In November 2018, I posted an article here regarding Joshua Harris and his renouncement of his best-selling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. At that time, he was most widely known in conservative, evangelical circles as the former pastor of a prominent church who became a best-selling author in his twenties. His book spoke of the value of courtship, the wrongs of dating, and the importance of remaining sexually pure until entering into a biblically affirmed marriage. For those who did not grow up in church in the 1990s, this concept may seem foreign or at least what the Duggar family espouses on their once-popular reality show.
In Harris's retraction of his book, I found some interesting statements and some insights with which I agreed. Yet, I did not at any point believe the emphasis on sexual purity among Christians was, or is, wrong. I am not one who viewed "True Love Waits" as a legalistic step of the church built on fear. It likely was for some, based on how the concept was taught and presented. Though "purity culture" may be trending now, I do not find where purity is something to be avoided or that the biblical teachings of such are wrong. I do not believe they were wrong in the 1990s. They are not wrong now.
In addition to Harris's current stance, other authors such as Linda Kay Klein have made declarative statements regarding the evangelical culture of purity and "sex shaming" that grew to prominence in the 1990s. I have read Klein's book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. Klein is an excellent author and I really do appreciate much of what she expressed in her book. There were elements that resonated with me (a male pastor who served as a youth pastor during the 1990s and early 2000s) to be true to the culture and very insightful. There were helpful statements and perspectives that I had never considered.
Klein's book is insightful, yet it is likely that many evangelicals have never heard of her. If they have, I sense that her book would not be found in their libraries. I am not endorsing her book, but I did find the information and her perspective helpful (even where I disagree.) I do own the book and I did read it. I shared a number of insights from the book on Twitter and the author's responses were greatly appreciated. Perhaps this just shows that you do not have to agree with every author you read and that somehow, someway, even on Twitter, one can have a discussion where agreement may not be found, but mutual respect can be? That will be a subject for another article in the future. This one is about the purity culture and former Christians.
So, what is meant by the now trending term "purity culture"? Joe Carter gives a good definition on The Gospel Coalition blog. Here's what he writes:
“Purity culture” is the term often used for the evangelical movement that attempts to promote a biblical view of purity (1 Thess. 4:3-8) by discouraging dating and promoting virginity before marriage, often through the use of tools such as purity pledges, symbols such as purity rings, and events such as purity balls. (Full article here.)
For those in their 30s and 40s, this may bring to mind "True Love Waits" rallies, signed pledge cards on display, ring ceremonies, and prom alternatives. Books such as Harris's were purchased in bulk by churches and given to students. While Harris's book was often given to boys (with the belief that teenage boys actually want to read a book about not dating) another book titled Lady in Waiting was given to girls. The girl-focused book was not nearly as popular, but presented the same themes of sexual purity, chastity until marriage, courtship, and fidelity within the confines of biblical marriage.
Why is Christian Sexual Purity Newsworthy Now?
One reason this seems to be trending is that a number of authors such as Klein have written on the subject from a perspective expressed previously in this article.
Another reason stems from what has been aired on television series "The Bachelorette." This summer hit features a young woman named Hannah who declares herself to be a Christian while openly sharing of her sexual relationship with one of the game show's contestants. She stated in magazine articles and on television that her sexual activity is good and not in opposition to her Christian faith and others should stop "slut shaming" her.
Finally, and most recently, has been the public statements and revealed actions and beliefs of one of the Christian purity culture's most known proponents, Joshua Harris. Following his renouncement of much of what he wrote in his bestselling book last year, he and his wife have publicly announced their pending divorce. Upon this announcement, some cynically stated "He has kissed marriage goodbye." Sadly, there is even more to the story.
Just last week, Harris shared this on his Instagram account:
View this post on Instagram
My heart is full of gratitude. I wish you could see all the messages people sent me after the announcement of my divorce. They are expressions of love though they are saddened or even strongly disapprove of the decision. I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace. This week I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, exvangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in-between. Of course there have also been strong words of rebuke from religious people. While not always pleasant, I know they are seeking to love me. (There have also been spiteful, hateful comments that angered and hurt me.) The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now. Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few. But I specifically want to add to this list now: to the LGBTQ+ community, I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me. To my Christians friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
There is much in this posting that I find heartbreaking and troubling. Yes, I know some of you reading this will resonate more with what Harris has stated than what I am stating. I understand that. I get it. Nevertheless, I am still troubled at what has been called a "falling away" or even an apostate belief.
