Kissing Goodbye to All That: On Joshua Harris’s Apostasy

Joshua Harris

A major step in my journey toward Orthodoxy occurred last summer when news broke that the young megachurch pastor and one-time Evangelical wunderkind Joshua Harris was splitting up with his wife. Divorce and other such clerical scandals are pretty common in the Evangelical world, but this one struck a unique chord, particularly with so-called Exvangelicals for whom Harris had been a household name. The news was shocking even if signs that something was amiss in Harrisland had been appearing for a long time. Over the previous few years, Harris had embarked on a goodwill tour, granting interviews and even appearing in a documentary that all but repudiated the thing that had made him famous: his 1997 book on sexual purity, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. The book, he wrote on a statement on his website, presented extrabiblical teachings as gospel, had identified as innately Christian practices, such as forgoing dating in favor of something called “Biblical courtship,” that the Bible had nothing to say about at all. “In light of the flaws I now see in I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” he wrote, “I think it’s best to discontinue its publication.”

For those who don’t know, I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a phenomenon in the late 1990s among Evangelical Christians, particularly those within the homeschool movement (in which Harris’s parents, Gregg and Sono, were legends). The book appeared around the same time as the True Love Waits movement, another staple of purity culture. In his book, Harris detailed all the ways in which conventional dating created a set of patterns that would lead to unhealthy marriages. Dating was, in his words, preparation for divorce: you meet someone you like, you begin a relationship, difficulty inevitably occurs, and you break up. This is not a relationship pattern, said Harris, that anyone should adopt. He argued for dating to be replaced by a system of courtship that his book only vaguely described (he apparently laid out this system in greater detail in later books, but by the time they appeared, I had left the Church and wasn’t reading Harris anymore). I Kissed Dating Goodbye all but argued that dating was an outright sin, that the harm caused by dating would be incalculable and lifelong. Spending one-on-one time with members of the opposite sex was strongly discouraged; kissing before marriage was all but prohibited. Harris argued, along with so many other purity culture preachers, that everyone ultimately belongs to their future, God-appointed spouse. Whatever you do with a romantic partner before marriage, you’re doing with another person’s husband or wife. Further, Harris seemed to promise a lifetime of marital bliss (and good sex) if one lived according to the Biblical principles laid out in the book.

The fact that Harris was only 23 years old when I Kissed Dating Goodbye appeared—the fact that someone barely out of their teenage years was offering advice on how to establish healthy lifelong relationships—didn’t raise many flags within the Evangelical sphere, which is notorious for raising youthful ministers up on pedestals (he would become a senior pastor of a megachurch by age 30). The combination of Harris’s youthful naïveté and his insufficiently developed courtship program led to his ideas being implemented disastrously by many Christian parents. By the late 2000s, testimonies began to appear of people whose teenage years were upended and whose sense of self—particularly their relationship to romance and sex—was severely wounded by Harris’s teachings. Bloggers and writers from the Evangelical world reported an almost existential horror of romance, a fear of sex, and a difficulty coordinating their expectations of married life with the realities of life with their partner. People who had engaged in premarital sex experienced an inexpressible amount of shame.

Around 2016, Harris, now in his early forties, began responding to the people who described hurt, regret, and shame that resulted from their experiences with I Kissed Dating Goodbye. While not renouncing the advice his book had offered, he displayed remarkable empathy and sorrow in his responses. In 2018, he appeared in a documentary, I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which went further toward denouncing his former teachings. That same year, he ceased publication of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a remarkable move for a celebrated pastor with such a successful book.

This all coincided with Harris’s decision, in 2015, to go to a mainstream seminary in Vancouver, British Columbia. This decision occurred after a 2012 sex scandal rocked his megachurch, a scandal that was accompanied by accusations that ministers in Harris’s denomination (or “coalition of churches”) had covered up evidence of systemic sexual abuse. Harris was untouched by the scandal—no accusations were made against him personally, and by all accounts he was innocent of any wrongdoing—but he was personally deeply upset by the whole affair. For those unacquainted with the Evangelical world, it is not a given that a pastor should go to seminary, and certainly not a seminary affiliated with a mainline denomination: many pastors simply do not have a seminarian’s education. One can shepherd thousands of souls with virtually no knowledge of Christian doctrine, tradition, or history. “I was 30 years old,” Harris recalled, “with no formal theological training and no formal training in organizational leadership, and I was the senior pastor of a 3,000 member church.” He had lived, he said, a “backwards life.” (The events that followed, including his divorce and apostasy, only encouraged those Evangelical voices who argue that “seminary…is dangerous to faith”. Too much knowledge has always been suspect in many Christian circles.)

