Remember, You’re Dating Your Neighbor
I don’t often rave about books. I am a lover of books, and I read a lot of them, but I rarely do any raving. And if I do anything approaching raving, it’s usually to tout some old solid Puritan volume — Richard Sibbes’s recently published collection of sermons on the Song of Solomon, for example.
But then a genuine gem comes along, and, lo and behold, I can’t help but rave about it. That gem of a book is Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach, published in February 2012 by Crossway and written by Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas, two wise and well-equipped pastor-theologians. (You can get yourself a copy on Amazon for about $10).
I hope to convince you that every pastor, discipler, parent, and young adult should read, study, and discuss this book.
What We’re Not Talking About (Well)
We evangelicals talk a lot about marriage. Whether it’s defending against perversions of the institution from within and without the church, or sitting down at the feet of sage pastors and pastors’ wives to hear the lessons they have to teach about what Christian marriage is and is not, we spill a lot of ink and spend a lot of breath and write a lot of blog posts about marriage. That is partly because in our particular cultural moment it’s a conversation we need to have, and, I think, mainly because Biblically speaking it’s a conversation whose contours are relatively clear. No pastor can honestly say the Bible has nothing to say about marriage and married life.
But that is not the case — or at least it hasn’t seemed to be the case — with dating. Pastors routinely say to their congregations, and especially the young folks and college groups, that the Scriptures have little to nothing to say about romantic relationships pre-wedding. To earnest questioners who want to know what dating should look like and how it should work, many pastors give a less than pastoral answer: “Well, beyond the rule about not having sex before your wedding night, you know, it’s really up to you and the Lord as to how to find your future spouse and what romance will look like as you date.” How supremely unsatisfying!
Enter pastors Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas. These men, wielding God’s truth well and winsomely, are like superheroes swooping in to save the day — or at least to save dating. They enter a realm already populated by ideas and perspectives (some good and some bad — probably mostly bad). And while cleaning up the debris and putting things back in their places, the authors do a great deal to elevate, reframe and refocus, and bring gospel simplicity to the topic of dating, all with a refreshing clarity and firm-but-gentle pastoral tone. It is truly a fresh approach: God-centered where we are strongly tempted — and have tended — to focus on ourselves.
Here’s the book’s main argument in the authors’ own words:
[T]he Bible is silent about sexual boundaries within a dating relationship precisely because God does not view a dating relationship as something distinct from the neighbor relationship. Further, the Bible’s silence regarding dating relationships is not an instance of the Bible’s being silent on dating because it did not exist when the Bible was written, such as one could argue about cars or computers. On the contrary, sexual propriety is an issue the Bible pays a great deal of attention to. While God has not explicitly prescribed the means by which we are to move from the neighbor relationship to the marriage relationship (i.e., courting, dating, arranged marriages), he has clearly prescribed how he expects all men and women to act outside the marriage relationship. Far be it from us to invent our own guidelines of sexual propriety based on our relatively modern way of conducting premarital relations. (p. 53)
By showing that God does offer direction for dating relationships in his Word, if slightly indirectly, Hiestand and Thomas open up a treasure trove of Biblical wisdom. Dating is no longer a relational and sexual free-for-all; it has clear boundaries, not vague ones that you and your boyfriend or girlfriend devise for yourselves — which, the authors point out, is never a good idea.
The reason for this, which the authors so ably lay out in the first two chapters and then continue to weave through the rest of the book, is that sexual propriety is not about God’s placing arbitrary restrictions on our relationships with the opposite sex. Indeed nothing God calls us to is wanton or capricious. God’s commands are all “about what brings him the most glory” (p. 14). And what brings him the most glory is our reflecting his holiness and his grace more perfectly. Sex is all about the gospel (ch. 1), and from this reality flow all kinds of implications for how we should relate inside and outside of marriage, the only proper realm for sexual activity. Propriety in sexual matters is actually a means of protecting the Good News, where impropriety (sin is the better word) garbles and miscommunicates and mishandles that Good News.
The authors admit from the start that their message will be countercultural even within the church (p. 15). Yet it is my sense that even though it may cut against the grain, the fact that the radicalism of the authors’ exhortation to purity comes not from within themselves but from God’s own heart means the Holy Spirit will use this book to convict and encourage in a big way.
Should We Kiss Dating Goodbye?
So what do we do about it? Readers do not have to wonder how to put all this into practice. Hiestand and Thomas are men of great knowledge and understanding, to be sure, but they impart truth not only through solid theological formulations but also with wise pastoral counsel. And though what they are saying is radical in a sense, they are not overly reactionary in their approach.
Sex, Dating, and Relationships is not about abolishing dating. (That’s some good news for some of you who may be trembling by this point.) It’s about reforming dating in light of our sinful ways and God’s good design.
And what does that entail? Well, for the authors it’s important to point out that dating, while an acceptable precursor to marriage, is not a Biblical category of male-female relationship. The person you are going out on dates with is not your pre-spouse but a neighbor, and he or she does not cease to be a neighbor (with whom sexual activity is not permitted) until marriage (when sexual activity, according to Paul, is in fact commanded!).
We should not be swayed into believing otherwise by descriptions of “committed” dating relationships. Commitment, Hiestand and Thomas remind us, is found in a solemn and rock-solid wedding vow, not in a temporary relationship that is only “permanent for now.” Dating is always casual until/unless it becomes an engagement. (So the authors speak directly to women: “In years gone by, a man would court a woman to be his wife. But in our day, a man courts a woman to be his girlfriend. How lame is that?” [p. 63])
How should dating be different? Hiestand and Thomas put forward a solution they call “dating friendships.” These cut out the romantic and sexual overtones of typical dating relationships and structure the dates around getting to know one another as good friends. This is guided by four principles (backed up by Scriptural passages throughout the book):
- “Maintaining the guidelines of sexual and romantic purity found in the neighbor relationship;
- Communicating clearly about one’s intentions;
- Viewing dating as an activity rather than a category of relationship; and
- Considering a relationship’s exclusivity as voluntary” (p. 93).
Is this a good solution? I think so! Is it the only solution based on the problems laid out in the book? Probably not. I think the proof is probably somewhere in the pudding. What would it look like for a pastor of college ministries, say, to begin counseling all students under his care to date in the way Hiestand and Thomas recommend? Does it go well, or could it go better if the counsel were tweaked? As for me, I think this is something to be tested and figured out in the crucible of the local church.
Why Read It?
To finish up my rambling ramshackle review, I want to enumerate some of the reasons I think this book should be widely read. First off, the book covers much more than I’ve been able to summarize. It deals with some interesting issues in places, like whether sexual desire is biologically determined and incapable of being controlled, and also features later chapters on taking this notion of radical purity into your lifestyle (beyond dating) and on singleness. Sex, Dating, and Relationships offers much more than a discussion of dating, in other words; and whether or not all the chapters hang together as well as they could, every page of the book is nonetheless well written and well argued and well worth reading.
Secondly, and I hope this has been obvious, this book and the issues it touches on are so relevant for the church today and every day. What is accomplished in the book merits reading and consideration by pastors (especially the ones who go around teaching that everyone can just figure out dating for themselves!), those who are involved in the lives of single people in the church, including lay disciplers, student ministers, and the like, and perhaps most of all by parents and singles themselves.
Thirdly, the book has been expertly enriched with questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. These make Sex, Dating, and Relationships quite useable as a book for small groups as well as for extended individual study and grappling.
If we as a church want to be built up by healthy marriages and healthy celibates, the issues tackled in Hiestand and Thomas’s book are critical for us to understand, wrestle with, and work out in our own lives and in the lives of others. Tolle lege!