I’m currently making an effort at outlining and evaluating the two main systems of Christian romance: courtship and dating. I think I did an okay job on courtship, but have had a bit of a harder time on dating as Christians do it. This seems to be because there is more of a prescribed order to courtship, while dating is more nebulous and free-flowing. Today, we’ll take a bit more time to compare and contrast the two systems. Tomorrow, the evaluation.
Courtship is intentional and focused, with an end in sight. It is designed to allow two people to consider thoughtfully whether they ought to marry one another. Dating has a different purpose. It is designed to help people get to know one another. This can be for marriage, but it need not be. Courtship involves parents, church members, and total strangers (just kidding) in the process, soliciting their feedback on the fitness of each person for marriage and the overall health of the relationship. Dating involves only the couple, though of course others may be asked to participate in group dates or some such thing. If courtship is public, dating is private. Courtship also proceeds according to some kind of predetermined schedule. At certain points, the relationship is either discontinued or ratcheted up, depending on how things are going. This is to prevent hearts from becoming overly emotionally attached and to keep the relationship progressing along. Dating knows no such timetable. It works of its own accord and goes where it will (or won’t). The two systems are thus quite different.
Most evangelicals approach romance through dating. Though at one point the church was quite intentional about marriage, this attitude waned in the twentieth century. The change is quite complex and not easy to trace out, but it seems that generally, church life became less intentional and more remote in the twentieth century. The culture became increasingly hostile to the thought and activity of the church, and the church seemed to respond in one of two ways. One, it withdrew. So went the Fundamentalists and Reformed types. Two, it accomodated. So went many of the mainstream denominations and a considerable number of evangelicals. Sure, many evangelical churches hung on to the gospel, but they began mirroring the culture in many ways, often intentionally, and even sought to do so in an effort to draw back outsiders. When this happened, much of the thoughtfulness that characterized eighteenth and nineteenth century Christianity was lost. A major part of this shift involved a largely empty doctrine of pre-marriage interaction. Where once a robust approach to romance existed, it fell by the wayside, and evangelicals looked increasingly to the culture to shape their romantic interaction. So rose dating in much of evangelicalism. It reigns in the current day.
Others in the Reformed and Fundamentalist camp clung to more involved romantic systems, including forms of courtship that persist in the present. And so evangelicalism finds itself in a familiar place on the issue of dating: divided. Now, the question is this: which system is best? Can the two compromise? We’ll find out–tomorrow.