The internet has been abuzz with Joshua Harris’ announcement that he and his wife are separating AND that he is no longer a Christian. In case you missed the whole I kissed Dating Goodbye craze in the late 1990’s, let me summarize: Joshua Harris was a prominent voice in purity culture (which Amy has been blogging about here and here.) In his early 20’s, he wrote a book advocating for “courtship” instead of “dating.” This change in perspective would supposedly allow young men and women to avoid emotional ties that would hinder their future marital happiness. There’s too much to go into here. In short, what started as one young man’s dating advice got turned into the 67th book of the Bible for many youth groups.
People are desperate for answers. In the wake of Harris’ announcement, many are pointing to other prominent Christian figures who have gone through a similar public “breakup with Jesus”—Derek Webb being one of them. In an article titled “Derek Webb: A Reformed Atheist” author, Steve Fraley, analyzes Webb’s demise from reformed Christian to atheist, postulating whether or not the reformed theology was to blame.1Reformed theology teaches that salvation is solely on the basis of whom God chooses. Upon Webb’s deconversion, many stepped forward to declare that this theology had also been their kryptonite. In essence, doubt and unbelief were proof that “God had not chosen them.” And according to staunch reformed theology, you cannot change the will of God. Better to just accept your fate.2(Some would of course claim that this is a perversion of true reformed theology, but I do not have time to open up that can of worms here.
Suffice it to say, the bride of Christ is starting to look a whole lot like the bride of Hosea right now.
I have started noticing a trend In many of the deconversion stories I have read. What seems to precede the “falling away” for several of these men and women is idolatry of some sort—placing an unhealthy emphasis on something other than the Gospel. Many of these things are not—in and of themselves—bad. When placed in competition with Christ, there’s only so long that the soul can pretend to serve two masters. Eventually, there is a schism and often, it is orthodox Christianity that is left behind. Here’s a few of the trends I have noticed.
1) A particular theology…more than the whole of ScriptureWe can turn anything into an idol, even theology. Click To Tweet
What does this look like: Now I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on reformed theology. There is a very Scriptural case to be made for it. I have, however, noticed a really unhealthy emphasis on it by some of its adherents. Just search the word “reformed” in the groups’ section on facebook and you’ll get an idea of how committed people are to this theology. I mean really? Does someone really need a “Reformed and into Home Décor and Homemaking” group? You can’t help your Arminian friends also decorate their houses? [Update: the founder of this group has personally contacted me to clarify that her group welcomes all Christian men and women who are interested in home decorating. I apologize for the confusion this has caused.]
Having correct theology is important. That’s one way we worship Christ with our minds. However, when we take any theology and elevate it above the Gospel, it turns rotten. It doesn’t even matter the theology—orthodox or unorthodox.3We see this in the “health and wealth gospel” (aka prosperity gospel) where God’s earthly favor is the main “proof” of an individual’s amount of faith. It happens with spiritual gifts as well. I’ve seen at least one church elevate “speaking in tongues” to this pedestal. They literally had a huge bulletin board with pictures of members and the dates that the member first started speaking in tongues. Not their date of baptism or private repentance and salvation. Speaking in tongues. We can turn anything into an idol. When it becomes an idol, it becomes a competitor for Christ in our hearts and we’ll eventually have to pick one.
How to tell if you are doing this: Do you tend to get more excited and feel closer to a person if they identify themselves with a particular theology than you do if they identify themselves as a Christian? Do you tend to have a lot of debates about one particular theology? Have you ever been tempted to view those who disagree with your theology as not “really saved,” or at least not as “mature” in their Christian faith?
2) A particular pastor… more than the bride of ChristBe careful when you turn a good teacher into a celebrity. Click To Tweet
What does this look like: My husband John just released an article which discusses the 12 signs of a personality cult. I suggest you take a look at it. Certain churches are known more by their pastor’s name than by their church’s name. While this is not always avoidable, it should be noted. If a church’s entire culture is based on one key individual, then what happens when that individual falls from grace, or lands him or herself in some sort of sin or scandal?
