Q: Why are pastors like the old Communist Party of Australia (CPA)?
A: Because the old CPA was notorious for having more ex-members than members… and pastors may be heading that way.
That is if many more follow a well-worn path trodden by Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, hundreds of Southern Baptist pastors, and now Josh Harris.
Bell is now a freelance writer and speaker, Driscoll a pastor hundreds of miles from Seattle and scornful of the sort of Christianity he once preached, Hybels’ future is unknown and of those hundreds of Southern Baptists too many are still leading churches with their sex abuse cases un-investigated.
(Although many leave the ministry for less dramatic reasons such as retirement, burn-out or church budget shortfalls, ministry looks a bit like the old commies.)
Josh Harris, formerly a hero of the conservative reformed or Calvinist movement, is the latest casualty. He is most famous for writing (and then regretting writing) the million-copy book “I kissed Dating Goodbye”. He led Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Virginia, where he was a hero to church planters. His book proposed a very conservative courting culture, with parents involved and group dates. Critics suggested it encouraged passivity in women. To this writer Harris in his conservative phase seems pharisaical – adding an extra layer of legalism to a evangelical view of sex and relationships. It was Billy Graham’s six inch rule on steroids.
It is clear that in Harris’ view he had to make a choice between Christianity and a more progressive stance on sex.
“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,” wrote Harris in an Instagram post, announcing the end of his faith. Earlier this month he also announced the end of his marriage.
Josh Harris’ public defection has almost displaced Israel Folau from some corners of the Aussie Christian internet.
He has made very frank comments about why he is leaving and they make for a great case study. Earlier this year Harris was asked by Sandi Villarreal of the progressive Christian magazine Sojourners, “You say… that there are a lot of people who want you to throw out everything that was kind of the basis for your book. But I’m curious when you say ‘everything,’ do you mean your belief in Christianity as a whole or about premarital sex in general? I’m curious what you include in that?”
Harris responded; “I think that there’s a push by some people to say being sex positive means — the kind of the historical sexual ethic related to sex outside of marriage, related to homosexuality, is basically laid aside, and embracing a healthy view of sex means just accepting all that as fine within the Christian tradition. … I do think though that, for me, in that change of interpretation at such a fundamental level when it comes to sexuality, it’s just hard for me to … In a way it’s almost easier for me to contemplate throwing out all of Christianity than it is to keeping Christianity and adapting it in these different ways.”
It is clear that in Harris’ view he had to make a choice between Christianity and a more progressive stance on sex. In his Instagram post announcing he had lost his faith he also apologises to the LGBTQ community as well as for “my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few.”
Pressed to say that there can be a spectrum of interpretations of the Bible, Harris gives a strongly-worded response. “It can start to feel like you’re like doing some move from the Kamasutra with the Bible. And I don’t mean to be dismissive, it’s just like from an intellectual standpoint, it actually feels more intellectually honest for me to say I don’t know that I agree with the Bible in general than it is to get it to say these things. And maybe that’s just because I spent so much time in a very conservative environment judging all these more progressive people that I’m now tempted to go past that [and] be like, forget it all.”
“But it can get to feeling, like, what are you holding onto in Christianity? Why do you need it still? … I guess if we can with one generation make that radical a shift with the Bible, who’s to say that another generation can’t completely shift the Bible to, you know, to justify something that we would all think is horrendous? It starts to just be silly putty.”
Forget it all. That’s where he ended up. Reflecting on these exchanges, conservative critic (and capital O Orthodox Christian), Rod Dreher writes in The American Conservative: “I have incomparably more respect for Harris for walking away from the faith entirely than bending and twisting it out to be a fraudulent warrant for holy humping and righteous rutting. Hat tip to Dreher for pointing out those passages from Soujourners.
“Josh Harris is right: you can’t reconcile Christianity with the Sexual Revolution. If you can make the Bible say that the Sexual Revolution is ordained by God, then you can make it say just about anything. The rock of faith would indeed be made of Silly Putty. There will be a generation of Christians — Catholics, Evangelicals, Orthodox — who try to live within that contradiction, but their rationalisations won’t stick. There’s just too much in Scripture and Tradition to counter it.”
There is a real irony here, which Josh Harris will be aware of. In walking away from Christianity, and passing up the option of settling for a progressive version, he will have both disappointed (they have lost him) and pleased (for not endorsing progressive Christianity) his former evangelical supporters.