Part One: WHAT’S A FATHER TO DO?
For all practical purposes I officially retired from this platform 12 years ago. And with this so-called “retirement” I set the topic of sexual purity aside, believing someone younger and more hip was supposed to carry this social hot potato.
NOTE: For those of you unfamiliar with my unusual background in this area, I’ve included a very brief synopsis in my blog notes at the conclusion of this entry.
After having been on the front lines of this issue for so long, my retirement from such a flammable topic was a welcome change. Leslie and I had many other critical burdens that we desired to address in and through our ministry, and we both agreed that unless God was clearly showing us to make sexual purity a focal point that it was time to hang up the Nikes on this topic. So we did just that.
Twenty-five years ago, when the burden to stand up and speak on this topic of purity was first stirring inside us as a newly-married couple, I remember feeling compelled to say something, even if it was unpopular. I also remember how lonely the stage felt, how daunting it all seemed. And then I also remember, right at the same time, there was another voice that emerged with eloquence and force, jumping up onto the very same public stage. His name was Joshua Harris, and he was shocking everyone by kissing dating goodbye.
Here I am 25 years later. I never would have dreamed my retirement from this subject was going to prove to be a temporary one. But, this old familiar “purity burden” has returned, knocking on the door of my soul, requesting that I stand up, lace up the old Nikes, come out of retirement, and speak yet again. Quite honestly, it’s a topic that I sometimes wish could just lie dormant in my soul, like a long-passed kindergarten memory. But I know the burden of God when it comes.
This burden began to re-emerge within me about two years ago, when my oldest son turned 12. He was becoming a man — way too fast as far as I was concerned. It forced an issue in my soul. I may have preferred to keep those old Nikes hung up on the wall, but I was realizing it was time to get back in shape on this topic. Like the old French military war general in retirement, the telegram arrived and read,
We need you to don the white cap and white gloves again [stop]
And don’t forget your saber [stop]
So now I find myself back in the fray.
As this mysterious re-emergence into this topic takes place inside of me, another strange and mysterious re-emergence is taking place. Once again, there is Joshua Harris jumping up onto the very same public stage, and just like twenty-five years ago, with eloquence and force he’s shocking everyone by kissing things goodbye. But this time it’s not dating, rather it is his marriage and his Christianity.
I’m chewing on this irony like a mouthful of gristle right now. I’m typically not an emotional person. But I’ve been feeling a lot of emotion over these past couple weeks. And the burden to stand up and speak once again on this topic has grown even more powerfully within my soul.
This is one of my very first posts on my new blog about fatherhood. At first, this may seem like a strange way to start things out. But it just might be the perfect way. Because this is an issue of passing a baton from father to son. I have a fourteen-year-old son who is hearing about Joshua Harris and wondering why someone who once stood strongly on matters of godly marriage and purity could suddenly go in such an opposite direction.
“Dad, haven’t you known Joshua Harris for a long time? Didn’t he used to stand for a lot of the same things that you stand for? What happened?”
This is a father’s defining moment.
And, in a strange way, I feel like I suddenly have more than six kids. I feel like I have an entire generation of Christians that is wondering the same thing.
I feel like a father who has suddenly inherited a gargantuan family and is scrambling around the house looking for extra bed sheets, blankets, and pillows in order to make everyone comfortable.
So as a father, I’m ready to say something.
Sexual purity is only a small part of this battle.
The integrity of the Church is currently hanging in the balance. Joshua Harris’s public rejection of purity is not merely a threat to healthy male/female relationships. In reality, this issue is a direct attack against the very cornerstone of godly masculinity and godly femininity. It’s a direct attack on the character, nature, and constancy of our God. It is an attack on the sacred roll call of such heavenly superstars as purity, holiness, love, faithfulness, long-suffering, humility, and grace. And don’t forget, the entire idea of marriage itself is wrapped up in this debacle.
As a father, I will not take this sitting down.
My Reflection on the Purity Movement
In order to address the current “war on purity” I first need to take a short walk down memory lane and give you a peek into how my involvement in the purity movement began.
Back in the mid-90s when Leslie and I wrote our first book, it was not because we desired to be known as “Christian relationships experts” or had a passion to speak up on the topic of purity. Rather, it was because people were constantly wanting to hear about our love story, and we were getting tired of sharing it over and over. We figured that a book would be the easiest solution — that way, when people asked to hear the story, we could just hand them a book instead of having to re-tell it.
