Passion and Purgatory

Joshua Harris, Elisabeth Elliot & the ongoing search for balanced teaching on Christian romance

Recently, I have been revisiting the love story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot while reading The Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testimony of Jim Elliot. As a missionary who has spent many weeks exploring Ecuador, I was well aware of the “Palm Beach” canon, which includes a shelf-full of books and two documentaries—most notably the works of Elisabeth Elliot and Steve Saint—related to the martyrdom of five men seeking to reach the then-untouchable Huaorani of the Ecuadorean jungle.

A notable element in Elliot’s repertoire is her advice on Christian dating and relationships, which are boiled down into a palatable form in two books, Passion and Purity and Quest for Love. Simply stated, Elliot is quite disdainful of what she calls “the dating mess.”

Although some know her for books on missions, Elisabeth Elliot’s impact on the Christian dating scene is by no means trivial. Her 1984 book Passion and Purity is more or less the root of the entire “purity movement,” and was ample inspiration for Josh Harris’ 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Her endorsement helped launch that book, in fact. Elliot’s and Harris’ books advocate “courtship” over “dating,” believing that, as Don Raunikar put it, “Christian dating is an oxymoron.” [1] Over against “dating,” these authors seek to define “courtship” as a patient, prayerful process in which a couple more or less never escapes the supervision of a Christian chaperone.

While revisiting the story of Elisabeth Elliot’s “courtship” and eventual marriage with Jim Elliot in The Shadow of the Almighty, the whole tale of their romance strikes me as incredibly overspiritual. I can only write this in disappointment as a missionary who was impacted by Elliot’s books as a young believer. I believe that her writings on romance and those that follow in her train are symptomatic of a breakdown not so much in Christian romance as in Christian decision-making. Let’s look at their decision-making process:

Elisabeth Elliot’s Slow Courtship: Purity or Purgatory?

Jim and Elisabeth believed that God had led them to a life of singleness. They cite passages like Isaiah 54, Matthew 19:10-12, and 1 Corinthians 7 in support of this specific guidance. But this doesn’t come from the whole counsel of God: it comes from a few cherry-picked verses which they believed at the time to be the Spirit speaking in the Word. I cannot say that God had not given them “special guidance”—but I only state the obvious: these Scriptures are not sufficient guidance to keep someone from marrying.

They believed that remaining single greatly enhanced their effectiveness on the mission field. Edith Schaeffer gives this as a helpful rationale for Christian marriage: our ministry and outreach should become more, not less, through marriage. [2] Jim Elliot reasons in his journal, for example, that language school would be impossible while married. I have spent much of my married life in language school, and I can’t say that I found this argument convincing; to Jim Elliot, though, it was such a conviction, that he required his fiancée to learn Quichua for the mission field before he would marry her.

Jim also mentions the extreme difficulty of starting married life as a new missionary. This is one piece of counsel with which I can agree: major life shifts should, whenever possible, be tackled one at a time! Moving to a new country and joining a new spouse are two of life’s greatest psychological stressors, and combining them could increase the stress exponentially.

But again, I would not prescribe this as being from the Spirit of God. God may guide some to make that double leap, and they may make it gracefully. I speak especially for myself when I say that I would expect to flounder under the stress.

Just a few days ago, I read of James Calvert, famous missionary to Fiji:

Early in 1838, it was resolved to send men to reinforce the mission to the Fiji Islands, and the missionary committee, unexpectedly finding themselves able to send three [missionaries] instead of two, called upon Mr. Calvert to go. Forthwith he consented, and went down to Buckinghamshire and asked Miss Fowler to share his lot. The proposal was sudden, but probably not altogether unexpected. There was little time for delay . . .

Mr. and Mrs. Calvert were married in March, and in about a month afterwards . . . set sail on a four months’ voyage to New South Wales [en route to Polynesia]. [3]

The Calverts were exemplary missionaries for 17 years in Fiji—more than thrice as long as Elisabeth Elliot was with the Huaorani. They were fluent in Fijian, well regarded by the people, and ministered widely across dozens of sparsely-laid islands.

Like singleness on the mission field, marriage has its advantages and its dangers. But neither the Calverts in rushing nor the Elliots in dragging their feet are finally normative. The Bible warns against both hastiness and delay in the specific context of marriage (Song of Songs, 1 Corinthians 7).

Jim Elliot was disdainful of marriage ceremonies in general. Based on her writing, Elisabeth Elliot tacitly shared this opinion, or she would not have published her late husband’s opinions at length. But this, along with most other negative statements in Jim’s journal, seems to stem from his Brethren upbringing more than from Scripture. Scripture neither bashes ceremonies nor dictates how they should be done.

