Been a while since I’ve been up here – and leave it to Kevin to let my return to the pulpit be the week after we wrap up a series on CHARACTER and WISDOM and instead turn to something incredibly easy to talk about: dating, marriage and sex.
When I told some of my friends that I was going to be tackling these subjects, other than the requisite snickering it elicited, they all asked – and in some cases, begged me – to not just fall back on other sermons I’d heard on these same topics and regurgitate that information. To not fall into the trap of JUST talking about what everyone who grew up in a church – from the youth group talks to the Thursday nights at summer camp when it’s “rededication night” – has heard a million times over now.
Part of what Mosaic will be covering in the next three or four weeks will be some of the principles of dating, sex, marriage through the lens of a Christian. What a follower of Christ might experience in terms of the shared struggles, shared victories, and shared laughs. It’s also my hope that today and in subsequent weeks, you’ll see how these subjects are interwoven with one another. That one principle doesn’t really exist in a vacuum away from the other two.
It’s fortunate that in terms of our faith, there may already be a good solid example that you can think of where there are three parts of a Whole that are interconnected, almost three parts of the same Person, if you will – where no one aspect is more important than the other, and that all three are needed to experience a completeness in your soul.
Just so everyone is aware – these topics (dating, love, sex) are all areas I have had lengthy discussions about with teenagers, both in mixed-sex settings and in small groups broken up by age and/or gender. So, there is a little bit of a – for lack of a better word – “comfort level” I have in talking about this. You try talking about sex to a gaggle of 50+ teenagers, and you will lose all sense of self-importance and really – you loosen up. You have to.
However, this is the first time I have ever covered these subjects with people close to my own age and in a public setting no less – so it’s going to be a little weird for me in that regard.
I do have one caveat to give out. Oftentimes, when a church does a series on dating, marriage, parenting, etc., the subject matter is clearly divided by “If you are a parent/spouse, listen to this; if you’re not a parent/spouse, listen to this.” At least, that division has been my experience. My plan is to make sure that everyone – if you’ve never been married, if you’re married, divorced, remarried, widowed, whatever – is treated equally. These topics run the gamut of application for everyone, regardless of what your social dating status might be.
Truth be told, if I can be completely transparent, I had become numb to the idea of hearing yet ANOTHER sermon on dating, marriage, love, sex – all because I had heard these topics, as well as sermons on parenting, ad nausea at other churches. As I was preparing for today - and I have never wanted to not speak on a subject as much as today - because of the baggage I bring to this, I asked God to just let me not be glib in my sermon, to not gloss over anything that might be truly important, and to really just have a servant’s heart in thinking about how to address these topics.
Therefore, as evidence that God loves, me, has a killer sense of humor, and I believe lets me fall back on my days of youth ministry and draw deep from that wellspring of object lessons – today we’re going to talk about dating using chairs and coat hangers.
For the sake of argument, let’s start off defining dating as "a committed monogamous relationship between two unmarried people." We’re not talking about two co-workers going to lunch together or two friends hanging out at a coffee shop.
Nowhere is interacting with the opposite sex more confusing and potentially complicated than in Christian circles. Some people “date” while others have declared themselves temporary monks. Even the thing we call "dating" has its share of variables: When or if to hold hands or kiss, when or if to say "I love you," what the first date means, what the second date means, what the third date means, etc. The Christian community has even seen a whole movement that advocated a complete rejection of dating. Much of what the church says on dating — and there's a lot of it — carries a profound sense of urgency, and oftentimes a quiet, unspoken fear.
So why is dating such a complex issue? I think it's because we look at dating in the culture at large with skepticism, knowing we can't sign on for the whole dating package as sold – forgive me for stating the clichéd obvious – by what we see in media. And so we conform to and reject modern dating practices in varying degrees, choosing what we think works and what doesn't.
There’s an amazing passage in a book called Kingdom Ethics that is somewhat fitting here: The drama of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3 tells us something profound about ourselves: in our search for love, we are wounded, exiled and alienated persons driven to find reconciliation, faithful community and mutual affirmation…
Let me share with you a little story about two people – for the sake of argument, let’s call them Jack and Dianne
This is a story about how Jack and Dianne met, fell in love, and got married. They first met in a crowd, at work. During the time they spent getting to know one another, they spent the majority of their time “together” interacting and socializing at the outset of their relationship as friends, oftentimes in group settings socializing with several friends around. They also did not spend every waking hour together, sometimes due to frantic work schedules – but the point was that there were times when they could BREATHE on their own.
During this period, as got to know each other better, they began to understand their own selves as well. Until one begins to understand oneself (your motivations, dreams, aspirations and drives), you’re not really prepping for a COVENANT relationship. You don’t have to have the answer to everything, but that old British dude who said “Know thyself” did have a pretty good idea there
They also spent an inordinate amount of time just…talking. And through these conversations, even though they started out as friends first – they soon began to realize their relationship was growing into something else.
