Last week, former pastor and I Kissed Dating Goodbye author Joshua Harris announced that he and his wife, Shannon, were separating.
Today comes the latest plot twist. My skeptical friends saw this coming a mile away. I originally wanted to doubt it. They were right.
The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.
I’m someone who grew up familiar with Joshua Harris. Because of the Harris family of homeschool advocates, I knew of his name even before his books I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl. That last book introduced the now-former Mrs. Harris. And yes, I read both books, and yet my wife and I quickly discovered they provided only a little help in our exact dating/courtship challenges.
Since then, I followed Harris’s career as a pastor with Sovereign Grace Ministries, which has been (to put it mildly) under the weather since accusations of sexual abuse and cover-ups.
So I’m somewhat qualified to offer some early, though partial and very brief, thoughts about Harris’s new confession of apostasy.
1. Yes, apostasy is an appropriate word for what Joshua Harris has said.
This is simply the technical term for “falling away” from faith in Jesus Christ. Harris himself uses the phrase “falling away.” He’s been a pastor; he is fully of the evangelical culture, and he does not use the phrase lightly.
2. Joshua Harris’s story is not over; Christians don’t believe in “once un-saved, always un-saved.”
The world is full of people who claim to be former Christians. The world is also full of people who are former former Christians.
For those who were truly in Christ, “he who began a good work . . . will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
For those who never were in Christ, well, the apostle John soberly warns of an apostate group, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
3. This means that, for now, we may need to say “Farewell, Joshua Harris.”
I’m not among those who guffawed when John Piper famously said of another famed apostate, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”
Farewell is a firm yet endearing and even well-wishing term. It doesn’t automatically mean, “Good riddance, heretic.” It does mean, “Fare well.” It’s an expression of parting, yes. But it’s also an expression of optimism. “Though you go out from us, at least for the time being, may you fare well.”
4. I prefer that if we say this, we also add, “Come back soon.”
I don’t know Joshua Harris. But I hate to lose a family member. Especially one whom, despite his flaws, God used in my life.
Farewell, Joshua Harris. Come back soon. Your family in Christ misses you.
That’s what he needs to hear.
5. Let’s remember that Joshua Harris experienced much ministry trauma in between his dating books and his recent recanting.
One way or another, Joshua Harris counts as a wounded shepherd. Those who identified him mainly as “that no-dating guy,” then caught wind of him again when he started recanting his “anti-dating” content, missed a lot of his story.
In short: Joshua Harris joined Sovereign Grace Ministries. He trained under a different sort of pastor called C. J. Mahaney at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Eventually, Mahaney stepped back to run the church’s quasi-denomination, Sovereign Grace Ministries, leaving Harris as the church’s full-time pastor. (Even then, Mahaney was still overseeing the family-of-churches group from the church itself. That’s an interesting arrangement.)
In the last fifteen years, Harris had already spoken against legalistic courtship. He’d also mentioned his own struggles with the issue of child abuse and sexual abuse. Those themes must have been even more painful after similar scandals rocked Sovereign Grace Ministries.
The church and Sovereign Grace parted ways. Some time later, Harris announced he and his family were stepping back from the place.
Joshua Harris became a pastor who, by all accounts, tried to do the right thing. More recently, he was trying to recant his own message (or the perception of his message) in his relationship books. He even urged the publisher to stop printing the books. And they said they would.
6. Christians need to talk about how we care for wounded shepherds.
Christians have a hard enough time dealing with pastors or leaders who fall into publicly revealed abusive behavior or other scandals. At present, for these, we seem to have polar-opposite reactions: (A) try to keep them in ministry, or get them back into ministry, ASAP; (B) just make them disappear, like failed Mafia hit men sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan in cement overcoats.
Surely for these people, our various denominations and groups can come up with some forms of firm discipline but also restorative compassion.
How much more so should we do this for leaders who step back from pro ministry, in something like “disgrace,” but weren’t accused of scandal at all.
