Whither Evangelical Purity Culture? Thoughts on the Legacy of a Lost Pastor

Josh Harris burst into prominence as a young Christian with every author’s dream: a giant, influential first-book bestseller. “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and it sold almost a million copies.

Harris has famously repented of his past legalism, and that makes his departure from the faith particularly poignant. He helped define young people by their sin, and then he left. He separated from his wife, and he rejected Christianity itself. He is like an inadvertent arsonist, who flees the burning house rather than helping fight the fire he helped ignite. I’m sad to see him go. I’m sadder still to see the pain he caused when he was present.

 

If you don’t live in Evangelical-world, you probably missed this news. An influential Evangelical author and pastor named Joshua Harris announced on Saturday that he was in the process of “deconstruction.” His statement was clear. “By all the measurements I have for defining a Christian,” he said, “I am not a Christian.” He apologized to the LGBT community for not affirming gay marriage and for the ways that his writing and speaking “contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry.”

For Christians, it’s a sad statement, but it’s also full of real integrity. Rather than try to jam Christianity into his evolving worldview, he respects orthodoxy by opting out.

Harris burst into prominence as a young Christian with every author’s dream: a giant, influential first-book bestseller. It was called I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and it sold almost a million copies. If anything, however, the sales numbers understated its influence. It was part of the foundation of Evangelical “purity culture,” and it revolutionized parenting and dating for countless Christian parents and families.

I remember it well. I was a youth pastor for a few memorable months at the height of the courtship craze. The year was 1998, I was a youth volunteer at a small church in Georgetown, Ky., when our youth pastor left. Until we could find a new youth pastor, I was in charge. I preached the youth service every week, I led the youth Sunday school, and I led the youth prayer groups. I was also a commercial litigator in a big law firm, and suddenly I had two full-time jobs. It was one of the best times of my life.

But we also had a problem. The youth ministry had gone all-in on purity culture. The previous youth pastor had even declared “no date ’98,” placing a moratorium on every kid in the youth group: not even a single date for the entire year. When it came to relationships, it would be “courtship” (tersely defined as parental-supervised visits and outings) or nothing.

This wasn’t wanton repression or cruelty. Many parents had entered adulthood wounded by past broken relationships. They regretted the mistakes of their youth and desperately wanted their kids to avoid similar heartbreak. Also — and this is crucial for understanding purity culture — they fervently believed in a specific earthly reward for their child’s youthful obedience. Courtship represented the best method of ensuring a healthy, sexually vibrant marriage to a faithful spouse.

This is what writer Katelyn Beaty called the “sexual prosperity gospel,” an “if/then” transactional relationship with God that manufactures a series of promises from scripture and then creates a form of Christian entitlement and expectation. “I did what you asked, Lord, now may I see my reward?”

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