One night, during a particularly deep conversation, they would up standing outside out in the rain one night just talking, and did not even realize they were getting wet until they got in their separate vehicles to go home.
Once they realized they were developing feelings for one another, they tried to have a stereotypical date – but felt “forced” and awkward. What made it weird? Weren’t being true to the nature of themselves or to the established relationship they already had.
Note that all this time, there was no “magic bullet” – nothing formulaic about this. Not every moment of every free hour was spent talking about Jesus, in Bible study – to be sure, deep talks about life, spirituality, faith were held. But all the time? Movies were watched that weren’t just THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and watched more than LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE on television.
Jack actually had history of rushing heart-first and headlong into relationships, oftentimes transposing the ways in which he was supposed to grow with someone as a person, and as a couple. This relationship was the first one that he did right
One of the many places we as Christians often get hung up on is the concept of Christian dating. And how we think that if we don’t do this the right way, say our prayers this way, read this devotional or what have you – our witness is ineffectual or we aren’t honoring god.
A quick search using the most scientific, accurate, and unbiased instrument imaginable – Google – showed that over half a million unique, distinct websites are out there with “invaluable” advice and wisdom, with nearly four million websites set up for what they bill as “Christian dating services.”
Now – I don’t state this to knock these sites. I firmly and sincerely believe that God can and does use these tools to help people connect, and even in some cases meet their eventual spouses. In spite of what we church-goin' may have been led to believe, not every relationship that leads to marriage between two believers has to start within the walls of a church. But I do tend to take some of them with a grain of salt. Here’s an example of the learned wisdom one can gain from one of the sites about “Advice for Christian Dating:”
• Dress nicely
• Comb your hair
• Brush your teeth – PLEASE
• Wear deodorant – DOUBLE PLEASE
• If you are driving – Clean up your vehicle inside and out
• And always bring along your sense of humor
After reading this (okay – it was more like I was just staring at the screen dumbfounded) I wondered what exactly about brushing my teeth makes my dating life Christian? Hygienic, to be sure but Christian? And what exactly about my wearing of deodorant explicitly addresses my feelings of being wounded, exiled, and alienated.
The overuse or even misuse of the term “Christian dating” is one of the things about our shared faith that really gets under my skin. It’s the same hang-up I have over the overuse of the phrase “Christian music.” The implied belief is “I am a Christian. I make music. Ergo, I make Christian music.” Or “I am a Christian. I am a dentist. Ergo, I am a Christian dentist.” Or any business or profession. What exactly is it that you are saying when you make Christian an adjective instead of a verb?
I am a Christian. I use this coat hanger. Ergo, by this extension, it is a Christian coat hanger. Is it simply by being named and owned by a Christian that makes this instrument Christian, or is it the actions taken by the owner? Does the coat hanger – the music, the business – have a soul that can be redeemed? Or is it more that I am a Christian with a coat hanger – or a Christian with a dental degree – than it is I have a Christian coat hanger or a Christian dentistry?
There may be only a small grammatical difference in “Christian dating” and “dating as a Christian,” but there is a world of difference in terms of how it might be applied. “I am a Christian. I am a dentist. Therefore, as a dentist, I should use my gift in a manner appeasing to and in worship of God.” “I am a musician. I am a Christian. Therefore, as a musician, I should use my gift in a manner appeasing to and in worship of God.”
I am a Christian. Therefore, the relationships I have – both romantic and platonic, be it as a person married or unmarried – should be reflective of the morals I have, the faith I extol, and be done so in a manner appeasing to and in worship of God.
It’s the combination of faith acting out in deeds that set us apart. Many of us here act as advocates in matters pertaining to social justice, to the environment, to issues of equality – because we believe it’s our duty as a community of believers in God to do so. Or to make it more personal – we believe we should take the time to study the Word of God and spend time in prayer, because we DESIRE to and not because we feel like we HAVE to.
Paul even makes the comment in James 2:19 (NIV) - You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You believe that you should remain celibate before marriage. So do some individuals who don’t follow Christ. WHY you believe that you should remain celibate, and HOW you express that through the actions of your life both alone and with your partner makes all the difference in the world.
Just as with many other parts of our faith – we (the church) have attempted to subjugate and control relationships just as we have with other aspects of the practice of our faith. What you HAVE to do when dating - where it’s APPROVED to meet someone. It’s the easy answer of “formuaic faith” that may not be the best answer.
Many people already see Christianity as a set of rules to be followed and not as a lifestyle. In some ways we’re viewed as robots, just blindly following rules. And while we do have freedom in Christ, there are some explicit principles that we as Christ followers are to adhere to in terms of our relationships. Let’s investigate a couple of them:
Ephesians 5:3-4 (The Message) - Don't allow love to turn into lust, setting off a downhill slide into sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, or bullying greed. Though some tongues just love the taste of gossip, those who follow Jesus have better uses for language than that. Don't talk dirty or silly. That kind of talk doesn't fit our style. Thanksgiving is our dialect.
