A few months ago two Instagram posts surprised the evangelical world in North America and provoked public reflection. On July 18 Joshua Harris, famous for his promotion of a puritanical approach to Christian relationships, and his wife Shannon announced they were separating after 20 years of marriage. Nine days later, he wrote he was also abandoning his Christian faith. "By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian."
Harris became famous in 1997 for a book he wrote when he was 21. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was an appeal for courtship, parental involvement, no kissing before marriage, and the like – it sold more than 1 million copies. Harris has since remained a hero among homeschoolers (his dad Gregg is a major influence in that movement), in Reformed circles and beyond (Christian thinker Eric Metaxas recently tweeted "I happen to agree w/most of what he wrote" in that book).
Harris published a few other books but focused on pastoral ministry. He was lead pastor in Maryland at Covenant Life Church until 2015, when he stepped down after a multi-year crisis across the Sovereign Grace Ministries network about improper handling of sexual abuse. He started making headlines by distancing himself from his book (see the documentary at www.ISurvivedIKDG.com) and expressing regret for his self-righteousness and the fearful perspective his book encouraged.
He moved to British Columbia in 2015 and finished a master’s degree at Regent College in 2018. Now, a year later, he has said goodbye to his book (purposefully out of print), his wife (a talented musician) and the gospel. He has also embraced progressive views on sexuality and apologized for previous anti-gay teachings. His website now focuses on his marketing and brand-strategy company (connected with Donald Miller of Blue Like Jazz fame).
Given Harris’s fame and the influence of his first book, many Christians have responded. Some malign him for his prior legalism on courtship and sex, but others say his strict views helped guide them through their volatile teen years.
The end of his marriage was greeted with some derision (especially since his second book Boy Meets Girl offered the tale of his engagement and marriage) but mostly sadness. In hindsight it’s hard to read lines like, "There is Shannon, leaning on her father’s arm. She seems to glow. Today is my wedding day. My bride has just walked into view. My bride. My bride."
His abandonment of Christian faith has been greeted with anger and contempt by some, though again the dominant reaction is sadness and disappointment. His apostasy has also led to theological reflections. Radio personality Todd Friel argues along Calvinistic lines that Josh’s decision proves he was never a Christian (see "Josh Harris kissed nothing goodbye" on Youtube).
In other corners, several of Harris’s former Gospel Coalition colleagues (Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert, Collin Hansen, Justin Taylor) warn against arguments that his apostasy can be traced simplistically to "homeschooling, fame at a young age, Neo-Calvinism, the charismatic movement, purity culture, Sovereign Grace, lack of a seminary education, or all of the above."
Various bloggers have argued a shallowness in evangelical culture accounts for Harris’s failings. Grayson Gilbert ("Relevant & Reformed") writes that "The difficulty with Joshua Harris Instagraming his way out of his marriage and subsequently, the faith, is that it is so apropos a metaphor for our generation. We are a trite people, who think trite thoughts, and display our triteness for the world to consume in equal measure."
Several Christians zero in on Harris’s endorsement of homosexuality, which he has demonstrated by posting pictures of himself from Vancouver Pride. Harris made it clear in a Sojourners interview in February that he thinks approval of homosexuality is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Clearly, he has chosen between the two.
As sad as this saga is (some of Shannon’s blog posts are heartbreaking), there is nothing in Josh’s fall that should totally surprise those familiar with biblical warnings about apostasy (1 John 2:18-19). Christians who feel betrayed may need to reflect on what appropriate expectations for Christian leaders should be.
Thankfully, the Bible also contains stories of redemption and restoration. That’s why some Christians have moved beyond anger and disappointment to hope. "Come home, Joshua. Come home." As well, human failings of all sorts point to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Southern Baptist Seminary president Al Mohler wrote that all this "reminds us that we can place our trust in no sinful human being, but in Christ alone, the one who alone is worthy of our trust."
James A. Beverley retired at the end of June after 31 years at Tyndale Seminary. His new home base for writing is Moncton, N.B.