The Pressures on the Pastor
Christian author and former pastor Joshua Harris announced he is separating from his wife and he is no longer a Christian. In the first post, he wrote, “In recent years, some significant changes have taken place in both of us. It is with sincere love for one another and understanding of our unique story as a couple that we are moving forward with this decision.” In the second, “ 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 came to fame when he was just 20 years old from the huge success of his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Since then he pastored Covenant Life Church, a megachurch in Maryland, written several books, and spoken at events across the country. He has also gone through significant hardship in ministry. After leading the church through a multi-year sexual abuse suit, he resigned to explore other parts of the Christian world, get a seminary degree, and get some rest. Quickly into his time away from the church his views began to change. He apologized for his first book and the views he expressed in it. He dropped out of school and started working for a marketing company. Now, he’s getting divorced and is no longer a Christian.
How does somebody like Joshua Harris fall away? I’m thinking this week about all the people who have been hurt, who feel disoriented, who are questioning their own faith and growth in the wake of all that has taken place in the last few years. Harris’ story provides us with two really important lessons.
Christian Teaching on Sexuality
First, Harris’ story begins and ends with Christian teaching on sexuality. He came to prominence writing about courtship, biblical sexuality, and the importance of marriage. Now he’s publicly and unapologetically divorcing his wife, giving vocal support to the LGBTQ community, and denouncing the things he once wrote. In recent years, he came under heavy scrutiny from progressives on the topics of sex and marriage. Harris’ book advocates absolute abstinence and courtship in exchange for the secular dating scene.
In the wake of the sexual revolution, Christian teaching about sexual purity, restraint, submission, and respect for parental authority have come under scrutiny as “purity culture.” The foremost example of this pushback would be Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, in which she argues that Christians have shamed young people into sexual repression, guilt, and oppressive sexual norms. She sees nothing wrong with various genders and sexual expressions, pornography (if it’s ethically produced, of course), or premarital sex.
A more subtle form of pushback against “purity culture” can be found in Katelyn Beaty’s article, “Joshua Harris and the Sexual Prosperity Gospel.” She argues that people like Joshua Harris, and others who advocate for traditional biblical views of sex and marriage, have set up a new kind of prosperity gospel. Be pure and God will make your wildest marriage dreams come true. If you save yourself for marriage, seek out a Christian spouse, and do things God’s way, then he will reward you with a happy marriage, wonderful healthy kids, and a great sex life. Beaty equates this kind of teaching with the traditional prosperity gospel and observes that in the same way that preachers who promise health and wealth appeal to the poor and needy, the “true love waits” crowd appealed to “sexually frustrated Christian teenagers.”
She goes on to cite numerous examples of faithful Christians who have had difficult marriages, trouble having sex, and those who have questioned the goodness of God in the wake of their shattered dreams and expectations. But all of this leads to two massive non-sequiturs; God never promises a life free from pain, even for those who are obedient, and second, how does our disappointment nullify God’s teaching on sexuality?
God’s vision for sexuality and marriage is incredibly clear in Scripture - but that doesn’t make it easy to abide by. As Rod Dreher pointed out last week, the major problem is that most people in the United States who claim to be Christians don’t agree in any way with what the Bible teaches about sexuality - whether that be sexuality in general or the Bible’s specific teaching on pornography, premarital sex, gender, or homosexuality. For those who do not believe that sexual sin is destructive, that God designed gender and sex (1 Cor. 6), that sexual deviance is emblematic of rebellion against God (Romans 1), or that your sexuality can be surrendered to Christ and transformed (Eph. 5), biblical Christian teaching on sex will always seem arbitrary and oppressive. Any inch a Christian teacher gives to the world’s view of sex will look enticing, but in the end, as Solomon teaches in Proverbs 7:6-27, they do not know that it will cost them their lives. He writes, “Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.”
In the face of this false teaching, we should be confronted with two feelings: anger and compassion. Sometimes we confuse the two. We should be angry at the teachers and compassionate with those who are struggling. Wisdom comes in knowing which is which. Our goal is that every person would experience the freedom, joy, and love that come in the purity that God commands and provides, in the midst of a world that is agonizingly sexually broken. As Joshua Harris’ story shows, the pressure to settle for less than God’s standard, and for temporary relief, is enormous.
The Pressure on the Pastor
Second, Harris joins a long list of former Christian celebrities who have “fallen away” from the faith in recent years, whether through moral failure, doubt, or burn out. There’s a really sad element to this story I want to be careful not to miss. This isn’t just a matter of Joshua Harris choosing the wrong side, burning out, making a lifestyle change, or taking some time on the bench. This is his eternity we’re all watching play out before our eyes. There is very real wreckage in his heart and in his family. We pray that he will repent, be healed, and trust Christ with his heart.
Even as we’re powerless to act as a part of his story, it reminds us of those around us who may be going through the same thing, but the Christian Post isn’t documenting their every move. The pressure is even more intense for pastors. Those who carry the burdens in their own hearts and those of the congregation, many of whom feel as though they have no outlet to talk, process, confess, or be imperfect.
It can be difficult to grow as a Christian leader, especially in seasons of change and the process of maturity. Some have pointed to Harris’ struggle to outgrow the “formulas” of his Christian upbringing, others to his lack of friendship and accountability. His former church sent a letter to their members encouraging them to go to the Word with their pain and grief. They linked to a video John Piper recorded on how to understand pastors falling away. The letter and the video are both excellent.
For those in ministry, the weight can feel enormous. Those who are struggling with sexual sin can feel as though they’re the only people in the world who have those struggles. In both of these cases, our response is to lean in relationally, to have the long conversations, to pray for healing, to stick with it for the long haul. I’m reminded of the apostles refrain as they walked through similar seasons in Acts 14:22, “Through many trials we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.