Some days ago, I received some shocking news. A preacher/writer that I knew many years ago made national headlines by publicly announcing on Twitter that he was turning away from his Christian faith. It was terrible. The man's name is Joshua Harris. He became famous several years ago for writing a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which at that time was a rather revolutionary idea in the western world. The book, written toward a younger audience, was significant enough to make the New York Times Bestseller list. In the book, Harris talked about his youth and how after reading Elizabeth Elliot's book, Passion and Purity, he decided to pursue holiness and purity in his life, specifically in the matter of dating relationships. He correctly recognized the dangers that are inherent in the sphere of dating, especially with regards to Christian youth. He said at the time, that what many in the Christian world wanted was the same thing the rest of the world wanted in its relationships, except under the idea that there would not be similar consequences. He further pointed out that the only way to expect different results from that of the world would be to live differently from the world. I was in college at the time, and was amazed when forums such as Focus on the Family were putting this young guy (at the time in his 20s) on their programs, and thereby on a wider platform in the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world. He even made appearances on programs which were decidedly immoral and anti-Christian, such as Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher (the antecedent of his current show on HBO). On that show, he discussed morality and his (at the time) Christian view of relationships in general on a panel that included actor Ben Affleck. I must say that I was very amazed at this point. No one on Bill Maher's show will ever support or receive any kind of Christian perspective about anything except by a miracle of God. Almost always, Christians and their ideas are subject to ridicule, and yet, Joshua Harris comported himself very well, and defended his ideas with grace and strength.
Harris, at the time, was part of the pastoral staff of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He would later become executive pastor, and then, lead pastor. When I first heard him, I was amazed at his talent for expounding the Word of God in a way that was endearing and humorous, and yet firm and to the point. The "pursuit of Holiness" – that was the main idea. His book and his sermons about "kissing dating goodbye" started as a personal reflection, but they made sense to a larger crowd of people. Yet, he had the sense, at the time, to say that this lifestyle of giving up dating probably would not be for everyone and there was no sense of condemnation if it was not. But as I said, it made sense, and what he said did have a Scriptural foundation. Later, after he got married, he wrote a sequel to I Kissed Dating Goodbye titled, Boy Meets Girl, Say Hello to Courtship. In the second book, he talked about how and when he went from being single to married life, and the ups and downs of that experience. Once again, the overarching point was a pursuit of holiness.
Harris certainly influenced a new generation with his ideas. When he became the lead pastor at Covenant Church, he saw tremendous growth in the ministry there. After reading the report of his complete turning away from the faith, I could only ask in shock, "What happened? And why? What brought about such a personal/spiritual catastrophe in his life where he would become the antithesis to everything that he once held firm, even to the point of losing his children and wife, for whom he had pursued holiness almost two decades ago?
I believe the answer lies more in the side of practical theology rather than in the philosophical part, despite what Harris and others like him are currently saying. Harris had enough honesty to say definitively that he is not a Christian now; in this he is correct. There are a lot of Christians (I call them "former Christians"), who in essence assert that their "greater study" has led to their new liberal stances on the doctrines of Salvation, the Bible, etc., but Joshua Harris quite correctly pointed out that he was not a Christian, by any rational measure, any longer. This point does not do any favors to the LGBTQ crowd or to anyone of other persuasions who want to assert a Christian worldview they do not have. The Bible, the Truth of God's Word, the Life of Jesus Christ, and especially the focus of His sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary, and His literal resurrection are all one and the same. One cannot be called a Christian if one denies any one or all of these points. Harris was honest enough to admit that none of it now means anything to him nor has any significance for him. How did it go wrong? How did he come to such a place in his life?
