Joshua Harris’s Fall and Christian Higher Education

I kissed dating goodbyeIf you, like me, were a kid who was a teenager in church in the 90s, then you know the name Joshua Harris. He wrote THE book on dating, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I confess that I’ve never read the book, but then again, I didn’t need to. We all knew what was in it. Dating was bad. Courtship was good. Romance was dead. Christians should retrieve romance and courtship in their relationships, and all this should be done with a commitment to purity. At the time, it all made perfect sense. In many ways, it still does.

However, there were unforeseen problems. When Harris wrote the book he was only 21 years old—hardly experienced enough to opine about all dating and all relationships. The book also contributed to a broader movement that is sometimes called “purity culture”—a movement which prioritizes sexual purity in the ethics of the young, with the unfortunate effect of both minimizing other aspects of formation (character, charity, mercy, peacemaking, etc.), while idolizing sex and marriage. In some people, it appears—and especially in certain young women of the time—sexual purity came to be seen as a bargaining chip for a good marriage. Save sex for marriage, the logic goes, and God will bless you with both a great marriage AND great sex. Christian teaching undoubtedly holds that sexual purity matters, but to turn it into a kind of bargaining chip for God’s work in your future relationships is to try to leverage God. In this respect, it’s a kind of prosperity gospel: if I do this action in faith, God will bless me.

Like I said, I knew the basics of Harris’s thinking without having read the book, and if the prosperity exchange of purity for future pleasure was taught, I didn’t hear it.

The book, like the 90s, faded into memory, until once again Joshua Harris’s name came across my newsfeed. This time it was 2015, and Harris had announced he was leaving his church to get some formal theological education—something he’d never had, despite serving as a pastor for more than a decade. The reason it was of interest to me was because he would be attending Regent College, the seminary I had attended. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was a great thing. I’m always happy when Pastors get educated.


In the intervening years, Harris’s name popped up again—this time as he began to distance himself from the claims of his famous book. He helped to produce a documentary, called “I survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and eventually formally recanted the teaching of the book and asked the publisher to stop selling it. I read through the information at the time, and felt then that these seemed very much like the moves of someone coming into maturity. Harris was growing up, theologically speaking, and we should all rejoice about this.

I survived I kissed dating goodbyeThese changes weren’t without concern, however. A growing reaction against what had been “purity culture” was growing in the church. Women (it seems to me especially) from the 90s who had grown up on Harris’s logic were frustrated with how it had idolized sex and marriage, and how the realities of those institutions didn’t match up. Perhaps no greater image of the rejection of purity culture can be found that that of Nadia Bolz-Weber, gathering purity rings from her female members and (without any apparent awareness of Aaronic irony) causing them to be melted into he shape of a giant vulva. Those who had sacrificed themselves to purity would redeem the image of the vagina.

Harris emerged again last week, of course, with two subsequent bombshell announcements. The first (through Instagram) that he and his wife would be separating (apparently amicably? a kind of Gwyneth Paltrowian ‘conscious uncoupling’?), the second (also through Instagram) that he had left the Christian faith. Harris’s journey of ‘deconstruction’ (his own word) appears complete.


This was the (cheerful?) picture posted along with the instagram announcement of their divorce.

The news was met with grief (from Christians) as well as joy (from atheists and other former Christians). Naturally, the circumstances invite speculation, as well as unfortunate puns. What happened to Harris? Why did he kiss Christianity (and his wife) goodbye? I don’t intend to answer either of those questions, especially since the answers lie in Harris’s heart, to be discerned between him and God alone. But there are two things I want to point out as frames for thinking about his trajectory—both publicly known. The first is the nature of the church he came from, the second is the nature of Christian Higher Education.

