joshua harris

Joshua Harris, Author and Former Pastor, Says Goodbye to Christianity

Abri Nelson on August 2, 2019

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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. Comment by Dazed and Out of the Loop on August 2, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    This whole mess is as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting. I never heard of this guy or his movement, and it sounds like he didn’t think through everything or maybe missed what Scripture or the Spirit was leading him to do.

    Then sadly he went off the deep end and left a bunch of collateral damage behind. Maybe an old-fashioned seminary experience and a few friends might have helped here.

    I grieve for him and all the people who are damaged because of this. May God bring him back to where he belongs.

  2. Comment by JR on August 7, 2019 at 4:32 pm

    “Maybe an old-fashioned seminary experience and a few friends might have helped here.”

    Possibly so – as i understand it, his family was part of the homeschool/fundamentalist set (the Duggars are along that same path, and some of their kids likewise have really fallen hard).

    Hoping he finds what he needs, and finds peace and healing.

  3. Comment by M Love on August 2, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Can someone explain this statement.
    “separating Christianity from the purity-based subculture. I’ve watched many friends deconstruct their faith”

  4. Comment by Elizabeth on August 14, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    Legalism. The “purity based subculture” is rules based and blurs relationship with Jesus whom is the guiding factor in one’s walk. I like what the author says at the end of the article about teaching kids scripture and sound theology along with values – this is what will grow their faith and lead them in relationship with Jesus which is the foundation of any purity.

  5. Comment by Shelby on August 2, 2019 at 5:10 pm

    There is something else

  6. Comment by AJ Beck on August 2, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    This doesn’t surprise me. Jesus said in the end times many would turn from their faith and good would be considered evil and evil considered good. In our politically correct world people are susceptible to the LGBT agenda and the pressure they put on them to conform or face the consequences and this man is no different. He bowed to the pressure of the world when life didn’t go his way. All we can do is pray for him to turn back to his faith before it’s too late!

  7. Comment by NM on August 6, 2019 at 7:56 am

    Hi Ms. Nelson,

    Your post really hit home with me, although I come at this from the opposite end, being a man. But I’m almost exactly the same age as you and my family was attending SBU or megachurches around that same time. (I returned to my baptismal Roman Catholic religion when I was 19.) I had the same feelings when I read Harris’s first book in 1999, between eye-rolling at the weirdness and conceding that he had a point.

    One issue is that “purity” is something Christians should aspire to but may not attain in this life. As regards sexuality the more appropriate term is *chastity*. All Christians are called to chastity, which basically means that:

    – Unmarried Christians are called to continence
    – Some Christians are called to celibacy, that is to say permanent continence
    – Married Christians are called to be continent when not alone with their spouses.

    As you say, the anxieties of high school teachers and parents is justified when modern society puts pressure on kids to “complete” their education before any irreversible life changes take place. But chastity cannot be taught in a vacuum: it needs to be taught as a commandment for living as God’s children in the Kingdom of Man, in preparation for perfection in the Kingdom of God. Harris, sadly, seemed to confuse the two, insinuating that a youth of chastity or rather “purity” would be rewarded in the Kingdom of Man with a good marriage. But God never promised to make us happy in this life.

    And because of the temptations of the Kingdom of Man, I do wonder whether educators should not take more of an eye towards single-sex education as a way of removing temptation while we are catechizing our boys and girls to become men and women of God.

    What do you think?

  8. Comment by William on August 7, 2019 at 4:57 pm

  9. Comment by Margaret on August 9, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    If Anglicans and Christians embraced the unifying themes of Scripture as outlined in Theology of the Body, this confusion would not exist. We are the bride of Christ. Marriage is an icon of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. The marriage supper of the Lamb is our ultimate fulfillment, and Jesus displayed His bridegroomness in the cross. We can be fulfilled in our longings through Christ Jesus in our nuptial relationship with Him in the Church. Marriage is a fulfillment, not a contract, etc. Evangelicals are avoiding the Sacramental unity of this vision as we lack depth of understanding in what the Church is, the atonement is, and the Sacrament is. If we were embracing all this, the confusion we face would flee. Christopher West is a good ambassador for this teaching, and he loves evangelicalism as well as Catholicism. If we let this understanding permeate us, it will change the culture. Jesus is Risen.

  10. Comment by David Taylor on August 9, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    “The Bible is God’s word, but is not an instructional manual for dating.” I think something that remains undetected among evangelicals (and exvangelicals) is how legalistically the word is applied on a host of topics.

    “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” 1 Tim 1:8 Combine legalism with the prevalent peer pressure in churches (what the Bible calls “fear of man”) and you have a recipe for disappointment and often disillusionment. Week after week we can mine the Bible for “scriptural principles” that get turned into something like the foolish Sabbath rules that Jesus said were missing the point.

    Persons who declare their independence from evangelicalism often say that “tolerance” is missing. What’s wrong with wholeheartedly embracing God’s mercy, which doesn’t require the rejection of biblical standards?

  11. Comment by Barbara on August 25, 2019 at 11:03 am

    The Bible is a great educator on every topic of life. You just have to know what you are reading. Without a relationship with Jesus Christ, you will never know. Discernment of God’s word comes through surrender to Jesus, not a church not some leader. The Lord has led me to different churches and denominations to grow as his child to know Him better. A great book is by Peter Lord …. “Hearing God” with scriptural reference and life experiences hearing God in his circumstance’s. God Bless!

  12. Comment by Pastor Willie Adkins on August 14, 2019 at 8:43 am

    Many peoples are questioning things now.before u Christian throw stones,and be judgemental please educate yourself on the history of what u believe, and why you believe it. We believe a lot of things but we know very little. I been a believer in jesus for over 40 years, most of what we believe surely are pass down to us we take it as face value no question ask. Many Christians are first judgemental, because someone don’t believe like them how sad. I respect him because he ask questions and found his truth.

  13. Comment by Dave Shelton on August 20, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    Well all I can say is he may have found his “truth” but he has rejected The Truth.
    We must Pray for his Soul.
    Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life…
    and No One comes unto the Father except Through Him.

  14. Comment by Barbara on August 25, 2019 at 10:56 am

    Pastor, I find it very sad that no one is out there evaluating these people before they are in a leadership position or releasing music not of e Holy Spirit. I have had pastors stop me from confirming a convert at joining the church. We have become a mamby pamby country club church. God is going to judge leaders for allowing the wolves into the church as leaders and it may not be when they reach the throne. Discernment comes through close relationship of the word and the Holy Spirit. Leaders have an obligation to the Lord, not to be ‘liked” by others. If misconceptions are coming down from generations, then the Church is not doing its job especially at conversion. Christianity is a relationship built through the word, power testimonies/teaching of God fearing Christians, and prayer …waiting for answers if necessary.

  15. Comment by Barbara on August 25, 2019 at 10:43 am

    In reading Marty Sampson comments especially that he could not “just believe” anymore, tells me all I need to know. This young man did not have a relationship with the Lord. You can read evaluate, speak with others about the Bible and their faith, but until you lay it all down to Jesus in total surrender, you will not have the discernment and relationship with the Holy Spirit to understand or get the answers you desire to God’s word. Even then, the Holy Spirit may tell you all in time. Sadly it is obvious this person never new Jesus. I will be reading about Joshua Harris, but Graham’s take on these people was well said regarding the media calling them Christian leaders. Song writers are not Christian leaders. Most of these contemporary songs are so empty, it’s disturbing. People we must be so close to the Lord … We know the wolves … Those who come in Jesus name and never knew him.

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