Illustration: Tina Tiller
Illustration: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietySeptember 26, 2020

And Jesus makes three

Illustration: Tina Tiller
Illustration: Tina Tiller

In the latest instalment of her series chronicling the ins and outs of dating in 2020, Alie Benge details the unique challenges of dating while Christian.

I’m part of a rare Christian archetype: the unmarried 30-year-old. You’ll see us prowling the edges of a congregation, hook noses and one blind eye, looking for an opportune moment to steal babies from 19-year-olds who first kissed on their wedding day and got pregnant on their honeymoon.

I’m not holy enough for Christian men. I don’t want children, and I’m not a teacher or a nurse, meaning I’m not exactly hot property at church, so I survived my early twenties without entering the sanctity of marriage. I’ve seen friendship groups dissipate around me because everyone hit 21 and decided they’d better settle down. Suddenly everyone’s hosting couples’ games nights, which is basically my whole friend group, just without me. Christians love to talk about the “burden of singleness” while the only burden I’ve felt was the social pressure to find a good Christian man and bear him many sons, when I didn’t want any of it.

As a teenager, the leader of my four-person-strong youth group decided we should study the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I only pretended to read it, but I believe the general idea is that secular dating sucks and should be avoided. It suggests “courtship” as an alternative. Courtship is hanging out in big groups, making eyes at your crush from across the room until you’re ready for marriage, saving yourself from heartbreak and the temptation of pre-marital sex. The book was a cultural phenomenon and led to the institutionalisation of purity culture. The author has since renounced his book, but the damage is done, and it’s bled all over the Christian dating scene.

Courtship means by the time I’ve got to a first date with a Christian, we’ve been circling each other for so long we’re already halfway committed. A coffee isn’t just a coffee. It’s the first round of marriage interviews. A friend told me he’d assumed his first relationship would be his only relationship. He was completely unprepared for failure, and said the end of the relationship still haunts him. He asked, “Why were we so serious? Why didn’t we feel free to just have fun?” There’s a special Christian weirdness about two people who like each other but are too paralysed to do anything about it. We sus each other out from afar, in a weird limbo where neither party knows if you’re friends or something more. If the interest ends, there’s nothing to break off; just a slow retraction of attention.

Dating also isn’t that fun if you can’t have sex. It’s agonising. You have to be diligent about when and how you’re alone. Then all of a sudden you’re married and all bets are off. You’re supposed to make that transition easily with no baggage. Hurrah! One ticket to Bone Town please! It just doesn’t work with modern relationships. We no longer get betrothed at 14 to neighbouring herdsmen.

I tried dating Christians. I really did. But it felt like a job interview. A date asked if I felt comfortable cooking for large groups of people. I wondered if he’d ask what my greatest weakness is, or what I’d bring to the team. I was 20 years old! I just wanted to enjoy my coffee. Christians aren’t looking for someone to date, but someone to marry, and this eye on forever means we treat relationships as failures if they end. It was a revelation to realise relationships can be good and fun while they last, and are still successful, even if they don’t last forever. I’ve been in relationships where all we’ve done is obsess over whether we’ll be compatible in 40 years, rather than whether we’re having fun now. There are also far more Christian women than Christian men, so the good ones get snapped up practically in infancy. I could either wait for the first round of divorcées, or quietly turn off the Christian filter in Bumble.

When I match with someone, I’ll mention church early so they can back out before I get attached. If they don’t vanish in a cloud of smoke, I then have to establish what flavour of Christian I am, because they probably think I’m Dove Love. The next problem is whether they’ll fetishise me. Someone dated me because he had a bet going with his friends that I’d sleep with him. Another (who’d seemed a little too into the Christian Girl thing) ghosted after realising I wasn’t a virgin. A friend told me dates think she’s either a nun, or a secret tigress who needs to be seduced out of her confines. The ease of dating Christians is that we skip this awkward process. Though I’ve chosen to break all the rules and date non-Christians, there’s a sadness to it. I can’t share the thing that’s most important to me, that is essentially the cornerstone of my identity. But I’d make the same choice. Christian dating is too weird. It’s too uptight.

This is hard to write, because I don’t want to sell my own people down the river, but the way we talk – or don’t talk – about dating is lethal. I’m scared there could be people at church who can’t find support because it feels too awkward to talk about sex and relationships. Sharing dating stories with your friend committees isn’t just a fun bonding game. It’s also a safety net. My friends catch the red flags I miss.

When I was 19 I sat in church next to a boyfriend who was crushing my hand in his because it was the least obvious way of hurting me, and I thought, Who here can help me? Who can I go to? Later that night I’d be curled up, protecting my head, rolling my body so the blows landed in the least painful places, because he was furious I’d made him sit through a sermon. If only my youth group had taught me about dating well, rather than telling me not to date at all. If only the church had been open about dating, I might have found one person, just one person, who could have helped me.

Read all instalments so far of Alie Benge’s series on her dating journey here.

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