First, Harris’s church home. Harris had been trained, and nurtured, under the direct tutelage of C.J. Mahaney, once powerful and respected megachurch pastor. Harris was, to my understanding, Mahaney’s chosen successor. Over the past several years, Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries has come under serious fire. There was a series of accusations from former members and leadership about Mahaney’s abuse of power and controlling nature, then a series of members (11, I believe) who accused the church of covering up child sexual abuse. The church has denied these allegations, but the fallout has still been immense—Sovereign Grace has lost a number of its member churches, a number of its members, and Mahaney has lost much of his influence (Al Mohler publicly severed ties with him). It was about this time that Harris left his ministry church to pursue education, declaring in a sermon that now he sees there were “flaws in the system.”


C.J. Mahaney

(As a fascinating, if tragic aside, when Rachael Denhollander, the Olympic gymnast, began to speak up about the abuse she had experienced, her church wanted her silenced, and she and her husband were eventually asked to leave their fellowship. That church was one of the churches which worked to restore Mahaney to leadership.)

It seems to me that the Sovereign Grace story is a key component to the trajectory of Harris’s faith journey. He was raised (homeschooled as well) in a very conservative, apparently controlling environment. Tutored under a controlling, apparently power-hungry leader. Educated on the job in a self-protecting institution which hurt its members. Neither Mahaney nor Harris were seminary educated, and it appears (from Harris’s own account) that Christian Higher Education was something actively dismissed by them.

The point is this: we might look at Harris’s story and conclude that he’s left our Christianity, but it seems far more likely to me that he’s left Mahaney’s Christianity. He’s left a Christianity of control, of fear, of rules, of power, of hurt, and of a lack of grace. If this is accurate, then Harris’s honesty (about his faith) is something that should genuinely be applauded. In his public statements he displays a remarkable self-awareness and honesty. Of course, that honesty is marred by two things—one of them being his divorce, which is fundamentally dishonest, the other being the snazzy marketing means of the announcements. Instagram is a weird place to cheerfully declare the destruction of all you publicly held important.

Covenant Life Church_Harris

Harris was pastor at CLC, a Sovereign Grace Ministries Church.

This leaves us with the question of Christian Higher Education. Mahaney and Harris are not alone in their belief that seminary—and with it education—is dangerous to faith. In this, they tap into a longstanding trend in American thinking: that intelligence is dangerous. John Erskine, famous American educator, wrote the following over 100 years ago:

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.

A certain kind of Christian piety continues to hold today that an increase in intelligence is cause for suspicion, that blind obedience is to be preferred to carefully thought-out action. To those pious reasoners, Harris’s loss of faith is easily accounted for: he went to school. If he hadn’t gotten that seminary education, he would have stayed in the faith.

pew+research+center+logoCuriously parallel to this is recent data from the Pew Research Center. In one study last year, they showed that there had been a significant uptick in those who identify themselves as religious “nones”—that is, people who claim no religion at all. “Nones,” Pew astonishingly found, account for as many Americans as Evangelicals. In a more recent study, from just a few weeks ago, Pew showed that Jews, Atheists, and Agnostics outperformed all Christians on tests of basic religious knowledge. One way to tell the story is to claim that education is linked to lack of, or loss of, faith.

While some read these data with alarm, I find it encouraging and challenging news. First, it is encouraging that if more people identify as religious ‘nones,’ then we are equipped with a better understanding of the evangelistic task. If these are the same people who previously identified as “Christian,” but now identify as not, then there is an increase in honesty of reporting. Too long has a kind of cultural Christianity swayed American self-perception. Honest answers frame an honest mission. Second, the gap between education and faith presents itself as a challenge. It appears that Christian education is sorely lacking in American faith. It suggests that, in the command to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we’ve opted instead for the wisdom of doves (and therefore the harm of serpents!).


But with education does come danger. And here we might return to Harris. I remember my own time at Regent, and the laments of my peers about the nature of their own deconstructions—learning that the Church was bigger than expected, learning that the text must be carefully interpreted, learning that the history of the church was more fraught than anticipated (and, in some cases, that it began before 1906). Through it all, the faculty wouldn’t tell you what to believe—that wasn’t the methodology—but would present, and leave the work in your hands. For many students, this new knowledge, combined with the freedom to think for yourself, was simply too much. In this respect, I don’t think the problem was completely Regent’s—I think the problem is the educational state of American Christianity. (And, for what it’s worth, I think Regent could have done a better job of shepherding people through this process.) Once again, I don’t think it’s right to speculate on the shifts in Harris’s heart, but it would not surprise me if he discovered, while educating himself about the Christian faith, that the faith he’d publicly believed in wasn’t quite the Christianity he was learning about. And if that’s the case—in fact, either way—it presents us with a mandate to pray.