I watched this happen to my childhood church.4Our pastor started out telling the congregation several times a year that he wanted to run the church in such a way that if he ever had a great falling, that nobody in the congregation’s faith would be rocked because he had sufficiently pointed us to Christ. Ironically, 15 years later, this is exactly what happened. And while I don’t know if many people lost their faith, the church was never the same. And pastor’s decline was preceded by several of the points John makes in his article. Our church was not a megachurch, so our fallout was much smaller. The same cannot be said for churches like Mars Hill (ala Mark Driscoll) and Sovereign Grace Ministries (ala CJ Mahaney). With the #metoo movement working its way through our American pews, we are seeing celebrity pastors crumble at an unprecedented rate. I have no doubt that the people who studied under Joshua Harris are having their own crises of faith right now.
Unfortunately, we can’t prevent other people from making idols, so nobody can idol-proof their ministry. We can idol-proof our hearts though. Bottom line—your loyalty to a spiritual figure should never compete with your loyalty to Christ. Ask yourself—if the person I admire the most were to announce that they were walking away from the faith, how badly would it affect my faith? Our faith is to be based on Christ—His life, death, and resurrection. That is why I love apologetics. No matter how many celebrity teachers suddenly decide to fall away, I can’t unknow what I know. (see my testimony in chapter 1 of the Mama Bear Apologetics book.)
How to tell if you are doing this: If you don’t personally know the leader and your main exposure to him or her is from a pulpit, ask yourself these questions: If and when you hear an accusation against a leader, is your first instinct to defend them or to seek more information to evaluate? Do you worry more about a ministry’s reputation than you do about truth (even ugly truth) being revealed? Do you seek out information that might change your mind, or do you only look at things that confirm what you already believe about a person? Has the downfall of a Christian leader significantly impacted your faith?
3) Our own identity… more than our identity in ChristEven our own identities can become an idol. Click To Tweet
What does this look like: Unless we are defining ourselves as children of the living God, we are basing our identities on shifting sand. Every part of what I see as my “identity” is open for reinterpretation in our postmodern world. The going narrative is that however I am, I was born that way, and God doesn’t make mistakes. While this statement is technically true, it doesn’t take our sin nature into account.
We get wrapped up in how we think we were made—introvert or extrovert, thinker or feeler, banker, scientist, athlete, artist, writer, gay, or straight. Christ said that anyone who wishes to follow Him must “deny themselves and take up their cross.” (Matthew 10:38) There is no part of our identity that is immune to this call. My profession, my personality, my interests, habits, and yes, even my sexuality will all have aspects that I need to deny and submit to Christ—even when it’s hard, and even when it feels unnatural. Introverts are called to fellowship. Extroverts were modeled (by Jesus) to have solitary time with God the Father. Feelers are called to love God with their minds. Thinkers are called to love God with their hearts. Those outside of Biblical marriage5Biblical marriage is defined between one man and one woman for life, with exceptions in the case of unfaithfulness. Matthew 19:3-9 are to honor God in their singleness. Those inside of Biblical marriage are to honor God in their marriage. Christ accepts all of us exactly as we are, but following Him means becoming more like Him. The moment that we over-commit ourselves to an aspect of our “identity” is the moment that we stop denying ourselves to follow Christ. Instead, we start demanding that He make the journey of carrying our crosses more comfortable. That is, unfortunately, a promise He never made.
How to tell if you are doing this: Do you have a modifier before the word “Christian” to define yourself? Do you find yourself making excuses to not change aspects about yourself because you feel like it’s “just the way you are” or “how God made you?” Do you think there are certain aspects of your identity that are unfallen and to be accepted “as is?” Do you conclude that if someone doesn’t accept all the parts of you, then they hate you?
4) An emotional experience… more than the everyday faith journeyFaith grows stronger through suffering than it does through comfort. Click To Tweet
What does this look like: In the Mama Bear Apologetics book, I mention that people can sometimes mistake experiences with Jesus for Jesus Himself. There is good to be had in mountaintop experiences at summer camp and intimate times of rapturous worship at a conference. However, our addiction to these experiences can sometimes eclipse the everyday relationship that we are called to have with Jesus.
I compare it to those dating reality TV shows where the couple shares a kiss after hang gliding over the Grand Canyon. It’s really easy to fall in love over candlelit dinners on your own private island, but the love that is formed there is not necessarily the same love that cleans the toilet multiple times a day while your spouse has the stomach flu. It’s not the love the does the dishes or forfeits the last piece of coveted cheesecake. These are the more mundane everyday acts of love, but they are closer to reality than a zip line date over a waterfall.
