I know. It sounds like the last thing a Christian should be admitting to. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it talked about in a positive sense or even neutral sense in a church context. Although my wonderful vicar seemed unfazed when I once brought a guy to church to hear me preach – a guy known only as Tinder Paul. One of the major reasons for general Christian disapproval is that casual dating is often used as a euphemism for casual sex. And obviously, we don’t like that.
Sex is apparently so interesting a topic – especially when you’re not doing it – that it tends to dominate all our conversations about faith and dating; whether we agree with each other or not, the discussion never gets much further. Yes, casual dating can mean casual sex, but no it doesn’t have to. It’s an important and valid conversation to have, but if we can come out of the other side of the sex and purity conversation, there’s space to ask more:
Does our faith have anything more to say about casual dating, any values or ethical considerations, beyond ‘keep it in your pants’? Are there other reasons to be wary of, or to embrace, a decision to date?
The danger, in my very personal experience, is that in contrast to the selflessness required for a committed relationship, dating can mean a selfish and self-centred way of relating to people.
When we begin a relationship, we join in their story. We contribute to it, nurture it, and over time, it becomes our story. But when we date with no intention of commitment, other people simply become characters in our story. Sometimes we don’t even treat them like characters but more like props, things that are just there to fulfill our own needs.
If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, allow me to introduce you to a few examples of the characters I can find myself on dates with:
If what I need is entertainment, I might spend an evening with The Dependable Flirt – the one who will always come out for a few drinks and flirt incessantly all night. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it keeps me entertained.
Sometimes, when I feel ugly or I’ve had a bad week at work, what I need is an ego boost; the reassurance that someone thinks I’m brilliant and is prepared to tell me so. If that’s the case, I might find myself out with The Needy Ex. It’s comfortable, it’s safe, and it gives me the ego boost I wanted.
Sometimes, the thing I want is the thrill of the chase. It’s not just about entertainment, but the challenge of going after someone who seems above me – more attractive, more successful, more confident. So another character would be The Challenge – the just-out-of-my-league date. It’s time-consuming and takes some effort, but the achievement makes me feel good.
There are others: for the need to have an ongoing soap opera, there’s the ‘will it ever happen?’ friend. For the need to have an outrageous story to tell, there’s the highly inappropriate date. And for the need to feel like I’ve given something back to the community, there’s even the pity date…
I exaggerate to make the point, but only sort of. Is it possible to casually date without that sense of using people? Is it possible to enjoy a single life, dating around, and to still embody those gospel values, the selflessness and care for the other that we find in committed relationships?
I’m hopeful that it’s possible, because I’m sure there’s something good to be found in dating, even when it doesn’t last. In all my past dates, flings and relationships, I’ve gained something. Each time, I’ve learned something about myself, or about another person, or about what it means to be human. Each person I’ve been involved with has given me some kind of affection, care, fun, excitement or inspiration.
Didn’t Jesus, though he wasn’t dating per se, manage to meet people, sometimes just once, and have mutually enriching encounters – without them all turning into lifelong commitments to people? Surely then, we can find ways to become more like Jesus in our dating lives. Here are a few ideas, though I hope you have more:
Asking ourselves the honest questions: What’s my motivation for seeing this person? Would I think it important and worthwhile to see them, even if I was busier?
- Critical friends.
Those sometimes-painfully-honest-but-always-loving sorts of friend, who we trust to shed light on our relationships, are a valuable resource. Can we give our closest friends permission to call us out on the ways that we use people selfishly?
- Focus on friendship.
If we start to treat people, even people we’re going on dates with, as friends first of all, embodying gospel values comes much more naturally. We start to ask questions like: what am I offering out of this, giving rather than gaining? Beyond my own entertainment, am I prepared to get to know this person and support them? Dating friends and befriending dates means blurring boundaries and risking being more invested in someone that they are in you. But friendship should be at the heart of all our relationships; it just means we have to get good at having very honest conversations.
- Seek out service.
Giving our time away to serve others, serve the Church or community projects, helps to get out of the mindset that our time is our own, to do whatever makes us happiest. And the hope is that attitude overflows into our relationships.
Are you convinced? With a little less stigma, assumptions and judgement in our church culture, I think we could help those among us who are dating to enjoy that sort of lifestyle while becoming less selfish, more giving, and ultimately more like Jesus.