Josh Harris, author of the bestselling 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, announced on Instagram Friday that he had kissed Christianity goodbye, as well. He is also divorcing his wife. In recent years, Harris has rightly repented of his extraordinarily stringent and slightly heretical teachings in the evangelical purity movement, but he seems to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Ironically, the evangelical ex-pastor went from preaching one worldly dogma dressed up in Christian garb to fully embracing another worldly dogma clearly opposed to Christianity.
Last week, Harris announced that he and his wife of 21 years would be separating. This is significant in part because Harris made himself the model of the promises of a pure Christian life in his book. He essentially promised young Christians that if they keep themselves pure for marriage — he even suggested refraining from kissing until the wedding day — they will find the perfect spouse, enjoy the frequent satisfaction of desire, and the blessings of children.
That didn’t seem to work out for him, and in his Instagram post, Harris wrote, “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.”
Yet the former evangelical Christian made an even bigger announcement in the same post.
“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,” Harris wrote.
This announcement hit me like a ton of bricks. As an impressionable Christian teen, I devoured Harris’s book and believed that courting was a superior method of finding “the one” than dating. Since I wasn’t in a relationship, it was easy for me to think of saving the first kiss for marriage. Only later did I realize that this extremely stringent approach is unhealthy and likely prevents Christians from entering relationships in the first place by putting intercourse on a pedestal where it does not belong.
Yet in 2013, I received a review copy of Debra Fileta’s book True Love Dates: Your Indispensable Guide to Finding the Love of Your Life. That book confirmed what I had slowly grown to suspect: the idea of “the one” or a person’s perfect “soulmate” is not biblical or Christian — it actually originally comes from Plato’s dialogue “The Symposium.” This is not to say that some couples are not more compatible than others; but the key goal of romantic relationships should not be to find “the one,” but to find someone you can love and be faithful to all of your days — and make yourself into the kind of person who can be faithful. Dating is not the enemy of romance, but just another way to search for the right relationship.
As Katelyn Beaty noted at Religion News Service, Harris’s book and others like them were part of a “sexual prosperity gospel.” Prosperity gospel huxters preach that if you have faith in God and pray, then God will reward you in this life with health, wealth, and prosperity. This dangerous message also has a tragic corollary — if you get sick and don’t recover or if you become poor, that means your faith was lacking.
This theology has no biblical support — it is a Christian heresy. In fact, Jesus promises His followers that they will face persecution (John 15:20); He urges His followers to pick up their crosses — an instrument of torture, humiliation, and death — and follow Him (Mark 8:34-38); and He tells His disciples to give money to the poor to have treasure in heaven that will not be stolen or destroyed (Luke 12:33-34). God makes Job poor and sick to test him, and Jesus tells His disciples that a man was born blind not because of sin but so that God could show His power through him (John 9:3).
In other words, God does not promise His followers health and wealth, but something much more important — eternal life and treasure in heaven. Christians do not look to a fulfillment in this life, even though virtuous living often does result in prosperity and health.
Similarly, the sexual prosperity gospel preaches that if Christians hold themselves back for marriage, they will be rewarded with a perfect marriage full of bountiful intercourse. Now, it is true that there are natural benefits to saving yourself for marriage — but that’s not the promise of the gospel. And it certainly does not follow that the more you deny yourself in terms of kissing or hugging while dating (or “courting”), the more passion and intercourse you will enjoy during marriage. God promises no such trade-off, and it is an unrealistic expectation.
Worse, it elevates marriage and intercourse above God’s true promises. Marriage itself is but a shadow of heavenly intimacy with God. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his masterful essay The Weight of Glory, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Josh Harris, it seems, is still far too easily pleased. In his statement about “falling away” from Christianity, he added an apology “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,” he wrote in the Instagram post.
Part of the reason for his falling away is the same reason his sexual prosperity gospel was so wrong: he is still putting intercourse ahead of God’s promises in the gospel. It is true that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have been mistreated by the church in the past, and Christians should pledge themselves to treating all people with dignity. But God’s word is still clear: homosexual activity is sinful, and God created humans male and female.
It is important to note that homosexual activity is not some horrific sin that makes someone irredeemable. Heterosexual sin also separates people from God. Jesus’ standard for purity is high (Matthew 5:27-30), and all Christians should acknowledge themselves sinners and not pretend to be superior to those who struggle with gay attraction or gender confusion.
At the same time, the LGBT movement celebrates deviancy and a redefinition of marriage that cuts against Jesus’s clear words in the Bible.
By condemning the Bible’s stance against homosexual activity and its definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, Harris has condemned a key teaching of Christianity as “exclusion and bigotry.”
As he did in the sexual prosperity gospel, Harris puts earthly romantic fulfillment above God’s greater promise for people.
Furthermore, many of the criticisms of the evangelical purity movement have rejected God’s standard for similar reasons. The purity movement has included many bad messages that Christians need to reject, but the standard of reserving intercourse for marriage and of watching out for impure thoughts is important. Many have celebrated premarital intercourse or homosexual activity in rejecting the purity movement, and that involves a rejection of the Bible’s standards.
Harris noted “deconstruction” as a major reason he fell away from belief in Christianity. Deconstruction takes many forms: a rejection of the inspiration of scripture; a rejection of the central Christian doctrine that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead; a rejection of the idea of original sin; and more. But often, the cause of the “deconstruction” is not the head but the heart. People reject Christianity because they know it will make claims on their lives, and often the arena of romantic desire is the root cause of the issue.
In closing his Instagram message, Harris said, “I don’t view this moment negatively.” That’s tragic, because God hates divorce (Matthew 5:31-32). Sometimes divorce may be necessary, and Christians have been too harsh in judging divorcees, but divorce is not a thing to be celebrated.
It is truly tragic that a former evangelical leader who preached sexual purity — even for the wrong reasons — is divorcing his wife and kissing Christianity goodbye, and he doesn’t even “view this moment negatively.”
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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.”
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.