As I was returning from a trip for our 15th wedding anniversary, something caught my eye: Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and his wife Shannon were separating. Christians and atheists alike were sharing the story online.
A couple separating is always sad. But in this case, it struck me like a ton of bricks. Having written a French-Canadian book on dating, one of the nicknames people gave me over the years was Quebec’s Joshua Harris. There is a special pressure when you are the “couples guy”.
Gary Smalley recounts a time when a man overheard an argument between him and his wife. Not recognizing Gary, the man told them about a great resource that would help them—one of Gary’s tapes.
As can be expected, this news will have quite an impact on Christians and non-Christians. One blogger wrote: “If nothing else, this goes to show beyond any remaining doubt that the Great Courtship Project which Harris became the wunderkind figurehead for (20-years ago, now) has been an abysmal failure on every level. How the mighty have fallen”.
Let’s beware of the logical fallacy here. It is not because someone has shortcomings or sins that everything that he has said or wrote is false. The logical fallacy goes something like this: A) Joshua Harris wrote about courtship, B) Joshua Harris separated, then C) courtship is a bad idea. To illustrate how this point is invalid, let’s look at this counterexample: A) Churchill talked about democracy, B) Churchill’s democracy some times failed, then C) let’s not talk about democracy anymore.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye and his retractions.
A little while back, Harris made a public statement. He said that he regretted publishing his book and asked his publishers to stop printing copies. (You can find the statement here). A very interesting documentary was also made called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In it, Josh has the chance to interact with many people about the impact of his book on people and on the Christian culture as a whole.
He was glad that his book helped some people, but he came to realize that his book (or the way people were applying it) hurt a lot of marriages and relationships. It’s probably only a matter of time before I receive a comment that one of my books broke somebody’s life or marriage, but I can only guess the pressure that he was under you when millions of people read your book and that so many of them apply your ideas in a legalistic fashion and somehow count you as responsible for their losses or bad marriages. It would probably be enough to make him experience some kind of PTSD. We do not need Joshua Harris to apply ideas in a legalistic fashion. We can do that even with only the Bible in our hands.
Harris taught a few principles:
He underscored the importance of sexual purity before marriage. He then made a distinction between dating and courtship to help with the goal of keeping sex for marriage. Harris suggested that it would be better to begin courtship when you are in a place in life where you can realistically get married.
There is no sense in encouraging 14 years old to “play marriage” even if the culture says it’s okay. That led to some strange behaviour: some people became afraid to even talk to members of the opposite sex in church and asking a girl out for coffee became way too serious for some; asking someone for a coffee was understood as “Would you marry me?”.
One of his most controversial points was “no-touch love”. The idea is simple: you shouldn’t do with your “fiancé/courtship partner” anything you wouldn’t do with another person if you were already married. You respect that principle out of your love for your future partner and of your love for God. In some ways it makes sense: I wouldn’t kiss or hold hands with somebody other than my wife! Harris’ own story of having their first kiss at the altar on their wedding day surely set the bar high for the many people that read his book.
There is a big logical problem in Harris’s argument about no-touch love. If I am supposed to refrain from everything I wouldn’t do after I’m married, I shouldn’t date or court either. But then, how would we find the person to marry?
The Bible is not explicit on the process for two humans to know each other for marriage. The biblical examples we have are peculiar: sending our servant in our father’s hometown to find a girl for us or sneaking into a man’s room to sleep in a corner of his bed or killing 1000 enemy soldiers to win the princess’s hand. We can only guess Adam’s pickup line: “Eve, I know deep in my heart that you are the only woman’ for me”. “I choose you and no other”.
We live in a world that is far from perfect and arranged marriages sound to us like a horror story in the making. The best way would be for a dove to descend on the person we’re supposed to marry and a voice from heaven that shouts: “This is one of my beloved sons in which you will put all your love”. But it doesn’t quite work that way.
From my own experience, people want rules. “How far can we go, kiss, touch?” is one of the most common questions. They want clear rules or, on the other hand, complete “freedom” (meaning they want to do as they well please. The problem is that this is the definition of sin, not of biblical freedom).
When people ask me to describe my book, I explain that I wrote a book on biblical ethics. Its subtitle is “ONE biblical point of view on dating”. My goal is to equip them to think and evaluate their relationship based on some general biblical principles.
Biblical Ethics do not always deal in black and white. For example, the commandment “Thou shall not kill” seems straightforward but then, ethics come in when the commandment cannot be applied directly because of new circumstances, elements or contexts. What about war? Or when someone attacks our family? Or the death penalty? Much of the 613 commandments of the Old Testament are situational applications of general biblical principles.
For the question, “To touch or not to touch?” it’s important to note that somebody can have an emotional affair with another woman without them ever touching. There are different kinds of intimacy: physical intimacy, sexual intimacy, spiritual intimacy, psychological intimacy, etc. If we are in a dating/courtship relationship, there will be a different kind of intimacy. The question is then how we have a relationship that honours both God and the other person.
