Dating: Where is the "Line?"

Hundreds, maybe thousands of times I have been asked, in some form or fashion, “How far can we go sexually before marriage?”

Often, though not always, the heart behind the question is unholy and unhealthy. There is a powerful illusion that sexual sin is only what we do with our hands, and not also what we do with our hearts.

What’s in your heart?

Jesus addressed this very issue. In his day, it was rightly taught that sexual sin of the hands was wrong, but Jesus pressed the issue even further to speak of adultery of the heart (Matt. 5:27–28). The heart matters, which is why Proverbs tells us to guard our hearts (Prov. 4:23).

There is a powerful illusion that sexual sin is only what we do with our hands, and not also what we do with our hearts.

Single men and women, I would ask you to earnestly search your heart and see if what you really want is to sin, and if you want to see how far you can go before you cross some line into sin. The truth is you may have already crossed that line in your heart, even if you have not crossed it with your hands.

How far can I go?

Let’s consider a version of this question in another context. Imagine you have been married for ten years. You’re pregnant with your third child, and your husband meets with me and asks, “How far can I go with my secretary before it counts as adultery?”

My guess is you would want me to tell your husband that the heart of his question was sinful by intent, and that whether or not he crossed some line of appropriateness with his hands, he was in sin at the heart level.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of times I have been asked, in some form or fashion, “How far can we go sexually before marriage?”

For some reason, there is a tendency to allow singles to dance on, near, and even over the line, yet most would not extend this same permissiveness to married couples. But sin is sin.

Is marriage in view?

If you want to be sexually active, that desire may be well and good. The way to enjoy that benefit is marriage. So get married. But if the person you are with is not marriage material, you should not be together anyway. If one or both of you is not ready for marriage, do the hard work of getting ready for marriage first, and then enjoy the pleasures that accompany it.

If you are both ready for marriage and struggling to keep your hands to yourself, maybe you don’t need self-control, but rather a wedding? This is where parents and pastors who know you need to speak into your specific situation.

Sexual immorality: what exactly is it?

Here are some Scriptures to consider on this issue:

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God. (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5)

The word “sexual immorality” here is a broad word that can refer to any number of sexual activities, and so it is comprehensive. Are you in “control” of your “own body,” acting “holy and honorable,” and not out of control like people who don’t have the Holy Spirit’s power?

Paul tells Timothy to “encourage… younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1–2). There can be affection between a brother and a sister that is not sexual, and a dating relationship needs to keep this in mind. Before you are husband and wife, you are brother and sister with God as your Father. As his daughter, I assure you he’s not happy if there is hanky or panky with your brother in Christ. Are you committed to absolute purity?

Elsewhere Paul tells the Ephesians, “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Eph. 5:3, NIV). Some lines are clear, such as no fornication before marriage. There are other things, however, which the Bible does not clearly speak to, such as holding hands, snuggling, or light kissing. But whatever one does, the issue is, “not even a hint of sexual immorality.”

When is the time?

In the Bible, Solomon addresses the question as “when is the time?” Song of Songs includes a refrain directed to single women, repeated several times: “[do] not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4).

Very early in a relationship, there should not be physical affection such as hand-holding or kissing. You need to get to know one another. As a relationship grows and becomes exclusive, serious, and headed toward marriage, then there can be higher levels of appropriate intimacy, such as time together and holding hands. If an engaged couple undergoing premarital counsel gives a light smooch in front of me, I’m not going to freak out or act like the kissing cop.

Will you build false intimacy?

A relationship grows in emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical intimacy as it approaches marriage. Like a dimmer switch that slowly brightens, a relationship between mature adults in Christ headed toward possible marriage grows in every way.

But this point is crucial: You are not married until you are married!

You don’t get to do what married people do until you are married people.

I know this sounds rough. But it’s for your good. If you get physical prior to marriage, you are building a false intimacy and putting guilt and shame on top of your intimacy. This can hurt your marriage later and compromise the development of your marriage in other areas, such as your friendship and prayer together.

Ask yourself some questions

Lastly, passion is a fire. It can get out of hand very quickly. As you find yourself dissatisfied with sexual limitations, you will cross a line only to find yourself still dissatisfied and crossing yet another line. Crossing a line makes things worse, not better.

You don’t get to do what married people do until you are married people.

As a father, admittedly I see things much differently than when I was single and in sin with my girlfriend. I deeply regret crossing God’s wise lines in our dating years. It hurt our marriage, and we had to go back and pull the weeds we planted in the garden of our own marriage. God is a good Father and his commands are good.

In closing, maybe some practical questions will help:

  1. When Jesus was single and on the earth, would he have done what you want to do?
  2. Would you do what you want to do if Jesus were with you in the flesh watching?
  3. Would you counsel your niece/nephew or younger sister/brother to do what you want to do?
  4. When you are a parent and your child asks you if they can do what you want to do, what will you tell them?
  5. What does godly counsel, like pastors and parents, tell you?
  6. What has the Holy Spirit told you?

Often, I find the Spirit has already spoken in some clear way, and people keep asking others for their opinion because they are unhappy with the answer he gave. If this is the case (I don’t know if it is), I would urge you to obey your conscience and follow the Spirit. He always leads us into holiness and our best.

Thanks for being brave enough to ask this question, and kind enough to allow me to answer it.


Real Marriage 2014 live event on February 21–22. 




Comments + add a comment