Joshua Harris first became a household name within the Evangelical community when he published his first book in 1997, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, at the tender age of twenty-three. The book instantly became a #1 bestseller, launching Harris into the stratosphere of success. Three years later he published another mega bestseller, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship. These two books started what became known as the purity movement within Evangelicalism, particularly among homeschoolers. Then, four short years later he became the lead pastor of his Maryland mega-church, Covenant Life Church, replacing the popular and charismatic C.J. Mahaney. By all accounts, Joshua Harris by the age of thirty had accomplished what most only dream about—two successful bestselling books, a successful and lucrative career, a beautiful young wife, speaking tours and speaking engagements. But how did all this happen?
If we rewind a bit, what we find is that his father was an “influential leader in the early homeschool movement”[i] who noticed his son’s gifts and talents. Thus, by age seventeen Harris was being “enthusiastically received” at his father’s conferences and soon after began conducting his own speaking engagements. With the encouragement of those nearest to him, he lunched a magazine geared toward homeschooled teenagers called A New Attitude. Finally, in 1997 he relocated to Gaithersburg, Maryland, and moved into the home of C.J. Mahaney who also took notice of young Harris’ talents, abilities, and charisma, and further groomed him for ministry.
Harris pastored Covenant Life Church for eleven years, 2004-2015, and all seemed to be going well. In 2011, he commented about is ministry saying, “I love the people of this church and hope to grow old preaching God's word here. I still feel like a rookie pastor as I learn every day about leading and faithful preaching. I can only do what I do because the incredible team of pastors who serve alongside me. Shannon and I have been blessed with three children—two girls, with a little boy in between. God has been kind, and continues to give us grace as we raise our young family.” But then suddenly in 2015, he resigned from the church, telling his congregation that he felt he had done things backwards and now wanted to pursue theological training, so he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia and began taking classes at Regent College.
On July 18, Harris dropped a bombshell when he announced on his Instagram page that he and his wife of twenty-one years were divorcing. But then an even larger bomb was dropped when he posted just a few days later that the “information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
So how did this happen? The glaring problem that went undetected throughout Harris’ life is that he was selected, groomed, and appointed because of his abilities. In this sense, the modern Evangelical Church has been more influenced by the culture than we realize. We are easily impressed with the new and shiny, the talented and charismatic, and pay less attention to character, spiritual development and maturity. I seem to recall the nation of Israel making a similar mistake that would haunt them for years to come. In first Samuel 8 we’re told that the nation of Israel complained against Samuel the prophet saying, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (v.5). Israel became jealous of the surrounding, more powerful nations, and believed they needed to have a king just like other nations. And in choosing this king we’re told that when they found Saul, he was a “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2). Not much has changed since then. Humans have always been easily impressed with the exterior, and less concerned about character. This problem has been magnified in the age of television and visual stimulation. A historian once said that if Abraham Lincoln were alive today and ran for president, he wouldn’t stand a chance. He was not very articulate, not charismatic, and not attractive at all. These attributes are what the world, and often the Church, place a premium on, but not so with God. “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
It is for this reason we are told in 1 Timothy 3 that when it comes to appointing leaders within the church (specifically pastors and elders), “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (v.6). In other words, he must not be young in his faith. The age of one’s faith has less to do with years spent as a believer, and more to do with the development of Christ-like character which has been tested and observed over time. Harris grew up a Christian home and professed to be a believer from a young age, but how tested could his faith have been by the time he was seventeen years old and conducing speaking engagements, having been homeschooled his entire life and having been sheltered within the walls of home and church? How tested could his faith have been by the time he published his first #1 bestselling book at the age of twenty-three? In fact, the overall language of the qualifications of an elder/pastor throughout 1 Timothy 3:1-7 screams physical and spiritual maturity, length of days, aged wisdom, and the ideas of moving slowly and examining him carefully. There we’re told that an elder/pastor “must be above reproach” (v.2)…and “well thought of by outsiders” (v.7). It’s hard to know if a man is above reproach and well thought of by outsiders, if he hasn’t lived outside his parents’ home and on his own for very long. He is also to be “the husband of one wife” (v.2), able to “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” (vv.4-5). While I don’t believe this text requires that elder/pastors be married, the implication is clear—watch how he manages his marriage and his children for a good long while before appointing him to the position of pastor/elder. Additionally, he is to be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (vv.2-3). All of these qualifications suggest time + observation = appointment. It’s for this reason Scripture later states that when it comes to appointing pastor/elders within the church, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22).
This warning to move slowly when appointing elder/pastors within the church all has to do with the nature of the responsibilities incumbent upon elder/pastors. To the Ephesian elders, the apostle Paul offers these instructions: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). Caring for the church of God is an enormous responsibility and can only be adequately carried out by those who have aged wisdom, and spiritual maturity, which has been observed by the church over an extended period of time.
The pressure that many churches experience in appointing leaders too quickly is two-fold. First, the desire to be successful and appoint a lead pastor who can draw in a crowd. Regarding this, we would do well to remember that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). Secondly, as the church grows there is often this pressure to appoint more elder/pastors to help carry the load. Here again we will do well to remember that we serve a God who used one man (Moses) to deliver an entire nation of people out of slavery in Egypt, who used one man (Samson) and the jawbone of an ass to slay 1,000 of Israel’s enemies, and who used one man (Jesus) to defeat the most powerful threat to humankind—death, sin, and Satan. The message of the entire Bible is clear--God doesn’t need our help. What he wants is for us to trust him, to lean on him, and to be faithful to his word. Thus, when it comes to appointing elder/pastors, as we used to say in the Army, churches need to move with all deliberate haste. Churches need not drag their feet unnecessarily, but they need to take as much time as necessary to thoroughly think, pray, observe, and vet those they place into leadership. Whether a church practices plural eldership or has a lead pastor with staff pastors, churches would do well to wait for the Lord to raise up their leadership, rather than choosing someone to groom for leadership.
Finally, there is the issue of accountability. Galatians 6:1 says, “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” We are to keep watch on ourselves as well as keeping watch on each other. In 1 Timothy 5:12 we read, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Although pastor/elders are not to be confronted for every perceived minor infraction, they are not above being held accountable. The point is that Harris’ slide toward “deconstruction” did not happen overnight. At some point during his nearly twenty years at Covenant Life Church, there either had to be signs of slippage that those closest to him ignored or there was no one close to him who could keep him accountable. No one noticed because no one knew him—at least no one really knew him. For a healthy church to exist, it is imperative that mutual, open, and honest, accountability exist in three directions. Pastor/elders holding the congregation accountable. Congregations holding their pastor/elders accountable. And Pastor/elders holding each other accountable. The church is a body, but a body only functions well when each member of the body is caring for each other.
[i] NewReleaseToday.com. “Joshua Harris Author Profile.” Posted: May 26, 2011. Accessed: August 14, 2019. < https://www.newreleasetoday.com/authordetail.php?aut_id=31>