Harris's statement is not about the "purity culture" but because he is now newsworthy outside the Christian bubble, this just adds to the confusion regarding gospel clarity, holiness, biblical Christianity, and yes...purity.
The Fall of Celebrity Christians
People love putting others on pedestals. This is human nature. Celebrity culture is not new. It has been around for millennia. Most recently, it seems that this little bubble known as American Christian evangelicalism has excelled in creating celebrities. Those who have pastored large churches, grown immense followings, written many books, and influenced many seem to be falling quickly. Names that not so long ago were listed as influencers and godly models such as Driscoll, Tullian, MacDonald, Bell, Hatmaker, Patrick, Noble, and others have either fallen morally, lost their positions, started believing they were above others, or simply abandoned orthodox Christianity. And the same believers who elevated them often celebrate their demise.
I guess that is human nature.
And that's why we need Christ.
Every pastor I know can list church members who were at one time faithfully engaged and some even leading in ministry, only to disappear from the fellowship of the redeemed. In some cases, the reasons were similar to those listed above for the fallen celebrities. In other cases, they were simply forgotten as they began to disappear. They ended up in the "Whatever happened to _______" category.
Joshua Harris does not desire my empathy. I do not know him. He has never heard of me.
I know some who have read his books and listened to his teaching. They're angry now. They've thrown away his books. They no longer follow him on social media. They are distancing themselves from his influence.
Based on what he has most recently stated, this response is understandable. He has "kissed biblical Christianity goodbye." It leaves us with more questions than answers at times.
Legalism Never Brings Life
To be clear, I believe in biblical holiness and that sexual purity is right and godly. I do not see this as anathema to true Christianity. Nevertheless, it is clear that for some the legalism that permeated and defined the presentation and practice of sexual purity harmed many. The harm was not physical, but spiritual in that the hope from the gospel was traded for the rules of church expectations that were little more than processes intent on behavior modification.
Behavior modification does not save anyone. Just being better, acting nicer, doing good deeds, being moral, etc. will not redeem for they are not the gospel.
David French wrote of this in National Review...
The indescribably good news is that from the moment of the confession of faith, believers are not defined by their sin. They’re not defined even by their own meager virtues. They’re defined by Christ. Moreover, they find that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This does not by any stretch mean that past sin wasn’t sin — one of my best friends is an eleven-years-sober addict who did dreadful things during his worst days — but it does mean that their past now gives them a unique ability to reach suffering people. Their terrible stories and past pain have been redeemed, transformed into instruments of grace and mercy.
One of my first acts as youth pastor was to lift the ban on dating (a ban for teenagers in the youth group put in place by a previous youth minister.) Ending legalism is not the same thing as sanctioning sin, and I have no idea if there was more or less extramarital sex as a result of the dating ban or the purity rings. But it was incumbent upon me — in the limited time that I had in leadership — to tell the truth, and the truth was that legalism is its own kind of sin. To create burdens where Christ did not is an act of arrogance. It’s deeply harmful. And, sadly, it’s a way of life in all too many Christian churches.
Harris previously repented of his legalism. Yet, it seems the poison of legalism continues to poison. This impacts Harris and his family, but also other believers and non-believers now reading of his decisions.
I have prayed for Harris and his family. I have prayed for the others who have walked away, or have felt pushed away, from the church. Whether it be self-righteous celebrity culture or the overbearing weight of legalism, or perhaps something else, the facts are clear that the Enemy continues to seek to steal, kill, and destroy.
Do not abandon the truth for a lie and allow cultural Christianity, civic Christianity, patriotic Christianity, therapeutic Christianity, legalistic Christianity, or any other false Christianity keep you from the Truth.
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 1 Peter 5:8-9 (ESV)