A generation ago, evangelical writer and pastor Joshua Harris, the son of then-prominent Christian author Gregg Harris, published a book titled I Kissed Dating Goodbye (1997). The book became a bestseller and gave him a sort of stardom among an ultra-conservative segment of the Christian population. Indeed, he remains well-known among millennial evangelicals if not their parents.
The book’s stated thesis was to encourage parent-initiated and guided courtship instead of traditional dating. The book was well intentioned and sought to counter the sexual free-for-all that left so many with regrets once they reached the altar with their would-be spouses. But one suspects that all of this had a very negative result for the author who offered himself and his wife as role models for a healthy premarital and marital relationship.
Indeed, for years Harris has sought to distance himself from the tenets of his book. Precisely why is not clear. Perhaps it was because his marriage was failing – he recently announced he is getting a divorce – or maybe it was the way the book unfairly branded him as a kind of holier-than-thou Moral Majority of one.
Regardless, Harris is seeking to rebrand, and as the CEO of his own marketing firm, he knows how to do it. Last week, he sought to connect with his Millennial audience in the most Millennial of ways – Instagram. There he dropped the bombshell that he was, in addition to his divorce, renouncing his Christian faith:
“I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace.… I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus…. By all the measures that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian… I do not view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful.”
In Christian theology, this is what is called apostasy. In marketing, however, it’s called “new product development.”
Harris’s post, jarring as it was to those to whom he formerly preached, lectured, and mentored in the faith, was a bit of social media magic, containing as it did a brilliant photo of Harris looking out on one of British Columbia’s beautiful lakes in deep reflection as if it were Walden Pond and he were Henry David Thoreau. What follows is a carefully edited essay that epitomizes the postmodern, all-inclusive life that Harris apparently now seeks to embrace.
I want to pause here and say a few things that are pertinent to this discussion, most notably, that we are all, theologically speaking, fallen and sinful. Christians have no special immunity to sin. Sometimes being in the public eye, however modestly, brings with it a special kind of pressure as others watch for inconsistencies and flaws, critique, perhaps hoping for failure, or, the opposite, putting their hopes in their leaders. Should you fall, some eagerly celebrate it, magnify it, and embellish it. I know this at a very personal level.
I can well imagine the pressure I Kissed Dating Goodbye brought upon the twentysomething Harris when the book was published in 1997, thrusting him, too soon, upon the stage as a Christian speaker, authority on courtship and marriage, and, eventually, the pastor of a megachurch. Think of how closely his marriage was scrutinized by those within his church, to say nothing of those without. Any chinks in the marital armor became proof that he was wrong and that his recipe for successful marriage was no more insulation against divorce than a Paula Deen recipe is against diabetes. One wonders if his marriage ever really had a chance.
When failure comes for the Christian leader, he is faced with three choices:
- He can acknowledge the failure and repent of it.
- He can justify it.
- He can defect to the opposition.
The Bible has examples of all three: King David and Peter in the first category; Saul and Jonah in the second; and Absalom and Judas in the third. These represent gradations of rebellion, of blessing and restoration, of punishment and damnation.
The first category should be dog-eared in your Bibles to encourage you when things get rough, because it speaks as much to the gracious character of God as it does to the men themselves. Hebrews 11, the so-called “Christian Hall of Fame,” contains similarly flawed people: Noah (a drunkard); Abraham (a liar); Jacob (a deceiver); Rahab (a prostitute); Samson (a fornicator); and others. The author of Hebrews was not unaware of the seedier, TMZ aspects of these Hall of Famers’ lives. He is, rather, underscoring a truth that is at the core of Christianity – these people were greatly used by God because of their faith in God, not only in the midst of mighty deeds, but in the midst of their sin. They trusted God and ran to him as they stood on the edge of their self-made abysses. Hence the chapter’s oft-repeated phrase “by faith …”
In the second category, I am reminded of a prominent British Christian writer, speaker, and pastor who, some years ago, brazenly acknowledged a homosexual relationship, left his wife and children, and began using his considerable gifts to justify his chosen lifestyle. Come to think of it, I can recall far too many similar stories.
The third category is of special interest to us here. I have taken this sidebar in our discussion of Joshua Harris because it is important that Christians understand that this is where he falls. Had he taken to Instagram to announce, say, a personal failure that led to his divorce, I would be the last to condemn him, not the least because his sin is not against me and it is, really, none of my business in the first place. Sin of that nature is between him, his wife, and his God. Were he a friend in such a circumstance, I would simply want to remind him of what the first category demonstrates. It is summed up in the words of the good Nigerian Bishop Jwan Zhumbes, who reached out to me in my own failure, and said: “God loves authoring redemption stories.”
But that is not what is going on here.
Coupled with Harris’s social media post was a profession of “repentance” for his legalism along with an apology to the LGBT community: “My writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me.”
This is noteworthy. On the one hand, Harris is apologizing for his legalism, and on the other, he is blaming the Christian faith for that legalism. That, it is implied, is why he is leaving the Christian faith – Jesus made him a judgmental person! He has finally seen the light, and that light is not found in Christianity!
Harris adds that he has received “strong words of rebuke from religious people.” He states further that some have been “spiteful” and “hateful.” I am sorry to hear this. I get it that Harris feels the sting of the social media mafia and of the self-righteous. King David speaks of being treated hatefully, too, on the heels of his sin with Bathsheba. Read Psalm 38. It’s painful. David, broken before the Lord because of his “foolishness,” cries out to God for protection, saying:
“My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest of kin stand far off.
Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long….
I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!”
The problem, of course, is that while King David was “sorry for his sin,” Harris is not. Were he so, he would, like David, have a scriptural claim (Galatians 6:1-2) to mercy, understanding, and restoration from Christians. Instead, he is celebrating his rejection of Jesus Christ – something that many Christians regard as the only unforgivable sin – and is rubbing it in the faces of those he formerly taught. He shouldn’t be surprised that some adherents of the Christian faith have let him have it. Did he really expect atheists were going to condemn him? The LGBT community? Not a chance. Harris’s path is not that of a searcher like Nicodemus or a doubter like Thomas; it is, rather, the path previously taken by the likes of Judas Iscariot.
I sit here late at night hammering this out because this story grieves me. To be clear, I am not grieved by Harris’s sin per se. It is, rather, his response to his sin. He is asking forgiveness of the LGBT community, not God. I am grieved that he should treat the precious blood of Jesus Christ as a trivial, worthless thing to be trampled underfoot. It is as if he has come to the altar of God, lingered there, sold a few books, given God the middle finger, and left in a contemptuous huff blaming him for the legalism that is a product of his own heart! Can you imagine the many young people who will be disillusioned by this treasonous act? I can, and it grieves me. Had they seen him face his sin and repent of it, thus demonstrating not only the power of his own faith but of the Gospel itself, my, what God might do with that. But he chose to defile the things of God like Belshazzar at the feast (Daniel 5:22-30).
The Christian life is hard. Our Lord called it a narrow road for a reason. You will get bumps and bruises. Your marriages will hit the rocks. The kids will rebel from time to time. Your career won’t always go as smoothly as you hoped. You will disappoint people and they will disappoint you. You will disappoint yourself, finding it much more difficult to live up to your own standard, much less God’s. Doubts will creep in. You will hurt those you love and they will hurt you. And even when others do you no harm, you will feel that fighting your own sinful inclinations is a Sisyphean effort. That is the nature of the battle in which we are engaged.
Under such pressure, if the Christian’s faith is built upon strict adherence to a set of rules or a slick Instagramable life rather than the grace of God and a work that he already accomplished upon the Cross, it will not endure. Harris has rejected a caricature of Christianity, turning it into a straw man, a foil, for his social media metamorphosis. In such a life, defection to the other side becomes a convenient marketing ploy to launch a new career.
And that is part of what has bothered me about Harris’s post. It seems to be part of an ongoing strategy to rebrand the man to a new target market: first, the apology for his books and lectures; then a movie last year – yes, there is a movie – about the consequences of the book; next, the announcement of his divorce; and, finally, his mic drop moment, the renunciation of his faith in Christ.
None of this appears to be spontaneous. It all feels like everything my generation and those before us suspect is wrong with the brave new world of social media, selfies, and the “influencer” culture. It is an electronic Potemkin Village, where nothing is what it seems, and where even tender or vulnerable moments are, we too often discover, staged, rehearsed, and calculated to manipulate us into “liking” them. Remember, Harris is a marketer. His website stresses his ability as a storyteller who is able to craft a message for the public to develop a brand. And that’s what this seems to be all about: the rebranding of Joshua Harris, selling himself to his new progressive clientele.
It is interesting to me that Harris says that he has learned “that no group has cornered the market on grace.” I, too, have learned that in the wreckage of my own failures. Often the grace we expect from Christians is scarce. But that is only because they are sinners like we are whose default responses are not always in keeping with their professed beliefs. Regardless, Jesus Christ is the exclusive author of grace, and in walking away from him, where does Harris hope to find it? Instagram? The LGBT community?
Harris, it seems, has never understood grace. He has mistaken freedom in Jesus Christ with the shackles of legalism. But legalism, contrary to popular belief, has no place in Christianity. On the contrary, we have been set free from the Law (Romans 8:1-4). No, legalism is a condition of the human heart. Indeed, some of the most legalistic people I have ever met were not religious at all. They were adherents to secular ideologies. (Have you ever encountered the recycling Nazis?) This pastor-defector has simply exchanged one form of legalism for another.
On a fateful night long ago, Peter and Judas each committed grave sins against the Lord Jesus: one denied him, the other betrayed him; the first out of cowardice, the second for personal gain. Both were devastated by the reality of their actions. Peter “wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75) and Judas was “seized with remorse” (Matt. 27:3). Yet one of them is remembered with reverence and as a hero of the faith while the other has come to symbolize the accursed and the loathsome.
What’s the difference?
In the aftermath of his sin, Peter put his faith in the Lord he had so recently denied, while Judas, believing his sin unpardonable, ironically committed the unpardonable sin: he rejected forgiveness and restoration in Christ, and then, in a great anticlimax, he committed self-murder. As Christians, we would do well to remember this critical distinction. If our Lord could redeem a Manasseh who sacrificed his son on the altar of false gods (2 Kings 21:6), Moses who committed murder (Exodus 2:11-15), and sinners like you and me, his grace is sufficient to redeem a Judas and, for that matter, a Joshua Harris – but he has nothing but wrath for those who reject the grace he so freely offers.
Recognizing my own limitations to adhere to rules – I can’t even stop biting my fingernails much less author my own salvation – I am with the Apostle Peter who, on another occasion said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”