Similarly, our relationship with Jesus does not always consist of going from one emotional high to another. It is a faith journey, winding through peaks and valleys. This may not sound nearly as sexy, but it’s real and much more stable than anything we can conjure up on our own.
How to tell if you are doing this: Do you feel like God is “less present” when you are doing ordinary parts of life than when you are having an emotional high? Does suffering jolt you out of love with God? When things feel dry, do you press in to Jesus more, or seek another experience?
In conclusion, none of these things are, by themselves, bad. It is good to want to have correct theology. It is good to support your leaders. It is good to know yourself. It is good to experience Christ.
It is when we idolize these, however, that a good thing from God goes bad.
Have you noticed something besides these four? Tell us in the comments!
Hillary Morgan Ferrer is the founder of Mama Bear Apologetics. She is the chief author and editor of Mama Bear Apologetics: Empowering Your Kids to Challenge Cultural Lies and Mama Bear Apologetics Guide to Sexuality: Empowering Your Kids to Understand and Live Out God’s Design. Hillary has her masters in Biology and has been married to her husband, Dr. John D. Ferrer, for 15 years. Don’t let her cook for you. She’ll burn your house straight to the ground.
“There is no part of our identity that is immune to this call.” Amen!!! That statement just took my breath away. The follow statement, however, left me with a few questions. “That is why I love apologetics. No matter how many celebrity teachers suddenly decide to fall away, I can’t unknow what I know.” Can’t the same thing be said for a particular system of theology (i.e. the one mentioned at the start of your article) Also, it might be fair to note that some branches of theology are founded on “the whole of Scripture” rather than a part of it. Just curious as to if and where you see sound theology or maybe even doctrine, and apologetics taking separate paths.
Let me be the first to say that I have seen people place apologetics as an idol as well. It is not immune. For me personally, I was trying to say that I love apologetics because it keeps me rooted in the Gospel. I cannot explain away Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as if they are fictions. I’d have to check my brain at the door. A healthy use of any of these four things is when they are used to increase our love for God and others, and also support the Gospel message. That is the rightful place of these good things listed in the article.
But for the record, I did realize the irony of how that sounded when I wrote it. But I left it in because it showed how apologetics is the handmaiden to the gospel. But you are ABSOLUTELY right. Someone could place apologetics above the gospel they are defending. I just haven’t seen that make anyone walk away from the faith yet.
You’d have to check your brain at the door? That’s not very nice.
When she said, “I’d have to check my brains at the door,” she was making a literary reference: Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door by Josh McDowell and Brian Hostetler. In essence, atheists often claim that Christians have to check their brains at the door when they go into church because only a brainless person would believe in Christianity. McDowell and Hostetler turned that around by arguing that you *shouldn’t* check your brains at the door because Christianity is actually quite logical.
“I just haven’t seen that make anyone walk away from the faith yet.” I have a nephew who was big into apologetics as a teenager and young adult. He had lots of apologetics books and his own blog. But he fell away. He still believes in God, but he bought into the lie that God is evil (i.e. commanding Israel to commit genocide, etc).
I think apologetics is more necessary than ever, but a good apologetic alone does not secure someone in the faith. Our kids need to develop their own living relationships with Jesus as well. This means adding heart-knowledge to head-knowledge. It comes about through biblical discipleship: not just formal Christian education but denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, following Jesus, studying to know His heart and mind, loving Him, trusting Him, obeying Him, telling others about Him, and so on. When you know Jesus, it doesn’t matter if you can’t answer every objection an atheist throws at you. You’re faith is founded on the Rock because you *know* Him. I think pairing apologetics with discipleship makes apologetics even stronger.
I think your insight about teachings that go beyond biblical doctrine being a form of idolatry is absolutely correct. The Old Testament prophets (such as Jeremiah and Hosea, as you mentioned) compared idolatry to spiritual adultery. Jesus said the Pharisees were “adulterous” because they added manmade traditions to the law. He hated these additions because it made it difficult for people to come to God. Teachings like those of Josh H. were Pharisaical and adulterous/idolatrous, and it made it hard for kids to truly come to God because they could never live up to the extra-biblical rules. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Hi Hilary. I am interested in using your book with a young mom’s group at church. Is there a discussion guide with the book? Do you have suggestions on how to use the book with our group? Thanks! Marge
We do not have a dedicated “discussion guide” yet. However, there are some really good discussion questions at the end of each chapter that I have heard good feedback regarding. I would start with those, and I’ll make an announcement if we are able to get a discussion guide out. Yay that y’all are doing it as a group! That is exactly how I was hoping the book would be used!
