The internet has been buzzing this week upon hearing the news that Joshua Harris — a former pastor and author of the bestselling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye — has not only decided to divorce his wife of 20-plus years, but has also kissed Christianity goodbye, announcing on Instagram that he is no longer a Christian. “The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away,'” Harris confessed. “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.” [Note: Because so many people have asked, no, I do not believe that someone can be an ex-Christian. If Harris had been truly saved, he would not now be renouncing Christianity.)
Harris went on to “specifically” apologize 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,” he explained. “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.”
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My heart is full of gratitude. I wish you could see all the messages people sent me after the announcement of my divorce. They are expressions of love though they are saddened or even strongly disapprove of the decision. I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace. This week I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, exvangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in-between. Of course there have also been strong words of rebuke from religious people. While not always pleasant, I know they are seeking to love me. (There have also been spiteful, hateful comments that angered and hurt me.) 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. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now. Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few. But I specifically want to add to this list now: 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. To my Christians friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Harris also recently renounced parts of his bestselling book, penned when he was just 21, apologizing to those who have been hurt by it and announcing that publication will be discontinued.
There’s a lot to unpack in Harris’ admission that he regrets his previously-held biblically orthodox beliefs about salvation, marriage, complementarianism, and sexuality. Many Christians (homeschoolers, in particular) are familiar with the Harris family — Josh’s mother and father, Gregg and Sono Harris, were pioneers in the Christian homeschooling movement of the ’80s and ’90s and Josh’s book advocating the view that dating should be avoided in favor of a courtship model sold more than a million copies and influenced scores of Christian young people. Many of us were understandably shocked and disappointed by Harris’ apostasy (the Greek word means simply a defection or revolt). An individual whom many of us admired and learned from has chosen to forsake Christ and embrace the world — he’s denounced the faith of his childhood, one that he has embraced very publicly over the last two decades.
There have been a lot of hot-takes on the subject over the last few days — the best I’ve read is from Patheos’ Grayson Gilbert who observed:
The volume of celebrity pastors, leaders, musicians, etc., departing from the faith or even falling away in incredibly devastating ways is an indication of the whole; think of how many unknown, small-town pastors are doing the exact same thing. How many men who have no genuine love for Christ are preaching each Sunday, only because they have no viable source of income that will stream in from the book deals, interviews, and so forth, when they depart from the faith? How many unknowns are doing much the same? Worship leaders, bible study leaders, community group leaders, etc. How many are serving–not the church, nor Christ, but their true father, Satan?
And that’s what I want to focus on here. Josh Harris is not the first of his generation to walk away from Christianity — and he won’t be the last. In the last few years we’ve watched as celebrity pastors and Christian leaders have denied central teachings of scripture (Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell); been removed from the pastorate as the result of revelations of immorality (Bill Hybels, Art Azurdia, Tullian Tchividjian); flirted with unbiblical teachings (Mark Driscoll, Beth Moore); and now, in the very sad case of Josh Harris, apostatized — openly denying Christ in the process.
Besides being a warning about dangers of Evangelicalism Inc.’s celebrity culture, these incidents also serve as a warning about how Satan prowls about like a roaring lion “seeking whom he may devour.” Make no mistake: The prince of this world revels over each and every one of these stories.
“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us,” the Apostle John lamented in his first epistle, and that’s what we’re seeing all around us. There have always been wolves among the faithful. What’s happening now isn’t new — it’s just more visible because these celebrities have millions of followers and a huge platform from which to proclaim and celebrate their sins and apostasies — and to receive the praise of men when they choose the world over Christ.
Sadly, I could add a lot more Christian celebrities to the list. Expect to see more and more of these defections in the coming years as Christianity wanes in popularity and influence and it becomes increasingly costly to remain a follower of Christ. There will be a high price to be paid for those who remain faithful to Christ and the teachings of the Bible. People will lose their jobs, they’ll be denied professional credentials, they will be banned from popular social media platforms and essentially exiled from polite society. Christians will no longer be able to “hide in plain sight” (a phrase recently highlighted by Rod Dreher in describing how all Christians will soon be forced to publicly declare their views on LGBTQ issues). We’ll be asked at work, at our kids’ schools, at Boy Scout meetings, and even in some churches as the culture rallies around sexual minorities, elevating their rights above all others and quashing religious liberty in the process. There will be severe consequences for those who give the wrong answer.
When all is said and done, years from now we will point to some fads that became widespread in Christianity in the ’90s and early part of the 21st century (particularly in evangelicalism) that contributed to the falling away we’re seeing: Seeker-sensitive church growth models, Christian celebrity culture, and the prosperity gospel to name a few, along with the rise of social media and the militancy of the LGBTQ movement. The generation coming of age now, for the most part, has not been taught a robust theology that urges them to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Instead, they’ve been taught to elevate their feelings over doctrine (which, they’re told, divides), to satisfy their felt needs over and above obedience to Christ, and to embrace the world rather than reject it in pursuit of holiness. American churches—packed out with kids who walked the aisle and repeated a prayer and were told they were saved—sent a whole generation out ill-equipped to forsake the world and suffer for Christ. The whirlwind we’re reaping will be borne out in empty churches and increasing apostasy.
But make no mistake: this shaking out of the church — the separation of the wheat from the tares — does not signal the end of Christianity. On the contrary, Jesus promised that not even the gates of hell would prevail against His church. But there are big changes coming to American Christianity — there will be fewer churches and those that survive will have fewer congregants. Those who remain, though, will be stronger — more faithful and able to withstand the coming persecution. For that, we can be thankful.
Addendum: I didn’t want to focus on the claims of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (a book I read with my sons as part of our homeschooling program), but I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the subject. Many commenting on Josh Harris’ apostasy are throwing out the purity baby with the “purity culture” bathwater. Let’s be careful here. Pursuit of holiness and sexual purity are not the problems. The Bible clearly calls us to abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within it. No doubt I Kissed Dating Goodbye went too far in making promises (a happy, fulfilling marriage, etc.) that scripture does not, and in suggesting that obedience to God is transactional. This sort of transactionalism (if we do X, God will do Y) is no different than the heretical prosperity gospel. We obey God because we love him and because he has commanded it, not because he will reward us for it in this life.
That said, I’ve seen many successful marriages that have resulted from adherence to the basic concepts of I Kissed Dating Goodbye — avoiding serial dating, committing to sexual purity before marriage, parental involvement — which were commonplace until dating became prevalent during the Industrial Revolution (see here for an excellent primer on the topic). It’s misguided to suggest that young people must “play the field” to find the “right” person — concepts you won’t find in the Bible. The “right” person is the one you marry and commit to until death parts you. Seeking some elusive concept of a soulmate will only lead to frustration. While there are parts of Harris’ book that I disagree with (including the inherent legalism), I think some of the basic premises are solid advice for young people seeking to honor God in their relationships. (I expounded on these themes a while back here and here.)
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