Christian ‘Purity’ Guru’s Loss of Faith May Signal a Coming Reckoning For Conservative Christianity

Joshua Harris, who literally wrote the book on Christian purity in the 1990s, announced in July on Instagram that he and his wife, Shannon, were separating after more than 20 years of marriage. Less than two weeks later, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (IKDG) dropped a second bombshellhe no longer identifies as a Christian.

“I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus,” Harris wrote beside a picture of him looking out over lake in the mountains. “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.”

Though he has not revealed the forces that led to the simultaneous unraveling of his marriage and his religious identity, it seems like it was questioning his previous stance on sexuality and gender issues that played a part in the latter. Harris paired his second announcement with an apology for contributing to a “culture of exclusion” with his previous views on women in the church and his opposition to marriage equality. The “deconstruction” of Harris’s faith not only seems intertwined with his change of heart on matters of gender equality and sexuality, but it could be an indication that evangelical churches in the United States will soon have to wrestle more fully with these issues as well.

Harris’s mea culpa comes just months after the author, speaker, and former megachurch pastor released a film in which he questioned whether IKDG, which he wrote when he was 21, had done more harm than good, and he in fact stopped production on the 1997 book that has sold more than a million copies. (Harris also wrote Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship in 2000 and Sex Isn’t the Problem, Lust Is in 2005, though it was first published in 2003 under a different title).

In 2016, Harris agreed to work on a documentary, I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, with director Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, in response to growing criticism from readers who claimed that Harris’s bookwhich endorses sexual abstinence and courtship, a marriage-focused, chaste alternative to datingand other messages from purity culture had done them lasting harm.

One critic featured in the film said IKDG promoted a kind of “prosperity gospel” for romance that smacked of a “money-back guarantee”-style sales tactic that promised readers that if they followed the chaste courtship formula, they would find their spouse and live happily ever after. Readers, some of whom have posted on social media under the hashtags #KissShameGoodbye and #NoShameMovement, say this formula served to drive a wedge between single men and women in churches where courtship had become the norm. They also say the courtship formula stigmatized Christian singles.

I Survived IKDG comes in the wake of critiques of purity culture and Christian teachings on sex and sexual identity. Matt Barber and Brittany Machado’s 2015 documentary Give Me Sex Jesus critically examines purity culture as do several books written by those who grew up in the movement, like Linda Kay Klein’s Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Women and How I Broke Free (Touchstone, 2018), and Dianna E. Anderson’s Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity (Jericho Books, 2015). Klein conveys the stories of women who suffered lasting consequences, such as anxiety and sexual dysfunction, as a result of purity teachings, while Anderson argues for a new set of Christian sexual ethics that counter, rather than perpetuate, shame.

Ministers from progressive denominations, like Bromleigh McClenaghan and Nadia Bolz-Weber, have also made efforts to expand what they see as a sexual ethic historically focused on shame that’s oppressive and exclusionary to many Christians, including LGBTQ believers. More calls for inclusion are also coming from within evangelical churches, though they’re often met with resistance and backlash from the establishment. Jen Hatmaker, an evangelical blogger, author, and pastor’s wife, made a statement in support of LGBTQ relationships in 2016, and says her family has received death threats in response.

So where does Harris stand in this reimagining of Christian sexual ethics? At the end of I Survived IKDG, Harris acknowledges that his book may have hurt some people, that its premise may be flawed, and that there could be a place for Christian dating. He did halt publication of the bestselling title, as noted earlier. But he failed to question the still dominant evangelical beliefs that sex is only permissible in heterosexual marriage and that “prolonged singlehood” is a problem. His July announcementsin which he made public his separation and apologized for participating in a “culture of exclusion” against women and the LGBTQ communitymake a stronger statement than the documentary did. But instead of expanding his definition of Christianity to fit his new ideas about gender and sexuality, Harris appears to be distancing himself from the label altogether. This falling away of Harris’s views, both on sexuality and his Christian identity, is perhaps not surprising given how intertwined those two forces have been in American history.

In Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians & Fractured American Politics (Basic Books, 2017), historian of religion R. Marie Griffith argues that the positions of progressives (including non-Christians and liberal Christians) and conservatives (including many Protestant denominations and Catholics) have been “mutually constitutive”; that is, when there were progressive gains, conservatives responded by placing the restoration of old values at the center of their identity. Nowhere has this been more true than around attitudes about sex, which Griffith says have come to signal a person or group’s attitudes about modernity itself. Arguments about gender roles, birth control, abortion, sex education, and LGBTQ rights, then, have become central to the religious and political identity of American Christians.

Harris himself demonstrated this reality in a July interview with Sojourners magazine. Harris said that in struggling to reconcile his evangelical faith with a sex-positive ethicone that allows for sex outside of marriage and embraces LGTBQ sexualityhe finds that his own religious moorings in conservative Christianity don’t give him enough room to make this theological leap. “In a way it’s almost easier for me to contemplate throwing out all of Christianity than it is to keeping Christianity and adapting in these different ways,” he said.

Harris’s July Instagram posts suggest he may be in the process of doing just that. It’s worth noting (though most news reports have not) that in his “deconstruction” note Harris doesn’t dismiss a “relationship with Jesus,” which is the crux of evangelical Christianity, although he goes on to say that the tools by which he understands Christianity don’t allow him to claim that label.

And yet there are American Christian denominations that have embraced LGBTQ believers in the pews and in the clergy, and have supported marriage equality, including the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ. These stances have not been without opposition, and inclusive policies at one time threatened to fracture the Episcopal Church (and may yet split the United Methodist Church).

There are also evangelicals who have left the fold but remained under the wider umbrella of Christianity in these more progressive denominations. The late Rachel Held Evans, bestselling Christian author and Episcopalian who left the evangelical church in 2014 (due, in large part, to prevailing notions of gender and sexuality), is one example. Others can be found in the #exvangelical movement, an online collective of former evangelicals united not only by religious “deconstruction,” but by politically progressive positions on issues related to racism, gender, and sexuality. Some exvangelicals, though, have left Christianity or organized religion altogether.

How American evangelicalism will deal with this movement and where it, and Harris himself, will ultimately land in this shifting terrain is not yet clear. If, as historian Griffith argues, sex has been at the heart of American Christian identities, how will conservative churches respond to a sea change in American sexual ethics? As for Harris, who now runs a marketing company, he has stated that he doesn’t plan to return to work as a pastor. He does still offer his services for speaking engagements and has a talk titled “Strong Enough to Be Wrong,” which is aimed at institutional leadership beyond the church, even as it capitalizes on his new status within evangelical circles. With respect to his entrepreneurial spirit, at least, Harris may not have changed so radically, after all.