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.
I am in full agreement with your analysis here. Regarding God wanting to marry us, you might mention Christopher West’s “Fill These Hearts.” One does not have to be a Christian to ponder whether sexuality has an intrinsic vertical dimension.
Americans are divided over the meaning of sex. One has to back up to discuss this foundational framing issue. This insight comes from a probably gay unbelieving professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany.
Steven Seidman suggests that moderns are typically divided between two differing frames. Though he has written widely on contemporary sexual politics in books such as “The Social Construction of Sexuality” and “Embattled Eros,” the discussion of sexual moral logics is expressed most fully in his article, “Contesting the Moral Boundaries of Eros: A Perspective on the Cultural Politics of Sexuality in the Late-Twentieth-Century Unites States” in Neil Smelser and Jeffrey Alexander’s “Diversity and Its Discontents: Cultural Conflict and Common Ground in Contemporary American Society.” These two frames, he suggests, determine how we see and understand a wide range of conflicts over sexuality. He writes, “I have suggested that a key site of sexual conflict pivots around the moral logics [read frame] that justify social norms, rules, and therefore a system of sexual hierarchy, and I have proposed that in contemporary America there is an opposition between a morality of the sex act and a communicative sex ethic.” This difference matters. “Each standpoint has its own language, logic of justification, and meta-theory that gives it coherence and ethical force.”
The first moral logic he calls the “morality of the sex act.” It assumes that sexuality has an inherent meaning, social purpose, and moral status. Here “sex acquires a determinate moral and social meaning as part of a cosmology, which may be understood in the language of religion, natural law, or secular reason.” Here sex is understood as being a part of the “order of things” or having some sense of transcendent foundation. Sex within this frame has meaning rooted in something larger than itself. It is rooted in cosmology, in the nature of reality, and in the meaning of persons. Sex in this frame has a vertical dimension. It points to the stars. Sex here is cosmological. This is the view that we hold and you are describing here.
In contrast, Seidman outlines the alternative frame, which he describes as the “communicative sexual act.” This “assumes that sex acts have no inherent meaning but gains their moral coherence from their interactive context. It is the qualities of the social interaction that are appealed to as ethical standards.” Its justificatory strategy is based on consensual, responsible, caring, reciprocal, and mutually respectful aspects of social interaction. He concludes, “If sexual practices have no intrinsic meaning, if their moral sense involves understanding the contexualized meaning and social role of such practices and appealing to formal aspects of the communicative practice, then such an ethical viewpoint legitimates a plurality of sexual practices and patterns of intimacy, including different kinds of families.” Here the focus is on the nature of the exchange and not the meaning of the act itself. This view has “the advantage of being non-judgmental with regard to substantive sexual values and respectful of a wide range of sexual differences yet providing guidance and establishing moral boundaries.”
The differences between these two frames establish the organizing logic or the foundational framing of debates regarding sexual politics. Seidman writes, “Although there is no one-to-one logical correspondence between the moral logic and political ideology, it is nevertheless the case that historically the communicative sexual ethic has been closely aligned with movements defending sexual pluralism, while the morality of the sex act logic has often been used to resist such movements.”
So we would need to discuss whether sex has a transcendent meaning, has any connection to metaphysics, any connection to personhood other than a form of consensual physical exercise?
In our discussions of dating or sexuality, we typically do not step back far enough to discuss the organizing frame. As you know, frames rule and if the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts bounce off and the frame stays. We have a truncated gospel and a truncated sexuality.
Thank you for this excellent discussion.
Thank you Mike, beautifully said
Fellas I like what John said but I have some concerns about what Mike said. Where did Paul compare me marrying Jesus to me marrying my spouse? I get that the church is Jesus’s betrothed, but me personally? That’s described in the text by Paul?
I think on the other hand Jesus’s discussions of divorce in the gospels had more to do with describing the faithlessness of Jerusalem’s leadership (as false prophets and murderers of prophets) than the man & woman on the street. And I’m married at the foot of the cross? That’s a bit ghoulish.
“The two shall become one flesh” includes sexual intercourse as a “lowest order” amplification of union but a “higher order” amplification is the intercourse of communion, fellowship, or soulish communication. Adultery or betrayal is consummated in tearing the one flesh apart on so many levels and not just sexually tho it’s very realistic to be horrified over sexual sin given its brief but “every dimensional” encounter.
I’m “all in” on describing these several dimensions as a frame with John, but I think it’s more reasonable or in line with the text to say that “it’s ‘like’ we’re married to Jesus, but that it’s the church that IS married to Jesus.” Too much mincing of words on my part to see a distinction?
Harris choosing divorce and leaving Jesus means he is too messed up for me up to believe that he even knows what he’s talking about. In the same way that foolishness like Harris’s choices can’t be defined, sexual impropriety can’t be defined – what is a relationship defined by sex and not by marriage? Who knows? – Its emptiness of reason is an indefinable void. In the same way, what is a faithless claim of faith? Tragic if not silly. Scripture doesn’t define “non-things” it defines and describes full and meaningful and weighty things, so our being described as in Christ or abiding in Christ or in the light is way “bigger” than a comparison to physical sex – it’s more like God and Adam walking and talking in The Garden. The weight and depth and breadth of marriage is soul to soul, not genital.
Lastly, rejecting a healthy form of dating is rejecting a looser form of courtship, and isolating courtship as if it was anything special other than a conservative form of dating is mincing words. If dating includes sex, well duh, it’s not dating, it’s foreplay. At best it seeks – but has not yet found.
