It isn’t that popular Christian conceptions of dating boundaries are too big, but that their scope is too small. We ask physical and quantitative questions: “How many inches can I move my hand?” “How many seconds can I hug (or kiss) her?” “How many minutes can we spend alone?” Advice often follows in simplistic suit.

But a truly Christian conception of boundaries in dating will not only draw physical boundaries (as if dating was merely a relationship between two Christian bodies). It will draw boundaries that reflect the full personhood of each individual by showing concern for every aspect of each individual—personal, emotional, moral, and sexual, to name only a few of those many interrelated aspects.

Four Kinds of Boundaries

So here are some ways to think about not only physical boundaries but also several fundamental aspects of personhood.

(1) Personal boundaries promote individual independence. They protect a person’s agency, space, friend/family/God relationships, and academic/professional contexts as their ownthat is, free from invasiveness of their romantic other. Practically speaking, dating relationships should be invited and wanted, not pressured or coerced. Dependence or co-dependence cede that which God has granted to every person in his image by divine right (Matt. 7:12).

It is wrong for a person to have a kind of control in a romantic context that God does not call any person to give to another (see 2 Sam. 11:4, 27; 13:14; cf. Prov. 25:28; Gal. 5:22-23; 1 Tim. 1:7; 2:9). Personal agency maintained by good boundaries furnishes romantic intimacy with meaning and substance. Love presupposes freedom, and freedom presupposes the relational safety to say “no.”

(2) Emotional boundaries promote relational health. There are several ways to exercise emotional wisdom with feelings. We can taper how much we express; it’s best to not always say everything we feel. We never owe anyone a specific emotion or a particular amount of it. To give another your whole heart too early is both unsafe to you and unfair to them.

Timeliness is as important as integrity in a relationship (Prov. 15:23; 25:11). To respect timeliness in what you allow yourself to feel and how you express it does not devalue your emotions through suppression. Rather, good timing honors the sanctity of romantic emotions and their rightful end (Song of Solomon 8:4). Romantic feeling mixed with relational health is God’s desired context to make a dating couple a married one.

(3) Spiritual boundaries promote clarity. To retain space for yourself spiritually—that is, individual relationships with God and the church that do not depend on your romantic other—protects your heart. You will have all the resources you need to make decisions motivated by the desire to honor God first, not yourself (Prov. 1:5; Eph. 4:16). You don’t have to pray together every day.

You don’t have to move churches. You don’t have to switch small groups. Play it cool and see where things go. You are each your own person walking with God and neighbor, and you undercut your ability to give love in a safe and stable way as soon as you become anything less. (Be worried if people start giving you couple combo-names like “Brannifer” or “Joeronica.”)

(4) Sexual boundaries promote independence, health, and clarity. Yet we often talk about sexual purity as putting our hearts in a cage only to be unlocked in on the wedding day. I fear what that view of sexuality would look like in marriage. Conversely, we seek to cultivate sexual purity that reflects the holistic love of Christ for his sake (Psalm 33:21; Proverbs 4:23; 1 Peter 1:22).

Purpose of Boundaries

Boundaries do not so much stifle romance as empower healthy romantic intimacy. They do not so much keep people out as hold you together as you grow in relational intimacy.

Of course, you cannot maintain holistic boundaries without specific lists and rules. To throw away specificity for idealism is to blunder headlong into impurity. But the problem with most views of boundaries is that purity itself becomes conceived of as a list, rather than as a kind of relationship with Christ, community, and a romantic other. Boundaries in dating are not first and foremost God’s prescriptions for moral purity so much as they are God’s structure of care for human dignity.