Dating or Courting?
To "court" means to pay attention to a person in the hope of winning that person's favour. To "date" means to make and keep an appointment with that person. These two words are virtually synonymous.
If there is any difference, it probably lies in this: dating is the initial stage whereby two people, who are unacquainted with each other, seek to become acquainted. Courting, on the other hand, is the more advanced stage where two people who are acquainted wish to become better acquainted with a view to marriage.
Whatever name we give it, we are talking about something that causes the hearts of the young to palpitate with either nervousness or excitement.
Holy Scripture gives different examples of how marriage partners were sought and found in ancient times. For example, Abraham sought a marriage partner for Isaac, without Isaac ever seeing her (cf. Genesis 24:4). In this instance, divine guidance was sought and received in determining who would be Isaac's wife (cf. Genesis 24:14). Jacob himself chose Rachel as his wife (cf. Genesis 29:18). Although Samson chose the woman whom he wanted to marry, it was his father who spoke with the bride's father (cf. Judges 14:2). Saul gave Michal as wife to David (1 Samuel 18:27). All these different texts are descriptive, that is, they describe how men sought and found wives. There are no texts in Scripture that are prescriptive, that is, which prescribe how men ought to find wives. Since we are accustomed in our age to the process of dating or courting, we will need to apply Biblical principles to ensure that this is done in a proper manner.
The purpose of courting
We defined courting as the act of paying attention to someone with a view towards winning that person's favour. We should become more precise in our definition. It has the view, not just winning the persons favour, but with winning that person's favour "with a view towards marriage." Since marriage is a most serious matter – one of the most important events in a person's life – a couple will do well to use the time of courting wisely. While it's a time where a couple can derive much joy and pleasure from each other's company, they do well to use this time for good wholesome communication about some very serious issues. They should use the opportunity to discuss and become aware of each other's commitment to the Lord, of each other's understanding of what the Lord requires of them in marriage and in life in general. Courting provides couples with the opportunity to test and be reassured about their mutual devotion to the Lord and to each other.
It could happen that a young man has no inclination towards marriage at all, and yet he likes to date girls 'just for fun.' I couldn't say that dating without any intention of marriage is sin, but I would say that it can easily lead to sin. Why does a young man prefer the company of a young woman over against his male companions? What kind of activities would he prefer to do with her than with his mates? What pleasure does her presence provide him that the presence of his friends cannot provide? I think you will understand what I'm driving at. It's most likely that the young man prefers the company of the young woman precisely because she is of the opposite sex. He is attracted to her, not just emotionally, but also physically. Let's be very honest with each other. If he continues to date, the mere presence of a young woman will not satisfy him. He will want more. He will want to hold hands. It won't stop there either. Soon he will want to give his date a kiss. We can expect that if all things are normal, his desires will continue to increase in intensity.
These desires are nothing to be ashamed of. God has created us with this physical attraction to the opposite sex. If a young man continues to date or court without a view to marriage, however, there is a very great danger that as time progresses he will want more and more from his dates. He will want what God has ordained only for marriage. Once these desires have been aroused, they are very hard to deny. Dating or courting without a view to marriage is flirting with temptation. The Scriptures warn us to watch and pray, lest we come into temptation.
“For the spirit might be willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthews 26:41
The prerequisite to dating or courting
Since dating or courting should only take place with a view to marriage, only those should date or court who possess the spiritual maturity to understand God's purpose for marriage and who also possess a sincere commitment to honouring this purpose. Their view of marriage will determine the criterion by which they judge the qualities that make a good spouse. Or more simply, people will choose a marriage partner according to how they view marriage.
For example, if a young man thinks that marriage is nothing more than a licence to engage in sexual intercourse, will look for a young woman who possesses outward beauty, one to whom he is physically attracted. That will be his most important criterion. He will pay little attention to her housekeeping or home-making qualities. He'll give little weight to her spiritual character. On the other hand, a young man who knows that sex doesn't fill the stomach or make a cosy home will give more consideration to a woman's home-making qualities.
For this reason, no person should begin dating or courting unless he possesses the spiritual maturity to understand the purpose of marriage, as well as a sincere commitment to honouring this purpose in marriage. A good rule to judge one's readiness to begin dating or courting is by judging one's readiness to commit him/herself to the Lord by way of making profession of faith.
I would not discourage all interactions between young men and women up until that time of spiritual maturity. That is, I wouldn't discourage boys and girls from going on outings together in larger groups. I wouldn't discourage special "friendships" between boys and girls during this time, or boys escorting girl friends to the school graduation dinner, or the likes. But I would discourage dating or courting proper until one has come to possess spiritual maturity. That is, I would discourage two people from going out together alone until one knows God's purpose in marriage and is spiritually committed to honouring this purpose. That, I believe, is the prerequisite to dating or courting.
One thing that we do learn from Scripture is that parents were often very much involved in the matter of whom a son or daughter would marry. I think the reason is very clear. Often wisdom and spiritual maturity increase with age and life experience. Furthermore, parents often know their own children better than the children know themselves. Parents will know the strengths and weaknesses of their sons and daughters, and will be able to give some guidance in looking for a marriage partner that will compliment them. Of course, it goes without saying that only those parents who themselves know and are committed to honouring God's purpose in marriage will offer good advice to their sons and daughters.
To some degree, parents are still involved in the matter of whom a son or daughter will marry. For example, a young man is expected to ask a young woman's father if he might have her hand in marriage. But to wait until that time in a relationship before involving the parents has little benefit. For once a relationship has developed so far that a couple wishes to marry, there is little that fathers or mothers can do to dissuade their sons or daughters. They will likely marry with or without the blessings of their parents, for their relationship has developed too far to be broken easily. It seems much more prudent for parents to be involved with the selection of dates from the very beginning. Parents should explain to their children that they would very much like to be involved in this matter, and explain the reason.
In order for this to happen, parents will need to win the trust of their sons and daughters to talk about the young women or men whom they would like to court. Siblings will often tease a brother or sister when they find out that he or she is interested in a young woman or man. This leads to feelings of shame and embarrassment for the young man or woman involved. Embarrassment or shame will induce secrecy so that the youth will not want to talk openly about it. But while siblings might tease each other, parents should never engage in this sort of teasing. Rather, they should go out of their way to assure their son or daughter that they have nothing to be ashamed about. In this way, their sons and daughters will feel comfortable talking to their parents about the people whom they are interested in. Hopefully, young men and women will possess sufficient respect for the wisdom and spiritual maturity of their fathers and mothers that they will welcome their parent's participation in this most important choice of their lives.