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Are Recreational One-On-One Relationships Biblical?

By Jim West
May 01, 1998

The philosophical heart of the institution of dating is the supposition that one-on-one, male-female relationships are not only healthy, but necessary for the two to get to know each other. What shall we say to this challenge?

We need to remember that the first one-on-one relationship was with a view to marriage (Gen. 2:18). God made the woman because it was not good that the man should be alone. After Adam named the animals he knew he was alone. Then the Lord God put the man asleep and removed a rib from his side. When Adam arose from his sleep, he felt more incomplete — and indeed he was, for Eve was his "missing rib." The Bible simply tells us that God brought the woman to the man. Here was the first "date," as both Adam and Eve were alone in the Garden. What was the purpose of this first date? Adam deduced: This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh . . . Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they two shall become one flesh (Gen. 2:23a, 24). Here the first one-on-one relationship is interpreted by the Holy Spirit through Adam as justification for the marriage covenant and its accompanying sexuality.

This creation pattern presents an interesting paradox, when viewed in light of the modern phenomenon of dating. Clearly, dating clashes with God's creation model and yet, those who do date and engage in consummated or unconsummated premarital sex do so naturally and spontaneously. The one-on-one romantic relationship (understood in terms of creation) logically demands a sexual response. Such a response, then, is Adam (not just in a fallen sense) but in a creation sense. One man alone, with one woman alone, climaxes in the two becoming one (Gen. 2:24). Of course, the problem with recreational dating is that it envisions the one-on-one relationship apart from marriage. But the sexuality part is properly interpreted. This means that those parents who give their children one-on-one dating "privileges" should not be surprised when they discover that their children have fornicated: the one-on-one relationship is designed of old for such sexuality. The dating "game" is the built-in occasion for such ungodly behavior. Those who remain sexually unscathed in such relationships do so unnaturally, as they are really fighting off the creational purpose for one-on-one relationships.

This, of course, does not mean that a Christian man and Christian woman cannot have a friendship relationship based upon Christ's love for his church. Paul spoke of the women who labored with him in the gospel (Phil. 4:3). We even find Elijah the Prophet staying in the same house as the widow of Zarephath, in the upper room (1 Ki. 17:19). Even a limited one-on-one relationship may be permissible on this basis, although such an arrangement must be vigilantly watched for signs of romanticism. Certainly, men and women may sit together in church, and not be partitioned off into separate blocks of pews!

It is most proper for single men and women to gather for Christian fellowship too. However, one needs to be wary of many "singles' groups" which are often a pretext for pick-ups and dating. Many singles' groups are geared to usurp the role of the family.

The Silence of the Bible
The first thing to remember about one-on-one relationships is that nothing is found in the Bible about what may be called "random dating" or "recreational dating." Almost all of what passes as "dating" today rests upon the recreational premise: "Mary is beautiful and charming; therefore I am going to take her out." There is no commitment from either party to continue the relationship beyond the first date. Likely, there may even be others that the two would consider dating given the opportunity. Biblically, if a one-on-one relationship could be justified, it would certainly have to be with a view to marriage — always a view toward marriage. A more Biblical mind-set would be: "Mary is godly; I want to pursue a relationship with her that, Lord-willing, and with her father's permission, will consummate in marriage." Not only is there the precedent of the creation which militates against recreational dating, but we see the same throughout Biblical history as one-on-one relationships are never entertained apart from the perspective of marriage (Ruth 3:9).

The Sin of Lust
The second consideration is sin, and particularly the sin of lust. The Bible speaks about lust as "deceitful," and young men are to "flee youthful lusts" (Eph. 4:22; 2 Tim. 2:22). The difference between male and female is that the male lusts, while the female lusts to be lusted after. Lust is not just a distant or peripheral threat, but something that regularly attacks the Christian, causing him to sin and to have a distorted view of reality. Lust is not love, since love is giving-centered, while lust is self-centered. Love is the fulfilling of God's law; lust is in violation of God's law. For example, God's law says: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:8-10). Fornication is not love; fornication is lust because fornicators seek to satisfy themselves apart from the responsibilities of marriage. Another example: adultery is not love, but lust. Certainly, the adulterer has damaged his neighbor. He has robbed his neighbor of his wife; he has inflicted untold mental and spiritual harm upon himself and his adulteress, harmed the children of his or the adulteress's marriage, etc. Adultery is also the occasion for violence, even murder. Adultery is a capital offense because adultery is manstealing and treason against the family. For the woman, fornication is treason against her father (Dt. 22:21).

Lust is so basic to the human constitution that immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, they fled from God, while hiding their secret parts behind apron-leaf clothing. Why? Because they instinctively knew that sin had contaminated the organs of life. By lusting after the tree, their sexuality became polluted immediately. Paul even wrote Timothy, a man of God who was filled by the Holy Spirit, and warned him about his "youthful lusts" (2 Tim. 2:22). Lust operates in a vicious cycle. The lust in the man fans the lust in the woman, and the lust to be lusted after in the woman fans the lust in the man. Lust does not submit to the authority of God's law; rather — lust is a law unto itself. This means that while the woman may think that she "loves" the man, and that while the man may sincerely think that he "loves" the woman, lust may be at work. Certainly, both the Christian parent and the Christian son and daughter ought to be aware of this. If they really are, then they will not trust themselves to be placed in such an explosive and vulnerable situation. The Bible says: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?" (Jer. 17:9). Certainly not men and women who know the depths of their depravity. Thus, the Christian young man and woman should not trust themselves. And, if they do challenge their parents with the words, "You don't trust me," the response of realistic parents should be: "True, and I wouldn't trust myself either." In any case, the matter is not so simple as the parents not trusting the children; rather, it is the children placing too much trust in themselves.

