‘Purity’ Guru Joshua Harris May Have Left Evangelicalism But He’s Still a Member of the Church of Patriarchy

Screen shot of Joshua Harris from the documentary "I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye." Image: Jessica Van Der Wyngaard/I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Ask any “exvangelical” woman about evangelical purity culture icon Joshua Harris and she’ll likely tell you his 2017 “apology tour” and subsequent public “deconversion” from Christianity was neither of those things. That apology tour includes, most recently, an interview featured on HBO’s news program, Axios, which gave the ex-pastor six minutes to apologize and to share his journey in a gentle and collegial setting.

I myself am an exvangelical woman who came of age during the heart of the evangelical purity movement in the 1990s. I recall leaning against the counter during a slow shift at Blockbuster Video—my high school job—devouring Harris’ Boy Meets Girl. Young love consumed me, as it does virtually every American teenager at some point, and I was hungry to learn how to make my romance pleasing to God. Courtship was the answer on offer, though not only from Harris. My evangelical youth group, the church it was a part of, and later my evangelical campus ministry and bible college, were all purveyors of the logic that relationships should be centered on the possibility of marriage from the moment of inception. During my years at Moody Bible Institute in the early 2000s we even had a slogan: “Ring by spring or your money back.”

Spoiler alert: I did not marry my high school boyfriend. But I did carry the courtship framework into subsequent relationships. Its patriarchal logics harmed a generation of evangelical women and men by setting them up to fail themselves, one another, and God. It placed unhealthy emphasis on the role of sex in relationships, whether you were unmarried, and therefore not supposed to be having it, or married and supposed to be having great sex all of the time. None of this critique is new, and in fact Harris himself has admitted as much in his TEDx talk “Strong Enough to be Wrong” and subsequent “apology tour” documentary, “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” a reference to the title of his 1997 book that catapulted him to evangelical stardom. Myriad incisive analyses offer critiques of the sex-shaming and heteronormativity baked into the courtship model Harris helped put on the map. Elizabeth Shively’s recent RD piece on Harris’ departure from Christianity offers an excellent overview of many of these critiques and Harris’ responses to them.

In his July 2019 “deconversion” Instagram post, Harris gives the name repentance to his feelings of remorse over his theological views regarding women and LGBTQ+ persons:

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. 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 have 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 […] 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 hope you can forgive me.

Despite this apparently vulnerable public proclamation, Harris’ life over the past few years felt like a lukewarm #SorryNotSorry repentance to many of his critics, as Slate’s Ruth Graham and many others attest. These feelings point to a recognition that “apology” doesn’t amount to “repentance:” the active and constant turning from sin, which in this case amounts to the patriarchal logics that caused the harm. Though Harris may have shed his evangelical institutional affiliation, he is still an active member of the Church of Patriarchy.

I do not write such words lightly, so let’s look at the evidence. The title of Harris’ 2017 TEDx talk “Strong Enough to be Wrong” draws on tropes that to admit error is a weak, feminine trait. It attempts to rebrand admission of error as acceptably masculine by mapping the language of strength onto it. This brand remained at the center of Harris’ 2018 “apology tour” documentary, I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which forefronts his own struggles rather than the struggles of those he harmed. The film is framed around Harris’ moments of existential crisis, including “dear diary” interludes in which Harris’ voiceover makes admissions such as “I am afraid to face my critics but also afraid to disappoint my fans,” accompanied by tortured shots of him wistfully looking out a car window or sleeping on a plane after a strenuous day of soul searching.

Harris leans on a variety of experts throughout the film to help him understand where he’d gone so wrong, and how he needs to be enlightened. Yet the diversity of world class scholars such as Jessica Johnson and Julie Ingersoll, and public figures like Nadia Bolz-Weber, who offer thoughtful and researched critiques of evangelical cultures related to gender and sexuality, go unrepresented. Every one of the scholars, authors, and public figures Harris looks to in the film work from within an evangelical perspective. They do not ask him the hard questions about the patriarchal ideology that shaped the purity movement and its move toward courtship. Consequently, Harris maintains control of the narrative. He never has to contend, for example, with the commodification of women that’s baked into a model oriented around the bridal hand-off from father to husband.

Perhaps even more to the point, Harris’ brand is benefitting in a number of ways from his public apologies. Upon release, promotion of Harris’ documentary emphasized that he would receive none of the film’s profits and the film would be available to stream free of charge, as to be totally accessible to the women his books had harmed. This is true. When I visited Harris’ website, however, I discovered the catch: I was required to submit my email address in order to view the film “to receive occasional updates and marketing messages from I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Exploration Films.”

I promptly closed the browser window, triggered by the realization that to receive Harris’ apology I would have to subject myself to promotional emails related to his projects for the foreseeable future. This requirement has since been removed now that the film is widely available on other platforms such as YouTube, which is where I eventually came to view it. Yet Harris is still using his apologies to promote his brand, this time via his own consulting company through which you can pay him to deliver his TEDx talk at your institutional event.

Is there something icky about making money off of one’s admitted moral failures? From a Christian theological perspective, absolutely. From a patriarchal perspective: nah, not really. It comes with the toxic masculinity territory to ensure one is always seen as strong and in control, even in admission of error. Harris’ trafficking in apologies communicates that whether it takes form in evangelical or secular culture, his faith lies in patriarchy. When it became untenable for him to both maintain his position in evangelical Christianity and retain the logics of patriarchy, Harris simply transferred those logics to the secular sphere. Harris’ departure from Christianity isn’t about finding meaning in atheism, as it is for many exvangelicals. It’s a story of unwillingness to relinquish a public platform propped up by heteronormative white male privilege.

His actions reveal that it may be easier for many evangelical men to leave behind the presumed “nonnegotiable” points of evangelical theology—its claims regarding salvation, for instance—than to repent from the patriarchy from which they have benefitted. This recognition may even have explanatory significance for the conundrum as to how evangelicals can remain in the Trump camp despite his misogyny and racism. It isn’t about Christian theology, it’s about maintaining patriarchy and related logics of whiteness.

Harris’ membership in the Church of Patriarchy may be more subtle than that of figures like John MacArthur, who recently blew up the internet with his proclamation that Beth Moore should “Go home” rather than preach as a woman. Yet perhaps that makes it more insidious. While many (except the most die-hard fundamentalists) freely diagnose MacArthur as a misogynist, Harris has garnered a considerable amount of sympathy for his remorse. This misses the reality that with the lens centered on Harris, the stories of those he harmed are still subsumed by his own.

Patriarchy comes in many guises—apparently even performative vulnerability. Rather than celebrate Harris’ “strength” in making public apologies, perhaps we might call for him to step off his platform so others can tell the story for a while. That’s the move repentance requires; a radical turn from the Church of Patriarchy that might just inspire others to follow.