Dating and sexuality: Guiding the young

The question is thus not whether young people should date but rather how they should do so.

Relationship is a fundamental human need,1 and thus all people crave a sense of belonging. In the case of young adults, relationship is one of their highly-ranked needs. Youth are big fans of sexuality. It can be seen in the way they dress and in the manner they carry themselves. On the one hand, many young people turn to dating relationships in order to embrace their sexuality. On the other, Christian parents in some parts of the world view dating as a non-acceptable way of socializing with the opposite sex. Despite the challenges that dating entails, it can be a wonderful way to affirm one’s sexuality, if governed by realistic guidelines.

Issues in dating

Dating is a social relationship between a male and a female who have not yet committed themselves to each other in marriage.2 It can be very taxing for the young adult because the adolescent years bring a lot of worries and anxiety,3 which influence interactions with others. Adolescence is also the time when young people are trying to find their identity and purpose in life. Thus dating is one of the means that a young person uses to suggest that he or she has entered into the adult arena. Young people can be motivated to start dating relationships in order to convey precisely this impression, so that their peers will know they are “mature” and “normal.”4

One of the many negative things that can result from dating relationships is premarital sex. Recent surveys of Adventist youth suggest that 10 percent or more of 14-years-old have lost their virginity or have had sex.5 “Not only is it [sex] on the minds of most youth, but some indeed are practicing it. Maybe it’s time adults start to talk about it as well.”6 In the 1980s, the general estimate of public high-school teenagers showed that 43 percent of girls and 47 percent of boys had sexual intercourse before graduation.7 The evidence is compelling: young people are having sex.

The premarital sex affects young adults in a variety of undesirable ways: sexually transmitted diseases (STD), AIDS/HIV, unwanted pregnancy, and depreciated self-worth. Gane shares some empirical data on this issue: “In 1991, the Girlfriend survey found that 78 percent of girls did not discuss the risk of AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases with their partners before having sex. In addition to these problems, premature sex can disrupt the normal process of gradual self-discovery and social growth that takes place in early adolescence.”8

One does not need to look through a telescope to recognize that premarital sex9 can be devastating to the young adult. Certainly, premarital sex is one of the major challenges that dating relationships pose.

Successful dating relationships

It is God’s design for people to interact with each other and to develop friendships. Indeed, it was God who took the initiative to fill the vacuum in Adam by giving him a helpmate. Some people would rather have young people ignore the need to belong because of the negative effects that result from many dating relationships. But should we throw out something that was given by God because it has been used in a distorted way by the enemy? Ellen White wrote: “Christian sociability is altogether too little cultivated by God’s people. Those who shut themselves up within themselves, who are unwilling to be drawn upon to bless others by friendly associations, lose many blessings; for by mutual contact minds receive polish and refinement; by social intercourse [interaction] acquaintances are formed and friendships contracted which result in a unity of heart and an atmosphere of love which is pleasing in the sight of heaven.”10

The question is thus not whether young people should date but rather how they should do so. Humans were created with the need to interact with each other, and thus young adults should not be forbidden to develop relationships with the opposite sex. But while socializing with the opposite sex is normal and appropriate, young people should be taught on how to develop healthy friendships that will be pleasing to God. Such a relationship does not come by chance; it is one that is developed with a great degree of intentionality. The boundaries that will govern the relationship should be set from day one, because without boundaries the relationship is more likely to become too physical. Boundaries or guidelines are very essential to the success of dating relationships.

Gane proposes some guidelines that can be extremely helpful in developing healthy dating relationships:

  1. Establish friendships.
  2. Avoid isolation.
  3. Plan fun and enjoyable dates.
  4. See dating as preparation for marriage.
  5. Avoid getting too close too soon.
  6. Avoid dating persons not of your faith.11

In addition, parents and counselors should suggest to young people certain guidelines that set physical and conversational boundaries, such as: have an accountability partner outside of the relationship, exercise self-control, establish God’s presence and existence within the relationship, and have a support group of friends. These guidelines are not an exhaustive list, but if followed will help to produce healthy dating relationships.

Biblical guidelines

Sex before marriage poses several challenges to young people. Here are six biblical guidelines taken from 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 that will be helpful in stemming the problem of premarital sex.

