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I took the title for this episode from the book that became the point of the spear for this debate over dating during the 2000s. In 2019, the author of the book, Joshua Harris, announced his defection from the Christian faith. He also went on an “anti-book tour,” denouncing the book he wrote as a 19-year old kid.
This episode is not about Joshua Harris or his book, but the idea of teenagers dating. I only mention his name and book from an integrity perspective, so you know that I did not originate the title. And to appeal to you not to make this “dating issue” about Joshua Harris or his beliefs, then and now.
Joshua was not the cause of the “anti-dating phenomenon.” He was the Greta Thunberg for a homeschool movement that shaped his beliefs; the culture that preceded him gave him his beliefs and practices, which came out in his writings. Is he accountable? Of course, he is to the degree that he should be, but he is not the cause of the dating problem. He was a cute teenager with charisma, who was the perfect package for a generation or two that went before him, who did not believe in dating. He followed the well-laid steps of his shaping influencers.
If someone takes the advice of a nineteen-year-old kid as legalistic orthopraxy, it speaks less to what the kid is espousing and more to what the hearer wants to hear. Think about Greta and her climate change parroting. Is she accountable? Of course, she is. But are you hearing her or those who are putting her forth to sell their worldview on climate change?
If you want to buy what her trainers are selling, you will do that regardless of who is selling it. Others will reject her worldview because they don’t believe it. Joshua was wrong, and he admitted as much. And since I have no clue about his motivations, I would be a fool to tell you why he believed what he did and does not any longer. If anyone follows anyone in a lock-step fashion, it would be wiser for them to take ownership of the erroneous teaching that they embraced rather than putting all the blame in the lap of the proponents.
Sure—acknowledge bad teachers, both the trainers and their parrots. But too many Christians love neat packages for all their ills, and to put this inferior teaching about dating into a hermetically sealed “Joshua Harris Package” so you can avoid liability, is wrong-headed, conscience-dulling, and will not lead to redemptive solutions.
After the Lord regenerated me, I entered the fundamentalist movement because it made the most sense to me, a new and ignorant believer. But I did not shut down my brain altogether. I kept reading, studying, listening, asking, and praying—I left room for ongoing biblical clarity. As time and trouble moved forward in mysterious tandem, it became apparent that my legalistic development was not good for my soul or relationships.
After the damage was complete, I chose anger toward my trainers and what they taught while not paying much attention to how much I was okay with it at the time. Was I a victim of inferior biblical teaching? Of course, I was. Would it be wise for me to focus less on what they did and more on what I need to do now? Of course, it would.
Some “victim folks” like me stew for years, always looking back on what others did to them. The blurring of the lines happens because they are correct in that they have a legit case for lousy teaching and practices. But it’s their recurring backward look that does not engage the soul for personal responsibility, and they become more bitter by the day and entrap themselves in an inescapable prison.
Some will react poorly to what I’m saying by talking about the adverse consequences of ill-advised teaching and their strict adherence to it. They are right on all three counts: (1) the training was “ill-advised,”(2) they adhered too strictly, and (3) there were adverse consequences. Tell me, what are your options, and what are you to do now?
I trust that my appeals are strong enough to persuade you not to blame, pout, or put-off what could be redemptive thinking and responses to your disappointments. Some of your most severe mistakes form a backdrop of grace that will unfold God’s most significant victories through you.
Be a God-centered game-changer, not a bitter victim, no matter what anyone does to you. Let the cross of Christ stand tall in your mind as you think about how the foolishness of God has more profundity and power than the wisdom and supposed strength of humanity (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
With these few thoughts as the fabric of renewed thinking (Ephesians 4:23; 1 Corinthians 10:3-5), I want to hit a few highlights for you to consider as you think about whether it’s wise for your child to enter a dating relationship with the opposite sex. I’m speaking primarily about teenagers since adults are a different matter due to the higher possibility of their dating leading to marriage more quickly.
After a child becomes a teenager, who they are, and how they act is baked in their cake, and there is little that you can do at this point. You do your primary and most intensive training between 0 and 12+ years of age. This stage is the planting, watering, cultivation, pruning, and high-maintenance time of a child’s life. And depending on the kind of caretaking and intentionality the parents put into this first stage of their lives, it will have a lot to do with what happens next.
You must understand that what you observe in them as teenagers are the fruit of the first twelve+ years of their lives. In whatever ways they think, speak, and act has been incubating for more than a decade. The reason this is a crucial concept is that if you attempt to radically clip, prune, or make the fruit be something that you did not help grow, it won’t work. And if you do prune it back to settle your fears or gain more control, it will grow back.
