I've been working in youth ministry in some capacity for roughly eight years, and this is one of the most common questions I've fielded from young Christians: “How can (insert boyfriend/girlfriend) and I have a Christian dating relationship? How do we keep it centered on Christ?” As often I've heard it, I still love the the heart behind the question. A couple of youngins' get to dating, and they want to “do it right.” They realize that God is concerned with every aspect of our lives, including our romantic involvements, so they've resolved to have a “Christian” dating relationship and sought guidance.
Realizing that practical steps matter, most often they want tips or steps they can take to build their relationship in Christ. “Should we call each other and pray daily? What about a devotional? Should we buy a devotional and go through it together? Maybe have a weekly Bible study?” If the young man's of a theological bent, he shows up with a potential 10-week preaching series already outlined. (Protip: this last one is definitely not a winning approach.)
At that point, one of the first things I usually tell them is that there's really no “biblical theology” of dating tucked away the book of Relationships 4:5-20. There are some rather obvious tips like praying for each other in your daily devotions, encouraging each other to read the Scriptures, setting appropriate boundaries (emotional, spiritual, and so on), and pursuing sexual holiness. But aside from that, there's no real, hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing.
Still, over the years I've come to see that there is one key mark of a maturing relationship centered and continually centering itself on Christ: both of you are absolutely committed to each other's involvement in the local church.
4 Reasons to Be in the Pews
“Go to church? Really? This is your big dating tip?” Yup.
For some this point might seem counter-intuitive. As I already mentioned, couples often get this idea that to be truly “spiritual” they should start interweaving their spiritual lives into one. This can actually become a problem, especially because you're not actually married. These devotions together can develop into a couple-centered spirituality that begins to replace the church-centered relationship with God that the New Testament actually prescribes.
No, if you want your significant other to actually grow with Christ you will encourage each other to regularly worship because you want them to:
1. Sit under Real Preaching. I don't have the kind of space necessary to speak of the manifold benefits of sitting under regular preaching, but I'll list a few. First, it convicts of sin and humbles us before Christ. A heart that doesn't submit to listening to the law will be hardened against any call to repentance—that’s the death-knell of any godly relationship. Second, it reminds us of the gospel. Unless regularly reminded of the grace of Christ, the heart will begin to sink into sin, go into hiding, and find its deepest affirmation in things other than Christ—like an idolatrous focus on your relationship, for instance. Third, the Word of God truly preached brings us by the power of the Spirit into the presence of Christ. Finally, we need to hear an outside word that we can't quickly rationalize, twist, distort, or ignore.
2. Meet with Other Believers. You also want your significant other to have communion with the body of Christ outside of your own relationship. If your relationship becomes the center of their faith, the main and only encouragement they have in Christ, something has gone wrong. Who is there to support and encourage when you're having a bad day, or when your relationship needs a check because it's gone off the rails into sin? What happens if you break up? Even the best married couples need other, godly voices speaking wisdom, conviction, comfort, and healing grace into their lives. Indeed, I don't know a single godly couple who would tell you otherwise.
3. Receive the Lord's Supper. Whether you're a Baptist, Anglican, or Presbyterian, you want to be regularly reminded that Christ alone is the source of spiritual life—he died, rose again, and our union with him is the only true food for your soul. We need to feast on this truth regularly, or we will be tempted to draw strength from other, lesser sources, like your own relationship.
4. Worship God Alone. Our souls need worship. Yes, everything we do under the sun is worship. Work is worship. Play is worship. Sleep is worship. At the same time, it's important to recognize that the corporate gathering of the people of God, in receiving the supper and lifting our voices in song, prepares and shapes the desires of our hearts to focus on God throughout the whole week. If for no other reason than avoiding the danger of your significant other turning your own relationship (or you!) into an idol, you want them weekly pouring out their hearts in praise to their true Redeemer and Savior.
Did you note the developing trend in the four points above? All four stand on their own as solid reasons to be committed to gathering (and being a member of) a local body. Yet all four play an important function with respect to your relationship to each other. First, they do the negative work of preventing the greatest danger in any “Christian” dating relationship—no, not sexual sin, but the human tendency to make an idol out of the beloved. Usually this idolatry justifies sexual sin and so many other relational pathologies. Second, they do the positive work of setting your eyes on Christ and his completed work in your life. In fact, you avoid relational idolatry by setting your eyes on Christ in practices and relationships in the local body.
Warning and Encouragement
To cap off my dating advice, I'd like to offer a warning and an encouragement. First the warning: If you enter the relationship and suddenly stop going to church, pray less, and read less, that's probably a sign it's not heading in a godly direction. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that if your relationship is a serious drag on your commitment to obeying Christ's commands to gather with the body, this is actually killing your relationship with Jesus, and is therefore, by definition, not a “Christian” relationship.
Does this mean you should break up immediately? Maybe. Maybe not. It does mean you have grounds for thinking it through with care. Certainly there's room for some repentance.
Finally, the encouragement: Men, make it your aim to be the first to encourage your sweetheart to be involved in fellowship with other believers, and the last to feed any desire to cut off from corporate worship. Be as diligent about carving out time for corporate worship as you are in carving “alone time” (the benefits of which should probably also be up for debate). Women, you want a man who has solid, healthy relationships with other men in the body of Christ. Be as jealous for his time with body as you are about his time with you.
Ultimately, remember, you're not the point of the relationship—Jesus is. Point each other to Christ and let Christ knit you together as he sees fit.