When Joshua Harris kissed his marriage goodbye this summer, evangelical Christians were shocked and saddened.
Then Harris kissed his faith in Jesus Christ goodbye, and anger displaced pity.
Now that initial reactions to Harris’ very public apostasy have passed, some lessons surface.
But first, a bit of context.
As a young man, Harris became instantly iconic among conservative Christians in the late 1990s with the release of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” The best-selling book called Christians to resist the loose dating ethos of our time – and cites chapter and verse to advocate courtship and sexual abstinence before marriage.
Harris grew up in a conservative church and home-school culture, and his subsequent books played well with both crowds, who bought millions of copies. He eventually became the lead pastor of a Maryland mega church and stayed in that post until 2015.
Since then, he’s walked step-by-step away from his church, his marriage and the Biblical viewpoints he once proclaimed so loudly.
But it was this summer’s announcement – via Instagram – that he’d not only divorced his wife but also his Christianity that shocked so many.
“The popular phrase for this is deconstruction,” Harris recently wrote. “The biblical phrase is falling away. By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
What are we to make of this?
Apostasy is as old as the church itself. Judas comes to mind.
All who saw and heard Judas prior to his betrayal of Jesus would have thought him to be a devout disciple. Judas appeared, initially, to be the consummate Christian.
But true Christianity at its core is not about appearances.
Jesus taught this in his parable of the soils in Matthew 13. At times, Jesus said, gospel seeds are sown onto hearts akin to stony soil: “ this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while.”
Christianity has to do with roots – the unseen – not just appearances.
The root of true Christianity is a godly sorrow that leads us to repent of our sin, trust in God’s provision of forgiveness and righteousness through Jesus Christ, and live in glad obedience to him.
All the trappings of religion – the churchy things seen by others – do not constitute faith. A person can speak truthful sermons, write truthful best-sellers and even work within the church and still not actually have a sincere and lasting love for God.
Jesus likened this love for God to being “born again.” In other words, salvation is ultimately a work of God; and like all of God’s good work, it’s real and it’s lasting.
People who “fall away” from their faith with finality simply demonstrate that they never had faith in the first place – just the appearance of it.
I pray that Harris changes course, proving the outrageous grace of God toward prodigals. But he may not.
And that shouldn’t surprise us.
Ever since the church was born at Pentecost there have been posers among God’s people, those who look and act the part for a season.
John the Apostle put it this way: “they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.”
However sad and outrageous, apostasy isn’t wasted; it’s used by God to purify his church for his glory.
Yes, apostasy is sad. And yes, it makes Christians angry.
But better responses are gratitude and humility; gratitude for the grace of God that brings us salvation, and humility to know we’d fall away ourselves were it not for this grace.
Steve Massey is pastor of Hayden Bible Church. He can be reached at (208) 772-2511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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