Re-reading Josh Harris now

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.

When Heroes Let You Down

It hasn’t been a great couple of weeks for my past mentor/heroes.

First, there was Mark Driscoll. About 10 years ago he emerged onto the scene as a brash, unabashed Calvinistic young preacher. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Driscoll rode the wave of the neo-Calvinist resurgence, and was at least to me an inspiring figure in looking into this recapturing of reformed theology. I count myself firmly on the reformed side of things thanks in part to his ministry.

But then it unravelled. His megachurch grew and grew, but so did the body count. A rising number of people were hurt by his church and ministry, and concerns rose. It came to head with some incidences that revealed a strange pattern of ministry/theology. Here are, from my perspective, some of the worrying moments:

  • The Elephant Room. Back in late 2011, Driscoll was a part of an interview in which he grilled concerning teacher TD Jakes. The subject remained firmly on the Trinity – so no discussion on his prosperity gospel preaching took place. The transcript reveals essentially nothing new, and you could boil it down to this: TD Jakes remains relatively vague on affirming the creeds and prefers heretical modalist language concerning the Trinity. That Driscoll (and James McDonald) could then embrace Jakes as a brother in Christ was concerning.
  • Strange Fire. John MacArthur is no friend of charismatic theology. In 2013 he held a conference titled ‘Strange Fire’ which took aim at unhelpful charismatic theology regarding the Holy Spirit and aimed at some specific false teachers (Benny Hinn in particular). Driscoll showed up at the conference with a squad and a bunch of his new, at the time, book ‘A Call to Resurgence’. The book itself takes aim at reformed folks who have problems with charismatic theology (and reveals the beginnings of a theological trajectory we’ll see in a moment). So, armed with this book and his friends he turned up outside the conference and was talking to delegates and passing out copies of his book. Security eventually got involved and reportedly confiscated his books and asked him to leave. Then there was a bunch of ‘he said, she said’ about the whole incident which was… strange.
  • Real Marriage. In 2012 Driscoll wrote another book ‘Real Marriage’ with his wife Grace. In 2014 it was revealed that Mars Hill Church had used some of its substantial church budget to purchase thousands of copies of the book in order to puff up its sales and make it onto the ‘New York Times bestsellers’ list – which would then give it the right to print ‘NY Times Bestseller’ on the cover and further increase the promotion of the book. Driscoll was never implicated in this, but it did strike a worrying note on the ministry culture of Mars Hill.
  • Mars Hill meltdown. Shortly after the Real Marriage controversy, there was another book controversy – this time plagiarism accusations were levelled and stuck. A few weeks later Driscoll tearfully told his congregation that he was going to take a leave of absence to deal with the negative fallout as well as address concerns about his (bullying) personality and how it had hurt people. That break turned into a resignation two months later. By October 2014 Mars Hill was shut down. It left a tidal wave of hurt.
  • New Church. Around 18 months later an announcement was made by the Driscoll’s that they were moving from Seattle to Arizona and starting a new church. Driscoll gave a teary and humbling interview with Brian Houston and appeared repentant. But…
  • Repenting… of Calvinism? In a recent interview the theological trajectory hinted at in his book ‘A Call to Resurgence’ has flowered into some ugly weed. In that interview Driscoll recants his former Calvinism (so what is he now?), and labelled those in the ‘young, restless, reformed’ camp (which he was willingly a part of) as young guys with daddy issues who love dead writers as mentors (because they won’t be like real fathers) and they love Jesus because he’s a brother and not a father figure.

I’m an optimist-realist and I’ll be honest and say that I was hoping for the best. Not just for Driscoll but ultimately for the Kingdom of God. I can now see that my hopes were misplaced. I had previously written to encourage caution and prayer and noted ‘Things went bad once. If they go bad again then we’re seeing really bad fruit that comes from a really bad place.’ Well, the smell of bad fruit is really beginning to waft – and it’s unsurprisingly disappointing.

The second fall has been less dramatic, but no less disappointing.

I became a Christian in 2001 at the rising fame of a guy called Joshua Harris. Harris had written a book a few years earlier, at the tender age of 21, on dating. Tim Challies has a helpful review on why this book took off the way it did – but basically, the Christian publishing machine was ripe for something like this book. And I jumped onto it. For various life reasons, I found his writing timely and helpful – modelling my own relationship and courtship on his.

[Some have questioned why we listened to a 21-year old on dating in the first place? In hindsight, it, of course, looks unwise and even foolish. Speaking from my own perspective I’d say that we listened to him because there was no other mentor figure who could help us navigate relationships in a Christian manner. Josh’s voice was speaking at the right time and engaging at our level. At a time before the internet made more voices, and better voices, readily available this was the best we could get.]

In the years since I was encouraged by where his ministry went. He understudied under CJ Mahaney, eventually became senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, and was a board member of The Gospel Coalition. For someone who had no theological training, or even an undergraduate degree, it was encouraging to see his trajectory into reformed theology from a distance.

And then things started changing.

In 2015 he made an announcement to step down as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in order to pursue theological studies. He enrolled at Regent College, Vancouver and I thought this was going to be a good step. Some time to study, some time to grow and rejuvenate ready to pastor again.

A couple of years later there were murmurings that his views on his bestseller, and book that thrust him onto the scene, ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’, were changing. Shortly after a documentary came out re-evaluating his book’s main thrust, he contacted his publisher to stop printing it and released a statement online basically apologising for the hurt his book had caused. I thought this was a good step, and by now had not really promoted it as a good relationship book to read.