All of these rationales to delay and avoid marriage run directly athwart of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:

But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . .  Now to the unmarried [marg., widowers] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Contrary to his own counsel, it is obvious from his journals that singleness was a distraction for Jim Elliot on the mission field, however it may have freed up his schedule. Given that Paul clearly wrote a whole chapter addressing these issues, it seems like a huge blind spot for someone so consecrated to Scripture. Jim writes more than once that he could not stop thinking about Elisabeth, but continues to rationalize why they must keep waiting, even though they are mature believers, living on nearby mission fields.

I say this with greatest respect for all that was accomplished by Jim, Elisabeth, and their associates: This doesn’t sound like purity—it sounds like purgatory. Purgatory, in Catholic teaching, is where believers go to finish atoning for their guilt. We have a hard time accepting the grace that God has for us; we would rather gain a sense of moral achievement by making things more difficult than his Word. (See 1 Tim. 4:1-4, quoted below.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose very life reminds us of “the cost of discipleship,” wrote that we sometimes try to be “more spiritual than God” in making our decisions.

From a glance at the cross of Christ there comes to many the unhealthy thought that life and the visible, earthly blessings of God are in themselves at least a questionable good, and in any case a good not to be desired. They take, then, the corresponding prayers of the Psalter to be an incomplete first stage of Old Testament piety, which is overcome in the New Testament. But in doing so they want to be more spiritual than God himself. [4]

Joshua Harris’ Slow Backpedal

When we were getting acquainted, my wife and I both read Passion and Purity. We both found the book challenging at the time. Last year, after many years of marriage, going back through Shadow of the Almighty, I felt that I had been sold a bill of goods. Elisabeth’s book came off as prescriptive, touting imbalanced ideas about church life and relationships, lacking a Scriptural rationale for avoiding marriage as long as they did.

When I shared with my wife my strong misgivings about the Elliots’ “courtship” advice, she reminded me that Joshua Harris had issued a retraction of sorts regarding his own book in 2016. Although it took many years, the dialogue on Christian purity is making a much-needed course correction. (In some camps, this is an 180-degree course correction, but that’s a topic for another article.) In fact, Harris has made an agreement with the publisher that they will have no more print runs of his first book:

I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner. I recommend books like Boundaries in Dating by Dr. Henry Cloud and True Love Dates by Debra Fileta, which encourage healthy dating. [5]

In addition to his partial retraction, Harris just released a documentary to better understand the negative impact that his book had. The documentary premiered just a few weeks ago.

Harris can be excused for lacking balance back in 1997—he was only 20 when he wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, while the executives at Multnomah, who made him their poster child, might have known better. Although Paul tells Timothy to let no one despise him for his youth (1 Tim. 4:12), in the same letter he warns against giving too much leadership to new believers (1 Tim. 3:6).

Harris’ writings are, for the most part, biblically grounded, but lack the kind of balance and finesse that leaders gain with age. Martin Luther is credited with saying that we are like a drunk peasant riding home in the dark—to avoid falling off the horse on the left, we fall off on the right. [6] Rejecting modern dating norms, Harris swings the reins hard, and—with a hand from Elisabeth Elliot—tries to transplant “courtship” in place of “dating.”

Does Courtship Cast Out Fear?

What Harris regrets most, though, is that he was motivated by fear, not by a heart of grace.

Fear is never a good motive. Fear of messing up, fear of getting your heart broken, fear of hurting somebody else, fear of sex. [6]

Part One of I Kissed Dating Goodbye is titled “Isn’t There a Better a Way?” and the first sentence of Don Raunikar’s similar book is, “If dating is so wonderful, why does it hurt so much?” This points to the overall negativity of the purity movement—it’s not “look how great courtship is,” but “look how bad dating is.” Ian Maclaren warned us against this in an 1897 article:

The Gospel is never negative—an embodied threat—”refuse if you dare”; the Gospel is ever positive—a living promise, “Come and be blessed.” [7]

F. W. Boreham echoes Maclaren numerous times in his preaching:

No man ever yet helped the world by publishing a negation. Iconoclasm is the policy of despair. The hunger of the human heart can never be satisfied with denials. [8]

The solution to Christian relationship problems will come, not as an iconoclasm, but as an affirmation of life, steadfastly focused on the Redeemer whose grace teaches us how to live (Titus 2:11-13).

An Eschatology of Dating

In his advice on Christian marriage, Paul reminds us that the true motivation for balance in our romance is eschatological:

The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none . . . and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29, 31, ESV).

His words echo those of the Savior, who said that the end would be like “the days of Noah,” with men eating, drinking, and getting married (Matt. 24:37, Luke 17:27).

