Yet another evangelical personality has announced that not only are he and his wife separating—this after he wrote a widely-read book on dating and courtship—but he has grave doubts about the truth of Christianity and he is intent on starting a podcast to share those doubts with the world. He announced the news of his separation on Instagram, which is something one might expect a movie star to do, and then asked for privacy. Days later, an interview appeared—so much for privacy—in the theologically and socially progressive (liberal) magazine, Sojourners, in which he lamented his “fundamentalist” past and expressed doubts not only about the historic Christian sexual ethic but also about the truth of Christianity itself.
The Business Model
Harris rose to prominence within the Sovereign Grace Ministries orbit, under the umbrella of C. J. Mahaney, another prominent “New Calvinist” and former president of Sovereign Grace Ministries. Mahaney left his congregation in Maryland after a controversy over the way he handled a child-sexual abuse scandal. Harris is perhaps most famous for his 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Good Bye. Harris succeeded Mahaney as pastor of the flagship congregation of the SGM movement until he resigned to move to Vancouver, BC to attend seminary at Regent College. When he became pastor of the Maryland megachurch and when he published his widely-read and influential book on dating and courtship, he had no formal theological education. Since attending Regent he has left ministry and opened a communications consulting business.
This story is symbolic of the way entrepreneurial North American evangelicals often operate. Mahaney saw a talented young man, he plucked him from obscurity, and groomed him to become his successor. This is not how a real church operates but it is the way American evangelicals often operate. Christian, you need to learn that there is a difference. In a rightly ordered church, a real church, a historic church with a church order, with genuine accountability, with historic roots in the Reformed, medieval, and Patristic church, with a public confession to which ministers and members alike are accountable, things are done differently.
The Churchly Model
First of all, when an experienced minister finds a young man who might make a good pastor some day, he does not thrust him into ministry. He might test the young man’s gifts a bit and mentor him for a while but before the young man enters ministry there are some things he must do. One of those is that he must get an education before beginning ministry, before preaching, and before writing books. It is more than helpful to know a little bit about what one is saying before one says it in public and especially before one says it with the authority of “thus saith the Lord.”
Second, in a rightly ordered church, a ministerial candidate must present himself to the churches for examination and testing. In Reformed churches, a candidate comes before a regional gathering of churches (we use the Latin term Classis, a fleet of ships to describe that gathering. Presbyterians speak of a Presbytery, a gathering of elders). There, before the gathered ministers and elders, the candidate is questioned. He preaches a sermon, and is evaluated by the Classis. Before all that, however, during seminary, while he was supposed to be reading Greek and Hebrew and writing term papers, he has been mentored by seminary professors and pastors. He has served a poorly-paid, sometimes difficult internship, where he gained some hands-on experience before entering into pastoral ministry full-time. Candidates frequently also serve an internship after seminary too to gain even more experience.
In a rightly ordered church, his senior pastor and he himself would be accountable to other churches for their doctrine and life. In the case of the sex-abuse scandal an ordered church would investigate thoroughly and if crimes are suspected the investigators would notify the police immediately so that they could begin a criminal investigation. According to Al Mohler, this is not what happened in Maryland.
American evangelical church life is ad hoc, which is a fancy Latin way of saying that they make it up as they go along. They do whatever seems expedient and practical. American evangelical Christianity is less governed by the Scriptures as understood by the historic Christian church and more governed by secular models of “success.”
In a properly ordered church a minister who comes to doubt the faith and his faith would do as Harris has done, leave the ministry and seek secular employment but he would do one more thing: be quiet. Harris no longer has a brief from the church to speak to others about the faith. He certainly has no authority from the Scriptures to drag Christ’s lambs that he once shepherded with him into his doubts and uncertainties via a podcast.
All of this mess, Harris’ theological and personal wanderings, the controversy surrounding the child sex abuse scandal would all have been handled quite differently in an ordered church. This difference illustrates one of the several differences between what the Belgic Confession art. 29 calls “sects” and what we confess to be the marks of “the true church.” For some today, the very notion that a church should confess that there is “the true church” is quite shocking. It seems positively arrogant. “Who are you to say that there is such a thing and that you know how to identify it?” We say so on the basis of the sufficiently clear Word of God. We say a lot of other things that modern evangelicals find troubling but we keep saying them anyway because they are true and good for us all to hear. Jesus is the only Savior (John 14:6). He established his church (Matt 16:18). He commissioned his church to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments (Matt 28:18-20) and to administer spiritual discipline (Matt 18:15-20). The indicators (“marks”) of the true church are simple: does the congregation preach the gospel purely? Does the congregation administer Baptism and the Lord’s Supper purely? Does the congregation use church discipline to correct sheep who are straying? This is a short list but it is a list that is largely unknown to North American evangelicals.
Kiss New Calvinism Good Bye
The first question most evangelicals ask about church is whether it has a youth group or a singles ministry? The second question is how fast is the church growing, is it popular? Does it have the right kind of (contemporary) worship? Neither the New Testament nor the historic Christian church knows anything of the Modern evangelical marks. Jesus said, “feed my lambs” (Jon 21:15) not “be popular.”
The Joshua Harris episode is a wake-up call to Evangelicals. It comes after the scandalous behavior of fellow “New Calvinist” James MacDonald and before him Mark Driscoll and somewhere in there Tullian Tchividjian. Entrepreneurism is a great virtue in business but the church is no business. It is an authorized embassy for King Jesus. We serve him, at his pleasure, with his message, according to his Word. Twenty-two years ago Josh Harris urged us to kiss dating good bye. Now we see that the time has come to kiss the so-called “New Calvinism” good bye in favor of the old Calvinism of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.
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