  1. Commit your ways to God. Use your sexuality to honor God and abstain from practices like premarital sex that would dishonor Him. After taking such a stance, pledge to uphold your commitment in public or private life. This decision is made in order to preserve your sexual purity, as a part of the sanctification process.
  2. Exercise self-control. The process of sanctification includes self-control over sexual urges. Self-control can only be achieved as you allow the Holy Spirit to carry out His work of sanctification in your life. Self-control is a fruit produced by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:23).
  3. Keep your life distinct from that of unbelievers. Life of the believer must be different from that of the unconverted in respect to sexuality. Those in Christ have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts (1 Peter 4:3; Galatians 2:20).
  4. Respect every human being as the property of God. Taking advantage of the Lord’s purchased possession by fulfilling unsanctified sexual desires is unacceptable to God. Instead, embrace sexuality within the will of God.
  5. Remember that every action has its consequence. Every action has a just reward, whether it is good or bad (Ecclesiastes12:14; Revelation 22:12). When you understand that every wrongful act carries a just penalty and that nothing is hidden from the One who knows everything, and that you have to give account to Him, you will be more likely to embrace God’s will for your sexuality.
  6. Live within the call of God.12 God has not called you to live unholy lives, but lives that are consecrated by His Spirit. He who has called is also the One who enables. Transformed by the Holy Spirit, you will walk worthy of the vocation wherewith you are called, and will understand that it is Christ who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13; Ephesians 4:1).

If young people can follow the above mentioned guidelines, they can truly overcome the temptations to indulge in sex before marriage. Challenges that can result from dating relationships do not mean that young people should refrain from developing friendships because of the negative outcomes that could result from dating. Rather, young people should be guided on how to establish this special type of friendship. They should be encouraged to set boundaries that will help them to develop healthy friendships. Indubitably, social interaction between a male and a female is normal, and such relationships can be a blessing when they are controlled by set boundaries.

Marlon Robinson (M.Div., Andrews University) is chaplain resident at Valley Baptist Hospital, Harlingen, Texas, U.S.A. E-mail:


  1. Our humanness and sexuality suggest that we are not self-contained units, capable of existing in a vacuum. We are by our created nature compelled into relationships. See, Terry Hershey, Clear Headed Choices in a Sexually Confused World (Loveland, Colorado: Group Books, 1988), p. 90.
  2. Furman Wyndal, The Development of Romantic Relationships in Adolescence (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 1999), p. 184. See also Harry A. Van Belle, Reflections on Dating, Courtship & Marriage, (Burlington, Ontario: Welch, 1991). Belle suggests three steps between dating and marriage: attraction, commitment, and intimacy. He shows how these qualities develop between a young man and a young woman as they date and court on the way toward marriage.
  3. Puberty brings with it a host of worries and anxieties. These worries are symptoms of a constructive form of growth and are therefore healthy in the long run, even though they may be painful in the short run. Even in times of social stability, the stresses associated with the perils of puberty are considerable. They are clear evidence of teenagers’ need for a special place and protected time in society to cope with the transformations of their bodies and the social consequences those transformations entail. See David Elkind, All Grown Up and No Place to Go (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1984), p. 67.
  4. Furman, p. 184.
  5. Valuegenesis trial study, 1992; Of those who reported they had not had sexual intercourse during their high-school years, almost one-third fell into the category of “technical virgins,” a term attributed to those who experience intensive petting to the point of orgasm without having intercourse. See Steve Case, Valuegenesis: Shall We Dance, Rediscovering Christ-Centered Standards (Riverside, California: La Sierra University Press, 1996), p.144.
  6. Ibid, p. 143.
  7. Tony Campolo, Christian Ethics in The Sexual Wilderness in Youth Worker, Vol. 1, No. IV (El Cajon, California: Youth Specialties, Winter 1985), p. 13.
  8. Barry Gane, Building Youth Ministry (Riverside, California: Hancock Center, 2005), p. 291.
  9. The Bible is specific in confining sex to marriage. See Nancy Van Pelt, The Complete Courtship (Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Publishing Assn., 1982), pp. 102, 103.
  10. Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1980), p. 457.
  11. Gane, p. 294.
  12. See Esther Ramharacksingh Knott, “If You Really Love Me” in Valuegenesis: Shall We Dance, Rediscovering Christ-Centered Standards, pp. 150-165.