Normally, people use verse 3 along with I Corinthians 6:18 ("Flee sexual immorality” NIV) as two of the principle rules in dating. And many believers know this principle to be a static truth. Even though you might not LIKE it, it’s still there in the Bible as a principle believers are supposed to follow:
Hebrews 13:4 – Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 – 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.
We most often only look at these verses from the standpoint of the unmarried person – be it due to never having been married, divorced, or widowed.
But, if I have a moment with my fellow ring-slingers? That quaint little piece of jewelry does not come with a “Get Out of Lust Free” card. In fact, Jesus’ teaching on sexuality in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 – dealing with adultery – comes just after the teaching on anger and making peace, and right before the discussion of divorce. Believing what I do about Christ, I can’t help but think He was somewhat intentional in His placement of that there.
Faithfulness in your relationship to your mate - and that goes for married and unmarried alike - is of paramount importance to your relationship to God. At Mount Sinai, faithfulness to God was the very first commandment given to the Jewish people, and its violation – idolatry – is repeatedly shown to have severe punishment whenever the breaking of this covenant relationship occurs throughout the Old Testament.
There’s the unfortunate group of people who believe the “thou shalt not toucheth” commands are there for people who are unmarried to keep us from experiencing “fun” or enjoyment with our partners. It’s all about keeping you down.
But if you really stop to consider what is written and why, because of God’s passion for justice, many of these same “no, no” Biblical commands are intended to protect the innocent from harm. The commands against adultery and sexual immorality should be viewed in that light, in terms of harm to the injured parties. Sexual attraction is an inescapable dimension of human existence, and belief that you are above reproach will often come before a fall.
There are also principles for dating for married people as well as for those who are not. Fleeing sexual immorality for a married person can perhaps be defined as the very OPPOSITE of what we said at the start does NOT define a “dating relationship” for someone who is single: two co-workers going to lunch together or two friends hanging out at a coffee shop. Your dates – and this should go without saying – should be with your covenant partner in life.
I appreciate the translation of The Message (Don’t allow love to turn into lust) in Ephesians and again in I Corinthians (“There's more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact.”), because it touches upon the single one thing that dating, marriage and sex all hinge upon. And anyone who has ever read I Corinthians 13, been to a wedding, or seen a Hallmark card any time near Valentine’s Day knows what it is I’m talking about: love.
Let’s look at the one chapter that some feel should come with a Parental Advisory sticker: Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs. Within this book, there are three distinct uses of the word LOVE here that require investigating (all translations taken from The Message):
• 4:7 – You’re beautiful from head to toe, my dear love, beautiful beyond compare, absolutely flawless
• 8:7 – Flood waters can't drown love, torrents of rain can't put it out. Love can't be bought, love can't be sold —it's not to be found in the marketplace.
• 1:2 – Kiss me—full on the mouth! Yes! For your love is better than wine, headier than your aromatic oils
This book was originally written in Hebrew. And unlike English, where we use words interchangeably all the time (is “hot” a temperature or cliché at this point?), because each use of the word “love” listed wbove has a distinct, separate meaning – they naturally used three (3) different WORDS for love – and not the ones you normally hear people in the church bandying about (eros, agape, etc.):
• 4:7 – Raya: friend, someone to hang with
• 8:7 – Ahava: love of commitment, dedicating oneself to someone
• 1:2 – Dod: physical, sexual love
Three is a very sacred number in the Bible: number of days Jesus was buried before His resurrection; Trinity; man-woman-God (Adam-Eve-God); body-soul-spirit; number of crosses at Calvary; and in terms of what we’re studying: dating, marriage and sex. One is needed for the other three. You can’t really separate them from one another WITHOUT lessening or cheapening the remaining aspects or the impact thereof.
Proverbs 3:3 – Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.
Ever known anyone who gives 1/3 or 2/3 of love – of themselves – but not all of love/to love? I haven’t. Not always. There have been times when I’ve just given some dod, some ahava, and/or some raya – but God wants the best for us. If you were intended to have all three, then why settle? Why cheapen the experience? Would you only want to watch 1/3 or even 2/3 of a movie? We were created to experience all three.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (The Message) – It’s better to have a partner than go it alone. Share the work, share the wealth. And if one falls down, the other helps, but if there's no one to help, tough! Two in a bed warm each other. Alone, you shiver all night. By yourself you're unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-stranded rope isn't easily snapped.
Marriage, of course, is that very special elephant in the room on a typical "Christian" date. If your dating relationship blossoms within a group of Christian friends, go ahead and expect people to start wondering when you're getting married sometime shortly after your third date.