Around about the same time Harris made another move. I’m unsure whether he graduated from Regents College (it doesn’t look like it?), but he decided to step away from pastoring and into a new business venture as a marketing consultant. I felt saddened by this move – mostly that the Kingdom had lost another pastor to shepherd the flock, but I understood that sometimes life changes and people move onto different things. Hoping and wishing the best for him and his family.

Then a few days ago he announced with that he and his wife Shannon were separating. The announcement on Instagram is carefully worded, with all the right language you would expect of a crafted statement. This was deeply saddening. The reasons for the separation are vague – that ‘significant changes have taken place in both of us.’ But reading between the lines and noticing some posts on Shannon’s own Instagram profile – I think we’re going to hear of their deconversion stories soon enough.

It’s been a tough few days processing how these men have journeyed. There’s something about the public ministry of people that you feel connected with. Their teaching and lives weren’t just on paper. They were mentors when I didn’t have any, they were older men I looked up to and respected. And now I can’t help but feel a disappointment for them.

So how do we respond when the heroes and mentors we looked up to let us down?

Pray for Them

Pray for Driscoll to be truly humbled, and for the Spirit to work in him to awaken him to his error and call him to true repentance. Pray for the members of his church to be led well towards Christ. Pray that any future error would remain contained.

Pray for Josh, his wife Shannon, and his family. Pray for the Spirit to reconcile their lives not only to each other but also to Jesus faithfully. Pray that their past hurts would be healed by the gospel taking deep roots into their lives, and the Spirit would prevent them from swinging too far in the opposite direction of the perceived fundamentalism they are seeking to escape.

 

Pray for Yourself

Prayerfully reflect on your own weaknesses and failings. I don’t presently have a platform as big as Driscoll or Harris, but I am within my own limitations capable of failing as badly. So, I thank God’s grace in keeping me, and I pray to never presume upon his grace but to keep persevering in growing my own holiness and faithfulness in my life as a husband, father, and pastor.

The same can be said for us all as we look in on this situation.

 

Remember God is Sovereign

While God does gift his church with leaders and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, God is not solely dependent upon them. The fall of Christian leaders has happened far too often, and yet God’s church has never been threatened because of it.

This isn’t to say that people aren’t hurt or aren’t going to be hurt. That is a profoundly sad reality when Christian leaders fall or walk away. But we must be reminded that God is sovereign, he remains in control, and so it is appropriate to pray that He would be at work in and through these circumstances to bring fresh healing and gospel-hope to his people.

 

Don’t Quit Church

When Mars Hill Church folded there were many people who scattered and didn’t return to church. Some stayed on at the various campuses. Some of the campuses closed and no doubt other churches were grown by the transfer of affected members.

With the divorce of Josh and Shannon Harris, I’ve already seen people commenting that they’ve had enough of evangelicalism.

I understand.

But please, don’t give up on church. It is imperfect – sometimes profoundly imperfect – and yet it is the gathering that Christ gave his life for. God loves you, warts and all, and he loves his church warts and all as well. In His wisdom, He has set out a plan to demonstrate His glory through gathering imperfect people to love and serve each other. The sometimes failure of his leaders is a powerful reminder that everyone who steps into a church gathering needs His grace.

 

Feet of Clay

I think these sorts of failings also need to remind us all that even the best men and women have feet of clay. My other heroes and mentors have all been and are imperfect in various ways. That’s not a bad thing! All our heroes have feet of clay. Let’s not expect more of them than we expect of ourselves.

It’s also a reminder that the only hero who will never let you down is Jesus. Having recently finished preaching through the Gospel of Mark I was unsurprised and gently reminded that everyone around Jesus failed him. Peter, probably the one with the greatest potential, failed spectacularly in the final moments. Yet through the story, there was one steadfast figure: Jesus himself.

So, it’s not bad to have hero and mentor figures in our lives. And it’s also good to remember they are imperfect as well.

 

Keep Trusting the Gospel

The failure of some does not mean the failure of the message.

We’re presently walking through the letter of 1 John at SLE Church. I’ve come to see that a major pastoral issue in this letter is that a group of people had upped and left the church and had fallen into error and false teaching. The remaining Christians were being tempted to pursue after them – partly because they looked so impressive on the outside.

In response, John points out the façade of the false teacher’s exteriors and exhorts his readers not to abandon the gospel they first heard, and for which he and the other apostles were eyewitnesses. Cling onto it because not only is the gospel true, but it is also where comfort, life and eternity are found. Jesus offers real hope. To walk away from that is to abandon hope. So keep trusting what you heard from the beginning – it will be worth holding onto in the end.

 

Thoughts from others

It’s been nearly a month since I last posted anything. It has been a busy period and many things have kept me away from my beloved blogs. These last few weeks, in particular, have kept me busy since I’m preaching through the book of Ruth and have had a highly edifying time looking through the book and writing sermons.

In between all that I’ve been reading the blogs of many other people I greatly respect. Here are a couple of note:

Albert Mohler – President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has written some thoughts on the Pope’s visit to America. He writes of the Pope:

If [the Pope] is right [in regards to the Roman Catholic Church being the only true church in which the grace of God works through], we are endangering our souls and the souls of our church members. Yet, I am convinced that he is not right — not right on the papacy, not right on the sacraments, not right on the priesthood, not right on the Gospel, not right in understanding the church.

Joshua Harris – not only author of the many ‘BGR’ (boy/girl relationship) books I taut from time to time, but also Senior Pastor at Covenant Life Church. Writing here and here on the issue of American Idol contestants singing ‘Shout To The Lord’ on their show, twice! Then following it up with these concluding remarks.

Bob Kauflin – Worship Pastor at Covenant Life and Sovereign Grace Ministries. Also writes some well balanced thoughts on the ‘American Idol/Hillsongs’ event.

Will post up some more thoughts soon! I hope!