In his great little book, Love Not the World, Watchman Nee points out that we should not think that we can live without “secular” things like careers, cars, or candlelit dinners; but our attitude toward these things should be directed by the reminder that they are not eternal. In his words, they are “under a death sentence.”

Conclusion: Prescriptions or Principles?

We’re right about what’s wrong but wrong about what’s right. The problem has been incorrectly stated. We don’t just need more boundaries and rules; we need God himself.

A. J. Gossip, a Scottish preacher, said the following in a sermon on “What Christ Means by a Good Man”:

Our dull and prosy minds ask for little invariable rules and a full code of minute by-laws, and are given instead, much to their discomfiture, mighty principles which we are left to apply for ourselves. Newman went over to the Church of Rome largely because it told him definitely what to believe and what to do, took the ordering of things away from him, and so saved him from the turmoil of uncertainty in his own mind, and the bother and the danger of decision. [10]

Let’s make a few positive statements that can help young believers:

1. Marriage is a good thing. Let them marry!

When someone wants to marry, they should not undertake it lightly. But if someone decides to marry, our Scriptural default reaction should be positive.

Some ministry internships for young people have strict no-dating policies that are meant to maintain the consecration of that time period. I have friends in their thirties who have been forbidden from pursuing marriage by such policies. “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom … but lack any value in restraining indulgence.” (Col. 2:23, NIV)

“He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22). Jim Elliot was horrified when a ministry colleague decided to get married ahead of joining the mission field. Paul tells Timothy, though, that avoiding marriage because of asceticism is not a Christian behavior:

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith . . . forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving. (1 Tim. 4:1, 3-4)

2. Singleness is a great thing.

As great as marriage is, Jesus says that there is for some a lifelong gift of singleness, and that those who are able to receive it should. If you believe that you have this gift from God, then nothing should make you feel forced to marry; but if you haven’t received this gift, and you are a mature believer following godly counsel, there is no reason to feel forced not to marry.

3. Children are a gift.

If Scripture defines marriage as integrally good, then that includes children. One of the causes of abortion is the belief that children are a burden. One of the ways that we can reverse this trend is by relentlessly affirming that children are a gift.

4. Flee from sexual immorality.

This is the theme of Henry Cloud’s books: “boundaries” are a way of staying as far from sexual immorality as you can. Sexual immorality, contrary to what our culture might say, is clearly defined in Scripture over and over, and part of that definition is that sexual intimacy belongs inside marriage.

5. Our hope isn’t in the past—it’s in the future.

On a theological level, the biggest problem of the anti-dating movement is the “Golden Age” fallacy. The Golden Age fallacy is the idea that the past—-whether Victorian-era England or 1950s America or even 1st-century Palestine—was more moral, more spiritual, or had a holier generation of believers. But a candid look at Victorian-era England shows that teenage pregnancy was not especially rare; nor was homosexuality, though it was less accepted. America in the 1950s was undergoing its own sort of middle-class revolution; and Scripture never tells us that everything recorded about the 1st-century church is perfect or even normative.

All of the “Christian purity” books I have read are filled with appeals not to Scripture, but to an age when English-speaking Christians had stronger mores about marriage. And we need stronger norms as a culture. But the way to come about them will be an affirmation of life, singleness, sex, marriage, pregnancy and children—not just a rejection of their abuses.

The Church’s brightest heroes act as lighthouses, not iconoclasts. Dashing idols in the dark like Gideon only leaves God’s people wondering on waking, “how then shall we live?” It is the positive exposition of Scripture that provides the answer, not criticism of our culture, however flawed.

1 Raunikar, Don. Choosing God’s Best.

2 I believe she says this in the book The Tapestry.

3 Rowe, George Stringer. Memoir of Mary Calvert. London: T. Woolmer, 1882.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Psalms: The Prayer Book Of The Bible. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition, p. 43.

5 Harris, Josh. “A Statement on I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

The earliest available source for this saying is Richard B. Wilke’s 1973 book, Tell Me Again—I’m Listening.

Klett, Leah Marieann. “Joshua Harris Apologizes for Mistakes in ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ in Powerful TEDx Talk.” The Gospel Herald Ministries, 8 December 2017.

8 Maclaren, Ian. “The Positive Note in Preaching.” Christian Literature, 1897.

9 Boreham, F. W. The Crystal Pointers, p. 142. London: Epworth, 1925.

10 Raunikar, Don. Choosing God’s Best.

11 Gossip, Arthur John. “What Christ Means by a Good Man.” In The Hero in Thy Soul: Being an Attempt to Face Life Gallantly. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928.

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