I have met quite a few Christians from churches that actively discourage dating among youths, or are extremely legalistic about it. In some cases, there isn’t even any teaching about dating … it’s not even spoken about.
So for many it’s just been easier — even “proper” — to leave dating out of the question for most of young adulthood. Repeating the mantra of “guard your heart” without understanding what it really means, other things like studies, work and ministry become life’s focuses.
Around the age of 25, however, a flip is suddenly switched. Now there’s an invisible pressure on them to find a partner and get married asap. But by this point, many still don’t have any idea what healthy, godly courtship or marriage looks like. They’ve been so conditioned to simply pushing romantic relationships away that they find themselves utterly unequipped for it now that “it’s time”.
And from what I hear, figuring out this dating stuff is even more difficult in a community that seems to frown on romantic activity within the congregation. Dating feels like something that must be done furtively. In the shadows.
A couple of my friends told me their church proved to be rather heavy-handed when it came to relationships.
Wayne* told me about how he and this girl had feelings for each other around the time they were 22. The thing to note here is that their church didn’t have any resources on dating or boy-girl relationships (BGR).
Like, for real – nothing. Topics like marriage or dating weren’t addressed on the pulpit, and there wasn’t any material on it available in the church. With no one else to turn to, they sought an older couple out from that church in private, to help guide them through what they were feeling.
To cut the long story short, it didn’t go well: Wayne was unaware that the older couple was actually talking the girl into terminating the relationship the whole time.
She cut off contact with him soon after, leaving him heartbroken.
Matthias*, from another church, told me a similar story from when he was also around 22 years old.
He and a girl from the same congregation had developed feelings for each other. For context, both come from a church that teaches about BGR and marriage from the pulpit – especially in the youth church and NS ministry – as well as in seminars.
But when church leaders found out they were in a relationship, they stepped in to say that the relationship wasn’t “covenantal” as the couple had no plans for marriage.
When he heard his leaders’ counsel, Matthias still wanted to see how the relationship could develop and grow. But when the girl heard it, she promptly ended things with him.
Sounds pretty bad, right? At this point, I want to be clear that these are what you might call “horror stories”, on the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to dating in church.
And the thing about having just one side of the story is that it’s only going to produce bitterness or make for an echo chamber, so it’ll be more productive to contrast some of my friends’ experiences with what some churches actually believe and practice.
To that end, I reached out to three young pastors in local churches: Pastor Kevin Goh (Bartley Christian Church), Pastor Ivan Tan (Hinghwa Methodist Church) and Pastor Daniel Cheo (Impact Life Church).
In light of Wayne’s story of having no support or resources in the area of relationships in mind, I asked the pastors if their churches actively taught young people how to relate to the opposite sex.
“One of our more popular series is ‘How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk’!” – Pastor Daniel Cheo, Impact Life Church
Both Pastor Kevin and Pastor Ivan shared that their churches provide yearly classes and workshops on BGR and relationships. Pastor Daniel said Impact Life runs certain series on the topic.
“One of the more popular ones is ‘How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk’ – we affectionately call it ‘The Jerk Series’. It’s about the things to look out for in a potential partner and what makes relationships work,” said Pastor Daniel.
Pastor Ivan shared a bit more about how Hinghwa approaches the topic: “We split the group into secondary and tertiary because the message and mode of delivery to each group is different.
“For example, to the secondary school group, we would ask them to avoid entering into relationships. To the tertiary folks, we would advise them on how to manage their feelings and the decision-making process before entering into a relationship if they are so considering.
“At this stage we wouldn’t actively encourage them to enter into a relationship but to equip them with the tools to make wise decisions should they choose to.”
It seemed to me that Wayne’s church was an unfortunate outlier. From personal experience – and the interviews with the pastors – most churches have some degree of teaching about relationships and dating.
But the fact remained that both my friends’ churches had gone with the nuclear option when they intervened, on the basis that the two of them weren’t “ready”. So just when is someone “ready”?
I asked the pastors if their church had a guideline on an acceptable dating age, and how the leadership arrived at that number.
Said Pastor Kevin of Bartley Christian Church: “It used to be 21 years old, following the legal age limit in Singapore to do a lot of other things. But over the years, we discovered that a specific age is difficult to enforce as youths start being attracted to each other at a relatively young age.”
This led to some couples dating in secret, he said. “To avoid getting into ‘trouble’ with the leaders and authorities about dating ‘underaged’, youths tend to go undercover and date behind the backs of the church and even their parents! This could lead to other problems when youths are not accountable about their dating life.”
Pastor Ivan shared that while Hinghwa Methodist Church does not have a “prescribed age” for dating, if he was pressed for a number, it would at least be some time after secondary school: “I would highly discourage it during secondary school as they are still very much learning about themselves and others – learning to relate as friends is more important.”
Accountability to older persons in the church is key, he concluded.
In both the stories of Wayne and Matthias, their church authorities had gone with the nuclear option of stepping in to end the relationship. At what point should leadership intervene, whether to guide or to end relationships?
I gave the pastors an extreme example: If they discern that a couple is highly incompatible, would they step in?
Pastor Kevin said: “On the whole, we do not step in to nurture or guide young couples in their relationship if they do not request for help. I am not aware of any cases where we intervened to suggest a couple break up because they were deemed to be highly incompatible.
“I would say our church’s approach to relationships is generally responsive in nature – we observe and provide guidance only when approached.”
Pastor Ivan said that he hasn’t intervened in any relationships thus far, but if it were to happen, a prerequisite would be a strong relationship between the intervening party and the couple.
According to Pastor Daniel, there are programmes in place in Impact Life to guide couples, such as pre-marital courses – even if the couple isn’t getting married in the near future.
But he added: “I do step in when I find a couple incompatible. Normally this is done through the couples taking a certain test (PREPARE/ENRICH) and going through counselling.
“However, I need to state that to date, I have only intervened twice.”
As I read the responses from the pastors, I find myself caught in the middle – between great examples of shepherding and leadership, and the reality of my friends’ painful outcomes in this area.
I know that for them and other believers out there who have been “burnt” in this area, dating in the church remains a prickly issue.
So how can daters and disciple-makers come together on the issue of dating?
Trust your leaders’ judgment – even when it gets personal and they tell you something you don’t want to hear.
I speak to those who are thinking of dating or are already in relationships: I believe yet more trust is required towards our leaders in church. If you love your church, then you must “believe the best” (1 Corinthians 13:7, AMP) of it.
This means, in general, to trust your leaders’ judgment – even when it gets personal and they tell you something you don’t want to hear.
For all of its flaws, a Christian church will seek to fulfil the call of Genesis 1:28. That means it is in every church’s best interest to educate its flock on how to have healthy and holy relationships. So a good church will strive to help your relationships succeed.
Your church is not out to get you.
That being said, we are all human and make mistakes: Where trust has been broken, let forgiveness be sought out and grace dispensed. Then submit yourself to your spiritual authorities (Romans 13:1).
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
Meanwhile, churches cannot simply lean on unexplained mantras like “guard your heart” or “wait until the time is right”. Neither can the church pretend dating doesn’t exist and just leave its flock without Scriptural handles on love and marriage.
It broke my heart to hear that two young souls didn’t have anyone to guide them on what were uncharted waters for them.
How great is our need for good shepherds and teachers in the church. People are in need of churches to guide them on sex and sexuality, dating and relationships.
If the Church does not teach its members, they will learn from the world. But if the flock learns from the Church – Christ can teach the world a thing or two through them.