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Law, Grace, and “Purity Culture”

Grace and law are not antitheses. Grace brings freedom from the law and enlivens the heart to follow Christ.

Aug 27, 2019

Last month Joshua Harris announced that he and his wife Shannon were separating. There had to be more to the story. Days later, he announced that he was “deconstructing” or, in biblical terminology, “falling away.” He apologized to LGBT couples for excluding them, for not affirming them, for teaching what he had taught on women’s roles in the church and family, and parenting. After reading the first announcement, the second announcement didn’t much surprise me. But the dull ache in my heart did.

I started high school in 2001, four years after the publication of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Our senior pastor taught a seminar every couple of years for the youth group on dating. He cast a vision of saving yourself for marriage, viewing dating as step toward seeing if someone was right to marry, and first and foremost pursuing the Lord in your own life. This never sounded like “purity culture” to me; it sounded like the Bible.

My parents handed me Josh Harris’ book for the first time my junior year in high school. I was the strange kid who once had my parents discipline me by banning me from reading anything for a week – other than the Bible. That punishment was the worst. I think I ran through I Kissed Dating Goodbye in a couple days. It was certainly a lot easier than Crime and Punishment. The book was a bit of a straw man. Every date seemed to end up in a hotel room and every courtship seemed to result in purity. My forty-year-old pastor painted a much more compelling vision, but this Josh Harris guy seemed to be around my age and saying something similar. The book wasn’t much of a core influence, but rather the friend you met on the trail who was a little eccentric, but at least hiking in the same direction.

Grace and law are not antitheses. Grace brings freedom from man-made law and enlivens the heart to follow Christ’s commands. His yoke is easy and his burden is light because grace delivers strength to limp backs and trembling shoulders. Click To Tweet

Boy Meets Girl was different. It’s been at least a decade since I read that book, but it probably remains the single most widely-read true story of a couple falling in love by men and women my age. I don’t know what that did to Josh and Shannon Harris, but it challenged my vision of who to consider as a prospective spouse. Neither Josh nor Shannon were perfect, nor had perfect pasts. I always imagined marrying someone like me – grew up in the church, model family, probably homeschooled, attended a Christian college. (As it so happened, my wife only fits into one of those categories and I am all the better for it.) As with any book, I didn’t agree with everything within the pages, but the general tone was helpful – and joyful. Josh and Shannon weren’t heroes. All they did was get married and write about it. But they were helpful conversation partners in trying to figure out how to honor God, find a spouse, and avoid learning everything through the school of hard knocks.

Did my own lack of experience dating harm my life? Maybe. I was legalistic, and that legalism I’m sure made me an insufferable boyfriend at points. But it wasn’t Joshua Harris’ fault and it wasn’t my pastor’s fault and it wasn’t my Christian college’s fault. It was my fault. I was more comfortable with law than grace because the law seemed safe and grace seemed dangerous. And in retrospect I recognize my love of law made me an insufferable boyfriend. One of the pinnacle quarrels between me and my now wife was kissing. She was shocked that I didn’t kiss her when I proposed. And I was shocked she wanted me to. (We were still growing in that communication thing.) It made me listen to her. The only guy that’s ever kissed me was a jerk. And I can’t stand that I’m planning my wedding and I’ve never been kissed by you but I have been kissed by him. That made sense, so I kissed her on the second story of a concrete-grey parking garage in downtown San Luis Obispo, California. I asked her if she wanted to wait for a more scenic spot, but she said something to the effect of shut-up-and-kiss-me-already. I felt guilty for kissing her. I felt guilty every time I kissed her goodbye until we got married. I was convinced that my former standards were wrong, that I was right for kissing Kate and yet I still felt haunted by old convictions. Is that Joshua Harris’ fault? I wish I could blame him the way Adam blamed Eve, but no. Authors are nothing more than conversation partners; it’s our decision whether to agree or not. It wasn’t purity culture that troubled my heart, it was my own love affair with a law that originated in my heart instead of God’s revealed guide for life. Yes to sexual purity, yes to wise pursuit of the opposite sex, but no to man-made regulations that have an appearance of godliness but are of no profit.

Part of my sorrow for Joshua Harris is for his family. Anytime Daddy deconverts it leaves a wake of devastation – a marriage ruined, children confused, and Christ dishonored. But the main reason my heart aches is watching someone similar to myself part company on the path. I think Joshua Harris and I are something of kindred spirits. We were young men who sought to honor Christ and possessed a penchant for over-legislation. I grieve that he never found what I found. Grace and law are not antitheses. Grace brings freedom from man-made law and enlivens the heart to follow Christ’s commands. His yoke is easy and his burden is light because grace through faith delivers strength to limp backs and trembling shoulders. I pray that Joshua Harris one day finds that grace because otherwise he will never find what he’s truly searching for.