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.

Ladies: Your Yoga Pants Are Destroying Men! (Revised)

I simply had to share this confessional after reading yet another article about the Indisputable Evils of Yoga Pants. These pants are worn regularly by temptresses around the globe, so much so that they require a follow-up article about immodest Christian women.

These were followed by some stern warnings from a male pastor (who is apparently easily distracted) by these Jezebel pants in the gym–where, of course, women are simply looking for sexual attention rather than trying to get in shape.

The articles are old, but it started showing up again on my Twitter feed this week. After reading them, I have a confession to make as a Christian man and minister, one that may be shockingly scandalous to all true Christians:

I allow my wife to wear yoga pants. In PUBLIC, of all places!

Worse yet, it doesn’t really bother me. When she heads to the gym in that oh-so-sexy pony tail, tight pants, and fleece—which is scandalously not zipped up enough to cover her upper chest and neck–I don’t say a word. And I don’t worry that some other man might see and lust after her.

Shame on me for not controlling my household and having such a Jezebel for a wife. She exercises in, you know, EXERCISE pants! I should probably ask forgiveness for this, as well as for letting her wear something with the name “yoga” attached to it.

Silly me…but I kind of think that men are responsible for their own behavior. As in a 1 Thessalonians 4 kind of way: “…each one of you should control your own body…

I work at a small, Christian university. I can state this as a fact to all the Anti-Yoga Pants advocates out there:  You are losing. Not just a little, but massively losing. As in a blowout. As in a Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl type of blowout.

And yet, I can think of very few times where I considered any of the young ladies at our school–and certainly not my wife–to be excessively immodest or subliminally seeking sexual attention.

So, why do I care so much about this article being posted and re-tweeted?

Simple. I have a teenage daughter. The last thing I want her to read/hear/feel is that she is guilty for men behaving badly, because she dressed in a way that sought out sexual attraction and attention. These blog authors deny it, but their underlying theme supports this archaic notion.

One of these authors is a pastor and the other apparently seeks opportunities to speak to young girls and youth groups. (By the way, I find it strange to read about modesty of dress from a lady who professes a passion for red stilletos–because guys would never notice those, right?) I would not want either of them within ten yards of my daughter, and I would prefer that she stay at least that far from their writings.

I don’t want my daughter carrying the guilt that pastors and so-called youth “speakers” have heaped onto young women for years. I’ve ministered to young people for a long time, and I know all the routines. I’ve witnessed the eyerolls from the ladies at the youth retreats, where they get another speech about how “men are visual” and they have to cover themselves out of respect for that…(oh, and respect for themselves, because that’s important too).

I have also counseled many adult women who have carried those hot guilt coals on their heads for a long time. Perhaps it’s time to stop dressing up guilt and blame in the language of spirituality and modesty. Perhaps we could spend more time giving them confidence and value in Christ and less time talking about clothing.

Believe me, as husband of an exquisitely attractive wife and father of a 15-year old daughter, I am all in favor of female modesty. The first young lad who knocks on our door will find our young lady dressed as Joan of Arc, in full chain mail, steel armor and a very large sword. (He may also find me cleaning shotguns and sharpening large hunting knives when he comes into the house–and he will come in, or she will not go out).

However, I am equally opposed to the notion that my daughter should have to alter her clothing because men are too spiritually weak and irresponsible to control themselves. And that this is somehow okay because they are more “visual”.

Let’s dispense with the myth that men are tempted primarily because of what women wear, and that the Bible supports any such myth. Matthew 5:28 tells us that Jesus said, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Women weren’t exactly sporting outfits like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Kim Kardashian on, say, a Tuesday. And Jesus still had to warn the men to use some self-control and stop undressing women with their eyes.

It also does not describe Jesus calling over the ladies and saying to them, “Now, the men are lusting after you. But it’s not really their fault because they’re just more visual. So make sure you go out dressed in swaddling clothes, leaving only room to breathe through your nose. Because they’re too spiritually ‘soft’ to handle it.”

In those links above, the author shares some words from her husband about how difficult it is for men to keep themselves focused and under control when close to a woman wearing yoga pants. Here’s the thing:  If you can’t keep yourself focused on your workout and keep yourself from lustful thoughts a sweaty, smelly female next to you is wearing yoga pants, that is explicitly and exclusively a YOU problem.

But the problem goes well beyond some guy who can’t keep his eyes straight in the gym. These articles foster the same attitude that allows counselors at Bob Jones University to ask victims of sexual assault, “What were you wearing?” Or refer to them as “damaged goods”. It allows places like Sovereign Grace Ministries to create a culture of guilt, shame and silence, even as women and children are sexually abused.

Because if you were sexually assaulted, you must have been wearing something that put off a signal…right?

Again, the authors will deny that this is a product of their teaching. But read between the lines, and pay attention to the tone. They’ve softened the language and dressed it up in spiritual platitudes, but the general theme is the same. And it’s not okay.

My daughter learns from her mother and the other women in her family and church. Yes, some of these Delilahs wear those sinful yoga pants. But they also teach her that wisdom, strength of heart and mind, and a desire to seek values that are far more important than her clothes. Modesty is more about attitude than attire. She knows who she is, and that it’s not okay for anyone to make assumptions about her based on her outfit.

We are grateful that these women have given her a Deborah spirit, rather than warning her against a Jezebel spirit. Isn’t it interesting that teaching strength and character is empowering to help young women make good choices on their own? Without worrying endlessly about what men declare as worthy attire?

I’m sorry to take up your time with yoga pants—but I see too many people that are paying too much attention to this stuff. I saw it in all my years of youth ministry, and we’re still treading the same water. So maybe it’s time to change our approach rather than repeating the insanity.

Maybe we should teach our girls more about what it means to have a Deborah spirit, or Mary spirit, or Lydia spirit. If we did, then the clothing issue might not be so primary.

Let me thank a few of the Deborah/Mary/Martha/Lydia/Phoebe ladies in our lives:  Amanda, Debbie, Leslie, Mandy, Chasity, Dina, Beth, Sissy, Laurie, Shannon, Mickey, Phyllis, Sarah, Mrs. Jo, Aunt Y, Wilma, Tonda, Colleen, Meredith, Liz and especially Kaci…just to name a few. I am grateful and thankful for all these women–and many more–as examples. But most of all I thank my wife Tracy for instilling her with the true values of a strong woman.