It’s a familiar situation: a single person who attends one church becomes romantically interested in a person who doesn’t attend that church.
Once this happens, the woman starts attending the man’s church more frequently, or the man stops participating as much in his church, or the teen’s parents consider changing churches so junior can be closer to his girlfriend.
There are many variations on the theme, of course, and many factors contributing to the phenomena, but the fundamental question that all of them raise is this: To what degree should a believer’s participation in church life change due to dating?
Obviously, once people who don’t both attend the same church marry, one of them will necessarily leave his or her church and join the other’s, or join a church that is new to them both. The question is what contributes to healthy relationships and healthy church life before that time.
We won’t consider here those situations in which people run the risk of being unequally yoked or in which one professing believer doesn’t have a church or hasn’t been active (these are serious issues, and are appropriate for a different discussion). We’ll consider here whether it is appropriate for one of the daters to demote participation in church life in order to promote the dating relationship.
Understandably, a dating relationship is significant in any person’s life, for the same reason that marriage is significant. Believers should date with a view to marriage; that is, they should date with the intention to evaluate whether the other person is a suitable candidate for biblical marriage. This runs counter to the world’s notions of “falling in love,” in which courtship (does anyone use that word anymore?) and even marriage are said to just “happen” as a result of cosmic forces of attraction that we are helpless (and unwise) to resist.
But the Bible holds marriage in a different light, and those who contemplate marriage should evaluate relationships accordingly. Believers in dating relationships, then, want to “get to know” one another. This includes spending time with each other, and if church life is significant (as it should be), then the natural consequence is that they would spend time with each other in the church setting.
This is especially true when the believers are from different faith traditions (denominations), and part of getting to know one another is getting to know the particulars of a different faith practice.
The result is that one of them invariably reduces their involvement in church in order to “get to know” the other in their church setting. Sometimes this even results in a 50/50 split, in which each is missing from their own worship service half the time in order to be with the other. Other aspects of church life are also affected, such as Bible studies, small groups, prayer services, and so forth.
What is at Stake
Some might say that there is nothing to be alarmed about here, because they are, after all, in church somewhere. But there are a few things that every believer should consider in dating.
Men are called to be the spiritual leaders in marital relationships and in the church, so cross-church dating raises some questions:
- How does the man lead the woman in her spiritual growth by pulling her away from involvement in her faith community before he is her husband?
- How does the man lead in his own church by becoming less involved there?
- If the man pursues the woman in part by accommodating her faith practices, how will he then lead in faith practice when married?
Women should also be concerned about what dating practices say about any prospective husband’s faith practice (and their own):
- If the man compromises his faith practice in order to date the woman, what does that suggest that he will do when he marries her?
- Why should the woman decrease her commitment to her church before the man has made a marriage commitment? (In other words, what happens when the relationship ends, and the woman has sacrificed her own church commitment?)
- Should the woman desire a man whose faith commitment is less a priority to him than she is? Should the woman prioritize a man (not her husband) over her faith commitment?
What You Should Do
Believers who are dating should certainly know the other’s belief and practice well before committing to marriage. But if it is unwise to sacrifice one’s own church commitments in order to pursue a cross-church romance, what do you do?
The Bible doesn’t give us explicit instructions here. But you might consider a few practical implications of the Bible’s teaching on each believer’s walk with the Lord in the context of the local church, and given the ideals of marriage:
- First, remember that you are not yet married, and this relationship might not last. Prioritize what you know will;
- Second, neither the man nor the woman should sacrifice Sunday worship to the dating relationship. Yes, I know what this will usually mean: the happy couple will not be be in Sunday worship together. But until you are married, your respective church commitments are your primary priority. And, consider the effect on your worship if your main church gathering has become a context for your dating;
- Third, get to know the other’s faith practice by joining them in other church contexts, such as Bible studies, small groups, and church socials. If one or both churches has multiple services, you might participate together, so long as each believer is maintaining their worship obligations;
- Fourth, include your faith family in your cross-church dating prospects. Seek the advice of a trusted church leader or another spiritually mature member. Dating comes with its own set of standard-issue blinders, and we need our church family to see clearly regarding relationships.
Because our faith in Christ is expressed primarily in relation to the local church in which we are members, we should consider the effects of all our actions on it. This is particularly true in the area of dating and marriage, and though it is not wise for the church to have cult-like veto power of member matrimony, membership should generally influence dating, not vice-versa.