I’m not involved in this situation personally. But viewing this long-distance, it appears to me that Joshua Harris, and his family, simply fell through the cracks. Their whole lives were tied up in one church and one denomination. Once that was gone, or compromised due to scandal and/or moral failing, what was left? Did the Harris family have other family or churches to take them in? Did they have Christian friends and counselors who could help them as equals, and naturally avoid giving them undue honor due to their lingering “professional evangelical” platform?
This we don’t know. And it would be wrong to suggest that because something bad happened (divorce, apostasy, etc.) then this means that some foolproof method would have helped to heal this wounded shepherd and his family.
But the fact that Joshua Harris hasn’t spoken about anyone like this is sadly telling.
7. We must always be careful whom we as Christians set up as spiritual leaders.
I first heard about Joshua Harris’s divorce news while I was attending the Christian fantasy writers’ conference Realm Makers.
An hour or so later, at lunch, a Christian publishing professional remarked on the news. He carefully questioned whether it was wise to allot to a twenty-year-old author so much influence and responsibility for spiritual guidance.
Now, Harris is responsible for his own decisions. He’s responsible for his own teachings and, to some extent, their consequences.
At the same time, it’s worthwhile to ask this: Have our Christian leadership structures, our denominations, and our formalized celebrity-making industries (publishing, music, and so on) contributed to Harris’s very public struggles?
In the name of resisting the sexual revolution and endorsing purity, should our “gatekeepers” have pushed Harris’s work so hard?
What similar problems exist in evangelical publishing—say, with letting the words of small children inform our beliefs about the afterlife?
8. Joshua Harris’s books alone did not hurt people; false teaching and/or dysfunctions are also at fault for that.
Without exception, every person who blames I Kissed Dating Goodbye or Harris’s related works cannot actually blame these things as solo assassins of their faith or romantic lives. In every case, the complainant must honestly blame the books as (at worst) accomplices.
The real perpetrator appears to be family dysfunction, or church dysfunction, or just plain personal dysfunction.
Someone who says, “Harris’s books ruined my relationships” may also need to consider her own possible immaturity as a cause.
Someone who says, “Harris and the ‘purity culture’ drove me away from church” may need to listen to his own memories about that shallow youth-group leader, or consider whether “youth group” is really the best method of biblical discipleship among God’s people anyway.
Or, someone who claims, “My parents made me follow Harris’s books!” may–carefully and with godly respect for parents!– need to admit that parents can sin, too. It’s sinful to accept the beliefs of any Christian leader without comparing them with Scripture.
Notice I said may in all three cases. People are too complex to blame either themselves or a popular author who influenced them in the past.
9. Joshua Harris’s expression of “regret” to “the LGBTQ+ community” is sinful and inexcusable.
Later in his post, Harris offers this:
To the LGBTQ+ community, I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me.
This is wrong.
We also shouldn’t be enraged that a Christian celebrity has fallen away from the faith. Perhaps God is setting him up for an even more dramatic return to the church.
We should, however, be enraged at the public proclamation of heresy. There is *no* place for homosexuality in the church, there is *no* marriage except between a man and a woman, the Bible is absolutely inerrant and God-breathed and every word is truth. Lies about tolerance and avoiding perceived bigotry at the expense of the truth should be condemned to its face.
I can’t put it any better than this.
10. Joshua Harris (and other “falling away” evangelicals) are over-empathizing with sexual revolutionaries, casting them as “surrogate victims” to express their own conflicts with the church.
This last statement may seem more complicated, and perhaps even mean.
But it represents my attempt to understand the emotional appeals of apostatizing or compromising Christians, and answer them in kind.
I am trying to understand the very emotional causes that lead to their rejection of Christianity (or particular flavors of it), and their unqualified embrace of professing victims who reject the Bible’s insistence on purity as a response to the authority and grace of Jesus Christ.
The following is edited from a work in progress.
