By Larry Robertson
Pastor, Hilldale Baptist Church, Clarksville
So, in the last few days famed author and pastor Joshua Harris renounced his Christian faith. Not long before that, he announced that he and his wife were getting a divorce. Before that, he abandoned the message of his 1997 best-seller, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (it sold more than a million copies, by the way, and shaped the concept of “purity” for millions of Millennial Christians).
While I never bought into Harris’s ideas about dating and courtship, I was never on a crusade against him or his message either. Such matters are, I believe, best left to one’s own convictions and graciously respected in others, but I am grieved by his apostasy.
A 21-year-old guy decides dating is bad and courtship is good, and he writes a book to convince the masses that he’s right. He followed up that book with Boy Meets Girl to describe his courtship with the woman he eventually married. Harris even became a pastor. So, how does all that unravel? While I have no insider information on the situation, may I postulate a theory?
Legalism. And, I say that as a “recovering legalist” myself.
Legalism can be defined as trying to achieve salvation through one’s own efforts. Many legalists reject the label, however, because they profess to trust in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone, but if our Christianity is expressed by rules more than relationship, we’re legalists.
Harris began to see the effects of his own legalism when reproduced in others as his popularity grew; he even tried to address it.
In an article that he wrote in 2009 entitled, What I’ve Learned Since I Kissed Dating Goodbye, he warned against the legalistic application of his book’s message. He would, however, come to reject his own book’s message altogether.
Legalism is not just a stricter form of our faith; it’s toxic. It majors on the minors and minors on the majors, and, in the process, legalism misses out on the heart of what it really means to be Christian.
When Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), He was talking to people who had been living under the unbearable weight of religious legalism. In the next verse, He spoke of “rest for your souls.”
Honestly, there’s nothing quite as exhausting to the soul in the long haul as legalism. Eventually, we run out of gas because we’re doing “faith” in our own power, and in the end, we just long for what Jesus described as “rest for your souls.” But that rest is only found in Him.
I confess that there’s much about church — the institution — that frustrates my faith. But as imperfect as she is, the church is still the body of Christ, and I want to be a part of it. I need to be a part of it. But Jesus intended our journey, despite pitfalls and pain, to be marked by His profound presence, and that’s not where legalism leads.
Who knows? Legalism might just lead to apostasy. In fact, sometimes it does. B&R