Joshua Harris, the former lead pastor of Covenant Life Church, the founding church of Sovereign Grace Ministries in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is now apologizing to Christians he hurt when he advised against dating in his best-selling 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, calling it a "huge mistake."
"Part of the reason this has been so hard for me is that I have so much of my identity tied up in these books. It's what I'm known for," Harris told writer Ruth Graham earlier this month in Vancouver, British Columbia, in a report for Slate.
"It's like, well, crap, is the biggest thing I've done in my life this really huge mistake?" asked Harris, who stepped down as lead pastor at Covenant Life last year to pursue graduate studies at the evangelical Regent College in British Columbia.
In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris argues that traditional dating is "a training ground for divorce" because it puts people in the habit of quitting relationships when things get tough.
The book, marketed to teenagers and 20somethings, also discourages teen relationships and promotes courtship, a process in which a couple moves purposefully toward marriage with their parents' blessing and involvement as a better alternative to dating. Any kind of physical intimacy before marriage, the book argues, is a violation of the sacredness of married sexuality, and could lead to lifelong regret.
According to Graham, I Kissed Dating Goodbye became a phenomenon in conservative Christian circles where it inspired praise from the likes of purity matriarch Elisabeth Elliot and Focus on the Family, as well as book-length rebuttals.
In May, however, Harris expressed regret for some of the advice he doled out in the book when he publicly apologized to some of the readers on Twitter.
"I never went to prom. #BecauseFundamentalism," Twitter user Elizabeth Esther first wrote.
"@elizabethesther my school wasn't allowed to have prom. Because @HarrisJosh lol," replied Jessica Kathryn.
The conversation drew Harris' attention and from his verified Twitter account, Harris replied: "@jessicakathryn @elizabethesther Sorry about that, Jess."
The conversation, however, didn't stop there.
"@HarrisJosh honestly, your book was used against me like a weapon. But now, I just feel compassion for the kid you were when you wrote it," added Esther.
Harris apologized again and revealed that he had plans to reevaluate his advice from I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
"@elizabethesther I'm sorry. And I'm planning to dig into that in the next year or two. Again, I'd love to chat," he said.
Other readers, like Kristine Kruszelnicki, blamed the book for making her set the bar on relationships too high and called herself a "victim."
"@HarrisJosh Add me to ur IKDG victims. 37, never married, now infertile. Set bar too high cause of ur book. Many regrets!" she wrote.
"@kruszer @elizabethesther Kristine, I don't know what to say. I'm sorry for the loss you've experienced and ways my book contributed," Harris responded.
Harris later announced on his website that he was taking a deeper look at his message in I Kissed Dating Goodbye to learn more from people who have been hurt by it.
"I'm just beginning the process of revisiting the message and impact of my book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Over the years I've heard from people who have been helped by the book, but I've also heard a growing number of voices of people who have been hurt by it. I want to understand this better. I'm starting by listening," he said, before inviting people to share their stories.
And readers shared.
"I believe I should take responsibility for my own actions. So I can't say it's your fault that I'm a 30-year-old man who has never had a girlfriend, never been on an actual date, never asked anyone out, and never kissed anyone. That's on me. Nevertheless, I suspect that without IKDG and the movement surrounding it, that wouldn't be the case," one man wrote.
"Here's where I think I went wrong. It never really occurred to me at the time that I should really just ... rebel. Break the rules. I was a 'good kid,' as far as these things go, and I am not proud of that, and I feel weird being not-proud of being a good kid. I never asked anyone out, never snuck out at night to go on a secret date — or whatever it was that rebelliously romantic teenagers do, for which I only have high school TV shows as a reference. Make out behind the bleachers, I guess. I was homeschooled, though, and my church didn't have bleachers," he added.
Another reader said he followed the directives highlighted in Harris' book religiously and thought they had worked shortly after he got married but his relationship ended in a bitter divorce.
"After being married for a few months, I felt like the ideas in Mr. Harris' books worked. We had successfully followed a guide that had a solid biblical foundation. We had truly been friends for many, many years prior to taking a step beyond that and our families knew each other very well," wrote the reader.
"Then, something happened; to this day, I'm still not sure what. The girl that I knew and grew up with changed and, after 15 months of marriage, decided she no longer wanted any part of me and no longer wanted to be married. We were living 400 miles from our families and she left to return home. A little after three years of marriage — and less than half of that living together — we were divorced," he said.
The reader noted that he later remarried after dating again under conditions considered "societal norm."
"Since, I've gone on to marry again to a woman I adore. Things were a little less 'IKDG' and little more of the societal norm. We met online and talked via email and chat for two weeks; met at a restaurant and proceeded to date (as one would commonly understand that word) — and with a much better purity record. A little over a year after our first email, we were married. That will be seven years and two children ago in October," he wrote.
Harris told Graham that he has received more than 300 submissions reflecting on his book and hopes to embark on an independent study in the fall in which he'll read about the religious culture that informed him as a young man.
"I want to do more than just say, 'Oh, I should have said a few things differently,'" he told Graham. "I just need to listen to where people are before I come out with my own thoughts. ... I don't have all the answers yet."
He says he still believes in the mainstream evangelical sexual ethic that sex should be reserved for heterosexual marriage but no longer promotes a strict formula that can guarantee a happy outcome for relationships.
Patheos writer Libby Anne, a former conservative-turned-atheist, has since praised Harris for apologizing for his book.
"I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye for the first time when I was 14 years old, and immediately commenced shaming myself for my schoolgirl crushes. I tortured myself for years, desperately afraid that I was giving away pieces of my heart, never to get them back," said Libby Anne who is also a feminist.
"There are women out there who married the first guy they dated because they believed, under the influences of Harris's teachings, that they had given away a piece of their heart that they could never get back. It was no longer just about physical purity, it was also about what I've sometimes seen called 'love virginity.' The stakes were raised. Dating around became akin to sleeping around, and both were seen as practice for divorce, which of course was bad, bad, bad," she continued.
"But I never in all my years expected to see Harris apologize — directly, publicly, without reservation — to specific individuals for the harm his book did them," she said.