My very first experience with a Christian dating book came just days after I gave my life to Christ. I was a freshman in high school and had joined a small group of young women who were studying Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity. I devoured the book. As a teenager, my new faith was bringing clarity, peace, and meaning to my confusing life, and the passion for Jesus that the young women around me modeled and Elisabeth Elliot described in her writing stirred me. Her relationship with Jim Elliot detailed in the book was marked by deep faith, sacrifice, self-restraint, and adventure—they were committed to living wholeheartedly for God, to be part of a plan bigger than their own individual desires. I craved a life like that too.
So when she also wrote that women were to submit to men as their leaders, to wait for them to initiate, I believed her. I readily adopted her message that to love Jesus and put him first in my dating relationships meant to fully adhere to traditional gender roles. I was attracted to the order and simplicity of this new teaching, and I soon picked up every other Christian dating book I could find. In these books I discovered many more ideas about men and women, each claiming to be biblical. I read that women have a sinful desire to take command and manipulate. I read that men are controlled by their visual nature and their sex drive. And I read that women are created to be beautiful, on the inside and out, and that this beauty is meant for men.
The problem was that with my limited experience as a young person and lack of wisdom as a baby Christian, I could not distinguish between biblical truths and cultural values. But this is a crucial exercise to engage in when we consider dating because, as our blogger Christensen Low rightly states (p. 18), dating is a completely cultural invention. We have no biblical mandates on which gender should hold doors open or pay for dinner. There are no biblical descriptions of every man’s supposed “visual nature” or every woman’s “need for emotional intimacy.” Dating looks entirely different around the world and, as it stands today, was nonexistent even 100 years ago. And yet, Christian dating books are often filled with oversimplified advice that draw on cultural stereotypes about gender and describe them as God’s only way and intention for romantic relationships.
Does the Bible really teach that men and women are truly opposites, with differing needs, desires, roles, and communication styles, as so many of these books argue? Are these gender stereotypes (which are clearly modeled after medieval concepts of chivalry or princess fairy tales) biblical and essential for godly relationships? As a good friend recently asked me, “Why are Christians so obsessed with determining who opens a door? Why does it matter?” Her frustration highlighted to me how much we have missed the point. It seems that we are too quick to “spin our wheels” over these small details when the Bible calls us to much greater challenges—to grow in our love for God and others and to participate wholly in the plans God has for us to grow his kingdom. I am inspired by Jason Eden’s excellent article (p. 7) that calls us to build our relationships on these important principles.
As with all of life, I believe relationships are to be marked by grace, holiness, and the freedom that comes only through the redeeming blood of Christ. May God give us great wisdom and discernment as we work to discover what this looks like in our relationships, dating and otherwise.
P.S. There is so much to discuss when it comes to gender issues and romantic relationships. So, please join us on our blog, The CBE Scroll (blog.cbeinternational.org), where we have compiled several posts for dialogue on dating (see p. 18 for an introduction). And, as always, we would love to receive your emails with comments, critiques, and suggestions for Mutuality. Blessings to you as you read and reflect!