1 – Redeemer – The number one concept that worried parents forget is that we have a Redeemer, and His name is Jesus. Yes, they know this, but only in an informational way, especially when it comes to their children. Worried parents are legalists at heart. Their functional belief system says, “If I had done ‘this or that,’ my child would have loved God and be living right.”
Worry, regret, blame, victimization, and beating themselves up over the state of their child points to one thing—the mini-messiah complex. They won’t state it this way, but they are implying, “If ‘this’ did not happen, my child would be different today.”
Perhaps the parent did make mistakes, and if so, repent and be free from them. But never think your failures or your successes cause anyone to do right; that’s Karma Christianity—what goes around comes around. It’s God’s grace that changes any of us (Ephesians 2:8-9). And if peace and rest do not manage you during your disappointments, then your understanding of grace is more informational than transformational.
2 – Dad’s Involvement – A child—boy or girl—wants their father’s love, attention, and protective care. If the child does not receive these things, there is a strong chance that when the “fruit pops out of the ground” during the teenage years, that child will long for the filling of those disappointments through romantic relationships.
3 – Don’t Over-Protect – Remember that you’re managing the fruit at this stage, and the appropriate, biblical “controlling” that was okay when they were younger will not work during the upper interdependent phase.
4 – Who Is the Dating Partner – You consider the person your child wants to date. If the parents of this person made some of the mistakes that I’m addressing here, you probably have a weak dating candidate. I did say that there is a Redeemer, but young, twisted love is a powerful drug that becomes a hallucinogen for lust-filled hearts (2 Timothy 2:22).
5 – Wired for Love – Every child has unique wiring. Some children thrive on relationships and social interaction. Many of these will permit themselves to get caught up in romantic notions with the opposite sex. These kids could be some of the most vigorous God-lovers you will ever meet. But no child is perfect, as we all have at least one “fallen string” that dangles from our easily allured hearts (James 1:14-15). The upside to this child is that they do love God and will be mature and humble enough as you walk them through their “love temptations.”
6 – You Build On Trust – The most vital aspect to all relationships, including God, is trust. If one word from the Lord’s Canon were not accurate, everything would come crashing down on us. The only way you can relate to any person well is by being honest. Once a person lies, all bets are off; you never are sure what you have. If your child does not have a history of truth-telling that you have examined and affirmed in ever-increasing and demanding opportunities as they grow older, then beware if they start dating.
7 – They Must Date – If your child has to date, you probably have a problem. If they have to have a smartphone, you have an issue. Anything that is not a vital need in their lives, but they emote about the critical need of it; then, you’re looking at idolatry. God is not managing them, but something else is, and whatever that thing is that they must have their idol. We want all sorts of things, but only a few hit the level of necessity. In most cases, you will find peer-pressure and a desire to fit in as the culprit. Read this on that.
8 – Redemptive Indicators – It’s vital to know what kind of child you have. Here are a few “redemptive indicators” that suggest your kid is a Christian: humility (teachable), character (integrity), confession (ownership, not blaming), conscience (desires to do right), worship (active in their eagerness for God), and serves (defaults to give than get).
9 – Weak or No Christian – No teen will imitate Christ the way they will with more “life under their belts,” but what you’re looking for is how you would characterize them day-to-day, and week-to-week. Are they more like Christ most of the time, or not? Your answer will tell you if they are a vibrant believer, a weak one, or an unbeliever. Though these assessments are subjective; they are also clues. You have to make this observation because one of the worst mistakes you could make is expecting (or manipulating) them into being what you want them to be but it’s not who they are.
10 – Find Outside Help – All family dynamics are different, and only an unwise person would attempt to map one perspective over all believers and say, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” If your marriage is not stable enough to have these highly intelligent and deeply sobering conversations, you must find help. If your child is dating and in trouble, you must find help.
11 – Reject Dogmatism – If a Christian leader tells you it’s wrong to date, with no exception, caveat, or understanding of the complexities of shaping influences, childrearing, teenagers, parents, family dynamics, maturity levels, and the customized care of each person and family, be careful. And this advice goes both ways. If a person says any teen should date, beware. It’s easy to give advice when the stakes won’t blowback on you. But if it’s your kid, you must do better than swallow the KoolAid or spit it out entirely. Use wisdom. Find help.