Apparently Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is doing a whole series on dating and relationships: “You Make Me Crazy” offers “survival skills for relationships.” I guess “Christian dating” is just one of those perennially hot topics.
When I was dating, the burning question was whether to engage in the questionable practice of so-called “missionary dating”- this, thanks to that oft-quoted, Pauline proof text, “Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
It seemed, however, that all or at least most of the cool guys in those golden college years were the ones who were not spending their Friday nights strumming guitars and singing praise music at an InterVarsity worship service.
I solved the dilemma at the time by keeping my faith and dating life pretty much separate. Paul, my husband to be, was a worldly, slightly older Ph.D. student whose sense of humor and charm gradually broke my hardened resolve to “play the field.” We met- how’s this for nerdy?- at the underground library where I worked. The dim, fluorescent lighting, hushed whispers and sterilized cubbyholes (a.k.a. make-out rooms) of “Cross Campus Library,” as it was called, became a kind of petri dish in which this nascent love between an evangelical Christian and an agnostic could develop.
Paul’s parents were (and remain) somewhere on a spectrum between agnostic and atheist. Mine were (and remain) more old-school evangelicals and former missionaries. (You might imagine what their first meeting was like following my future husband’s marriage proposal. Dare I say, “awkward”? Thank goodness for wine!)
Paul’s lack of faith proved difficult in those first couple years of our relationship. By the time things had progressed to “serious,” (meaning I had decided to date Paul exclusively), Paul had begun attending both a weekly graduate men’s Bible study and Sunday worship services; and he had discovered to his great surprise that you can be a Christian and still have fun and be smart. These would be important milestones on a gradual journey that at some point along the way involved a confession of faith in Jesus Christ.
But the external pressure to break up, often coming from the Christian circles in which I found myself at the time, was often hard to resist.
When I tried out for the only Christian singing group on campus, a rather dour, sour-faced couple who were leaders in the group- they came right out of central casting as seventeenth century Puritans, but without the costumes- sat me down to say that I would be rejected because I was dating an unbeliever. That episode sparked a rather dramatic, emotional break-up with Paul, made all the more difficult by the fact that he and I were still attending the same worship service on Sunday mornings.
On one Sunday during that tearfully laden period of separation, we happened to run into one another on our walk back to campus. It began to rain. Paul had the umbrella, which he happily shared, and moments later we were passionately smooching one another in a thunderstorm just outside my dorm- at which point, the seventeenth century Puritans just happened to walk by. It was like the college version of the movie, “Saved,” and we were back together, this time having vowed not to let Christian peer pressure keep us apart.
When Paul writes to the church in Corinth telling them not to be “unequally yoked” to unbelievers, he is well aware of the context: the church in Corinth is navigating boundaries in a culture known for its wild, promiscuous lifestyle; it is a culture in which even religious acts of worship have become loud, sexual orgies. So Paul, in this context, is not giving free, pre-marital advice here; instead he is offering some basic guidelines that will help the Corinthian church live into their relationship with God and one another.
Still, experience has much to teach on the promise and peril of “missionary dating.” Maybe both the promise and the peril could best be summed up in one word: “transformation,” either for better or worse, and for us I’d like to think that change was mostly for the better. There is no doubt that both Paul and I changed in the process of getting to know one another and falling in love. There is no doubt that seventeen years later (five years of dating plus twelve years of marriage) we are both very different people than when we began this whole journey together. And there is also no doubt that just as God was at work in my life before I met Paul, God was at work in Paul’s life before he met me- and has been ever since.
Did this reality require that Paul be a Christian in the first place? Of course not. Thankfully God doesn’t abide by our often useless categories. In fact, I would venture to guess that God derives great belly laughs from connecting all sorts of different people and watching their “conversion” in the process. Because life, afterall, as the preacher reminded me on Sunday, really is all about learning how to love better.
So, what do you think about “missionary dating,” based on your own experience and reading of Scripture? Is it a misnomer to begin with? Is it more perilous than promising or more promising than perilous? Leave your thoughts below!