By now, you’ve no doubt heard about Joshua Harris. This man became something of a celebrity in the late 1990s for writing books on sexual purity and an alternative to the casual dating culture. As of July 2019, he has now divorced his wife and publicly denounced his Christian faith. Sometimes a Christian has a controversy and we forget about it in a week. This conversation has kept going for almost two months now with more people weighing in every week. I believe the reason why the conversation continues has less to do with Harris or his deconversion, and more the current state of our culture. Harris helped kickstart what came to be known as purity culture, a movement largely trying to combat the sexual revolution. With Harris rethinking his own work, many others are reflecting on the subject and asking what went wrong with purity culture?

What Went Right

Joshua Harris

Before we dive into the problems of this movement, I don’t want to paint an entirely negative picture. I grew up in a homeschool community that heavily subscribed to the movement. While I would not say it dramatically affected me personally, I was part of a community that was immersed in this movement. Many are quick to use this cultural moment as an opportunity to vent their frustrations and demonize what wasn’t always a bad thing. As stated before, the purity movement largely stemmed from a backlash to the sexual revolution. Many like Harris began to see the cracks forming from the casual dating and free love ideas spreading through our culture. He gave us a new lens to examine the problem of divorce and broken homes, and a way we can start better and stronger than many before us did. Dating in our culture involves a lot of needless risk, drama, and often heartbreak. Being sheltered from that wasn’t always a bad thing. I’ve also met several couples who went through the courting process that are, to my knowledge, still happily married to this day. I don’t want us to pretend that courtship and purity is some fundamentally broken failed experiment.

Where It Went Wrong

All that being said, there’s a reason we are still talking about this. As we humans tend to do, we took a good thing and messed it up. I think there are 3 primary ways that purity culture took a good idea and turned it into a problem.

1. It Became the only option.

For many, dating became a dirty word. It was the sexual debauchery that the heathens did, but NOT I! While I have met happy couples who courted rather than dated, how many happily married couples do you know who were high school sweethearts? Courtship can be great, but that doesn’t mean dating needs to be entirely off the table. This applies even more so as the participants get older. Many of the facets of courting simply don’t work if both people are independent adults, rather than high school students still under their parents. People are different and trying to fit everyone into a single box or model is going to have problems.

2. Legalism and Having the Right Reasons

This is something that all Christians need to have a proper understanding of. When we talk about sin and morality, we need to keep our motivations straight. Why do we want to save sex for marriage or avoid any sin for that matter? If our motivation is to avoid punishment, we are living in fear while missing the joy. Yes, God did have a design for human beings, and deviating from that may have consequences. But missing the mark is not a curse that marks us as forever unworthy of love. Ideally, the Christian is not motivated by fear of consequence, but the joy of reward. We do what is right because it’s what God wants. Doing right and avoiding wrong brings him joy, is better for us, and by connection, brings us joy. It’s less about the law and more about the lawgiver.

3. Promises We Couldn’t Keep

You may have recently heard people use the phrase Sexual Prosperity Gospel. The Prosperity Gospel typically refers to the idea that if you have enough faith, God will bless you with health, wealth, and happiness. The Sexual Prosperity Gospel, which people have accused Harris and others like him of promoting, is similar, but with the idea that if you remain chaste until marriage, you are guaranteed a happy and fulfilling relationship. Unfortunately, some have learned the hard way that this was a promise that couldn’t always be kept. A lot goes into a relationship besides sex and purity. If we go in unprepared and expect happiness and stability to be handed to us on a silver platter, we are in for a rough time.

This is a tough subject that has deeply affected a lot of people. Understanding the intent, what went right, and ultimately what went wrong with purity culture, can help us better plan for the future. We as a Christian community need to pray for Harris and his family. But we also need to pray for all of our younger brothers and sisters either still wrestling with these issues, and still dealing with the fallout of our mistakes.

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