The Sexual Prosperity Gospel, Part 1: The Cautionary Tale of Joshua Harris

A generation of youth and their ministers bought into the ideals of the “Gospel” of Sexual Abstinence. The hero of that movement has now turned in a completely different direction.

In this age of social media rage and gut-wrenching division, I am thankful for one thing. Because of all the upheaval, I am learning about things that I never knew and certainly never understood.

I now understand the term “Sexual Prosperity Gospel.”

Regrettably, I learned this term due to the unfortunate circumstances of Joshua Harris, the anointed “king” of the abstinence movement in the 1990s. Harris wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This became the key volume to advocate courtship over dating as the ideal method to finding a spouse and creating a lifelong picture-perfecting Christian marriage.

Now, Harris and his wife of 21 years announced their pending divorce, and he has declared that he is no longer a Christian. This makes me incredibly sad for this couple and their family. As the unofficial “World’s Worst Pastor,” I am fully aware of the challenges and pitfalls that the world of ministry can dump on a pastor and her/his family.

At the same time, this massive shift creates a cautionary tale about anointing a person or concept as the absolute authority on what life in Christ is. It is a warning about the dangers of seeking or following carefully crafted formulas in search of a perfect ideal for discipleship in Christ.

First off, what is the “Sexual Prosperity Gospel?”

This term is coined in a retrospective look at the purity culture that has dominated youth ministries across the nation since the early 90s. I offer an oversimplified summary: If you commit to abstinence before marriage and resist the cultural temptations of casual sex, then you are a true follower of Christ and the Lord will bless you with a successful marriage.

The Prosperity Gospel promises the blessings of health and wealth and happiness if you are a good and Godly Christian. The Sexual Prosperity Gospel promises the blessings of a fabulous honeymoon and marriage and family if you follow all the tenants of purity culture, including complete abstinence from sex before marriage.

Second, we need to look briefly at a problem that permeates Christianity and evangelical culture as well as postmodern American culture. We have a dangerous tendency to become star-struck with anyone that says what we want to hear and espouses the values that we already have. We are particularly vulnerable when someone young and good-looking waxes in passionate and eloquent terms.

Harris wrote his abstinence manifesto when he was 21 years old. Those of us who advocated for abstinence thought that young people would listen more to one of their own, and many bought into his teachings as proof positive for what they already believed. Unfortunately, people forgot how young and inexperienced a 21-year old can be.

Honestly, would you advise anyone you know to take authoritative long-term life advice from the 21-year old you?

In a culture that cherishes youth, it is easy to forget the value of long-term experience and wisdom. Perhaps we unfairly placed Josh on a pedestal that he could not handle. I said a lot of things at 21 that seem foolish now, if not downright stupid. I suspect that many grasped at this book as an answer from someone who lacked the life experience to even understand the questions.

Finally, in our effort to “win” the culture wars against sexual promiscuity, many Christian leaders bought into the concept that the Bible and the church can create a fool-proof formula for sexual purity and marriage success. This fit all the narratives that we hoped were true, and we taught our teens that following the formula would ensure God’s blessings on their future lives.

Let me tell you this:  It didn’t.

This does not mean that abstinence before marriage is impossible or that it is not a worthy ideal. But it rarely happens. And even when it does, it does not provide a guarantee for the future.

I do not rejoice at all in the Harris’ realization about their past teaching and preaching. On the contrary, I grieve for them and what they are having to endure as their private struggle is resulting in public rebuke—some of which is grossly judgmental, and some of which may be justified according to some critics and bloggers.

At the same time, I am glad that they are publicly stating the futility of the Sexual Prosperity Gospel. This may help us recognize that there is no set formula for success in following Jesus Christ through the journey of this very imperfect life.

The problem is that this “gospel” we created fails to factor in the vitality of grace in the face of a life that is always going to be far from perfect.

My wife Tracy and I idealized abstinence as the best path for our relationship as we moved towards marriage. We believed that this was the direction that God wanted us to follow. We did not stick with this ideal, and we suffered some intense struggles because of that.

And yet, we have 29 wonderful years of marriage under our belt. I am more in love with her than I was even at the ripe old age of 18. (I will resist the current evangelical urge to refer to her as my “smokin’ hot wife” in a public forum).

We did not reach this milestone because we dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in the Christian playbook. We did it through perseverance and faith and the ultimate grace of God to lead us to where we are. It has not been easy, and plenty of peaks and valleys accompanied our journey.

Our guilt over our failures, along with a large dose of regret, made the early years of our marriage extremely difficult. At times, we questioned whether or not God even wanted us after the mistakes that we made. We did not follow the “Biblical” formula for marriage and family, as prescribed by the purity culture in which we were raised.

Instead, we were blessed to discover the far more powerful and valuable presence of grace that Jesus Christ brings. Faith is not about getting what some Sunday School or youth group lesson promises you as long as you are good boys and girls. It is about finding out how we are blessed to serve God and humanity through the forgiveness, love, and grace that faith in Christ brings.

If only us pastor and youth minister types would allow people to find that faith, instead of peddling the latest “answer” to the issues of life.

It is my hope that we embodied that as the highest ideal of scripture rather than pressing young people to follow the purity “checklist” as a path to love and success (whatever that is) in life and relationships.

If a movement in the church promises reward for right behavior, then it is not a movement of faith. It is legalism. It is works righteousness. IF you do this, THEN God will love you and give you what you want. Faith movements are always more complicated and malleable without any guarantee of reward—because such faith never has an endpoint. It is an ongoing journey of twists and turns that cannot be predicted or clearly defined by any human being, certainly not a 21-year old.

My hope for Josh and Shannon is the discovery of a faith far more empowering than the formulas that they advocated in their early lives. They have clearly discovered the falsehood of the Sexual Prosperity Gospel and the purity movement.

They are already enduring a sea of judgment and painful rebuke for this discovery. Hopefully, they can now discover the comfort and grace that the true Gospel of Jesus Christ brings in the face of such hypocrisy.

Their faith journey does not have to be ultimately defined by the purity culture or its advocates. And neither does yours.

Next week’s post will talk about my own complicity in purity culture, and how my own mistakes—and fear that others might repeat them—pushed me in this direction. I recommend a look at this article by David French in National Review as a good preview.

2 thoughts on “The Sexual Prosperity Gospel, Part 1: The Cautionary Tale of Joshua Harris

  1. Tom, I like reading your blog very much. I agree with this completely, so many young people have either been guilt ridden by their actions or have expected more than was possible by their abstinence. All because either pastors or parents used guilt or promises trying to direct their lives. We all make mistakes.

    Like

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