Today I’m Proud of Joshua Harris

So, have you heard the news? Joshua Harris is stepping down from his role of head pastor of Covenant Life Church and heading to Vancouver to attend seminary at Regent College. I don’t know much about Regent, though the Washington Post described it as “mainstream.” Not only that, but Josh is planning to send his kids to public school while he attends seminary. Public school. This is huge, and it’s hard to describe how much it means to me.

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Josh Harris was the oldest child of Greg Harris, a well known early Christian homeschool leader who traveled the country speaking at conferences and convincing people that homeschooling was God’s plan for families and the best way to raise children. Because of his father’s ideas, Josh did not go to either college or seminary, and instead went straight into ministry, including both writing and preaching.

Josh published I Kissed Dating Goodbye in 1997, and the book took the Christian homeschooling world by storm. Suddenly “courtship” became the word of the hour, and parents of children like myself were deciding that they would not let their children date—and indeed, would teach us that dating is akin to adultery, or worse. Josh Harris singlehandedly created the atmosphere I grew up in with regards to romance and marriage. I not only read his book, I lived and breathed it—as did countless other fundamentalist and evangelical homeschooled teens.

Ten years ago, Josh became the pastor of Covenant Life Church, a nondenominational evangelical megachurch with 3000 members, all without formal theological training. But in recent years, his church and others in its loose association became mired in scandal. The words “Sovereign Grace Ministries” may be familiar to you. The upshot of it all was that Josh and other pastors (most prominently C.J. Mahoney) were dealing with sex abuse allegations internally and not reporting anything to the authorities. Josh himself was not accused of sex abuse, and when everything started going down Josh disassociated his church from the association and made changes.

And now this. It seems that the scandal has made Josh realize that he was not adequately prepared for the position of authority he held, and that formal educational training actually has some merit. This is a huge admission to make as the son of one of the most prominent Christian homeschooling pioneers. I’m sure Josh is doing his best to mollify his father and bring him around, but in making this decision he is admitting that his father was wrong. Not wrong about homeschooling necessarily, but wrong in his opposition to formal education writ large.

And the whole sending his kids to public school while he’s in seminary thing? You have to understand that leaders like Greg Harris made homeschooling part of the gospel. To be a true Christian, for them, was to homeschool. That and that alone was God’s will for families. I felt great trepidation about how my mother would react to me sending my own children to public school, and my mother has never been a prominent homeschooling leader on the scale of Greg Harris. For many Christian homeschooling parents (my mother included) having a child grow up to put their own children in public school is a sign of failure. So for Josh to do what he’s doing—that takes guts.

Even going to seminary takes guts for someone like him! Why? Because of this:

For most of his career, Joshua Harris was the kind of evangelical pastor who chuckled at the joke that “seminary” should really be called “cemetery.”

There is a strong anti-seminary bent in the circles Josh runs in. Josh himself admits that he probably would not have been hired on as head pastor at Covenant Life Church if he had been to seminary. Seminary is almost a dirty word. All you need is the Bible! You don’t need to be taught by professors! Biblical criticism? Who needs that! Just listen to the Holy Spirit, read the Bible, and you’re good! And here Josh is, admitting that he does need that, and heading off to seminary.

Here is Josh’s own description of what’s going on:

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” (Maybe you saw the movie starring Brad Pitt). It’s about a man who ages in reverse—he is born old and with each passing day becomes younger.

In reflecting on my own story, I can’t help but think that I have lived a sort of backwards life. Without meaning to, I have experienced life out of the normal order and sequence of events.

At the end of last year I turned 40 years old. Yet it is only now that I am going to school. I haven’t completed any post-graduate study. I don’t even have an undergraduate degree. In fact, I have never attended a formal school full-time in my life.

I’ve been on a unique educational path my whole life. For the first 17 years of my life I was homeschooled by my mother. My father was a well-known homeschool advocate who traveled the country teaching parents the biblical principles for and advantages of home education. I was “Exhibit A” of my dad’s philosophy that you could learn by doing, be directed in study by your delights and succeed outside of the “system.”

At age 17, when most kids my age were going off to college, I started a ministry called New Attitude. I began publishing a magazine and putting on conferences for teenagers. I felt a clear sense of calling from God to speak to my generation and call them to a passionate pursuit of God. When I was 21, I wrote my first book [I Kissed Dating Goodbye], which met with a good deal of success.

That’s when I met C.J. Mahaney, who was the previous Senior Pastor of our church. In C.J. I found someone who understood me and who was willing to train me. He was a charismatic pastor (in all senses of the word) who pastored a mega-church, led a national network of churches, and embraced both reformed theology and charismatic practice.

Like me, C.J. got his start on the conference circuit before becoming a pastor. Like me he had never received formal theological training, and the group of churches he led, which grew out of the Jesus Movement in the 1970s, at that time didn’t place a high value on seminary training. So instead of attending seminary before becoming a pastor, I moved into C.J.’s basement, worked as an intern in the church, traveled the country with him and began preaching. It was on the job training and I soaked up everything C.J. taught me.

Seven years after I arrived at the church, I was set in as the hand-picked replacement for C.J. I was 30 years old, with no formal theological training and no formal training in organizational leadership, and I was the Senior Pastor of a 3,000 member church. That my friends is a crazy, backwards life!

Yes. Yes.

And so here I am, feeling proud of Josh Harris. What he’s doing is not an easy thing, but it is an important thing. He’s not the only one who feels he led a backward life. I and many others feel the same way too. As teens, we were expected to have the maturity of 30-year-old adults, and only later, as young adults ourselves, were we able to let the facade drop and finally go through adolescence.

Forging our own paths after the level of parental control homeschooling afforded our parents isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. I wish Josh the best as he leaves the conveyer belt he was set on—by both his father and evangelical leaders like C.J. Mahoney—and makes his own decisions and chooses his own path.

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Note: It’s probably worth mentioning that Josh has also walked back his ideas about dating and courtship. I hope to write more about this later, once I’ve had time to listen to his sermons on the topic, which seem to be available only as audio files. 

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