But then a Christian publisher got a copy of our self-published book, and asked if he could publish it. He even went so far as to suggest that we become full-time writers and speakers on Christian relationships and purity. Both Leslie and I were very resistant to the idea. When I asked Leslie whether she would ever consider it, her response was an emphatic, “No way!” I agreed. Neither one of us wanted to be lumped in with those stiff, falsely-pious “Christian relationships speakers” who seemed to be drenched in legalism and completely devoid of any romance. Words like “stodgy,” “somber,” and “rules-based” described them all too well, and we wanted nothing to do with that camp.
When Leslie and I reflected on the way God had shaped our own pre-marriage relationship, there was nothing formulaic or oppressive about it. We had embraced certain standards and Biblical principles such as faithfulness to our future spouse, honoring our parents, and surrendering the control of our love life to God. But for us, these decisions did not flow from a man-made, legalistic formula. Rather, they were the outflow of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They were simply an obedient response to the gentle, loving guidance of His Spirit.
As we had allowed God to shape and direct our love story, what amazed us most was how fulfilling, romantic, and beautiful the whole journey was. It was literally the polar opposite of the oppressive and legalistic formulas so often promoted by the staunch advocates of terms like “courtship” and “betrothal.”
Formula-based patterns for relationships were beginning to be touted among conservative Christian circles, but Leslie and I paid little attention at the time. We were too busy enjoying the beautiful, life-giving, Christ-centered love story God was writing for us as we surrendered our relationship to the Author of romance. And we discovered that His ways are perfect.
Not long after Leslie and I wrote our first book, we were invited to publicly speak on relationships. It was to a group of several hundred teens at a large church in Boulder, Colorado. They wanted us to give a “purity message.” Instead, we simply shared the life-giving story of God’s faithfulness to us as we had surrendered our romantic life to Him. We communicated the beauty, hope, and fulfillment that comes from putting Him in first place and following His lead rather than the lead of the culture. And that night, we knew that we had stumbled upon a message that the younger generation desperately needed to hear. At the end of our message, young people were kneeling all around the church, or were on their faces, crying — willingly surrendering their lives to Jesus Christ and consecrating this area to Him.
God began to do a work in our hearts after that first public speaking event. We started to recognize that there were (and still are) two different versions of “Christian purity.” One was religious, man-centered, rules-based, and formulaic — a counterfeit, humanly-crafted version. The other was life-giving, Christ-centered, beautiful, hope-filled, and amazingly romantic — true purity as God intended it to be. And we began to recognize that God was asking us to stand up and become a voice for the latter.
That is how our journey into the purity movement began. Everywhere we shared the life-giving message of true purity, we experienced the same response we’d seen at our first speaking event to those teens in Colorado. The younger generation was hungry for this challenging-but-beautiful message of inviting Christ into the center of their love lives and learning to faithfully love their future spouse.
Publishers wanted us to label our message and capitalize on the popularity of conservative buzzwords. We stubbornly refused.* We did not want our message or our own story to be made into a formula. We simply wanted to inspire a generation with life-changing core principles from God’s Word such as faithfulness, love, honor, and surrender to Christ — principles that could be applied in anyone’s life, whether they were homeschooled or public-schooled, whether they were conservative or charismatic. These principles didn’t require a label. And they didn’t require a set of strict rules to be constantly enforced by parents and church authorities. They were simply the natural outflow of anyone who surrendered his or her life completely to Jesus Christ.
*Note: Our very first self-published book mentioned the word “courtship” on the cover, not because we had used that term during our pre-marriage relationship or wanted to promote it, but because of suggestions from others who were trying to give our relationship a label. However, once we better understood what most people took that word to mean (i.e. legalistic, formula-based, etc.), we decided it was definitely not the right way to describe our love story or our message, and we refrained from using the term again in our books and messages.
Today I opened my iTunes app on my iPhone and clicked on one of Leslie’s and my old music albums and listened to the song, “Faithfully.” It was beautiful, precious, and pure. It reminded me of the special work that God did in the Church back in the 90’s. During that time the Church had lost its compass and was strongly veering off course in the arena of sexuality and God brought a revival of sorts — a dramatic shift of direction. Any of us who witnessed what God did in that time noticed a deep stirring in the hearts of young people for more — to go deeper with God — to live out the Christian life with faith and not just formulas.
Before these events in the mid-to-late 90s, the Church had been dishing out “the abstinence commitment,” but what began to stir in and through this purity movement was something more profound, more powerful, and more epic — a commission for Christ’s followers to give up their lives — even their love lives — and hand them over to Jesus Christ, letting Him live His abundant life through them. We were honored to be a part of what God did during those years.