Practical theology is, simply, putting into practice what you have studied from and about Scripture. The conventional terms for people who are in ministry are exegesis (the task of studying Scripture and drawing the conclusion or meaning from it with help from other sources such as original languages and expository books and studies by other theologians) and hermeneutics (interpretation of the exegesis). The idea may seem easy, but it is not. There is a lot of work that goes in to "doing theology" which many people take for granted, but the effects of not doing it correctly can be dangerous to the point of destruction. How does one do it "right?" First and foremost, they have to come to a solid affirmation of faith that the Holy Bible is the absolute unchangeable Word of God. There are enough facts and information to back up this assertion, but it will still be a matter of faith. It will require that one believe in an invisible God who has spoken into the history and humanity of the Earth, and that He is alive and does continue to exert His power and influence on this world; this takes faith (Hebrews 11:6). One must believe that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, and that it speaks into every aspect of life (there is a lot that goes into this, but we will keep this simple for now!).
Secondly, the idea of "personal special revelation" must be curtailed. The reason is that the libertine approach that many take in regards to personal revelation leads people to take liberties with Scripture that are often filled with error and which can lead a person to discount the first point, and end up in a destructive apostasy, turning away from the faith. One has to constantly check with Scripture first. One should check his/her ideas or interpretations with other folks in the church as well, to get an objective viewpoint on whether or not what they have exegeted or interpreted is right. History is rampant with examples of this particular point. In the Great Reformation in Europe, Martin Luther studied and interpreted the revolutionary idea that salvation is a work of grace through faith, not the benefices granted by the Church. He was willing to recant that idea provided that whoever opposed him would convince him from Scripture rather than tradition, and to this end he showed up at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The same was true in England during the times of John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield.
Can one back up his/her points received from personal revelation with Scripture and within the bounds of orthodox doctrine that all churches or ministries that love the Word of God share as their foundation? Does one's revelation and practice fall in line with the Holy Bible? Is one's ideas going to extremes or fanaticism which would cause a dreadful offense to the church? These kind of questions have to be asked and answered, and not just by particular individuals only, but also by churches and ministries.
I think Harris's problem started within his church, Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. It's one thing to write national bestselling books, quite another to endure the testing of one's faith during the worst of times. Without going into the details, Covenant Life Church endured a couple of issues of immorality, some which drew investigations from local law enforcement. On many levels, the church did not handle the matters well at all. Despite Joshua Harris's books, the church's doctrine in practice about relationships was not with grace, but rather was set in antiquated ideas, backed up with extreme Calvinistic theology, guaranteed to stomp women into the ground. Women were to fulfill their "God-given role" and be absolutely subservient to their husbands. Subsequently, when abuses took place in the congregation, the church's policy was to somehow silence the victims in the ‘name of Jesus Christ' – a very dangerous thing to do in today's social environment. The victims called the legal authorities and the matters went to court, ending up in a terrible stink for the church, and Joshua Harris had a front row seat throughout the whole ordeal.
Later in his blog, he wrote that he did a lot of soul searching and reflection on his own ideas as well. Needless to say, that time was very painful both for Harris and Covenant Life Church. Harris would end up quitting his position and entering a theological seminary in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. That was the last time I heard or read or saw anything regarding him; I felt a foreboding sense of danger.
I think every preacher will have a point in their lives where they end up questioning their faith. It usually happens when we come face-to-face with the practical realities and outcomes of our dogmatic assertions and ideas. No two preachers are alike; all our vulnerabilities are unique. None of us are ever ready for that moment, and when it happens, if we do not have the perspective of the Cross, it will become a moment of spiritual failure or destruction, like it did for Joshua Harris.
Harris had a whole lifetime of Christian ministry and experience. In addition to growing up in church, his father and mother were some of the foremost figures in the Christian home school movement in this nation. Sunday school, youth ministry, etc., - he had it all. He became the ideal for many singles all over the world on how to pursue holiness while preparing for marriage, and also in the how to's of entering a courting relationship with someone who is a potential husband or wife. He married a beautiful young lady and later became a father himself to three children. As mentioned earlier, he became the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church (a mega church) while in his early thirties. Four years ago, he left the ministry of that church and in the last few months, everything he once stood for came crashing down, including his family. Harris, who is separated from his wife, expressed a desire to "remain friends and raise their children together."
