“The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.” Augustine of Hippo
Maybe you heard about something significant that happened a little over a month ago, something that shocked and rocked the Evangelical world and caused reverberations that went much farther: it even made the national news. Joshua Harris posted in an Instagram message that he had “undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus.” He went on to say, “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.” Harris didn’t say exactly where he is now in his thinking, only where he isn’t. It would appear that, at least at this point in his life, Joshua has moved into the ranks of the nones.
In the days and weeks following this highly publicized announcement, I have read and watched and listened for the responses of a broad spectrum of people, from bloggers to Evangelical leaders to people who for whatever reason just felt the urge to weigh in. Those responses have covered a wide range, from downright hateful to sensitively compassionate to ridiculously absurd, and they keep coming. Now if you’re thinking I’m going be foolish enough to jump in with my own personal dissection and analysis of Joshua and what he said, you’re wrong. But I do have something to say, because hopefully you recognize this relates directly to what I wrote about in my last post.
By this point those of you who have never heard of Joshua Harris are probably wondering who he is and why such a big deal has been and is being made of what he said. I have to admit that before all of this hit the news, his name hadn’t crossed my mind in a couple of decades.
My memory of Joshua goes back to the early 1990s, probably 1991. Joshua would have been 16 at the time. My family attended a conference in South Carolina where his father, author Gregg Harris, was one of the featured speakers. Gregg proudly introduced Joshua, the oldest of his seven children. At that young age Joshua had already begun a popular magazine for homeschooled teens titled “New Attitude.” By age 17, he was traveling and speaking at teen conferences all over the nation. A few years later, having reached his early twenties, he wrote a book outlining his views on relationships titled I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Relationships and Romance. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but that book was destined for stardom, and he would enter the whirlwind.
For whatever reason, the book Joshua wrote as a young 20-something exploded, reaching far beyond the homeschooling community. It quickly became the Number 1 Bestselling Book in America, eventually selling an impressive 1.2 million copies and being translated into dozens of languages. As expected, that book was followed by other books and, like it or not, Joshua was on his way. By 2004, approaching age 30, he became the lead pastor of a megachurch in Maryland. There he stayed until 2015, when he resigned from the church after some difficult times. If you want to know more about that story, you can do some research for yourselves.
During the first two years after leaving church ministry, Joshua did some serious thinking and listening and reevaluating. He came to believe that what he had written years earlier in his bestselling book was wrong.1 He released a statement that said, “I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner. To those who read my book and were misdirected or unhelpfully influenced by it, I am sincerely sorry…” About his bestselling book he wrote, “In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, instead it often instilled fear—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken.” What he did next was astounding: he directed his publisher, Multnomah, to discontinue publication of all of his books.
Whatever people think about his recent statements and actions, that action showed integrity, a level of integrity that is absent in the words and deeds of many prominent evangelical leaders who continue to proclaim loudly their belief in Christianity while continuing to spout damaging teaching that is inconsistent with the life and teaching of Jesus. One of those I have already told you about is Bill Gothard; this is where rereading my “Open Letter To Beth Moore” will help. There is also a powerful interview accessible on YouTube that I strongly urge you to take the needed time to watch.2 (https://youtu.be/9WQy4LGUQRg ) The young woman being interviewed clearly lays out the teachings of Gothard as one who has lived through them. She is but one of tens of thousands of young adults in America who are dealing with the damage done by this movement.
Despite being exposed and ousted from his leadership position, Gothard’s teachings continue, his writings are still being published and promoted. Given the scope of his influence over past decades, it’s not unlikely that some of his teachings have found their way into your thinking about what it means to live as a Christian. All of us need to do some rethinking about this; actually, rethinking is something we need to be doing continually.
By the time Joshua’s book was published, my life and thinking had moved quite a distance from those early days when I attended that conference in South Carolina and first heard his father Gregg speak. At that time I hadn’t yet begun to teach local parenting classes, or use Gregg Harris’ widely popular “House Rules” kit, or travel and present parenting conferences. This did not begin until 1993, the same year that I began my studies in biblical counseling through the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. In 1994 I completed their Diploma Program in Counseling, taught in conjunction with Reformed Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. That was also the year I found myself thrust into the world of Christian publishing as a result of my trip to England. Maybe you remember I also told that story in my “Open Letter To Beth Moore.”
If you’re having trouble keeping up with these many dates I’m throwing at you all at once, don’t worry. My plan is to come back and unpack them for you at some future point. Right now I just want you to see that I know what it’s like to get caught up in a whirlwind. And eventually I want you to understand that for some, getting caught up in the whirlwind is an appointed part of their journey. For some the journey may include the wilderness, for some the pit of despair. For some, like me, it may be all of these. I want to tell you not to fear what may be strange and confusing and often excruciatingly painful in the journey. That’s easier said than done, I know. Fear is natural, but it is not profitable. It is true that there is a power in fear, but that kind of power runs counter to the way of love.
By 1997 my interests had taken yet another turn. I enrolled in the Distance Education program at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and took as many courses as I could in the area of apologetics and worldviews. The knowledge I gained combined with my biblical knowledge, counseling, and parenting to provide a “unique perspective,” so I was told, and the activity level in my life intensified once again. I made a few trips to Russia as a “visiting professor” to teach on worldviews at Logos Academy in Moscow, and did some speaking and teaching internationally for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. By 1999, all of this activity brought me to the attention of the Christian Medical and Dental Association (CMDA). The result was that I became a somewhat regular speaker for them, leading workshops at their local and national conferences.
