I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address this surprising and sad development. After speaking with my son William, who grew up reading Joshua Harris’ books, I asked him to write a guest blog reflecting on Harris’ recent announcement. — STEVE
I was stunned and deeply grieved.
I have become accustomed to a wide variety of pastoral scandals in the evangelical world—moral failings, financial impropriety, abusive leadership, theological drift—but this is the first time I have seen a prominent evangelical pastor renounce Christianity so suddenly and so publicly.
Harris’ departure from Christianity was particularly jarring for me because of the pivotal role his books and ministry played in my own discipleship journey. Like many evangelicals who attended church youth groups in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I read (and heartily embraced) Harris’ provocative thesis in I Kissed Dating Goodbye. And as a side note, I must admit I have been a bit puzzled by the nearly univocal criticism of Harris’ book and evangelical “purity culture” in the days and weeks following his announcement. Much of the legalism that writers (evangelical and otherwise) have rightly criticized, I did not experience in my youth group and did not find in the book when I read it twenty years ago. Perhaps I’ll need to reread and assess it again, but I would guess that the book has helped many more people than it has hurt since it was published in 1997.
So what happened? How did Joshua Harris go from purity culture icon and Gospel Coalition rising star to repudiating his book and deconstructing Christianity?
Unable to sleep one night after a long day at the beach, I began looking through Harris’ published works on Amazon. I came across one I had never read—it was his last book, published in 2010: Dug Down Deep: Building Your Life on Truths that Last.
Struck by the irony of the title, I quickly bought the Kindle version and began to read.
With any book, it is my habit to read the “Acknowledgements” section first because it provides a unique window into the author’s context and their network of relationships when they wrote the book.
Like all authors, Harris thanked his editor and publisher, but four additional mentions stood out to me.
First, Harris acknowledged his church: “the good people of Covenant Life, who make pastoring such a joy.”
Next, he acknowledged his pastor and mentor: “C.J. [Mahaney] for the irreplaceable part you played in this story.”
Later, he mentioned his close friends: “My T5G boys (Collin [Hansen], Justin [Taylor], Tullian [Tchividjian], and Greg [Gilbert], who listened to me talk endlessly about my writing voice, titles, and blurbs. May God answer our prayers in Asheville.”
Finally, Harris acknowledged his wife: “My sweet wife, Shannon, the love of my life. Thank you for serving me, putting up with me, and caring for our kids day in and day out. . . This book is done sweetheart! I’m ready to clean the basement and go camping now.”
Reading these acknowledgments sent shivers down my spine. What I saw was an intimate window into Harris’ closest relationships in 2010—relationships that no longer exist in 2019.
There is so much I do not (and probably cannot) know, but it seems that each one of Harris’ most important relationships—those with his local church, his pastor, his friends, and his spouse—underwent serious strain and ultimately, dissolution, in the years after he wrote the acknowledgments for Dug Down Deep.
In 2010, Harris, then thirty-six, was the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, a suburban megachurch founded by his mentor, C.J. Mahaney. Harris was on the council of The Gospel Coalition, a place where he had formed friendships with young, up-and-coming evangelical writers and pastors like Collin Hansen and Tullian Tchividjian. And perhaps most importantly, when Dug Down Deep was published in 2010, Harris had been married to his wife, Shannon, for twelve years—whom he met while writing I Kissed Dating Goodbye (hence the need for his second book, Boy Meets Girl).
What happened between 2010 and 2019?
To borrow Harris’ words from Dug Down Deep: “The wind and waves of suffering crashed like a tsunami. . .”
Here’s a brief overview of several significant events that we know occurred in Harris’ life:
- In 2011, Harris’ denomination, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), was rocked by internal dissension. C.J. Mahaney, the founder and president of SGM and Harris’ mentor, was put on indefinite administrative leave while the denomination conducted an independent review of Mahaney’s leadership practices.
- In 2012, Harris’ church was embroiled in a lawsuit that alleged that the leaders of SGM and Covenant Life Church had covered up sexual abuse in their churches over several decades. While each of the incidents pre-dated Harris’ time as pastor, he was at the helm when the legal and media storms arose.
- In 2013, Mahaney officially stepped down as president of SGM amidst growing controversy over the leadership’s handling of the sex abuse scandal.
- In 2014, Harris resigned from the council of The Gospel Coalition, as his church processed the fallout of a sexual abuse conviction of a former youth pastor of Covenant Life Church.
- In 2015, Harris resigned as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church and decided to move with his family to Vancouver to study at Regent College.
- A few weeks ago, in July of 2019, the final domino fell as Harris announced that he and his wife were getting a divorce after over twenty years of marriage.
When I think about the stormy last decade of Harris’ life, I can’t imagine the pain and confusion that must have come from wave after wave of adversity and scandal—crises that Harris did not cause but nonetheless affected him and his family deeply.
The central metaphor of Dug Down Deep comes from Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders in Luke 6. The central question that animates Harris’ book is this: what are you building your life on? How will you survive when the storms of life come?
Why does it seem that Harris’ faith did not survive the storm (I say “seem” because we don’t know what the future holds)? Why does Dug Down Deep drip with tragic irony when read in 2019?
I don’t know. I’ve been wrestling with that question for weeks.
Some will say that his theological foundation was not deep enough because he never went to seminary. Others will speculate that he may have had cracks in his moral foundation, secret sins that ultimately undermined his life.
It’s possible. But we have no evidence that this was the case.
If we read between the lines of his “Acknowledgements” in 2010 and the tumultuous events of the following decade, we can see that his relational foundations crumbled. In less than a decade, Harris experienced relational fracturing with his local church, his spiritual father, his friends, and his wife. Was Harris abandoned by people at his point of greatest need—or did he lean away from relationship when things got tough? I don’t know. Maybe both. There have been many conclusions drawn from Harris’ recent announcement—some insightful, some judgmental, and some premature. But no one to my knowledge has addressed the relational casualties that littered his journey away from faith.
As I have personally reflected on Harris’ announcement in 2019, I have been haunted by Harris’ “Acknowledgements” in 2010 and the unraveling of those relationships in just a few short years. And I am reminded of the simple truth that discipleship is relationship—relationship with God and with one another.
Doctrine matters. We should build our lives on truths that last, to borrow Harris’ subtitle. But that’s not enough. In order to withstand the storms of life, we must recognize that we are not called to be an isolated house built on a rock. We are called to build our lives together in relationships that last.
In Ephesians 2, Paul mixes a relational metaphor (a household) and a structural metaphor (a temple) to drive home the importance of relationship and building our lives together:
“[we] are members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. . .” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
It is my prayer that I not only hold fast to truth when adversity comes, but that I cling to relationship—relationship with God and the people he has placed in my life. And it is my prayer that one day Joshua Harris will come home.
While writing this blog, I came across a thoughtful blog on The Gospel Coalition written by several of Joshua Harris’ old friends—”the T5G boys” whom he mentioned in his 2010 “Acknowledgements” in Dug Down Deep. Harris responded cordially to their blog on Twitter here.