likely to find a “Kardashian relationship” than a Ruth-Boaz kind of marriage. But before they can get marriage right, they have got to get courtship right.
Christian Dating has been a controversial topic for a long time. The Bible has no ironclad guidelines for romantic relationships before marriage (other than the prohibition of sexual intercourse), and from the Colonial Period onward, social habits in the United States varied greatly by region and denomination. As early as the 17th century, shotgun weddings were the norm in the rural South, while almost unheard of in New England. The estimated average age of marriage for women in Massachusetts (populated largely by Congregationalists) was six years higher than it was in Virginia (dominated by Presbyterians and Anglicans). But strictness or looseness aside, everyone agreed that marriage was the honorable endpoint of romantic relationships, and certainly the bedrock requirement for raising children.
The prosperity of the 20th century and the social upheaval of the Sexual Revolution challenged the idea that romance should ultimately culminate in marriage. Sexual gratification was suddenly viewed by some as an acceptable end in itself. Some churches responded to these changing cultural norms by taking a more relaxed view of dating and sexuality.
Against this backdrop appeared Joshua Harris’s popular book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, published in the mid-1990’s when he was just 21 years old. Harris challenged the notion of recreational dating for its own sake and proposed a more old-fashioned model of courtship that reemphasized marriage as the endpoint of romance. This set off a debate, with some churches and youth groups embracing Harris’s vision, even taking it to extremes the author likely never intended. Other evangelicals rejected it, writing essays and books asserting that casual Christian dating could be healthy and normal.
But it would be a mistake to think that the “dating versus courtship debate” has had any influence outside a narrow segment of evangelicalism. Harris’s book may have sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the years, but Fifty Shades of Grey—the pornographic fantasy glorifying domestic abuse—has sold well over a 100 million and spawned a blockbuster movie trilogy. Although some dismiss the violent aspects of the story, according to the CDC, 10 percent of high school students reported experiencing dating violence in the past year, and more than 1 in 5 college women have been victims of physical threats or abuse.
In fact, the dating that Harris’s book challenged is largely absent from middle schools and high schools today. Extravagant “Promposals” aside, fewer and fewer teenagers are in steady relationships, opting instead for casual sexual hookups and “friends with benefits.” In fact, British psychiatrist Dr. Natasha Bijlani called “sexting”—the practice of exchanging sexually explicit pictures via text message—“the new courtship.” These social changes have not been without consequence.
Although teen birth rates remain more or less steady, young people age 15-24 account for at least half of the 20 million new STD infections each year. African-Americans have borne the brunt of these new sexual norms, contracting HIV at five times the rate of whites, syphilis at nine times the rate of whites and gonorrhea at a shocking 18.7 times the rate of white infection.
Nationwide, Christian romantic relationships are plagued by the same illness that is afflicting society as a whole: a sharp decline in marriage rates and a rise in extramarital sex, non-marital cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock childbearing. Dating is no longer an issue only for young people, as a growing number of adults in their 30s and 40s have never been married. (According to the most recent Census data, a record 48.8 percent of all black men had never been married.) The debates of a handful of youth groups aside, a growing number of Christians, like the rest of the world, are skipping marriage altogether. Men especially are deciding in increasing numbers that a life-long commitment is simply not worth the trouble.
As a result, more children are growing up in fractured families, plagued by a myriad of social ills, particularly in the lower income brackets. The Church cannot afford to be bogged down in petty debates over relationship nomenclature. Instead, if we hope to oppose the wholesale destruction of the traditional family, we must work to encourage and prepare people for marriage. This is far more important than the logistical details of how a couple gets to the altar.
We must teach singles of all ages the beauty of marriage as God intended it, and the self-respect, wisdom, self-restraint, and boundary-setting skills that will protect them from the perils of STDs and broken relationships. We must teach teens, young adults, middle-aged adults, divorcees, and single parents how to become good marriage material and how to evaluate a potential spouse. We should provide social gatherings that allow like-minded singles to meet, and we should offer specific counsel and advice to couples struggling with relationship problems. Christian dating will always mean 10 different things to 10 different people. It’s Christian marriage we must fight to save.