Then in 2019 came the announcement that Harris and his wife, Shannon, were separating. My initial response to this news was to laugh uproariously. Here was the guy who wrote the book on how to avoid divorce, and he was getting divorced. What typical American Evangelical hypocrisy! But as more news appeared (mostly on Harris and Shannon’s Instagram accounts), it became clear how wicked and misguided my initial response was. Harris and Shannon were clearly going through a very difficult, very real crisis of faith. And whereas Shannon’s personal reflections seemed to indicate that she had accepted a broader idea of God, something less tied to institutional Christianity and more liberal on social issues, Harris seemed to have gone further. He described having “fallen away,” undergoing a “massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus.” He apologized to people who had been hurt by his teachings, specifically to people in the LGBTQ+ community. He apologized for having opposed marriage equality for LGBTQ+ people in the United States. “By all the measurements I have for defining a Christian,” he wrote, “I am not a Christian.”

Harris enjoys a donut at the Vancouver Pride Parade.

Harris’s announcement was met with predictable responses from right-wing Christians in the media. Franklin Graham attempted to distance Harris from the Evangelical movement: “These are very young people and I doubt whether they even have a very strong faith, or if they even had a faith at all to begin with.” An article in First Things took the opportunity to lambaste conservative Evangelicalism for its superficiality and “postmodern” jargon (in the author’s defense, Harris did refer to his loss of belief as a “deconstruction”). And enough time had passed—over two decades—between the peak of Harris’s celebrity and his apostasy that the news caused relatively few ripples in the Evangelical Church. They had long moved on to other celebrities, other issues, other preoccupations. The whole affair was forgotten within a couple weeks.

But Harris’s fall from grace had a strange effect on me, personally. I am one of those whose childhood (and adulthood) was scarred by Harris’s teachings. When he announced his separation from Shannon, I laughed. When he announced his apostasy, I was deeply moved. “By all the measurements 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.” How often I had felt this way in the past! How often I feel this way even now! This could be me! What, I asked myself, separated me from Harris?

That’s when I realized that the key phrase in Harris’s anti-testimony was “by all the measurements I have for defining a Christian….” I felt such deep empathy for Harris upon reading that. I realized that this statement represented the absolute truth for him: he was, by his own measurement, outside of Christianity. For much of my own life, I had a similarly narrow definition of Christianity. I couldn’t conceive of anything outside Evangelical Christianity that felt authentically Christian. Then, under the influence of Rich Mullins, I discovered Catholicism, and began to realize that what I regarded as heresy actually represented nineteen hundred years of Christian history and the majority of professed Christians. In my twenties, I labored hard against the strictures of the conception of Christianity I had been raised with; intellectually I understood that Catholics were authentic Christians, but it took me a long time to accept that on an emotional and spiritual level. Eventually, my conception of Christianity expanded to include all manner of liberal Protestant. I realized that Pope Benedict XVI, Neichelle Guidry, and Nadia Bolz-Weber all belonged to the same religion. The tiny Baptist church in my hometown in Iowa; the Pentecostal Brazilian church in Somerville, Massachusetts, where I lived; the black megachurch near my sister’s home in Nashville, Tennessee; the old rural Lutheran chapel outside Albert Lee, Minnesota: these were all pieces of an amazing whole.

I married a woman who had been baptized in the Armenian Orthodox Church. When we moved to South Dakota, I became aware of the large Ethiopian community in Sioux Falls. I visited their restaurants and noticed their icons. I began to realize how much wider Christianity was than I had even previously imagined: up until then, my experiences were mostly limited to churches in the English-speaking world. What about Ethiopians? Russians? Greeks, whose history with Christianity extends all the way back to the beginning? What about Palestinians, Coptics, Georgians, the Christians of Iraq and Iran and central and southern and eastern Asia? The Church is enormous! It is wildly diverse! Yet so much of it is united, either by Catholicism or by Orthodoxy.

Faces of Christianity

I have been having these thoughts for years, but they never coalesced into an epiphany until I read Joshua Harris’s words about his definition of Christianity. “Wow,” I thought. “My faith has always run the risk of being that narrow. My conception of Christianity is always in danger of confining itself to middle-class American Evangelicalism. And the Church is so much bigger than that!” It’s something I had known all along but never really felt until Joshua Harris said it, until he confessed that his conception of Christianity was limited and narrowed by his own experience. For him, this meant atheism. For me, it meant broadening my definitions. I read Harris’s words, and suddenly I wanted to be part of the larger Church, the authentic Church. And suddenly it hit me: I wanted to be Orthodox. The thought of Orthodoxy became a troublesome bee buzzing in my brain, an obsession I couldn’t shake. I realized quickly thereafter that I’d been reading Orthodox writers and listening to Orthodox voices for years, that I had Orthodox friends whose faith I respected more than most, that I had been moving in this direction for a long time.

This morning, like every morning for the past few months, I woke up and prayed the Trisagion prayer. I could almost hear the millions of others who prayed the same prayer today across the globe, and I could sense the millions more who prayed that prayer across the deep expanses of time. My deep communion and unity with my fellow Christians across national boundaries and throughout the far deeper boundaries of the centuries is part of what drew me toward liturgical worship and the catholic and apostolic Church. My faith is far from complete, but it is so much fuller now than it has ever been. That fullness derives in large part from the expanded fellowship I have with all my fellow Christians.

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