In my book, I’ve come up with the Intimacy/Commitment principle. The intimacy (on every level) should be proportionate to the commitment level (intercourse requiring a wedding band on somebody’s finger). I invite the couple to discuss that balance from time to time and to change what needs to be changed.
Does God care about how we date/court?
The short answer is yes. New Testament principles are binding on all Christians:
3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5.3-10 – ESV).
We conclude from this passage with at least three things: 1) God takes this sexual purity thing so seriously than he makes it an inheritance of the kingdom kind-of-question (v.3, v.5), 2) that is an area where we should not let ourselves be guided by a culture of darkness (v.8), and 3) Christians are to try to discern what is pleasing – not to themselves – but to the Lord (v.10). Augustine’s principle can apply here: Love God with all your heart and then, do what you want. If the love of God is first and foremost in your heart, you will look to please God in everything.
So yes, God cares that we discern what it means to please Him in our quest to find a lifetime partner. The goal of any marriage is to fulfill the creational mandate and the reconciliation mandate that God has given us (Genesis 1.27-28; 2 Cor 5.19). The goal of dating/courtship is then to find a good partner to serve God and advance the kingdom of God.
“You can’t handle the Grace!”
Harris regrets that his book wasn’t more gospel-centred. He regrets that people elevated some of his ideas to the level of Scripture. Sometimes we’re not sure the people will be able to handle the grace or the freedom. It was a struggle in Paul’s time (Rom 6.1). It reminds me of that famous scene between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in the movie A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson’s character is on the stand in a trial.
Cruise: – “I want answers!” Nicholson: “You want answers?”, Cruise: “I want the truth! I am entitled to the truth!” Nicholson: “You can’t handle the truth!”
“You can’t handle the grace!” Sometimes, it is true, it is easier to give rules than to talk about grace. I am hearing testimony after testimony of parents that regretted promoting a system of legalistic rules with their children. It was all about the rules and not losing face because of having bad-behaving children at church. That has led many to leave the faith as they become adults.
Nobody is against virtue. Nobody will say that we need to be less gospel-centred. One part of the problem is that people do not really know what it means to be gospel-centred. Another part of the problem is that people confuse holiness, moralism and legalism. We can imagine this dialogue:
Son: “How can I have a godly dating relationship? Dad: “Have a gospel-centred one! Son: “Do I need to follow biblical principles?” “No. That would be moralism. Just be gospel-centred”.
One of the biggest problems of the “gospel-centred answer,” to any ethical question is that it will fail to be a gospel-centred (or gospel-fueled) action if the person is not born again.
Legalism is imposing extra-biblical rules to other people as a test of holiness.
Moralism (or religiosity) is trying to follow God’s command out of our own strength and pride but it will only bring death.
Holiness is to follow God’s command by the power of the Spirit.
Gospel-centred life: A life that is fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit because Christ paid the price at the cross. This is what we find in 1 John 5.3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (ESV). Why aren’t they burdensome? Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit (1 John 3.9; Gal 5.16).
A key verse for a gospel-centred, gospel-fueled living is Galatians 5.16: “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (NKJV).
People often argue that we are not under the Old Testament law and its 613 commandments anymore. This is correct. However, people do not realize that there are more imperatives in the New Testament (a little more than one thousand) than Old Testament laws.
The fact that Christ died on the cross for us does not preclude God from giving Christians over 1000 imperatives in the New Testament! However, we should always presuppose that all the imperatives of the New Testament ask for a spirit-filled approach to them. I will restrain from sexual immorality not because there is a command but because I want to please God. Sometimes the difference between holiness and moralism isn’t the teaching of the commandment but the heart of the person to whom we teach.
What to teach our children?
Applying the commands of the New Testament without the Holy Spirit is not a good idea. It is not clear if my children gave their lives to the Lord yet. I hope and pray that the New Testament imperatives that are taught and lived in grace in my family will serve as a tutor that will lead them to Christ.
The commands will show them that they cannot achieve them by themselves and need a Savior and by seeing them applied by the power of the Spirit in their parents’ lives (who are two sinners), they will want to have a marriage like their parents, a marriage that will mirror the LIFE, the sacrificial love and forgiveness that only the Gospel can give.
We need to expose our children regularly to the Gospel and its message of grace but I won’t refrain of teaching biblical principles to my children because they might not be Christian yet. Many Christians in my church might not be saved, but we do address them like Christians when we teach.
As I close this article, I need to be reminded of Paul’s admonition: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall”. (1 Cor 10.12 ESV). Let’s pray for our pastors and leaders. Let’s pray for the Harris family. Let’s continue to think tank together generation after generation what it means in our changing culture to follow the Lord and how to encourage our fellow Christians to love God with all their hearts.