Morning Dave T
Regarding your question about marriage as a metaphor, take a gander at Ephesians 5:32. Paul says your marriage to your spouse is a metaphor for the marriage of Christ and his church… which is the gospel.
Or look at II Corinthians 11:2, where Paul writes, “I betrothed (married) you to Christ that I might present you to him as a pure virgin.”
But both verses are making my point…the church is married to Jesus, not me the individual. Small distinction or quibbling? Maybe but I think it plays out big.
Read Christopher West’s “Fill These Hearts” and stick with Scripture. Don’t at this point try to mix in Harris’ exegesis as it is based on a truncated gospel and Gnostic view of sexuality.
Best in your pilgrimage.
Quibbling – as it is both/and. The church is married to Jesus…. we are the church… and that includes you as an individual.
I fully agree with your view of “the gospel of God seeking to ‘marry’ us,” and I have understood my relationship to Jesus Christ that way ever since my conversion back in 1977. Simultaneous to that journey was a long-distance “journey” via mail with Dawn, who committed her life to Christ, and also to me in response to my marriage proposal, all within a week of visiting me in Guam, where I was serving in the Coast Guard. We never dated, but developed a love relationship through the mail, just as I developed a love relationship with Jesus through the mail (i.e. reading the Gospels).
When I was developing disciple-making materials over 20 years ago, I made the Prayer of Commitment a central part of the discipling process. As you will note in what appears below, the Prayer of Commitment incorporates the traditional marriage vows with only minor modifications.
Prayer of Commitment
God, I realize that I have sinned and that my sin separates me from you. I come to you in repentance and I receive your forgiveness in Christ.
Jesus, I believe you died on the cross for me and I join you in death to sin. I believe you rose from the grave for me and I join you in resurrection to eternal life, which you give by grace through faith.
PRAYER OF COMMITMENT
I take you, Jesus, as Savior and Lord,
to have and to hold from this day forward.
For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Forsaking all others, and holding only to you throughout eternity.
I give you my life, and I receive your Spirit.
Interpretation of The Prayer
Life is about personal relationships, and relationships are about commitment. The deepest commitment that anyone can make to another is this: “I give you my life.” The Prayer of Commitment embodies the meaning of this statement. There are three parts to The Prayer. Part 1 presents the “three R’s” necessary to restore a relationship with God. Just as education is built on the foundation of “three R’s” (reading, writing, arithmetic), relationship with God is also built on “three R’s” (realize, repent, receive). Relationship with God, and people, is broken because of sin. Unless we realize our sin, we will not respond to it, and the relationship remains broken. When we realize our sin separates us from God we must act. The action is called repentance, which means, “change your mind.” Repentance occurs when we choose to turn away from sin and return to whomever we have offended. Only then are we in a position to receive forgiveness, which is the gift of mercy and grace given by the one offended. God forgives all who truly repent. The gift is free for the person, but not God; it cost Him everything. Part 2 of The Prayer reveals the great price of this gift; Jesus died for our sins, and we must join Him with an attitude that chooses not to live in sin anymore. Jesus has risen from the dead, and we join Him in a resurrection to eternal life, which comes when we put our faith in Christ. Part 3 of The Prayer reveals the nature of this commitment. Essentially, it is a marriage of our spirit with the Spirit of God. The traditional marriage vows communicate the depth of commitment between a man and woman for life. These vows are slightly modified to show the depth of commitment God wants us to have with Him forever. As God gave His life to us through Christ, we must give our lives to Christ in order to enjoy spiritual union with the Lord forever. In response, God gives His Holy Spirit to work in us and through us for His glory.
Do you really thing what Josh lacks is the knowledge that God wants an intimate covenant relationship (represented as marriage) with us in/through Christ? I did not read his book but find this difficult to believe.
It is good, but not surprising, to hear you story of how millennials respond well to the invitation of a personal relationship with God in Christ, as exemplified by the covenant of marriage. That always worked and will always work. What is better than the eternal God wanting an intimate relationship with us, trading sin for holiness? Millennials in particular seem notoriously starved of personal relationships as a result of social media. They have lost the skill to negotiate meaningful close personal relationship (especially with the opposite sex) and prefer to just hook up, no strings attached. That this is devoid, is clear to anybody. You do not need a Christian world view to snap that this is of poverty.
I think the idea that what we are missing is proper theology is a stretch. Plenty of excellent theologians abide on just about any Christian forum.
What Josh needs is Christian community, he needs salt and light now more than anything. Unfortunately, he is not likely to have much communion with believers right now. Read some of the self righteous posts out there in cyberspace and you know he has lost not just his faith, but his community. But I do not believe he lost his faith. I think he does not fit neatly into the worldview he previously very publicly held. This is quite the pickle.
Thank God!! that we are not the judge (theologians out there please spare me the fruit talk). I pray that Josh will continue to seek Christ, who remains as available to him (if not more!) as ever. There is room for him at the cross. I hope his pride, ego and guilt will not keep him in bondage as he sorts out what he believes and how he fits into the body of Christ. I for one am not going to excommunicate the brother with clever lectures.
As to marriage it is clear that it is up to God to accept petition between partners made for a holy union. He either gives His blessing or he does not. Surely the request for blessing can not be held against the petitioner. Oh the speck in our eye.