Fwiw, there is now a Mama Bear Apologetics Study Guide published February 2021.
Thank you Hillary for your insights! very well stated! I pray that the truth of these comments will shine light into many family discussions. (I also pray that the trolls will continue to be ignored! ha!)
I think there are all kinds of reasons we fallible human beings can lose our sense of salvation or of God’s immanent presence in our lives–as a woman and a mom, I’ve come to respect the power of our neurochemistry to rattle the foundations of our sense of existence. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that men are not that much less vulnerable. Not to simply excuse someone’s doubts or failings, but certainly neuro-trauma and life stressors can wipe out our sense of balance that we need to maintain our grip on the platform of truth. I hope that one’s apologetics can take that into account when we hear of high-profile de-conversions of people who accidentally became someone’s idol.
Hillary, I adore you and the truth you speak without worrying about people’s feelings (in the sense that if they don’t agree with you, and say something rude, it doesn’t keep you from moving on). Keep on keeping on. I tried to find you on IG. I don’t do a lot of social media, but there are a few people I enjoy following and keeping in touch with. I couldn’t find you 🙁 I’m currently reading Mama Bear Apologetics as I am a Mama to 5! I have a whole lot of teaching to do in this crazy world we live in! But the coolest part—I’m receiving a whole lot of awesome education in the interim! Thanks for your incredible knowledge and the way in which you share it with us mamas who have deep concerns raising our children these days! I adore you, but I’m not idolizing you 😉 God is so good!!!
Including your comment? Asserting your opinion with the word ‘everything’ may be painting with an overly broad brush.
Just because a decorating group has the “reformed” label in it, does not mean they are idolizing reformed theology. I thought it was weird to have a decorating board with that label, too, until I found out why they created it. Now I think it’s perfectly understandable. Maybe you would, too, if you reached out and asked instead of assuming their motives?
I have updated the article to reflect the request of the organizer of the group. I in no way intended to “call out” a group. I honestly just thought it was a funny combination, like “Premillinialist and into wakeboarding” or “vegan and into stamp collecting.” It was an #oddlyspecific and an unexpected combination that made me chuckle. I didn’t mean to imply that the members of the group were in idolatry. Hopefully it is clear now.
I like to add that even our falsely perceived identity in Christ can be an idol. I often cringe when people say “As long as I have my salvation, I can do such and such…” Even when such things are breaking God’s commandments such as associating His holy name with something unholy such as Easter, and following men’s instructions instead of God’s instructions such dismissing some of the eternal (Psalm 119:160) and perfect (Psalm 19:7, James 1:25) law of God. What does God say when we do violence to His law and profane His holy things, not distinguishing between the holy and the common, teaching that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean, and shutting our eyes to the keeping of 7th day Sabbaths, that is holy? He said that He is profaned. Ezekiel 22:26.
Can anyone be sure of his/her salvation? What does the Bible say? Paul said to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” Philippians 2:12 “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” Matthew 24:13. In another word, we are being saved, but not saved yet. God determines who is saved and who is not when we are being raised and judged. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness (or lawbreakers).’ Matthews 7:22-23
Please be reassured of your salvation, c. liu. Remember to take scripture as a whole. The overarching message is that jesus died for our sins so that we could be saved, that is it, to add anything else to it says that the sacrifice of jesus was not enough, we then say jesus and…
The verse from philippians about working out our salvation with fear and trembling is more about applying our salvation, not treating it sloppily and with comtempt. It is like holding a precious artefact, realise how precious and valuable it is.
Something in this that stood out to me was the thinkers need to love God with their heart. I feel like I’m a thinker and struggle with the heart side. Like I feel like I should be loving God more or that I’m missing something. Anyone got any recommendations to help with this, bible studies or books or blogs to read. Or something to do, or do other’s feel the same?