Christian Education and the Bounded Set

Wheaton MottoI have been privileged to earn degrees from two institutions of Christian higher education. From Wheaton College in Illinois I have a degree in Ancient Languages, and I have a Master’s of Divinity from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Both are institutions committed to a form of liberal arts education. In other words, neither place is a doctrinal or denominational school; instead, both schools are committed to education from a Christian perspective. It is not so much a “Christian” education as it is an education provided by Christians and from a Christian worldview.

Both schools were (and are) places of conviction and faith, and I have positive memories of my experiences. However, my encounters with fellow former students often leave me mystified. In the teeth of the clearly expressed Christian convictions of professors, administration, and the institution, other graduates emerge with barely Christian beliefs. Some employ the tools for clear thinking in which they have been trained in order to think quite poorly. In turn, I am shocked at the number of vocal alumni who hold positions directly opposed to traditional Christian faith, and am further grieved by those alumni who have walked away from their faith entirely. But what might be most startling of all is when these alumni have the temerity to be shocked when the institution itself does not agree with them, apparently projecting back on the institution their own poor thinking. It is as if they didn’t really know what kind of institution they were attending in the first place.

Larycia Hawkins

Whatever the issues with Dr. Hawkins, the responses from Alumni were in many ways far more shocking.

This process was exhibited most vividly in the past months at Wheaton, where the drama surrounding Larycia Hawkins provided abundant opportunity for alumni to voice their opinions of the college. The idea that Wheaton, an historically orthodox Christian college, would discipline a professor who claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God—which as a statement is logically, factually, and historically untenable—was met with rank, ugly, and outright hateful displeasure. Alumnus disavowed the school, condemned the college’s commitment to narrow interpretations of Christianity, accused the administration of fundamentalism, readily labeled the situation as racist and oppressive, suggested that college trustees were simply protecting their financial interests, and any number of other unpleasant volleys as well. And while the recent situation with Dr. Hawkins clearly lays out this difficult situation, it is by no means the only exhibit of this dissonance between alumni and the commitments of these colleges. Many alumni actively wish to reshape these schools into an evangelicalism which reflects their own questionable convictions.

What is it that contributes to creating a situation like this? How is it possible for colleges with such expressly Christian commitments produce alumni with such flimsy Christian convictions? The answer, curiously enough, is perhaps found embedded in the goal of Christian higher education, and further in the unique restrictions which make attainment of that goal possible.

Idea of a Christian College

Terrible cover. Interesting book.

To begin, the goal of Christian higher education is the formation of a Christian mind. A Christian mind is not necessarily a mind filled with doctrine, and the purpose of a curriculum in such an institution is not to complete a kind of doctrinal download. Educated Christians are not people who think “Christian” thoughts, but people who have the capacity to think any thoughts, in any situation, and to bring the Christian perspective to bear on that position and evaluate it accordingly. Ultimately—and I draw here from Arthur Holmes’s thoughts in “The Idea of a Christian College”—the goal of a Christian College is to cultivate students who are hungry for the truth, know and understand that the ultimate truth of all things is found in God, and furthermore can recognize the truth when they encounter it in any subject.

But to make this kind of training possible requires some unique constraints. First, and of extreme importance, the faculty must confess a common orthodoxy. Second, and equally important, the students must have permission to explore any question at all. Together, these two create the necessary conditions for achieving the goal of forming a Christian mind. But they also create the conditions for the troubles outlined above.

