Oh no. Another casualty. This time, it’s Joshua Harris’ marriage. And his faith. The culprit? Embracing what Dallas Willard called “gospels of sin management.”
In late July, Joshua Harris, popular megachurch pastor and author announced in an Instagram post that he is no longer a Christian. This came a week after Harris publicly announced that he and his wife, Shannon, were separating after 20 years of marriage. They plan to remain “friends” as they continue to raise their three children together.
Harris gained notoriety for the advice he gave in his 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In the book, he promotes purity and prohibits dating (“a training ground for divorce”). From Harris and other authors came the 1990s Purity Movement.
Today, the Purity Movement is generally regarded as an abysmal failure. Three years ago, Harris apologized for his book. But what Harris doesn’t realize is that he wasn’t far from the truth. Dating is nowhere to be found in the Bible. The notion of “dating” has no moral universe attached to it… a date is simply a date in time. Like August 12.
The idea of dating is linked to the advent of the automobile. Autos furthered our sense of autonomy (“a law unto ourselves”). I go where I want to go, do what I want to do. Autonomy is suspicious of moral prohibitions. I “date” whomever I want to date.
Give Harris credit. He was correct in debunking dating. But he failed to connect this prohibition with the gospel. Same goes for promoting purity. Right idea—but disconnected from the historic gospel.
The historic gospel is God seeks to “marry” us (Hos.2:19). God is love (I Jn.4:8). Love is taking joy in others. God the Father, Son, and Spirit take joy in one another. But love also desires to expand the circle of love. God the Father, Son, and Spirit seek to expand the circle of love by “wedding” their joy with us. This is why the underlying theme throughout the Bible is God having the Son “marry” us.
This is the historic creation-fall-redemption-consummation gospel. Creation: “Your Maker is your husband” (Isa.54:5). Even after the fall, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isa.62:5). Redemption: at the cross, we were betrothed to Christ. Consummation is the wedding banquet in eternity.
We see this gospel in sexual relations. The apostle Paul wrote that the gospel is best depicted in marriage, in our sexuality as male and female. Earthly marriage is the central organizing metaphor for the gospel. It doesn’t appear that Joshua Harris recognizes this.
This is why some Christians believe we don’t date but do court. The idea of courting comes from God “courting” (or wooing) us toward marriage to him. God doesn’t date.
Harris seems to be unfamiliar with this historic frame. He appears to operate inside what Dallas Willard called “gospels of sin management.” In this version of the gospel, the good news is reduced to getting our sins forgiven. The cross is no longer when we were betrothed to Christ (married to him) but simply when our sins are paid for.
This presents a problem. What does forgiveness have to do with not dating? Or with purity? Harris didn’t have a good answer. As a result, people tried, failed, were hurt. Some left the faith angry. Harris felt bad. His marriage collapsed. His faith followed suit.
My sense—and I could be wrong—is that few American Christians imagine the gospel as God seeking to “marry” us. Hence, any prohibitions (like dating) run the risk of being imagined as arbitrary and capricious. This invariably leads to legalism. When legalisms collapse—as they invariably do—so does that person’s faith.
There is a solution. A few years back, a group of college students gathered around our kitchen table. They were sharing the latest salacious sexual news on campus. I knew some of the students had slept with other students at the table. I asked why all this fuss about sex? They didn’t know. I shared the gospel of God seeking to “marry” us. In a few minutes, all smartphones were off. Within an hour, a student had come to faith in Jesus. At the end of our evening, the students asked: why doesn’t the church share this story?
Good question. God designed our sexual lives to depict an almost indescribable story of God seeking to “marry” us. Joshua Harris apparently doesn’t know this story. That’s why he’s another casualty of our truncated gospels. But he could know it. My hunch is it would blow his mind. It might even restore him to Christ. It might restore his marriage.
 Dan Slater, A Million First Dates: Solving the Puzzle of Online Dating (Penguin: 2013), 29.