Even now, twenty-five years later, Leslie and I continue to receive letters and emails from people who took the message of true purity to heart when they were teens and now have been happily married for many years, with a strong foundation of Truth undergirding their relationship. Clearly, those who embraced God’s life-giving message of true purity discovered something real and lasting.
Though it has not been an easy road, we do not regret our stand for Christ-centered, Truth-based purity. On the contrary, it has been one of the greatest joys and privileges we have ever known — both in our own relationship and in interacting with thousands of others who made similar decisions. And for the record, after twenty-five years of marriage we are still very much in love and still believe that our love story is the best in the history of the world (not that we are biased or anything). But more about that in a later post.
So What About Joshua Harris?
Last week I received an email that asked, “Will you be making a statement on the Josh Harris tragedy, his Apology Tour, clarifying what some perceive to be a Christian romance prosperity gospel vs. real life, and most importantly — why you and Leslie are still going strong in your ministry/marriage while he has fallen so far in both areas (and taken untold numbers down with him who read his books and followed his ministry)?”
In this series of blog posts, I will attempt to speak to those questions.
If you grew up with the “Christian relationship books” of the mid-to-late 90s and beyond, you probably know that Leslie and I were often grouped with Joshua Harris. Our books were sold alongside his. I can’t count the number of times that someone has come up to me at a speaking event and said, “I grew up reading your and Josh Harris’s books!”
Even back in the day, I didn’t always agree with Josh, but I interacted with him on many occasions and always really liked him. While I took a decidedly different position than Josh did on numerous issues, I always respected the fact that he was bold enough to take a stand for what he believed. I admired his bravado.
Once, when I heard that Moody Bible College students were mocking him after a recent speech on campus, I defended him and said, “You may not agree with what Josh taught, but at least Josh is willing to stand up for something! At least he has a backbone! We could do with a lot more of that in the Church today.”
Ironically, it’s that same bravado that deeply concerns me now, because he is using it to recklessly tear down Christianity.
I have always had a special place in my heart for Joshua Harris. And, even amidst his most recent antics, my brotherly love for him has not diminished. As I reflect upon his abandonment of things true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous and praiseworthy — I am saddened as someone might be over the passing of a friend.
A new language seems to be emerging that is attempting to redefine the history of this purity movement over these past twenty-five years. For instance, the term “Purity Culture” has stepped onto the scene. I have been on the front lines of this movement for twenty-five years and I’ve never heard that term until Josh Harris launched his Apology Tour. When new-fangled terminology emerges it often has a revisionist agenda — desiring to overwrite past realities with new ones.
God has done something extraordinary over these past twenty-five years — not through the stiff and stodgy counterfeit camp, but through the many who have embraced God’s true version of set-apartness, purity, selfless love, and lifelong faithfulness. He has reawakened a vision for honorable masculinity and gracious femininity in the hearts and minds of countless Christians. Let’s not let the enemy come along and take it all away.
If you’ve been confused by the recent “purity messages are a joke” murmurings swirling around Christianity, it’s vital to recognize that there were two different trains leaving the station when the purity movement began. One train was headed down the tracks carrying formulas, phobias, and the hyper-expression of parental authority. It was (and is) an oppressive counterfeit, and I agree that it is worthy to be discarded and rejected. But the train carrying true purity — the one representing honor, selfless love, and faithfulness — shouldn’t be derailed and destroyed while we attempt to get the other train off the tracks.
Throughout history, with every movement towards true life, there has always been two trains that leave the station. The reason there are two trains is because the devil always has a counterfeit (i.e. the pharisaical movement that ran parallel with the ministry of Jesus Christ).
Though I didn’t always agree with his approach, I never thought Josh Harris was riding on the formulaic train. Sure, the counterfeit train was always there, huffin’ and puffin’ down its pious track, but I assumed that Josh was against the legalistic train, just like I was.
I think I was wrong.
I think it’s possible that he may have indeed been a conductor on the other railway system. And if so, I guess I can understand why he might look back with a grimace. “Touch not, taste not, handle not” has never led anyone to the abundance of life in Christ, in marriage, or in family. And it saddens me to think that Josh may have been stuck on that counterfeit train all these years.
But even if that was the case, rejecting all that is lovely and pure and “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” is certainly not the correct response. That is what Josh has done, but we as Christians should not follow his faulty example. It’s important for us to remember: It wasn’t godly purity that wrecked Josh’s marriage. It wasn’t godly faithfulness that burned him out. And it wasn’t godly love that caused him to utterly reject Truth.
