In July 2019, Joshua Harris, a popular American author and pastor announced on social media that he and his wife Shannon would be divorcing. ‘We’re writing to share the news that we are separating and we’ll continue our life together as friends. In recent years, some significant changes have taken place in both of us… Thank you for your understanding and for respecting our privacy during a difficult time’, read Harris’ Instagram post.
This was a major surprise and shock among young American Christians. For those who may never have heard of Joshua Harris, his first book I Kissed Dating Goodbye has become a hallmark of the American evangelical purity movement against American culture’s extreme sexualized and casual dating scene. His second book, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship became a sort of textbook among American evangelical families for maintaining purity and seeking a spouse. To many, Harris was the face of the American Christian purity movement.
Shortly after announcing that he and his wife of 21 years would be separating, Harris announced further distressing news, ‘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’.
Joshua Harris is the eldest of Gregg and Sono Harris’ seven children and grew up in a Christian home largely surrounded by the lifestyle of Christian homeschooling. Joshua’s parents were pioneers in that style of education and were greatly influential in the 1970s and 80s in the Pacific Northwest. This influenced Joshua tremendously. As explained in an article by Dr Albert Mohler, the movement actually began among the cultural left almost at the same time as the cultural right picked it up (The Tragedy of Joshua Harris: Sobering Thoughts for Evangelicals, Al Mohler, 8-1-19).
‘In one sense’, Mohler writes, ‘it was conservatives who learned from the liberals about the model of homeschooling. Among liberals, the movement really began as an extension of the radicalism of the 1960s, a pushback against institutionalized forms of learning and a basic anti-authoritarianism. Conservatives began to observe the liberal homeschooling movement and recognized there was a real opportunity here for conservative Christians especially…
‘The Christian homeschooling movement was a blend of Jesus People grown into parents, celebrating the Bible’s radical vision of sex, marriage, and parenting. The movement was marked by a simple Biblicism and grew into very clear prescriptive principles. Conservative Christian parents were also consciously rejecting the liberalisation and secularisation of the public schools, and the liberal sex education agenda that marked public education. Joshua Harris was born into this movement, was incubated within it, and was raised by parents who were already influential within it’.
Harris’ seminal work, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was written out of this background as Harris sought to rebel against the prevalent dating movement in the culture. The book provided guidelines for purity in courtship which encompassed the family and the church. It sold 1.2 million copies worldwide and had a huge following among homeschooling families especially. However, as with any counter-culture movement, there were extreme radical followings as well.
After having written this book, Harris became an intern at a large church in Maryland under Pastor C. J. Mahaney. While at Covenant Life church, Harris embraced Calvinism and soon joined the “Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement”. He was involved with this until he left Covenant Life church in 2015.
From there things started to get hazy for Joshua Harris. At the time, Covenant Life church was going through a difficult sexual abuse scandal that also involved church leadership. Harris resigned and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to attend Regents College for theological studies. Al Mohler writes, ‘He [Joshua Harris] said in a statement at the time that he had been living effectively backwards. He had gone into ministry before his theological education. He said that he was going to resign from ministry, and the very fact that he made that announcement the way he did indicated that perhaps even more fundamental changes were afoot’ (Mohler, Ibid.).
Then in 2016, Harris retracted many of the views espoused in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, ‘While I stand by my book’s call to sincerely love others, my thinking has changed significantly in the past twenty years. I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner…
‘There are other weaknesses too: in an effort to set a high standard, the book emphasized practices (not dating, not kissing before marriage) and concepts (giving your heart away) that are not in the Bible. In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, it instilled fear for some—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken. The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by scripture.’
While these statements seem harmless, Harris continued down the path of retraction, ultimately rejecting the biblical model for marriage and faith in Jesus Christ. In a series of social media posts, Harris clarified how far he had gone down the rabbit trail.
Harris wrote, ‘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’ve 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 Harris continued, ‘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.’
The news of this hit hard among American evangelicals, especially those who had been impacted by his book or pastoral ministry. Some responded graciously, others not as much.
Harris himself responded, ‘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.’
He continues, ‘I am learning that no group has the market quartered on grace. This week, I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in between.
‘Of course,’ he says, ‘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.’
Some, who followed Harris’ courtship advice to the T, were greatly disappointed and hurt by this. Please continue to pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ as we try to follow Christ in a pluralistic and confused culture.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.