We’ve all heard people say that courtship, and/or courtship advocates, are legalistic. To some extent, this is true. While I haven’t met any legalistic courtship believers, I have heard plenty of stories about them. Additionally, anything can become a form of legalism. Any belief, any idea, any thing can become an idol or source of legalism.
However, there is a “system” which is far more legalistic, in general, than courtship: recreational dating. Yes, recreational dating is legalistic.
Now, perhaps, you may be shocked. You don’t hear people claim dating is legalistic very often, if at all. Before I go into just how dating has become a form of legalism, first we need to define terms. What is legalism after all?
There seem to be three forms of legalism today:
- Good works and/or obeying the Law must be done to attain salvation
- Good works and/or obeying the Law must be done tomaintain salvation
- Looking down on other Christians who do not hold to an individual’s standard of holiness.
This third form of legalism is the sort of legalism most commonly thrown around today. I have never heard of anyone claiming that you must court in order to achieve or maintain salvation, but if they exist, that is pretty peculiar. However, we do have courtship/betrothal advocates being labelled legalistic because it is believed many of them look down on Christians who do not court.
As I said above, this is possible. Courtship and/or betrothal can become idols. They can become legalistic. That being said, Dating, and it’s loyal supporters, are far more guilty of this form of legalism. While courtship opponents are quick to point out that courtship is not a system to be found in the Bible, they forget that dating is nowhere to be found. In fact, the dating practices of today would have been considered scandalous during biblical times.
While I think courtship advocates do need to be careful, I think it is the courtship opponents, and supporters of dating, who really need to look themselves in the mirror.
While I personally believe that courtship can look very different from person to person, many dating activists religiously cling on to certain aspects of dating, and believe that you must do things their way, or else you’re a weird, legalistic buffoon doomed to never marry or “marry the wrong person.”
5 Ways Dating is legalistic:
1. You must have feelings first
Dating is vehemently opposed to the idea that we should guard our hearts during courtship. Wrapped up in the fairy tale romances of Hollywood, dating claims that you must be head-over-heels “in love” with someone before you enter a “relationship”. This isn’t biblical, yet Christian dating die-hards cling to emotional love like scripture.
Certainly, attraction is important, and to some extent, feelings can’t be controlled; however, the foundation of love is sacrifice, not romance. You have to put the needs of your spouse above your own needs or wants, and this is very hard to do if you are not attracted to someone. Attraction helps, and is definitely important. Attraction will allow the feelings to come. However, to claim that you must be “love drunk” first is dogmatic, and closes the door on other possibilities.
The mockery and dating dogma surrounding the idea that you can or should guard your heart is evidence of legalism, of looking down on those who don’t meet certain, unbiblical standards. Other people have had God-honoring courtships and marriages without starting out deeply “in love”. There is no formula.
2. You must pick your own spouse
Dating believes that you absolutely must pick your own spouse. While this is what I would prefer to do, this isn’t necessarily Biblical. In the case of Isaac and Rebecca, they didn’t meet, fall in love, and then decide to marry. It was decided for them. Apparently there are other ways to find a spouse that are just as legitimate.
While I don’t believe the example of Isaac and Rebecca is ideal, I don’t think we can say that this is wrong. I know other people, living today, who have gotten happily married through betrothal or arranged marriage. It has worked in the past, and it can and does still work today.
Yet, we are so quick to mock and look down on those who forsake the recently formed tradition of dating. According to our third definition mentioned above, this is legalism.
3. You must “try on” the other person first
Here is another blatant example of dating legalism, the idea that you have to “try on” someone before you know if they are the right one for you. You must interact with your boyfriend or girlfriend as if you were actually married to them to see if marriage would actually work. This makes sense if you were considering buying a new tool or piece of equipment. However, people are bit more valuable and complicated than mere machines.
Yet, dating proponents claim that we must “experience all the thrills and chills” of the dating world. Date often, and for whatever reason you would like so you can figure out what it is you’re looking for in a person. You must engage in romance, including physical affection such as kissing, to see if they have what it takes to please you. All these things, and more, I have been advised to do by those who esteem dating. To do otherwise, they claim, is ridiculous, foolish, and even legalistic.
On the contrary, the dogmatic belief that you must “try on” the other person is legalistic. I don’t want to do any of those things. I don’t really want to marry someone who wants to do all of those things either, since much of that advice contradicts scripture, and the idea of loving others.
4. You must have a long relationship to make sure they are the “right one.”
Similar to the above, many who support dating believe that you must have a long romantic “relationship” prior to marriage. Short relationships are looked down on, and are assumed to be inferior to longer relationships. Our culture of dating and divorce has caused us to believe that the longer the relationship, the safer you will be. The longer you get to know someone, the better you know them, the better your odds of choosing the right person.
While this seems intuitive, reality is less so. The reality is less experience is actually a benefit when it comes to making marriages last. Yet, the judgment still continues.
5. The dating “formula” is seen as the only way to achieve a healthy marriage
As all of these examples have shown, dating champions a formula that must be adhered to…or else. While critics of courtship often claim it is courtship which puts forth a formula, it is really dating which has become a formula.
It is expected that you will date. It is expected that you will fall in and out of love until you meet “the one.” If you don’t date, that must mean something is wrong with you. Either you are undesirable, or you are anti-social, or have been emotionally scarred.
To be fair, this makes sense since dating is so prevalent and assumed in our culture. When someone deviates from something so culturally foundational as dating, it’s easy to think there might be something wrong with them.
However, dating is not the only way to get married, and not even the best way to get married in my opinion. I personally have described several different methods which have shown to lead to healthy marriages, and also uphold the biblical principles of faithfulness and love.Dating, on the other-hand, often takes the stance that all other ways of finding a spouse are wrong, and that dating is superior. While merely believing dating to be the best would be fine (if it were true), such a belief falls into legalism when those who stand for dating look down on those who do not agree with them, which seems to be common.
All of that said, it definitely is possible to believe in dating without being legalistic, just as it is possible to believe in courtship without being legalistic. It is even possible to disagree with courtship and betrothal without being legalistic, just as it is possible to disagree with dating without being legalistic.
I think dating is wrong and harmful, but that doesn’t mean I think I’m better than those who do date. You may think what I believe is wrong and harmful, that is fine. You don’t need to feel superior either. It’s okay to disagree. There is no need to throw derogatory names around or believe yourself to be above a brother or sister in Christ. Someone disagreeing with you doesn’t make them a legalist.
If you believe in dating, okay, you can do that, but don’t make it a formula that everyone else has to follow. We already know all about how courtship can become legalistic. Don’t continue to make dating a form of legalism—it has enough issues already.