Well, that happened quicker than expected – and yet it was still devastating news. Joshua Harris has clearly announced that he is no longer a Christian. I have now been reliably informed that this was unsurprising to some – the theological trajectory was there for a while as Josh slowly started to leave behind various parts of the Christian faith in the process of his ‘deconstruction’, even before he left as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church.
He also confirmed that he is getting divorced.
Last night I attended a ministry gathering and heard from Thabiti Anyabwile. Among his many excellent encouragements was also an insightful comment that when we see someone like Josh – an author, a conference speaker, a pastor, a council member of The Gospel Coalition – we never assume that one day they could walk away from it all. Perhaps there’s also an assumption there that we too would never walk away.
And yet here we are, devastated and – for some of us – wondering if someone like Josh couldn’t do it what hope do we have?
In response I think it’s important that we recognise that Josh’s most recent post contains a much sadder note than his falling away. It’s these lines right at the end:
“To my Christian 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…”
Steven McAlpine has a penetratingly insightful post about this – basically: Josh’s post is not about him falling away, but about being saved. Saved from his Christian faith and saved to an affirming world.
This is not a mere slip or a mistake, or even a season of finding himself and hopefully finding his way back to Jesus. His post is the end of a long train of thought that Josh appears to have been on for a long time.
CS Lewis understood this this process well. In The Screwtape Letters he notes that the easiest road to hell was a gentle incline, soft underfoot, with no markers or signs. Without many of us noticing Josh has travelled far – and only an act of God can bring him back.
And to that end, we must continue to pray.
In the wake of all of this, some have asked me what we should do with his books. As I sit here reflecting I have on my desk a few of Josh’s books staring at me. All of them have been of help to me to some degree or another.
So here are my reflections over the past few days on what we should do with them.
First, don’t throw them away – at least not immediately. The rawness of Josh’s announcement leaving the faith is still pretty fresh, and many of us are probably still mourning the loss of a brother (and sister). Give it some time – for as time passes we’ll be reminded that life goes on and as sad as it is that Josh has walked away from the faith God’s Kingdom marches on seeking new disciples every day.
After some time, it might be worth revisiting those books, but no longer neutrally. The previous works may now subtly reveal the trajectory he was on. Knowing his present situation, it will be difficult to avoid parsing each of his lines and thoughts in the light of the future he didn’t know at that time. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reading in this way can grow us in discerning the seeds of falling away and help us examine our own hearts. So re-read his work with keen discernment.
And also read for encouragement. One person has asked whether there is any value in reading works he no longer subscribes to. My answer is yes with discernment. Simply because Josh no longer holds to what he once taught doesn’t make what he once taught null and void. I clearly remember particular phrases and thoughts in his later works to be very clear ways of explaining things and I’ll probably continue to use and develop upon those lines. At the same time his work serves well as a warning that biblical knowledge is crucial and must also work itself out in faithful living, obedience and repentance. God in the mystery of his sovereignty and providence can and does use the words and writings of those who have morally failed, or walked away, to encourage and spur us on.
He’ll even use dodgy books for our personal growth in him.
I remember listening to a Question and Answer session with Don Carson who mentioned that when he was younger the book ‘The Normal Christian Life’ by Watchman Nee was profoundly helpful in encouraging him towards holiness. But as he matured as a Christian, and especially as he grew to understand the Bible, he realised that Nee’s exegesis of Romans was very poor. To quote, “It was… up the creek without a paddle.” Did the book help him when he was younger – most certainly. Would he recommend it now? Not a chance.
I think about this story as I personally reflect on I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was helpful for me personally in the past, but not something I was recommending as much in recent years.
The story is a little different with something like ‘Dug Down Deep’ or ‘Humble Orthodoxy’. Both were his last books, both were incredibly clear and very helpful – which makes his move away from the central ideas of these books all the more devastating.
In the light of Josh’s announcement, we need to be further discerning about who we recommend these books to. The teacher and their teaching cannot be separated. This is why the New Testament is so clear that character matters the most when it comes to elders/teachers/pastors: because how they live is supposed to be a model and reflection of what they teach. This is also why false teachers are never given a pass on the sometimes right things they say.
Now, this isn’t to say that all authors we recommend need to be perfect – for none are. There is no author or teacher who lands perfectly on every doctrine or interpretation of scripture – and I’m looking at myself as well here. If you never disagree with your favourite theologian then it reveals more about you as their fanboy/girl than it does about the truth of their teaching. We always need to read with discernment.
But some failings are more noteworthy than others. Apostasy is up there.
Wisdom helps us work out whether we should recommend Josh’s books. As we discern the content for ourselves we need to be wise about who might be able to handle, or not handle, all that the author brings to the table. It would be a disservice to some if we sever the connection between teacher and teaching – for it may stumble them to places we would never wish them to go.
So, don’t dump all his works immediately. Read them with discernment, rejoice in what is true, and be careful who we recommend them to.