I generally always recommend doing things the traditional way, but not just for the sake of tradition. Rather, because there was usually a good reason for doing things that way; and the same applies to the notion of courting. Call it dating if you will, but for the sake of simplicity I will use the term “dating” in this article to specifically refer to the form of modern dating which is the opposite of courting. I’ll try to briefly explain the difference and why I will only court; let’s start with a definition.
Court: verb. “to have a romantic relationship with someone that you hope to marry”
I want to put special emphasis on “hope to marry,” courtship is very intentional. Dating could be for any number of reasons: to not be alone, to just have fun, etc.; but the intention of courting is always clear.
In my traditional Christian worldview, any romantic relationship should be entered only with the end goal of marriage. Anything else, in my view, is frankly a waste of time; and potentially a waste of heart as well. If the ultimate goal is marriage, then dating casually is pointless. It doesn’t take any special investigation or very much time to figure out if someone is capable of being fun to be around; that will come out naturally in very little time. On the other hand, many people today tend to neglect thinking about the future. Will my spouse be a good parent? Do they believe what I believe on this highly divisive issue? Can I tolerate them on their worst days? What do their core character virtues tell me about what I can expect in the future? These are all good things to consider and even talk about during courtship. If the goal is to marry someone, and ideally spend the rest of your lives together, it is better to have some uncomfortable conversations beforehand, rather than painfully awkward situations when it’s already too late.
For more ideas about what to look for in a potential spouse, see my article “Choosing Who to Marry” which will serve as a sister-article to this one; and of course many of those details are highly personal and change depending on one’s taste and goals. The remainder of this article will focus on the one aspect which that article does not go into much depth on: physical intimacy in a relationship.
For each stage of any relationship we have natural boundaries, and as we get closer to people, of course these change and allow for more contact. Romantic relationships are often trickier for young Christians to navigate, because there are not many clear set instructions in the bible beyond “avoid fornication,” which is simply pre-marital sex (more on that at the end of the article). So I will try to list some ideas and things to keep in mind for each stage of a relationship. Of course it is personal, and I recommend discussing your boundaries with your partner and praying for wisdom and discernment among yourselves.
When it’s very early and you’re still getting comfortable just being around the person, there’s no need to have much physical contact at all; give it a few weeks. At this stage, very casual contact to show affection may be beneficial to your partner’s self-esteem and fostering a connection. Stuff like hand-holding, a touch on the arm, and friendly hugs (not necessarily bear-hugs, not just yet). This may not seem like much, but it is early and you’ll end up appreciating other aspects more by focusing less on the physical side.
A couple months in you’ll be more comfortable. It’s important to remember now that you aren’t married, and aren’t even promised to each other yet. Keep it friendly and casual. Simple rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t do it with someone you are not sexually attracted to, you shouldn’t be doing it at all outside of marriage. This summarizes this entire section, but it’s an important point and I think these considerations bear repeating in a world that constantly sells the opposite. I would personally recommend refraining even from kissing until the day you get married, unless it is a Christian kiss you would give any close friend, as mentioned in 2 Corinthians 13:12.
It is best to err on the side of caution and prudency, to save from shame or guilt if anything should not go according to plan. Of course by this stage, we all hope it will end in marriage and it probably will, but it is ideal to wait until you cross the finish line before you start to act like you are life-partners with disregard for whoever your actually future spouse will be. Hopefully it will be your first fiancé, but none of us knows the future, and what is it to wait just a little longer to show respect to each other and to honor God?
Anything, as long as you keep it between yourself and your spouse, and discuss your personal boundaries with each other. This is where it is significant to remember though, it is good to respect one another as people and a brother or sister in Christ; but you no longer belong to yourself. Getting married is a significant event; you are declaring that you belong to the other person, and yielding the rights to your body over to them, mutually. This should be done because you trust them to treat you right, marriage very faith-based and a picture of our relationship with God as the church. If we trust God to do right by us, we should yield everything to Him.
“Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.”
1 Corinthians 7:3-5
*Now on the topic of the past, I can imagine many people thinking something like, “well, that’s a nice idea, but it’s too late because I’ve already gone too far.” I would strongly disagree that anything is ever too late in that sense. It is true, that once something is done, it can’t be taken back, and we have to live with our mistakes; but I think it’s another mistake to let our past define us and keep us from a better future. Whether it’s with the same person or not, start following a Godlier standard of boundaries now, and when you get married, you will be glad you did. Using the past as an excuse would be a cheap justification to continue to live in sin.
Especially in a case where you have never yet crossed certain lines with someone, you will find that your relationship is much deeper, fuller, and richer as a result of waiting for marriage before going very far physically. The reasons for this are fairly simple; abstaining from the physical makes you focus more on connecting in deeper ways first- mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But it also shows that you have a high degree of respect for yourself, your partner, and want to honor God by conducting yourself in a different way now than in the past. It shows patience, discernment, maturity, self-control, loyalty, among other positive traits; over all it will yield to more trust and a stronger marriage. If you have a past, the willingness and effort to do things differently will show that you really care and are trying hard to make this relationship work. If you don’t have a past, be thankful and mindful of the rare opportunity you have in the modern world, to be physically pure when you get married. Either way, your efforts to remain pure going forward will be rewarded, sooner or later, even if it is not in the way you think. Godspeed.
The sister-article to this one, where I try to focus more on how to look for the right attributes and traits for a potential spouse.
Very good article about why cohabiting happens, the harms it causes, and why it is better to never do it, or even to stop if you already do.
Article about the benefits of maintaining a high standard of physical purity before marriage.
Article about the difficulties that transgressing physical purity can cause later in life, and how to manage it if you have.