I’ve interacted with several Christians with “progressive” leanings, and I keep seeing this tendency. For a while I’ve wondered why these folks seem to be (1) so willing to think the best of sexual revolutionaries (and other victim groups, including the gospel’s religious competitors), (2) equally willing to demonstrate bad-faith responses, anger, and frustration with the contemporary Church or other evangelicals.
In one sentence, here’s what I think is going on:
These folks are using contemporary victim classes mainly as a “surrogate victim”—as an avatar, or language, mainly to express their own personal conflicts with their parents, churches, or ministry partners.
I don’t know how to describe it other than with the terms “surrogate victims” and “surrogate oppressors.”
But what I see goes like this. Speaking of young evangelicals who end up rejecting their faith, and/or buying into anti-Christian substitutes for biblical truth:
- They have grown up in evangelical churches and their cultures.
- These folks may have unresolved conflict with ancestral family (parents, grandparents).
- They likely saw (or think they saw) conflict or hypocrisy in church(es) as a youth.
- For Christian evangelical leaders, they’ve likely had more recent conflicts with ministry partners or supporters. (This could go a long way to explain the volatile behavior of some Christian leaders on social media.)
- They have a lot of hurt and wounds for which they have not sought healing. (For a pro evangelical, his ministry leadership role depends on his strength in the faith and ability to lead others. If it got out that this person is a “broken shepherd,” who has experienced oppression by other Christian leaders that has accumulated into real wounds, his lifelong career is over.)
- Quietly they begin to feel a greater (and likely legitimate) hurt of victimhood. This is where the victim-surrogacy begins.
- They have not practiced biblical peacemaking with spiritual family members he knows in person (per the words of Christ in Matthew 18). He/she has not been able to “leave [the offense] to God” who avenges unrepented wrongs, per the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12. (If our young Christian has heard this taught, it has been mixed up with unbiblical notions such as “just forgive,” which ignore the need for repentance and God’s promise to avenge all un-repented evils in God’s own time.)
- Without this person’s “wrath” being laid at the foot of the Cross, our struggling young believer must find another surrogate. The quiet “drama” of victim-versus-oppressor must be played out in some way, leading to the semblance of healing from the trauma.
- Enter the surrogate victim. Our young Christian hears of many other groups who also claim to be victims of the Church. This can include members of the LGBT community, or political leaders.
- No matter the victim group, the important factor here is that the young Christian is not at first reasoned into advocacy for the victim group. Rather, young Christians identify with these victim groups because of personal empathy based on their own stories of conflict.
- This means that the Christian’s other motives (such as not wanting to be thought a bigot, or wanting to make progress in elite institutions) are all secondary. So are any beliefs the young Christian adopts in place of biblical Christianity.
- All these motives are a means to an ultimate end: to empathize with and effectively to use professing victim classes as an “avatar,” or surrogate victim, to express their own unresolved conflict with evangelical institutions, families, or churches. Similarly, they must cast “the evangelical church” as a surrogate oppressor, playing the role of the churches, institutions, or even family members who have caused the young Christian perceived harm in the past.
The only difference is that Harris is not like some other evangelicals, who empathize with anti-Christian victims (or “victims”) and yet profess faith in Jesus.
Instead, at least for now and as far as we can tell, Joshua Harris has rejected the faith. Apparently in his view, it’s all one and the same. He clearly feels like you can’t purge your head and heart of false beliefs, or manipulative religious systems, without also purging Jesus Christ.
It’s not true. It’s a damned lie.
But for a wounded shepherd, it’s not enough for him to hear it’s a damned lie. Especially at a distance from some long-range Christian.
May Joshua Harris find Christ’s comforting and correcting presence in this season, even of apostasy, and may it only be a season. Then, may the Holy Spirit, who is all-powerful and yet absurdly patient, bring back Joshua Harris (and his family, together with him or separately) to a renewed embrace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Until such time, let’s firmly yet graciously wish Joshua Harris “farewell.”