The Crucial Role of Parents in Courtship
The third reason for our questioning the legitimacy of one-on-one, male-female dating relationships relates to the God-ordained role of the father. Since the Bible speaks of those who marry and who are "given" in marriage, it clearly assumes that the father gives away only what he has. Even the first marriage was not without an audience, for it was God himself who was acting as Father when he brought the woman to the man. This means that the father exercises authority over his daughter so that she may be "given" in marriage or kept as a virgin (1 Cor. 7:37). He may give her in marriage or not give her in marriage (1 Cor. 7:38). The Biblical father both trains his daughter to be godly and protects his daughter from ungodliness. The parents not only give authoritative advice (Pr. 6:20-29; 7:6-27; 9:13-18), but have the power to give or withhold.

The upshot of this is that the male-female relationship is a family matter, especially the regulatory concern of the father. That more fathers do not take active roles in the pairing of their children, or in their children's would-be spouses, is a dismal commentary on the state of fatherhood today. The Biblical father not only trains his children; he also protects his children. This is what fatherhood is. This means that one-on-one relationships are out of accord with the God-ordained responsibility of fathers to supervise the romantic interests of their children, especially their daughters.

Keep in mind that even though Adam and Eve had a one-on-one relationship, they were not entirely alone. In the Garden, God himself was acting as Father when he "brought" the woman to the man. Clearly, there was paternal oversight there, and such oversight is the divine pattern for earthly fathers who "give" their children in marriage. Therefore, it is not only incumbent upon fathers to place themselves in the vanguard of their children's matrimonial plans, but to teach their children that their aspirations for marriage must be validated by parents.

From this we should be able to see that the father's role is not just advisory. Nor does his role consist of giving last-minute advice and warnings to his children about a date that he may or may not care for (e.g., "Don't get pregnant!"). Such a father fits the fatherly job description often provided by the media. A good example is the film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which is about a young white woman who brings home her fiancee, who happens to be black. (We are concerned here with parental authority, not with miscegenation.) The plot concerns whether the surprised parents will approve the impending marriage. The black man wants the parents to make the decision to approve the match. This is his desire, not because he believes the father really has that responsibility, but because he does not want his fiancee to choose between himself and her parents. So, the father must make a decision to approve or not to approve the match. The father is thus thrown into a role that he does not want to exercise. Finally, he makes his decision, a decision that is typical of the abandonment of fatherly responsibility. He says:

Where John made his mistake, I think, is attaching so much importance to what we think because in the final analysis, it doesn't matter a damn what we think. The only thing that matters is what they feel and how much they feel, for each other.

This accurately sums up the philosophy of modern day fatherhood! The real problem is not rebellious teenagers, but rebellious parents who want no part of Christ-centered parenting.

We should be aware from the outset that the whole media is against the Biblical father. Even the otherwise wonderful film The Sound of Music portrays Captain Von Trapp as churlish and intruding upon his seventeen-year old daughter's affection for the postal boy (who turns out to be a Nazi!).

What is particularly significant about the male-female relationship in Genesis 2 is not just that God is the Creator of marriage, but that from the beginning of creation, he also ordained the rules of courtship. From Genesis 2, those rules are two-fold:

1. One-on-one relationships are designed with a view to marriage only.

2. The father supervises the courtship relationship. Such was even the case before sin entered the world when God acted as a father. Now that sin and lust have entered the world, the need for courtship oversight has increased.

From these considerations, we can see the rules of courtship must NOT be determined by cultural norms. alone. One may wish to ignore the martrimonial practices of the Jews (such as night weddings, approval from a near kinsman in certain circumstances, the dowry". The method of courtship described in Genesis 2 returns us to creation itself. Because of this we can safely say the courtship laws of the Jews were based on God's creation laws, not ever-changing cultural distinctives. For example, only a flaming feminist would challenge the Jewish practice of the woman adopting the name of her husband (Is. 4:1). When the name of the husband was placed on his wife, it was not only a sign that the two had become one, but that the woman would be in subjection to her husband.

We also must not suffocate the broader implications of even the temporary cultural norms of Israel. For example, the Old Testament dowry tells us that the father could require that his daughter be covered by a life-insurance policy prior to his granting permission for her marriage. It could also be said that the best definition of marriage stems not from creation by itself, but also from the interpretation of creation by Moses and the prophets who define marriage as a covenant of loving companionship (Pr. 2:17; Mal. 2:14).

What are the abiding marriage practices of the Old Testament people of God? For one, the father gives away the bride. Another is that the bride secures the favor of her father. Another is that no one-on-one relationship (recreational dating) is permissible unless the man and the woman are engaged or married. The Bible endorses family courtship.


Topics: Biblical Law, Family & Marriage, Theology

Jim West

Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!

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