Replace Purity Culture, But Don’t Replace Jesus

If you came of age in the late 1990’s or were anywhere near an evangelical circle, then 21 year-old Joshua Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye probably made it’s way onto your bookshelf. The so-called ‘purity movement’ was born, and with it came some pretty high expectations and both good and bad theology.

I distinctly remember this book being a huge hit, along with others of the time, notably John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart series that heavily encouraged living life through the lens of adventure and seeing yourself as part of an epic, emotion-filled story. In his book, Harris advocated for a more serious take on dating, notably ditching the hook-up culture that was leading to so much unintended pain and focusing on courtship as a healthy road to marriage.

So fast-forward a couple decades and now Harris is back in the spotlight, announcing he is getting a divorce and going on a bit of an apology tour telling the masses he greatly regrets leading so many young people astray. Folks are really, really mad about all this apparently. Not that he’s getting divorced, but that he started a movement that so badly affected their lives. There’s a whole generation of 30-somethings out there who claim deep trauma as a result of being indoctrinated into the purity movement.

  • Was it a bad idea for a handsome 21 year old to write a book declaring Christians should stop dating? Probably.
  • Did purity culture embrace some non-Biblical ideas about sex and marriage that left young believers trapped in a performance-based relationship with their Creator? Definitely.
  • Does rejecting some man-made ideas on the subject mean we must also completely toss out God’s design for relationships and marriage? NO!

Here lies the problem, and it’s a big one. When we cling to a book or one man’s interpretation of such large subjects, we are setting ourselves up for a big fall. This guy had a witty title, a cool cover photo (that hat-tilt was so fetching!) and some refreshing ideas to be sure, some of them were Biblical and some were not. He was tired of wasting his time on mindless relationships and harmful hook-ups, that’s a good thing. Creating a culture that legalistically sets out the idea that “if you follow these rules, then you will be happily married…” is a recipe for disaster. God never requires us to check our brains or common sense at the door. He calls us to know Him and His word, to love Him and allow relationships to unfold in His time.

I was too young to know any different, but both this book and Wild At Heart led me down a path that pulled me away from the Word. When I read them, I wasn’t driven towards any Biblical truth, I was pushed further and further into investigating my own feelings which is fine for a time, but absolutely exhausting in the long run. I have journals full of emotionally-charged writing that verify this. I felt as though I was being ‘deep and spiritual’ but that wasn’t the case. I had no idea what God said about much of anything.

The saddest part of this whole debacle is that Harris is throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. True to the current trend among hip Christians, he is denouncing Jesus right along with his formerly held beliefs.

But it can get to feeling, like, what are you holding onto in Christianity? Why do you need it still? I guess if we can with one generation make that radical shift with the Bible, who’s to say that another generation can’t completely shift the Bible to, you know, justify something that we all think is horrendous? It starts to just be silly putty.”

Joshua Harris, Interview with Sojourners Magazine

This is hard to watch. We don’t like God-given boundaries, we want to do our own thing, and in the process, we shut the door on Jesus entirely. A big problem with these “traumatized” survivors of purity culture is that they are suffering the consequences of their reckless ‘relationships’ and are experiencing the guilt and shame that come with unbridled sin. The headlines say that an entire generation was “shamed” by chasing purity… when in reality they were shamed by their sin and never taught properly about redemption.

Per usual, God is not the problem here, He is the solution. Guilt and condemnation are from the enemy, not Jesus. We don’t like to feel conviction though, which is required for a repentant heart.

I won’t give my teen sons any snazzy books about Kissing Dating Goodbye or make them sign any contracts promising to keep themselves pure and undefiled until marriage. I also won’t tell them purity is too high or lofty a goal to hope for in today’s sex-obsessed culture. It’s not. You know what’s unrealistic? Being double-minded about what the Word says. Pick a team, pick a side, but get off the fence.

Jesus tells us clearly in Matthew 11 that His commandments to us are not burdensome. A whole team of newly-minted ‘woke’ Christians out there are telling us that not only are His requirements burdensome, but harmful to (singles, gay people, women, etc.). This isn’t Jesus. This is people-pleasing run amok.

One of our greatest needs is to understand that God is FOR us and not against us. If we truly grasped that concept, the boundaries He sets would be the most welcomed thing in the world to us.

Joshua Harris is now questioning his faith entirely. I suspect this has less to do with purity culture and more to do with the current need Christians have to just go along with whatever culture deems acceptable. Divorce is fine, sex is fine, to each his own.

In the end, we each have a responsibility to the truth, regardless of what books or new ideas are tossed our way. One mans theology can’t derail us unless we allow it to and to be forever embittered by it is a waste of God’s mercy and grace which is new every day.

So for everyone from serial ‘daters’, happily marrieds, still single, or somewhere in between… don’t lose heart. Study the Word and know God. When the root is healthy, the rest of the tree will follow suit. Folks don’t need our gimmicky ideas about marriage or sex, the just need the truth presented to them. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth.

Harris and the purity culture devotees put all their faith in a system that let them down. What they don’t see is that when the system crumbles, Jesus is still there.

He never left.

8 thoughts on “Replace Purity Culture, But Don’t Replace Jesus

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  1. As someone who also read I Kissed Dating Goodbye as a late teenager/early college student and used it as a map for my singleness, I love every bit of this. I had always placed a large emphasis on purity before reading this book, but this book molded the way I treated my relationships (and lack of interest in dating altogether). I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was an extremely legalistic book. It had a lot of good things, but it did some damage that I did not realize until I was dating the man that I would later marry. I had some extreme hesitation toward trusting that he was the one for me, even though everything in me told me that he was the man I had been praying for. I was so afraid of “making a mistake” that I let myself be overcome with doubt and fear through much of our time dating. Also – the Joshua Harris news was devastating, but in a way – not surprising. Thank you for writing this!

    1. Thanks for this Chelsea! I didn’t see it at the time either, we were all a lot younger then… it’s a good reminder to really put God first – and be careful about what/whose “lessons” we allow ourselves to absorb, regardless of how cool or life-changing they may sound at the time.

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