If you are between 25 and 40 years old and from a conservative religious background, odds are excellent that you know the name “Josh Harris.” As a very young man, Harris wrote a best-selling book — “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” —in 1997 that helped propel the so-called “purity culture” in evangelical circles.
The core message of the book was that the best way to avoid pre-marital sex and the temptations thereof was to avoid dating for any reason or of anyone who is not a serious marriage prospect.
According to young Harris, as long as those adolescent hormones rage, the best thing to do is to avoid any situation that might give them occasion to run riot. It’s not unlike deciding to be silent because you fear if you speak, you will invariably curse, say something hateful or call somebody a dirty name.
Even if you aren’t of those ages, odds are also good you’ve heard of Harris in recent weeks, thanks to the reaction to his public renouncing of his evangelical Christian faith, announcement of separation from his wife, and repudiation of aspects of his book concerning gay people.
His announcement prompted widespread glee among liberal religious and secular mainstream culture commentators, as well as hundreds of headlines typified by this one in the New York Daily News: “Pastor and Author Joshua Harris Has Kissed Christianity Goodbye.”
This latest unexpected turn in Harris’ journey isn’t exactly a new one, as nearly five years ago, in 2015, he told members of the Gaithersburg, Md. nondenominational church he then pastored that, since he had never gone to seminary, it was now time to do so. One suspects there was a hint in that decision of a lurking doubt in Harris’ mind about a lot of things.
“There is absolutely no surprise that such a development would draw a barrage of derisive ‘we told you so’ commentaries; it always has and always will, and in many respects deservedly so.”
In any case, there is absolutely no surprise that such a development would draw a barrage of derisive “we told you so” commentaries; it always has and always will, and in many respects deservedly so. Hypocrisy is, after all, a form of rot.
And in the Harris case, there is an added bonus for critics in the fact that he came out of the homeschooling movement, of which his parents were prominent leaders for many years.
But whenever the sins of a well-known Christian figure are exposed — think Jim Bakker, Benny Hinn, Jimmy Swaggart — serious analysis of the implications and potentially significant lessons to be learned thereof are usually lost amid the simplistic mocking of critics.
In the present case, I suggest there are at minimum two profoundly important lessons here for everybody, not just evangelicals, though the first should make particular sense to those who claim to have been “born again.”
First, as Joy Pullmann, managing editor of The Federalist explains in a superb post today, legalism (to be saved, do this and this, but don’t do that) always leads to failure, which in turn produces rejection of the original prescription.
“Here’s another question: Is there going to be a public reckoning with evangelicalism’s major heresies that fuel cycles of this kind of legalistic faddishness,” Pullmann asks.
“Thus, as is human nature, people ping-pong between opposite sides of the gutter rather than taking a straight course between them.”
“As Harris’s experience — and the history of American Christianity (indeed, of the world) — shows, legalism leads inevitably to antinomianism. Antinomianism is the fancy theology term for rebelling against God’s law after observing how hard it is to keep it. It’s how Puritans turn into Social Gospelers.
“Thus, as is human nature, people ping-pong between opposite sides of the gutter rather than taking a straight course between them. But Christianity delineates the straight course, not the gutters.”
That’s a profound insight: Legalism contains within itself the seed of its own destruction because it demands perfection, which is impossible for any human being to achieve and maintain. The resulting frustration leads to rejection of the original prescription’s legitimacy and sooner or later of pretty much all rules that conflict with one’s desires.
The root cause of the inability to satisfy the demands of legalism leads to the second lesson, which is posed by this question: Why are we surprised that another prominent leader has proven not to be what he or she claimed to be?
It’s happened before, going all the way back to the time of the apostles, and it will happen again for one simple reason: We rebel against the thought but the fact is we are all sinners, capable of every sin, including the sin of hypocrisy.
“Legalism contains within itself the seed of its own destruction because it demands perfection, which is impossible for any human being to achieve and maintain.”
The church is indeed “full of hypocrites,” including those who for whatever reason falsely call themselves believers. Their hypocrisy speaks about them, not about the abiding truth of what they formerly professed to believe.
Christians call it Original Sin. It’s the plague of self-centered pride. I want it my way and I want it now!!! If you doubt that, spend a little time with a group of two-year-olds and count the frequency with which one of them angrily yells “mine” as he or she rips a suddenly coveted toy from another protesting child’s grip.
Original sin is why Jesus told Nicodemus that “you must be born-again.” Not physically from our mothers’ wombs, but spiritually from our hearts. The Nicodemus passage includes what is probably the best-known two verses in the world:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” – John 3:16-17.
That is what Christians call “grace.” I can’t save myself but God — who became a man like me in all ways but one (that Original Sin thing) — has already done it for me; it’s a divine gift, to be accepted or rejected.
The result doesn’t appear over-night but the profession of faith, the acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal savior, produces changed hearts, changed desires and changed actions, both in word and deed. If the heart isn’t changed, sooner or later, it will become obvious.
So here’s the bottom line, at least in this observer’s mind: Episodes like Harris should prompt serious self-reflection in all of us. If you are a Christian, are you living by God’s grace, via His Word, or by your own efforts?
If you aren’t a believer, maybe it’s time you re-think your reasons why, make an honest assessment of yourself, and then do something about it by accepting His gift.
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