Toward a Biblical Approach to Dating
There are two popular, misleading ways of relating the Bible to dating. The first is to think that because the Bible does not speak about dating, we have liberty to dive headlong into romantic waters, guided only by desire to get married. We'll call this the libertarian approach. This view allows us to imbibe secular dating-game platitudes like the currently popular sage wisdom called flirtexting.
The second is to think that because the Bible does not speak about dating, it forbids dating entirely, and constrains us to pattern our practices after the cultural options available to the biblical authors. We'll call this the purist approach. This view allows us to imbibe (not necessarily Christian) ancient, secular, dating-game platitudes like asking the dad for a date and bundling (wait, do people still bundle?).
Institution of Dating
Thankfully, there is a third way. Compare how the Bible relates to dating with how it relates to national politics. The Bible teaches that earthly kingdoms are of this age, yet they are institutionally legitimate. While they are legitimate, they are not holy. Likewise, dating may be called an institution of this age, yet it is legitimate. While it is legitimate, it is not holy. It is neither a worldly structure outside the reach of Scripture (the libertarian approach), nor a heavenly structure that carries with it a mandated form (the purist approach). Let's break down exactly what I mean.
Dating is a this-age institution (it will perish with "this present evil age" [Gal. 1:4] like wealth in 1 Tim. 6:17), because marriage is a this-age institution (Matt. 22:30; 1 Cor. 7:34). The difference, however, is that marriage pictures for us the consummative union of Christ and his church on the last day (Eph. 5:31-32; Rev. 19:7-9). Dating, conversely, does not depict anything. Dating has no redemptive-historical meaning.
So let us describe the nature and content of dating this way:
Dating is merely our culture's disposable (yet legitimate) mode of expressing interest (to any degree) in entering into the marriage covenant with a particular person.*
Thus, dating is not more or less biblical than the courtship rituals of the Ancient Near Eastern culture in which the Old Testament was written, or the courtship customs of the Jewish/Greco-Roman culture in which the New Testament was written.
Dating does not carry special divine sanction like marriage. In other words, the institution of dating does not receive its legitimacy from covenantal realities and does not "sanctify" as marriage does (1 Cor. 7:14). Dating is merely the way our culture manages the transition from singleness to marriage without the ancient (secular) courtship structures. It is a this-world cultural mode of manifesting a legitimate transition that God endorses and delights in.
Practice of Dating
In dating, theology informs our conduct, intentions, boundaries, relationships, and the manner in which we go about expressing them. If you are dating someone, no matter the level of formality or intimacy, there are helpful biblical truths that God has provided for your encouragement, discipline, and faithfulness. He has not left you to crude speculation (libertarian) or crass rigidity (purist).
Here are some starting places for living in an other-worldly (Eph. 2:7; Heb. 6:5) and holy (Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:15) manner in a this-worldly and non-holy cultural institution:
Creation: (1) Your conception of humanity should govern your conception of your gender (Gen. 1:26-28), not the other way around. (2) Because you are finite (Psalm 39:4; Psalm 90:12), you are not called to God-like certainty about the future of your relationship. (3) Awkwardness is okay. It is the emotional experience of being vulnerable with another person. God is not sitting on the sidelines of your romantic life waiting for you to become winsome (Prov. 15:28). He anticipates, delights in, and works through awkward faithfulness (1 Cor. 2:4). (4) Pre-marital romantic feelings are part of the inherent goodness of creation (Gen. 2:23), so they should be celebrated, not condemned.
Fall: (5) You are a sinner, and will desire to use, lie, manipulate, and push emotional, physical, and relational boundaries for unholy reasons (Jer. 17:9). Don't structure your relationship as if you will always be at the top of your game (Matt. 18:7). Create external accountability (Eph. 4:27) and internal boundaries (Matt. 18:7; Eph. 6:11). Guard against idolatry (Deut. 4:15-16). (6) You are dating a sinner (Rom. 3:23). Anticipate patience, forgiveness, and frustration (Gal. 5:22-23; 1 Pet. 1:22). This also means that preferences, standards, desires, fears, and annoyances do not control the agenda of the relationship (Gal. 5:24-26). (7) Always be ready to break up if the relationship becomes unhealthy or continually sinful (Psalm 66:18).
Redemption: (8) Your primary goal should be to assist the other person in growing in sanctity and love for Christ and others (Phil. 1:9-11). (9) Because of our union with Christ, the brother/sister relationship is the foundational relationship between two dating Christians (Mark 3:35; 1 Cor. 12:27), and even between two married Christians (cf. Eph. 5:1, 8, 22-33). (10) The great command to love your neighbor as yourself is not superseded or subverted by romantic love, but provides the necessary context for romance to be love (Rom. 13:9).
Consummation: (11) Seek to help the person you're dating to cherish the coming consummation of Christ more than the possible consummation of marriage (James 5:8; 2 Pet. 3:10). (12) Those who presume upon the foretaste of covenantal realities for the sake of this world are storing up greater judgment for themselves (Heb. 6:4-7). Likewise, dating someone when you know it will not lead to marriage is to consciously consume foretastes of marriage covenantal realities (romance, special emotional intimacy, vulnerability, a level of security) for selfish, and therefore sinful ends.
The Bible plays a vital role in understanding dating, both in the nature and function of dating as a culture and institution, and the manner in which we date. But more than anything else, I pray that sanity and peace would come to my peers in the world of Christian dating. God is with you, brothers and sisters, and he is working his perfect plan through the inevitable, excruciating awkwardness of Christian dating (Psalm 37:23; Prov. 16:9; Prov. 19:21).
*This definition does not imply that either person must be certain that they will marry the other person, but only that there is enough possibility of marriage to warrant special interaction.