One of the most unsettling, faith-shaking events for a believer is when someone we respect leaves the faith. This week we learned that former homeschooler and child-author Joshua Harris not only left his wife, but also has announced that he is departing from the faith. I have already had someone ask me, “How could someone so godly walk away?” This blog is not meant to judge Joshua Harris, but to help you understand how a famous author and pastor could deny the Bible he preached.
For those who don’t know, Joshua Harris came to fame (at the age of 17) for publishing his own magazine, targeting his fellow homeschoolers. This magazine publication was followed by his extremely popular and controversial book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
The book proposed courtship as a more biblical process for finding your mate, as opposed to dating.
“Harris became famous in the evangelical world for his book, published when he was 21 after a childhood spent in the cloistered Christian conservative homeschooling world. I Kissed Dating Goodbye urged not just garden-variety premarital abstinence, but went even further, encouraging a commitment to parent-guided “courtship” rather than dating.” (Jezebel.com)
Personally, I am in favor of courtship—what godly parent would not want someone to involve them in the process, while pursuing their daughter? But I also recognize that it is not always practical and it has its downfalls, and that a 21-year-old who has been sheltered from the real world, living in a homeschool fantasy world, has no business writing a book on dating—or why not to date.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of homeschooling—if the parents are fully committed. But I also have seen situations where the parents are hardly involved. I know many homeschool parents who are simply arrogant in how they view other non-homeschooling parents. There is a tremendous amount of judgment that takes place. Some parents who have no business homeschooling find themselves bullied into it through guilt and shame by their zealous friends.
In my circles in the mid-nineties, it created a culture of judgmentalism that was often passed down to the children. There are tremendous upsides to homeschooling when done right—such as not being polluted by a humanistic/atheistic school system. But there are also challenges. For instance, how do you get along in a world that you have never known?
As an adult, Joshua Harris became the lead pastor of a megachurch that was in my city. The church developed a reputation for looking down on other congregations. They were Christian elitists, who, according to many “survivors” (they have their own website), elevated the role of men to such a level, that sexual assault was tolerated. But let’s not go there yet.
Problem #1—Way Too Young
I am not shocked that Josh Harris has walked away. My guess is that his 44-year-old self looked at his 21-year-old self in disgust. At 44, he has probably recognized that it was foolish and arrogant, if not downright dangerous, to write a book against dating before he was even married. I have not seen his documentary renouncing his former views or read anything about it beyond knowing that it exists.
Fame is like money—getting it too young can destroy you.
Dishonest money dwindles away, but whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow. (Proverbs 13:11)
It is far better to gain notoriety little by little. It is much easier to stay humble.
Many a well-meaning parent (and some not so well-meaning) have allowed their children to become famous, thinking, “We are a good family—they will never walk away from the principles and values in which they were raised.” And then, when they do, everyone is shocked, not realizing that the very act of letting them become famous goes against the Biblical values they espouse.
The minute any parent allows their child’s talent to take them to fame before they have developed the character to handle it, they have set them up for disaster. The enemy is watching, waiting to pounce on the unprepared youth. They set up Joshua Harris as the poster child for homeschooling and virtue. Again, I am not against homeschooling—that is not the point! The point is that young people were not meant for fame. It is one thing to be a child actor or singer—but to be a child “guru” giving advice on major life decisions is just ludicrous! As Joy Pullman writes on the Federalist:
For one: why on earth did a major Christian publishing house decide it was a good idea to publish the musings of an as-yet relationally unsuccessful young man on romance? Why did so many pastors and parents seize on the idea of “courtship” to give theologically garbage advice to young people about sex and marriage?
With Joshua Harris, the crisis simply manifested later in life, but the roots go back to his childhood fame. It did not manifest in sex and drug abuse like most child stars—but when he looked back on the absurdity of being an authority on morality at 17 (and reflected on all the people who have written him to tell him his books messed up their lives), it must have produced a level of shame and embarrassment that resulted in questioning everything he ever believed (or thought he believed.)
Recently, I just finished writing a book on leadership. I could have written about many of the principles, fresh out of Bible school. The problem is that they would have been just theory. At 54, I can say that these principles work and I have seen them bear fruit in my life and ministry. Joshua Harris giving dating advice at age 21 was not just cute and fascinating, but wrong and destructive.
What could an unmarried 21-year-old know about dating and courtship? (Answer: Nothing!) He was just repeating what others had taught him at conferences like the home-schooling world’s wildly popular Bill Gothard seminars (A fundamentalist, near cultic teacher, who himself has been accused of grooming young girls and molesting them. He was the leader of a judgment culture, while preying on young girls.). Because it came in the package of a homeschooler fresh out of high school, we bought into it. He was the solution to our children’s problems.
I remember encouraging my girls to read, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, thinking how great it was that someone young was writing this—not thinking how destructive this could be for Joshua Harris. I have heard from other parents who had to ask forgiveness from their children for pushing the book on them without fully thinking it through.
Problem #2—Bad Mentor
Harris then became the mentee of C. J. Mahaney, leader of the Sovereign Grace network of churches. People of Destiny (their original name) started off as a cutting edge, prophetic and apostolic movement. In Bible school, I devoured their monthly magazine. Somewhere in the late 80s, though, they decided that they were theologically deficient.
It seemed like overnight they all embraced reformed theology and become Calvinists, that is, all except their co-founder, Larry Tomczak. He was put under discipline. This was a pattern. Whenever a leader disagreed, he was accused of pride and often put on some sort of discipline or probation, according to former leaders and pastors.
They also became huge advocates of homeschooling and courtship and elevated church leadership over the law. While there are many accusations of this, proof came in the trial of Mahaney’s intern youth leader and teacher at a Christian School, Nathaniel Morales, now serving a 40-year prison sentence. Mahaney has been accused of covering up Morales’ molesting of young boys. Mahaney’s brother-in-law, Grant Layman, also a former pastor at Covenant Life, confessed during Morales’ trial that he knew of the sexual abuse and did not report it to authorities. It is hard to believe that Layman did not share this with his senior pastor/brother in law, Mahaney.
The father of two of the boys “contacted the Covenant Life pastoral team again in 2007 when he learned that Morales was a pastor in Las Vegas, Nevada. The entire pastoral team talked about how to handle the situation with Morales. Layman was given the assignment to contact Morales. Layman talked to Morales by phone. During this conversation Morales admitted to the sexual abuse of boys but claimed he couldn’t remember the details. None of the pastors at Covenant Life Church reported this confession of sex abuse to the police. They knew Morales was a serial and predatory sex abuser.” (source)
One survivor says that when her daughter was molested by a teen in the church, she was discouraged form the going to authorities. “You shouldn’t bring a Christian to court,” she was told. While church leaders deny this, it is consistent with other accusations.
Another popular leader, still with Mahaney in ministry, was accused of not only seeking to keep the police in the dark regarding a teen pedophile, but then forced the three year old victim, to sit in a room with the perpetrator so he could confessed. She hid under a table, terrified. The leader, according to testimony, did not inform other parents of the crime and allowed the young pedophile to continue to be around children in church activities. Yes, they clearly knew better than the police!
Nearly all of their leaders began to mimic Mahaney’s intonations and cadence in preaching. One who didn’t was Tomczak, who finally left the group that had departed from its roots. They publicly slandered him and one leader even said in front of a crowd, “I’d rather be dead than do what Larry Tomczak is doing!” You can read his story here.
On the outside, they looked like the perfect movement. Their main church, Covenant Life, was in my city—five minutes from my home. I had many friends there. If any of their pastors ever came to our city-wide pastors’ meeting, it was as if they had graced us with their presence. But mostly, they didn’t have any fellowship outside of their own circles. We were quietly jealous of the perfect image they projected. One survivor writes:
In addition to presenting itself as practically perfect, with ideally humble pastors who have ideal marriages and ideal families, SGM also has in place many deep-seated beliefs, teachings, and systems that require total yieldedness from its members.
For those who might think I am being manipulated by bitter bloggers, I had a front row seat. Many of my neighbors were former and present members. Several have left in disgust. This description is consistent with what I witnessed.
They became hyper-controlling over their leaders. My best friend was one of their pastors. He was disciplined for “arrogance” and “pride”. This was the common accusation against anyone thought to be out of line. When he left the movement to lead a church in Georgia, he was told that any ministry he did would be illegitimate until they restored him. This became a common theme. Often, those who questioned or opposed leadership were disciplined. “You need to submit.” “Your problem is pride.”
And regarding people who brought complaints of sexual assault to leadership, severe manipulation took place…against the accuser. As one blogger described the SGM culture of dealing with this:
“We’re all sinners. Yes, he might have hurt you, but think of how you have sinned. You have no right to complain.” … “He said he was sorry. You need to meet with him face to face so he can apologize.” … “You must not gossip or slander him by telling anyone else about it. If you tarnish his reputation, he’ll never be able to get on with his life, keep a job, continue his ministry, and provide for his wife and children.” … “Counseling? Sure, come right into my office. Oh, you mean from professional counselors? Don’t bother. They’ll only give you ungodly psychobabble and lead you astray.” … “Call the police? No way! Are you crazy? We don’t need to bring another believer before the law. This is something the church should handle, not the worldly and godless secular government system. He just needs to see the light and repent. Jesus is enough.”
And, once they disciplined you, they were God’s only tool for restoration. That is a tell-tale sign of a cult or, at least, cultic tendencies. Today, my friend, who is supposedly “illegitimate” is a church planter and is thriving!
It all imploded in 2011 when a former leader released 600 pages of ministry e-mails and other documents. They became known as simply, “The Documents.” This led to Mahaney stepping down for a season. Ironically, after allegedly telling people for decades that sexual sin is no different than other sins—sin is sin—and a simple apology resolves any need to involve the police—Mahaney was quick to make it clear that his sin was just pride, and “not related to any immorality or financial impropriety.”
I am sure he thought it would all pass, but when three alleged victims of sexual assault came forth, it opened the floodgates.
I know it’s long, but there is a point
All that is to say this: Joshua Harris was C.J. Mahaney’s primary disciple! And eventually he became the senior pastor of their main church at 30! He was mentored into ministry in what many described at best, as a dysfunctional movement, and at worst, a highly manipulative network of leaders.
In the aftermath the allegations against Sovereign Grace, an overwhelmed Harris resigned as pastor to go to graduate school.
It is interesting, for all their emphasis on crucifying pride—Mahaney even writing a book entitled Humility—it was their insular model, keeping them from connecting with a broader array of churches and leaders that led to their lapses in judgment, according Harris.
In an interview, Harris said the isolation of Covenant Life, and of a small cluster of churches of which it was a part, may have fed leadership mistakes, including the decision of pastors — himself among them — to handle a child sexual abuse case internally instead of going to police.
It should be noted that Covenant Life Church left the Sovereign Grace network and is still functioning today under new leadership. Somehow, Mahaney is pastoring again in Kentucky and the Sovereign Grace movement is still alive, backing their founder. It is stunning to see yet another brother-in-law of Mahaney, Gary Ricucci (whom I have met on more than one occasion), also accused of covering up multiple sexual crimes, standing with him in their leadership team picture. Christianity Today has called for an independent investigation regarding the plethora of allegations of covering up sexual abuse. To date, Sovereign Grace Churches seems to have no interest in finding out the truth (or, they seem to have a lot of interest in covering it up).
C. J. is one of the most charismatic men I have ever encountered. He is funny, charming and you want him to like you. His Calvinist buddies wrote a open letter vouching for his character. However, after six years, finillary the most prominent of them, Al Mohler has finally realized his error in judgment and has asked for forgiveness.
You can imagine my shock when I discovered in writing this article, than one of Covenant Life’s most prominent members, and a acquaintance of mine from years ago, has been accused by his children of the most disgusting of sins. This was the family that everyone was told to emulate. He was a huge fan of Bill Gothard and a powerful part of the 80s and 90s homeschooling movement (again…not against homeschooling). According to the lawsuit, Mahaney’s brothers-in-law Layman and Ricucci were both told about the abuse in 1996. After meeting with the children to confirm the sexual assault, they then, instead of going to the police, told the father. Who then sent them, with Mahaney on a vacation. The abuse continued. It is unlikely that Joshua Harris did not know about this situation, as the family returned to the church when he was pastoring.
When Harris resigned, he had a healthy revelation that he had lived life backwards:
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” (Maybe you saw the movie starring Brad Pitt). It’s about a man who ages in reverse—he is born old and with each passing day becomes younger.
In reflecting on my own story, I can’t help but think that I have lived a sort of backwards life. Without meaning to, I have experienced life out of the normal order and sequence of events.
At the end of last year I turned 40 years old. Yet it is only now that I am going to school. I haven’t completed any post-graduate study. I don’t even have an undergraduate degree. In fact, I have never attended a formal school full-time in my life.
I started this blog saying I was not going to judge Joshua Harris. Unbiblical, hypocritical judgment has to do with looking down your nose at someone else. Yeshua equated it with having a log in your eye, while seeking to get the splinter out of someone else’s (Matt. 7:1-5). However, once you have removed the log, He then says we should point out the splinter. As a writer and speaker, I would be lying if I said that egotism is a long-defeated foe in my life. With a sense of my own weakness when it comes to narcissism, I submit the following.
When I was 25, I wanted to write a book about raising children. Really! I loved being a father so much, I thought that I was qualified. However, I quickly recognized the absurdity of a new father writing on fatherhood and shelved the idea until I was older. Now that I am older, I would not dare write such a book, unless I was focusing primarily on my failures.
Harris, encouraged by his famous parents, and even the likes of James Dobson, was publishing a magazine at 17 and his first book on dating and courtship at 21. The critical acclaim it received could only lead to an inflated ego. Then, more than 20 years later, Joshua does a documentary on the weaknesses in his book. (Since starting this article, I have watched most of the video). Most of the documentary is Harris talking, while the camera shows him in deep contemplation, dressed as a hipster.
Then, just this week, he announces on the platform of choice for the hippest of famous millennials (though I think he might be too old) Instagram, that he is leaving his wife. A few days later, also on Instagram, he tells the world, he is no longer a follower of the Jesus.
A narcissist loves the limelight. He needs to be in front of you. Some narcissists are sociopaths—they have no shame or conscience. Others simply taste fame and find it difficult to have meaning in life without out. That is Joshua Harris.
A narcissist is a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves. Often a narcissist can endure public humiliation as long as they are still in the public’s mind. Look at Anthony Weiner. After being thrown out of Congress for sending lewd pictures of himself to women on twitter, he runs for mayor of New York. He then allows someone to make a documentary about his campaign. The documentary would be for most people, humiliating. But the narcissist loves that people are talking about him. Then he goes to jail for child pornography, as he was sexting with a 15-year-old girl. He just got out and immediately addressed the media.
Harris could have separated from his wife and not posted it on Instagram. He could have left Christianity without telling the whole world. He could have renounced his former views on courtship in a blog, as opposed to a one-hour documentary, that reveals his deep humility. False humility was a hallmark of Sovereign Grace churches, and Harris had one of the best coaches in C.J. Mahaney.
The documentary is all about Josh “thinking”, “drinking coffee and contemplating”, “Josh the liberated hipster”… it is not a documentary about him. It is HIS documentary. While they presented it as the project of Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, it seems pretty clear that Joshua is guiding it.
Now, to be clear, I do know people who Harris served as pastor and say he was a kind, humble man. And I am sure he was. But I think you can be both kind and generous, and also have some deep issues from your childhood.
Final Point—Anyone can fall
My point is simple. It would be wrong to look at Joshua Harris and think, if he could fall, maybe I will. Truth be told, any of us could fall.
But Joshua Harris is not the man you may have thought he was. He himself admits that. He was thrust into ministry at 17 years old. He was traveling with his father giving lectures as a teen before he had any real-life experience. He was trained in a dysfunctional church network that has been accused of being a cult, protecting sexual predators and exercising a level of authority over people’s lives that is unbiblical. And honestly, knowing myself, I am not saying I would have ended up any different if I were in his situation. It is no wonder he has had a crisis of faith.
Was it ever even his faith? At some point, most believers who grow up in the faith have a moment like this. It is healthy. It is when they decide that they are no longer depending on their parents’ faith, but they have their own born again experience with Jesus. They look on the values that their parents have fed them and then have to decide: Do I embrace this or have I been fed a load of c**p. It seems clear, now, that Harris, at age 44, is starting to think for himself. It would have been better if this happened at 19, but who had time? He was writing books, publishing magazines, starting a band and on the lecture circuit.
At the end of Harris’s documentary (which I managed to finish as I was writing this) he says something haunting. It is haunting because he is telling us that he is flawed; that he was raised with wrong values and he joined into ministry with people who perpetuated those values. He says:
My thinking has changed since I wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I think that its premise is flawed. I don’t agree with a lot of my own book. But whether you agree with me today, or agree with what I wrote 20 years ago, I hope that you with think for yourself, and I hope that you will engage with people who have stories that are different than yours, people who disagree with you. I hope you’ll take the time to listen to them. Listening to people has changed me.
What he is saying here is I didn’t think for myself until now…I was never allowed to engage with people who didn’t agree with my very narrow worldview…and I never listened to people who were not of my clan, because I was proud and I looked down on them. I don’t think I am reading anything into his words that he isn’t screaming—confessing.
Joshua Harris needs our prayers, love and compassion. At 44, it seems he just wants to be a millennial. Sadly, his revelation of the dysfunctionality of his life and how he was raised has led him away from Jesus, not to Him. My guess is that it was hard for him to separate the real Jesus from the fundamentalist, legalistic version with whom he was raised.
May Joshua Harris find the real Jesus, and kiss the old, unbiblical one goodbye!