by Carter Brinkley, Student Minister

“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” -Ephesians 5:24-25

“Dating is practice for marriage.”

Many times in my life I have heard this advice given out to young single people, particularly teenagers. Because dating generally comes before marriage in our culture, this mantra has been gradually accepted as sage wisdom. And it makes sense too, as dating relationships provide us with a context in which to learn someone on a deeper level before we become a spouse.
But let’s think about this for a moment: to say that dating is practice for marriage carries implications that may put marriage in a very wrong context for us as followers of Christ. Practice is, by definition, an activity that is repeated in order to gain and maintain a certain skill. Unless you are the great Allen Iverson, you probably agree that practice is important for anything. But as Christians, it is critical that we take things God has created- like marriage (Matthew 19:4-6)- and hold them in the biblical context that God created for them rather than burying them too deeply in the context of our culture. We must be careful not to present dating as a necessary prerequisite for marriage. I am a proponent for dating, but we must not tie marriage inseparably to a cultural convention that is mere decades old.
I was recently speaking to the middle and high school students at our church about marriage. One of them asked me why I would teach about marriage before teaching about dating. The reason is because I am more concerned about teaching them to value the things that God wants them to value rather than merely valuing what is right in front of them. We should all be doing that. We read Ephesians 5:22-33, where God’s standards for how married couples should interact are laid out very clearly. The love and respect between husband and wife are in every way compared to 1) the sacrificial love of Christ for his Church, and 2) the loving submission of the Church to Christ who is its head.
The implications of this are huge. Because of this, we know that marriage is not a mere cultural fixture, but a platform from which believers proclaim the Gospel to the world! Dating cannot possibly fully prepare us for the true purpose that God has given marriage to accomplish.

If we truly want to become the current or future spouses God wants us to be, then we must prepare the way God tells us to; by submitting to Christ with full obedience and loving the whole Church sacrificially. Here are three reasons I gave our students for why loving Christ and the Church is much better practice for marriage than merely dating:

1.) Salvation is a covenant, not a contract.

A contract is an agreement between two parties to exchange goods or services. When one party fails to hold his or her end of the bargain, the other party is free to bail. Dating may work this way, but marriage does not- and neither does salvation! Christ loves his Church with a covenant love, which means that He sticks with us even through our failures. When two people enter a marriage covenant, they agree to do the same.

2.) Through Christ, God loves us at our worst.

Dating starts when two people are so impressed with each other that they agree to spend exclusive time together. When one (or both) is no longer impressed with the other, they find someone better. This is not how Christ loves us. Romans 5:8 tells us that “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus offers us grace when we are at our least impressive, and marriages must work the same way.

3.) Loving the Church requires us to imitate Christ by loving others, even at their worst.

This is the same principle at #2, but it emphasizes that we must show grace and not merely receive it. When Morgan married me, she was not fully aware of my faults. However, she has loved me the same and even submitted to my leadership when she knew I was not making the best decisions. She doesn’t get to ignore the parts of me that are faulty, but she preaches the Gospel to me when she loves me in spite of those things. When it comes to the Church, we are called to love people through their difficulties and failures; we do not get to choose the sheep God puts in His flock, and we are not allowed to ignore the believers we do not like or understand. We love each other because Christ has loved us first.
All believers are called to love Christ and love the Church. Some are called to love someone as their spouse. But for believers, all love comes from Christ, not the culture.