The faculty in this scenario provide the bounded set for student exploration. Their confessed convictions become the walls against which aspiring students will cut the teeth of their thinking. This reality can be viewed from several different angles. In the first place, there is the old preacher’s phrase that “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pews.” If the preacher is slightly unclear about something, you can guarantee that the congregation is lost in the fog. Clarity of conviction about the essentials of the Christian faith is an essential for faculty because their clarity must provide the beacons through which students can navigate in their own educational fog. In this, the faculty represent lighthouses—lighthouses that illuminate, yes, but also immovably mark dangers. To extinguish or to relocate a lighthouse is not a mark of intellectual honesty, but rather of imminent criminality. If the faculty can adjust Christian orthodoxy, they will likely shipwreck the faith of the students.


Another angle to consider this limitation is from the perspective of the student, whose free questioning must nevertheless be limited by the firm reality of Christian belief. Without those boundaries, student freedom is actually limited. This was illustrated in a number of psychological studies which set up two scenarios. In the first, children were given a task (for example, to find carrots) in a bounded environment. In the second, children were given the same task in an unbounded environment. The children with boundaries outperformed those without boundaries, and the implicit lesson is this: where there are boundaries for study, students are given permission to press against the reaches of those boundaries. Where there are no boundaries, the student flounders.

That these two conditions serve the goal of Christian education should be now be clear. The Christian mind is a mind formed within a kind of bounded set. We are sent out to explore the reaches of the world, yet while holding to our core convictions and measuring our data against those immovable anchor points of the faith. We are even granted permission to re-explore those anchor points, to query and examine them, precisely because we are convinced that their truth will hold. We are unafraid of questions because we believe the truth of our central witness. This process in turn reflects back onto the nature of faith itself. Each individual is free to accept or reject the Christian witness—we force no one into belief, preserving the central freedom that God has gifted each person in His image. Even the action of evangelism, then, is illuminated by this bounded set—I bring my firm and confessed convictions to any person, equipped to walk alongside them through any question that person might have, unafraid of the queries to my faith. Conviction held in the context of questions is precisely the attitude of the mature Christian mind, the formative goal of Christian higher education.

But if the faculty are bound in belief to a set of convictions, what does this mean for academic freedom? Arthur Holmes once again offers some illumination when he states that “Academic freedom is valuable only when there is a prior commitment to the truth.” In other words, we are free to the degree that our freedom is being utilized to explore, examine, and plumb the depths of the truth. He continues, suggesting that “Academic freedom may be defined, then, as freedom to explore the truth in a responsible fashion, to think, even to make mistakes and correct them” (The Idea of a Christian College, 69). Freedom, thus, cannot be separated from responsibility—responsibility to the pursuit of the Truth, to Christian conviction, to constituency, to the institution that provides the opportunity for these explorations, and also to the parents who have entrusted their children to you for instruction.Responsibility via Wikihow

But these commitments also produce two dangers that I will mention here. The first is that the college administration must enforce its doctrinal convictions without falling into dogmatic traps, that is to say, it must uphold both conditions above. In the complex world of intellectual exploration, and in the reverent world of our ideas of God, there are no truths that cannot be explored with more complexity, depth, and understanding. An administration must allow for this reverent study without stifling exploration. However, it must also be on guard, and here a confessional commitment ought to provide a bulwark against the allure of novelty, the popularity of conflict, and the “publish or perish” attitude that can drive a well-meaning academic into intellectual ignominy.

But the other danger is that the same freedom that makes intellectual inquiry valuable and profitable grants permission for graduates to think what they will. An education which provides the student not with thoughts, but with the opportunity to learn to think, also provides the opportunity for the student to misapply that thinking. Both are expressions of freedom—to think well expresses freedom in one way, to think poorly expresses it equally in another. And this, at last, brings me back to the beginning, where I lamented the attitudes of many of my fellow alumni. They return in their memories to these institutions and map back onto the school their own preferences, projecting their own heterodoxy onto the institution. But what they have neglected in this is the realization that their very ability to critique the college is predicated on the college’s provision of freedom to inquire within boundaries. To take one lesson—the freedom to ask questions—and apply it as a weapon against the other—the need for boundaries—is foundationally self-defeating. If they had their way they would not reform the college, but destroy it completely. God forbid that should happen.