I have never been quite able to pin down what a “relationship” is short of being engaged for marriage. I suppose it is the spending of time together before proposal, &c. when it leads to such, but I am loath to actually apply this label unless people use it of themselves. If people are committed to staying together, however, rather than to finding out whether God expressly wants them to be married to each other, the commitment is misplaced. Commitment to staying together belongs to marriage, and if people are sufficiently sure that God wants them to be married, then they should be married or plan on getting married in the near future. Marriage should not be contingent on mortgage rates or Ph.D. disputation dates or whatever.
The purpose of a pre-marriage relationship should be clearly settled. It is a pre-marriage relationship concerning a clear goal, that of the noble state of marriage, “for there is nothing mightier and nobler than when man and wife are of one heart and mind in a house, a grief to their foes, and to their friends great joy, but their own hearts know it best” (Homer, Odyssey VI.182-185). If the purpose is not to examine the possibility of marriage, then it should be discontinued for the sake of both, that they might keep themselves for their spouse. Now under this framework, the actual purpose is to determine whether entering into such a marriage together is appropriate, being in accordance with God’s will, not how this can be done, and thus it must be preceded by prayer with an mind open to God’s leading.
There are two major pitfalls, then, in pre-marriage “relationships”.
- No foundation: The first is when the dating, whether explicit or not, is not with the goal in mind of inquiring after the possibility of marriage. When this happens, the foundation and purpose of having a relationship at all is gone.
- No room for God: The second is when the result has mentally been essentially predetermined, where talking to God is for some kind of confirmation. This belittles God’s authority and sovereignty: the creator of marriage is, then, banished save for confirmation, rather than the action lying on Him and Him alone to originate. Under this way, God’s will is not sought before the person’s mind is already made up, and God is not asked to reveal His will, instead being presented with almost an ultimatum. I daresay that this is not our place.
So much for the basis for a relationship. It is necessary, of course, to be ready for a relationship too. That said, maturity, not age, is the real factor. One should be sufficiently mature to handle marriage and married life tomorrow if he or she is to so look into it today. If one is definitely not ready, then all and any romantic relationships should also definitely not be drawn out in hopes of gaining that maturity while one continues to receive intimacy and defrauds the other person of what ought to be kept for his or her spouse.
Now about the other person and about one’s own state, i.e. the things that may vary, although too many relationships with the answer “no” may mean too little discernment and too great of a tendency to hop right into a relationship without enough prior examination and pluprior prayer for God to provide.
- The moral constraint: The other person must be of the opposite sex. If this is not so, then to even enter into such a relationship is a sin.
- The yoking constraint (I): If one is a regenerated believer and follower of Christ, the other person must also be a believer. The notable exception in the Bible is Esther, who had no real choice in entering the king’s harem. If this condition is not met, then even to consider such a relationship is unfruitful, and to enter such a relationship is harmful, even when God chooses to use it to teach the believer, because the two will be unevenly yoked.
- The yoking constraint (II): Assuming that the other conditions are met, the other person should now bring out the best and godliest in a relationship edifying both mutually and to others, which is testified to by other members of the Church. The two should spur on greater godliness and spiritual growth in each other, and the relationship itself should foster such; the man should be able to take leadership in spurring the progress of the relationship. If this is not what is being done, then, given the present conditions, marriage between the two is unsuitable.
We should be deliberate and intentional about getting married, not just letting themselves drift into what are often called “relationships” that then drag on into a limbo of ambivalence. If the potential spouses are reasonably sure that they, by God’s will and calling, should minister to each other in marriage, then they should get married and banish needless uncertainty for the other person as to where the “relationship” is actually going. As soon as they know that God has not called them to be married to each other within a year, they should say so explicitly and make sure that they are both at this understanding, so that they will both be free to hear God what His will is with regard to marriage.