I'd venture to guess that Christians tend to see marriage as something more immediately pertaining to their dating lives than non-Christians, if for no other reason than the fact that - and there's no delicate way to say this: For many, marriage is a prerequisite for sex.
Besides, marriage is a highly revered institution in the Christian community. It's the basis of family, and family is the basis of all personal formation. Marriage transcends being a political and social arrangement and becomes something ordained and ordered by God Himself.
Even though we in the Christian community highly value marriage, we don't all see every date between two potential partners the same way. We don't all enter into dating relationships with the same degree of expectation that things will progress toward marriage. Some order appetizers while estimating ring sizes; others aren't so sure. And that leaves everyone a little confused.
Many people have slowed way down on their path to the altar. Most of the people I know who haven't gotten married yet are not aimless or selfish or promiscuous. Most are bright, energetic, socially capable — and a little scared. We’ve all seen that when marriage is good, it's divine; but we've often seen marriage go very, very bad.
Ephesians 5:3-11 - But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person-such a man is an idolater-has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.
To illustrate this, I need three volunteers…(NOTE: at this point, I took two of my volunteers and asked them to tie – covenant bond, if you will – themselves together, and for the third to time himself to the leg of a chair.)
Being unequally yoked to someone is like being in a three-legged race with a chair: it will eventually drag you down and leave you behind where you need to be (“pressing on for the prize”).
Yes, you could carry the chair (and in Christian circles, we call this “missionary dating”) but it would wear you down, and honestly? It wouldn’t end well for either of you. If the chair had feelings, it might wind up not trusting the next person tied to it (as you would have been a millstone around its neck - and what did we just get finished learning about God’s passion to protect the innocent - in this case, both parties…?
Two believers tied together may stumble in the race or even debate which leg to tie or the manner in which to tie it, but they have one shared commonly defined leg. The non-believer and the believer share A leg, but with two completely different definitions of “leg.” Or “love.” Or “forgiveness.”
It’s the warning about being unequally yoked. II Corinthians 6:14-17 (The Message) - Don't become partners with those who reject God. How can you make a partnership out of right and wrong? That's not partnership; that's war. Is light best friends with dark? Does Christ go strolling with the Devil? Do trust and mistrust hold hands? Who would think of setting up pagan idols in God's holy Temple? But that is exactly what we are, each of us a temple in whom God lives. God himself put it this way: "I'll live in them, move into them; I'll be their God and they'll be my people. So leave the corruption and compromise; leave it for good," says God. ”Don't link up with those who will pollute you. I want you all for myself.”
The intensity of our feelings and anxiety toward dating and marriage causes us to act a little weird sometimes. But I think there's something else at play: I think we value marriage and expend a lot of words on the concept of dating correctly because we value doing everything correctly. We feel uniquely burdened to Get Things Right.
You know how it goes. We, the Christian community, are salt and light and enjoy unrestricted access to God's will. Therefore, as marriages and families around us crumble, we should be the ones with the stable relationships and the happy, well-adjusted kids. And let's face it, these expectations add to the pressure we feel.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to do things right. But sometimes I wonder if we’re either putting too much pressure on ourselves (Jack/Dianne’s first date - interrupted the natural flow God had ordained with what was THOUGHT to be The Right Thing To Do) or if we’re simply hyper-over-thinking what we need to do right.
Salvation isn't a moment; it’s a lifelong process — "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). Salvation doesn’t mean we experience a moment of spiritual bliss that gains us entry into heaven, and for the rest of our lives on earth we do everything perfectly — finances, marriage, origami.
Redemption isn't purely about heaven, but seeking God's healing and restoration every day. What if we didn't put so much pressure on getting things right, on getting hung up on the Rules, but simply cooperate with God's redemptive work in our emotional, spiritual, and social lives?
If we committed to that, I think the dating experience for people who are still dating (appropriately - not you, married people) would be a lot saner. I think we'd begin to seek God's redemption on deeper, more personal levels, rather than in lists of rules about dates. And I think some of our fears might even slowly dissolve as we joyfully anticipate redemption and community to come.
Ultimately, I think dating customs are a cultural institution, and we in the Christian community date the way we do because certain dynamics in Christian culture have prompted us to do so.
Not that this is inherently bad - if you’re so inclined to look for good dating tips, regardless of your biological age, if you’re single - Google dating tips for teenagers. We take so much time and energy to establish a firm foundation for the “kids” that we forget the truth to be found in advice such as date in a group, spend a lot of time in public places, or take part in a public service or volunteer event.
All culture is human, and as such, it - just like we are - is something of a work in progress. So sometimes we'll get it right, and sometimes we'll get it wrong. (The passionate fear of “we went too far”).
Life your life in a way that honors the way you were made, for the relationships you were made for, for the journey your life is taking you on. And know that always, God is awake and at work.