If you were among the many who made healthy and positive decisions as a result of Joshua Harris’s early books and messages on purity, I encourage you not to disregard what God did in your life during those years. Even though Josh may have been on the wrong train, that doesn’t mean God can’t work through imperfect vessels to accomplish His desired ends in our hearts. In fact, as Scripture illustrates, God can even speak through a donkey if necessary to accomplish His ends. If you made Christ-honoring choices as a result of Josh’s influence, remember that it was ultimately God who was influencing those choices — not merely a man.
Purity is still essential to the Christian life and to the formation of healthy relationships. Faithfulness is still essential. Heavenly love is still essential. Honor and respect are still essential. God’s ways are still God’s ways. And we should never mix up dead religion with living hope.
Let’s not allow revisionist dogma to overwrite thousands of beautiful, life-giving, hope-filled, pure romances that have unfolded because young couples allowed God to write their love stories.
You can mockingly call it a “Purity Culture” if you like. But I stand by the fact that when God takes hold of a man or woman, He builds them into vessels that are pure, honorable, and noble channels through which His truth, love, kindness, and grace can flow freely and unhindered. Call me a kook if you want, but I still stand with God’s pattern for building lifelong love stories. When we arrive in Heaven someday soon, we will all discover that Heaven is a culture of purity. So we might as well get used to it, don’t you think?
Leslie and I are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this December. And this whole “Joshua Harris debacle” has given me a fresh gumption to celebrate the beauty, purity, and love that Leslie and I both share with an extra measure of zest, thanksgiving, and vigor.
One thing I’m convinced of now more than ever. God’s ways always win!
I still love and care about Joshua Harris. But I’m not going where he is going. He might be a great leader, but I’m not following. He might be a riveting communicator, but I’m not listening. He might be a creative genius, but I’m not inspired.
I love Jesus Christ with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. And, while Josh is renouncing his faith, I’m happy to be freshly announcing mine. I’m with Jesus! And I’m proud to bear the brunt of whatever ridicule comes my way because of it.
I can’t speak for Joshua Harris. But, I can speak for myself.
Here I stand. No regrets, no apologies.
I haven’t moved an inch.
A Father’s Response
What’s a father to do?
One thing I know is that a father is designed by God to rise up and defend his wife and children if there is ever a threat to their well-being.
Though Joshua Harris desires to portray himself as simply walking through a personal journey, I’m concerned that his intentions could be more than that. And this causes my fatherly hackles to rise up. He has only recently released the disturbing information regarding both the disintegration of his marriage and his faith. But this disturbing information was not new to him. These sorts of things don’t happen overnight. The “deconstruction” was likely already in place when he was actively dismantling the construct of sexual purity over the past few years under the guise of a “caring Christian pastor” and with all the bleeding heart antics of his Apology Tour.
He has stationed himself against the Truth. And as a result, my fatherly vantage point on this leads me to see this whole Apology Tour as a tactical bait designed to lure young and vulnerable Christians away from God’s immovable reality. As such, I see him as a threat to me as a godly father as I seek to ground my children in God’s ways.
So, what do good fathers do?
A father needs to plant truth like a flag on the very real estate that is boasting lies.
A father needs to speak life in the very place where death is vying for a grip.
A father needs to stand at the door of his home and greet the nefarious visitor, desiring to come inside his home and bring confusion to his children, with a decided shove to the chest, a slamming of the front door, and the words, “No, thank you!” sharply spoken.
A father is built to protect. A father is crafted to bring clarity in the midst of fog. A father is designed to stand up and speak when everyone else sits down in fearful silence.
So, my friend, that is precisely what I’m going to do.
You will notice that I referred to this blog entry as Part One. That is because I’m planning to release four more blogs over the next week regarding this meltdown of Joshua Harris, his forsaking of Truth, and my fatherly response to the matter.
Other blogs in this series:
August 9 – Blog #1 – What’s a Father to Do? (A Christian father’s response to Joshua Harris’ recent renouncements of purity, his marriage, and his Christian faith)
August 12 – Blog #2 – There are Always Two (How to choose the real and lasting version of purity)
August 13 – Blog #3 –The Apology Tour (How to live unashamed of God’s Truth in our morally declining culture)
August 15 – Blog #4 – The Marriage War (What causes Christian marriages to fail?)
August 20 – Blog #5 – The Mud and the Stars (Does purity lead to beauty or heartache?)
My “Very Brief Synopsis”
regarding my background on the topic of sexual purity
My wife Leslie and I wrote a series of books in the 90s on the theme of godly relationships. In the latter 90s, our bestselling book, When God Writes Your Love Story, put us in the middle of the cultural battle surrounding sexual purity. Until 2007, we traveled the world speaking on this topic. All in all, Leslie and I have twelve books dedicated to the topics surrounding sexuality, romance, and relationships.
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