In November, 2000, I presented workshops at the combined Christian Medical & Dental Association and Focus On The Family “Heart of the Physician Conference” in San Diego, CA. After that conference I was contacted by the leadership of CMDA and was asked if I would be willing to meet with an editor from Zondervan Publishers about becoming one of their writers. It seems the response to my workshops had been “tremendous,” and now an effort was going to be made to “promote” me. I was hesitant, having been down this road several years earlier with Lifeway, but I agreed to meet and hear what they had to say.
We met at CMDA national headquarters in Bristol, TN. I don’t remember the editor’s name, but I do remember she was very professional and friendly. I listened carefully as she talked enthusiastically about the possibility of publishing my writings and studies and whatever else. Finally she summed it up by saying, “Jan, we are looking for our next big Christian woman author, and we want that to be you. It will be our responsibility to groom you and promote you. We will have readers waiting for your next book. Of course, there will be book signings, and…” My mind had checked out by that point. When she finished, I thanked her and said no, that wouldn’t be for me. Her expression registered her shock. When I told the CMDA leadership the same thing, they had the same expression. What they didn’t know was that I had seen enough in my involvement in Christian publishing to know that I didn’t want any message that was in me to be driven by book sales and marketing. I had no intention of becoming that all-too-revered oxymoron—the “Christian celebrity.” And there was something else, something much deeper, something I found myself unable to understand and incapable of giving expression to at that point in my life. Something was off. I didn’t know it then, but it would take years for me travel far enough in time for my backward look to bring understanding of exactly what it was that was off.
In an interview that appeared in Premier Christianity, the UK’s leading Christian magazine, just after he stopped publication of his books, Joshua Harris is quoted as saying: “A lot of our movements in the evangelical world are driven by fads. They’re driven by book sales, they’re driven by conferences, they’re driven by different things that roll through. Nobody stops to evaluate whether it is good or bad, it’s just on to the next thing…” He was right. And when the thing of the moment is replaced by the next thing, very few stop to reconsider and make the necessary corrections to the thing that came before.
You are probably familiar with the name of Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine), but maybe you don’t know much about this man who influenced, and still influences, both Christianity and the world. Born in the North African city of Tagaste in 354 to a pagan father and a devoutly Christian mother, Augustine was raised to follow Christianity. In his late teens, however, his love of wisdom and hunger for truth kindled a love for philosophy. Seeing little of wisdom or truth among the Christians he had known, he converted to Manichaeism. After ten years as a Manichaean, he became disillusioned and turned away toward skepticism.
His high level of education, intellectual curiosity, and skill as a rhetorician equipped Augustine to become a much-respected teacher. At the age of thirty he won a prized position as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. Once there he deliberately sought out and met Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. That relationship with Ambrose was to influence Augustine more than any other. Of Ambrose he would write, “And I began to love him, of course, not at the first as a teacher of the truth, for I had entirely despaired of finding that in thy Church—but as a friendly man.” What most impacted Augustine about Ambrose was not his skill as a speaker or rhetorician; it was the kindness he showed, his friendliness. In Ambrose he found one who would live love before him, who would walk with him in honesty and transparency. That made all the difference.
A year later, at the age of thirty-one, Augustine was converted to the Christian faith. Only five years later he was ordained a priest, and went on to become a famous preacher as well as a prolific writer. His extensive writings cover diverse fields, including philosophy and sociology as well as theology.
Late in life, at the age of seventy-two, Augustine undertook the painstaking task of chronologically going back through all of his writings. This wasn’t an afterthought for him; it was something he had planned to do and had written about wanting to do fourteen years earlier. He realized that the way he saw and understood in his early years was not the way he would see and understand with the passage of time. As he carefully and methodically reread his works, he corrected errors, made revisions, and wrote comments about places where he had changed his mind and why. This work, titled The Retractationes (Latin), gives the world a picture of how his thoughts developed and changed throughout his life as he gained knowledge and experience. It has been called “the history of the mind of Augustine.” Although the English translation was given title The Retractions, this word can also be translated as “reconsiderations.” I like to think of this work as a record of Augustine’s “rethinkings.”
There is a lot of rethinking that needs to be done by leaders and teachers and authors in the Evangelical church today. Right now we have an entire generation that has been disillusioned and damaged by teaching that was off, and continues to be off, in one way or another. What made the difference in Augustine’s life when he had “despaired” of finding truth in the Church was not being engaged in debate, not being shamed, not being accused or condemned. It was not branding him as “apostate” and warning others to beware lest they follow the same path, eliciting fear that would cause them to pull away and shun. What made the difference was friendship—the presence of a friend who loved enough to walk with him, to give him the freedom and time to come to the knowledge of truth. That kind of friend can make all the difference in a person’s life; I know this from my own experience. But to become that kind of friend, we have to let go of fear.
And that’s not an easy thing to do.
1 Ted Talk. “Strong Enough To Be Wrong”, Joshua Harris. November 17, 2017. https://binged.it/2ZNy21C
2 “Growing Up Quiverful”, an interview with Kristiana Miner. In “The Critical Thinker At Large: Offering Reason In An Unreasonable World.” https://youtu.be/9WQy4LGUQRg