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

Repenting of his past legalism, Joshua Harris is leaving the faith, to which he did unintentional but great harm.

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?”

Beaty’s critique is well taken, and it’s certainly true that purity culture built a series of (often wildly unrealistic) expectations about the marriage relationship that awaited kids who courted. But I think it did something even darker — in its effect (if not its intent), it reversed the gospel message, teaching Christian kids that they risked being defined by their sins, not by Christ.

It worked like this — sexual sin stained young persons, even if Christ forgave them. They would walk into marriage diminished in some crucial ways. The white dress, fundamentally, was a lie. And the message wasn’t confined to sexuality. Did you drink? Did you smoke a joint? Each one of those things altered a person’s self-definition. They were no longer “pure.” They could never be “pure” again.

All too many times, I saw the despair. A young person would come to me and say, “I screwed up.” They would really mean, “I’m ruined.” Their storybook dreams were dead. A 17-year-old with (God willing) 70 years of life ahead of him would approach me carrying the awful burden of thinking that he had defined his life forever. He was no longer — and never would be — the person he wanted to be.

Sometimes the despair would trigger wild rebellion. If they’re “ruined,” then why should they care about obedience? There are two states of being — virgin or not, teetotaler or not — and if you’re not, then you might as well indulge yourself. Other times the despair would trigger constant, nagging guilt and regret. A girl would walk down the aisle to marry a man who loved God and loved her, and she’d feel a shadow on her soul.

In point of fact, the gospel message rests first on bad news, then on indescribably good news. The bad news is simple: You were never “pure.” It’s not as if sex or drink or drugs represent the demarcation line between righteous and unrighteous. They are not and were never the “special” sins that created particularly acute separation from God. Yes, they could have profound earthly consequences, but they did not create unique spiritual separation.

The indescribably good news is that from the moment of the confession of faith, believers are not defined by their sin. They’re not defined even by their own meager virtues. They’re defined by Christ. Moreover, they find that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This does not by any stretch mean that past sin wasn’t sin — one of my best friends is an eleven-years-sober addict who did dreadful things during his worst days — but it does mean that their past now gives them a unique ability to reach suffering people. Their terrible stories and past pain have been redeemed, transformed into instruments of grace and mercy.

One of my first acts as youth pastor was to lift the ban on dating. Ending legalism is not the same thing as sanctioning sin, and I have no idea if there was more or less extramarital sex as a result of the dating ban or the purity rings. But it was incumbent upon me — in the limited time that I had in leadership — to tell the truth, and the truth was that legalism is its own kind of sin. To create burdens where Christ did not is an act of arrogance. It’s deeply harmful. And, sadly, it’s a way of life in all too many Christian churches.

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.