Popular pastor and author Joshua Harris announced recently that he no longer considered himself a Christian. This announcement comes shortly after he announced he and his wife were divorcing. And this announcement comes after a series of announcements which began a few years ago in which he recanted and repented of the “harmful” views his book promoted.
You can read the announcement below:
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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.”
For those who do not know, here is the skinny about Harris:
In 1997, in his early twenties, he wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye . Selling over a million copies, this book revitalized a movement promoting courtships rather than dating. From there he went on to write other books on relationships and, in 2004, being groomed by C. J. Mahaney, a Charismatic Calvinist (of whom I am sure many of you may know), he took over Covenant Life Church, a megachurch in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He stayed there until he resigned in 2015.
Personally, I don’t know much about Harris (got most of the above from Wikipedia). Of course I knew of him from the popularity of his book. After all, I was a singles pastor at the time. His encouragement in the book was neither here nor there to me. I did not think it wrong, but I did not necessarily think it right either.
However, since I write very often on doubt and deconversionhttps://credohouse.org/blog/category/doubt, I take special interest in things such as this. And given my own history of doubt and depression, these kind of things tug pretty deeply at my heart.
Let me take the time to do something a little different and express ways I believe that Christians should NOT react to this announcement.
1. Don’t assume you know the answers to why he has disavowed Christianity
Most of what I have read and heard so far coming from the Christian community about Harris’ announcement has attempted to fill in the blanks and read between the lines of his departure from both his wife and Christ. I have heard people blame his background in homeschooling, his focus on relationships rather than theology and apologetics, his early fame that was thrust upon him, his sympathies to the LGBTQ+ community, and his desire to leave his wife. The fact is that Harris did not say why he no longer considers himself a Christian.
We may not like the ambiguity of his announcement, but I don’t think any of us are close enough to the situation to know what happened (even if we think we can read implications here and there from interviews and social media posts). Until he comes out and says why he did this, I think it is wise to remain silent and give him a chance to gather the strength to explain.
I do, however, believe he has the eventual obligation to reveal what has transpired in his life that brought him to this point. He owes this to those who have followed him and to his former congregation, the mass majority of whom are probably hurt, confused, and need to have the blanket of obscurity removed so they can begin to make sense out of it and put this in their rear view mirror.
2. It’s okay to feel anger, hurt, and weakened by this loss
As many of you know, since my major wrestling match with doubt in 2010-11, I try to help others through their doubt. I have talked to dozens and dozens of struggling, fearful Christians who are groping for hope in the black hole of despair and doubt. As I run through my diagnostic of doubt I use, one of the questions I ask is this:
Is there anyone in your life—a Christian friend, parent, child, pastor, or someone you respect in the Christian community—who has recently stumbled or lost their faith?
You would be surprised at the amount of people who can trace their doubt (or a significant part of it) to such an event.
More often than not, we are unaware of the significant impact the faith of others has on our faith. While we may like to talk a big game, believing that our faith stands or falls on its own intellectual prowess, in the end, we are a community of believers and rely very heavily on each other both emotionally and intellectually. We are weak. When someone we love and/or respect stumbles into serious sin or falls away from the faith, only then do we realize how much we were leaning on them.
It’s okay to feel hurt. It’s okay to feel like your faith is affected by the loss of another’s faith. It is natural. Even the strongest of Christians are deeply impacted when a brother or sister falls away from the faith. It’s normal to feel insecurity due to their loss.
You may have trusted Joshua Harris. You may have even called him pastor. Many of your beliefs may have been established due to his messages and confidence in faith. Now that he is gone, you may feel as if the basis for your faith has left with him. Why should you believe if the man who taught you what and why to believe no longer believes?
However, while it is wonderful to have people in the body of Christ that create a fellowship of belief (consensus fidelium), your faith ultimately does not find its foundation in people. It finds its foundation in the truths that people taught. If they were true before Harris left the faith, they are true now. If you are not sure if they are true now, take this opportunity to re-establish your faith.
Not everyone will leave the faith. Sure, many people’s love for Christ will grow cold and some will not endure until the end (Matt. 24:12-13). If this were not the case, then many passages of Scripture would be in error. But many people’s faith does endure until the end. Many people’s faith has already been through the tribulations of life and found its way through. Harris does not know something others don’t. For whatever reason he has yet to express, his faith does not seem as if it is enduring at this point. But you can trust again and it’s okay to be hurt.
3. Do not rashly condemn him
Again, we don’t really know what is going on. It is hard to judge. I would hope he gives his reasons in the days to come for his change in more detail, but for now, unless you are in some spiritual authority over him or he has asked you for your opinion, you can’t really condemn him.
We normally condemn because it makes us feel better emotionally. It gives us subjective confidence to raise the temperature of our passions and criticize according to our assumptions. “He just wanted to divorce his wife.” “He caved to cultural subjectivity.” “He never had good arguments for his own faith.” In all these, at this point, all we are doing is attempting to find some balm for our own insecurity. If any of these are correct, then we feel better because we can package his loss of faith in envelopes we don’t think will ever be delivered to our address.
Ultimately, all we can say is that if Joshua Harris has truly left the faith, then it is because he was not of the faith:
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. (ESV)1 John 2:19
Whether you interpret that through an Arminian or Calvinistic framework, matters little. What matters is that the ultimate cause for people leaving is that they were not of us. The particulars will always differ.
4. Do not think this is necessarily a bad thing
It is a bad thing when people leave the faith? In a very real sense, yes! It is tragic for so many of the reasons I have said above. It is hurtful, confusing, and disruptive.
Is it a bad thing when people leave the faith? In a very real sense, no. Please don’t think me insensitive here. I really am not trying to discount the ways this may have hurt people. But think about it a different way.
First, let us imagine that Harris is a true believer and he is struggling with his faith. I do hold out that this is a possibility due to the experience I have had with people in the past. So many people I thought would never come back to the faith have come back and revealed that they didn’t ever really leave Christ, they just took a prodigal walkabout. I know that Harris denied Christianity. But has he denied Christ? You say to me, “If you deny Christianity, you deny Christ.” Technically, yes. But, often, subjectively, especially in today’s world, people will distinguish between Christianity and Christ, the Church and Christ, and Religion and Christ. I don’t know what Harris’ relationship with Christ is like at this point. And until he gives us more intel and endures in his unbelief, I don’t see any reason to give up all hope that he is in Christ.
Second, let us imagine (much more easier, probably) that he is not a true believer and has renounced Christ. Well, according to John, he has done this because he is not really of us, for, if he was of us, he would have stayed. But isn’t it better to be an honest unbeliever than a diluted believer? I can work with someone whose sickness has yet to be healed more than one who has the sickness without evidencing any of the symptoms.
Either way, I am glad that he seems to be taking his faith (or lack thereof) seriously. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean I am apathetic to his situation simply because I don’t know the guy and have not really put any weight in his faith. It is tragic if this comes to an end that finds him at enmity with God for all eternity. But we don’t have to see him as a damned soul. And we don’t have to feel guilt for the pain we feel at such a tremendous perceived loss that the church may suffer from his absence. He truly is a gifted and thoughtful individual and I wish him the best.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]