How should the church world respond? We should grieve, just as David did for Saul in 2 Samuel 1. It hurts to see Joshua Harris recant all that he once stood for to the point where he has become a libertine. One time, he won hundreds, maybe even thousands of souls into the Kingdom of God. In a world of moral compromises, one time he spoke to millions via various social media platforms, challenging theme to pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ and a life holiness therein. Can all the good that he once did be wiped away from memory? No. And therein lies the grief… how far a fall from grace has he endured! Today, Harris is on TED.com speaking against everything that he once stood for, claiming that he is "strong enough to admit I was wrong."
What can we say? What must we do? I guess those were questions that David asked himself the day he heard about King Saul's death by suicide on Mount Gilboa as the Philistines were pressing their final attack to finish that dreadful battle with Israel that day. At the end of the battle, when the Philistines found his body and those of his sons, they mutilated them and chopped of the head of Saul. To add further insult to the ignominious rout, they hung the dead bodies on the wall of the city of Beth-Shan, while Saul's weapons were placed as heirlooms in the temple of Ashtoreth, right above the Jezreel Valley. Everyone would see it and no one would forget it. Thus was the ending of the first King of Israel, an "anointed man of God." Saul left a kingdom in shambles, a nation in civil war where almost all the priesthood had been wiped out, and every enemy nation was preparing to attack at the best possible moment from every direction. David's question was not about any of these other questions on government, but rather, how does a people find their trust in God again?
Churches will ask those questions, and really should ask those questions. The pressure is on the church like never before to compromise on literally everything. The other day, I passed a giant Methodist church with a parking lot full of cars, and an electric sign telling the people on the road that for spiritual edification, the Church need not be the only place to go; a temple, synagogue, mosque or whatever anyone prefers would be just as fine! The Gospel, the Bible as a whole, is too "elitist" and "troublesome." Psychology is better. God is not the singular person mentioned in the Bible; it's better to think of Him as a gender-less 'it', and as a concept more than a personality. That way any god or concept would be fine and we could all get along and everyone will end up in heaven or paradise or any other place other than what the Bible calls Hell. Holiness according to the Bible is anachronistic and laughable; everyone and anything is basically good and alright. Hence Harris decided to apologize to the LGBTQ homosexual crowd. Just one problem, as said before, Harris correctly asserted, the positions that he takes now are not Christian. And that's where we are now; should we become "less Christian"? May God help us.
I do not know what the answers are, and I must admit that often times I feel fear and am intimidated by the outside, especially in recent times when increasingly, high profile ministry failures hit the news. Church attendance is down across the board, and any "ism" from atheism to humanism to paganism seems not only a viable alternative but a more significant influence throughout this country. Youth who grew up in church seems cynical and apathetic. Boredom, not excitement, accompanies their profession of faith. And the "successful churches" are ones not necessarily with a true spirituality, but rather a superficiality and with an "evangelistic effort" that's akin to presenting options by a salesman at a car dealership (the showier, the more attractive).
I don't want to seem defeatist, and I will not. The reason? Truth has a way of shaking people's sense of utopia. The Gospel has not changed (as the apostle Paul says in Romans 3:4, "Rather, let God be found true, though ever man be found a liar..."). But more than ever before, the Church in the United States must be in prayer and renew itself increasingly in the power of the Holy Spirit. Harris's pursuit for holiness was not a bad thing at all; it is something that God the Holy Spirit will do in the lives of the believers in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:14, 1 Thessalonians 4:3), but the pursuit and the discovery (if you will) of it will be in and from the Cross of Calvary, not from our own power or effort. Its focal point will be on the Lord Jesus Christ and His sacrifice, the ‘blood transfusion' that will change us from the inside out as we lose ourselves to Him. Harris is not the only ministerial fall that has taken place within the course of this year; there are others and each one has similarities as well as differences. Harris was different from the other notable ones (as far as I know) because he maintained a certain sense of integrity by which no one was able to incriminate him for wrongs he did while in the faith; as far as we know, his life was beyond reproach. But regardless of that fact, all of us who are in the ministry must reevaluate our lives and always remember, the same tragedy can happen to us as well. May we surrender into the hands of God and remember that He is holding us in His Hands.