Many years ago, my magazine, Practical Homeschooling, featured a column by a teen homeschooler named Joshua Harris.
Joshua went on to write a best-selling book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which he followed with a number of other titles on courtship, sexual purity, and church life.
In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua confirmed what I and others had said for some time, that modern “dating” – meaning boy and girl hanging out alone, testing the boundaries and usually going too far – was unbiblical. He promoted in its place the idea of treating young Christian women like sisters.
This all sounded OK. My Hungarian grandmother had told me how, in her generation, teens and young adults typically hung out together in large co-ed groups. Only later did they pair off as couples, under the eagle eyes of their families.
However, Joshua’s book went a bit further. The message many received was that young men were supposed to remain aloof right up until the point where they decided a particular girl was “the one” they hoped to marry. Then, and only then, would they ask permission to court her.
Thanks to this belief, in the words of an upcoming World magazine article, “many young men seem frozen” and many young men and women both “think we should never hang out unless we want to marry.”
When my daughter Sarah was a student at Patrick Henry College, this definitely was the mainstream view. In practice, it led to the female students endlessly agonizing over whether young men they liked returned their interest – as there was literally no way to know! A girl couldn’t ask a guy if he liked her without seeming forward. Relationships were either totally casual (in a brother-sister sense) or verging on total commitment, with no range in between.
I believe the Song of Solomon holds the key to unlocking these frozen relationships. In Song of Solomon 4:9, 4:10, 4:12, and 5:1, the author uses the phrase “my sister, my spouse.” I always secretly thought that sounded rather creepy, but now I get it. The Bible is making the point that a “sister in Christ” can also be the object of love and affection – treating “the young women like sisters” doesn’t have to mean “treating them like brothers.” Example, from Song of Solomon chapter 4:
9. Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.
10. How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!
This indicates that it’s possible to progress romantically with a Christian “sister” without falling into lust. In other words, a young man doesn’t have to go from carefully neutral brotherly thoughts to proposing without any steps of increasing affection along the way. He can tell the girl he likes her . . . he likes her very much . . . he wants to get to know her better . . . and so forth, without embarking on all the trappings of either dating or a formal courtship, and without expecting her to immediately start considering him husband material.
In fact, I would submit that it is uncharitable and unbrotherly for young men to keep girls in the dark, without a clue as to whether they are attracting romantic attention or not. In the absence of any information, girls will naturally overreact to the tiniest signs, which is great if you’re writing Jane Austen novels or drawing-room farces, but not so wonderful otherwise. The other possible overreaction is to close off all emotion entirely, for fear of being mistaken, which is great if you’re trying out for the part of Mr. Spock on Star Trek, but not so wonderful otherwise.
This “all or nothing” approach is also hard on the young men, who (knowing the young women are watching closely for signs of affection) naturally tend to feel wary and hunted.
The bottom line for young Christian men and women: It’s OK to express growing affection (just not alone in dark corners!). The truth will set the frozen people free.