In 1997, a book denigrating dating in favor of courtship hit the shelves, written by an unmarried 21-year-old. That same year, I turned twelve. By the time I held a copy of Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye in my hands at fifteen, he had already sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his debut book, my family was attending a megachurch and purity culture had made its way into the evangelical mainstream.
Right age. Right place. Right time.
Harris argued that modern dating set couples up for divorce and promised a rewarding marriage to those who followed his advice. I first read the book out of curiosity; my friends and I giggled at the absurdity of forming a relationship without dating in between discussing the boys we hoped would ask us to the homecoming dance.
Yet we all agreed that sexual purity, respect and virtue were important. Every year our youth group went through gender-separated relationship sessions. The girls’ discussions focused on limiting physical contact, dressing modestly and allowing men to be the initiators in all things, practically verbatim from Harris’ model. If we were interested in a man, we were encouraged to pray that God would reveal that interest and kindle it in him as well.
Though my parents did not support the courtship model, it was hard to shake my initiation in purity culture. After all, the motive made sense. I devoured Harris’ second book, Boy Meets Girl, which he wrote after courting his now-separated wife Shannon Bonne. Though the book still pushed modesty and reticence for women, Harris at least presented practical relationship-building suggestions.
He would become the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in 2004, a flagship congregation of Sovereign Grace Ministries. After the church became embroiled in scandal in 2014 due to sexual abuse allegations from the 1980s, Harris departed to attend seminary at Regent College in Vancouver in 2015.
There, he engaged in conversations about his book and began to see holes in his theology. This inspired him to collect stories of how his book affected young adults; he ultimately pulled all of his books from publication.
In 2017, Harris offered a communal confession in the form of a TEDx talk, and in 2018 he co-produced a documentary about this journey and released an annotated bibliography entitled “Books That Changed My Mind,” which suggested eight books to read on Christian sexuality and relationships. Though I long ago rejected Harris’ model, I still examined these offerings with friends, and it seemed like the discussion was over.
Until Harris and Bonne announced their separation through Instagram two weeks ago, followed by Harris’ pronouncement that he was no longer a Christian and planned to divorce. The Christian Twitter-verse has been aflame since then, discussing the implications of Harris leaving the faith, some jubilant, others critical.
This new conversation reveals more problems with Harris’s courtship model than any of his previous work. Here are a few thoughts on where we go from here.
- Don’t dismiss Joshua Harris. Harris’ TED Talk and Instagram posts from the last year demonstrate that this should not have been a surprise. Both Bonne and he have written publicly about their struggles with separating Christianity from the purity-based subculture. I’ve watched many friends deconstruct their faith as they have also rejected purity culture; some of them came back to the church, and others haven’t, but all of them needed to reshape their understanding of the essentials of the Christian life outside of this teaching. Harris is still on this journey, and I feel a lot of compassion toward him, having witnessed that struggle in others.
- Christians need multiple models for dating. The Bible is God’s word, but it is not an instruction manual for dating. While we can glean much wisdom about forming right relationships, Christians will still need prayer to discern God’s leading in individual circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all model for the specifics of marriage.
- Youth groups should focus on catechesis along with morality. Harris’s model was ubiquitous because of the platform he received from youth groups. He was famous enough that practically any evangelical Millennial could give you an opinion for or against the book; but studies show low overall biblical engagement and high skepticism in my generation. As a high school teacher, I recognize the temptation to ensure that teenagers make wise decisions, but the gospel is about much more than saving sex for marriage. Teach them scripture and sound theology along with guidance in virtue. Teach them to know Christ and not just to live a good life.
Abri Nelson is a high school teacher in Northern Virginia and member of a local Anglican (ACNA) parish. She majored in journalism and history at Washington and Lee University and holds graduate degrees in education from the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia.