Big news from the world of Evangelicalism. Last week, the megachurch pastor Josh Harris announced both that he and his wife of 21 years are divorcing, and that he is no longer a Christian. From his Instagram post making public his apostasy:
I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness, 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. But I specifically want to add to this list now: to the LGBTQ+ community, I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me.
Earlier this year, Harris gave an interview to Sandi Villareal at Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, in which he talked about sexuality. Some interesting stuff there. Excerpts:
Villarreal: You say in the documentary 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: 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 of 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.
I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think I’ve just been so indoctrinated in a certain way of interpreting scripture and viewing sexuality that it’s just hard for me to see the scriptures and its kind of overall, you know, commands and principles and so on and see how that can be consistent.
I think that I probably need to engage with some of those people — like I have people send me their e-books showing why premarital sex is fine, and I just don’t have the energy right now. Like, I do not want to read your book. I do not want to. I do not want to engage in a massive, you know, theological expedition to think about all these things. So it just sounds really exhausting to me, honestly.
But I think what you saw in that moment in the film is it is a real struggle for me. I’m really struggling with — I think that rethinking some of these things and having had my faith look so specific for so long that now as I’m questioning those specifics, it feels like I’m questioning my entire faith.
Villarreal: Depending on what your theology is even within the Christian spectrum, there’s been a different interpretation of what those instructions are.
Harris: 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.
What’s really interesting about that interview is that it’s about the inability to reconcile the historic, Biblical Christian faith with the Sexual Revolution. I haven’t read Harris’s 1997 book, but it’s not hard for me to imagine that I, as an Orthodox Christian, would disagree with what I take to be its stern legalism. I say that as someone who affirms the traditional Christian teaching that sex is only morally good when it occurs between a man and a woman married to each other. Years ago, as a Catholic, I was complaining in conversation with a former Protestant I know that the Catholic Church lacks the courage of its stated convictions, and rarely if ever teaches about sex and sexuality. My (married) interlocutor said that in the fundamentalist church where she grew up, they taught teenagers strongly about sex … but the only message was, “Don’t you DARE do it till your wedding night!” The woman told me that she was grateful for at least that, but that it took her years to get over the effect of the shrill, simplistic legalism.
Rigid purity culture is not the answer. But neither are progressive pop pastors making sex idols out of purity rings. 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.
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 rationalizations won’t stick. There’s just too much in Scripture and Tradition to counter it.
Obedience in sexual matters is not the whole of Christianity, but it can’t be severed from it. You can’t serve two masters. Sexual liberation is the prosperity gospel of progressive Christianity. Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler of the Gospel to sell everything he had and come follow him. The Rich Young Ruler went away sad, because his heart was in his wealth. It goes that way with sexual freedom too.