Earlier this week, Pastor Josh Harris, pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, disclosed that he’d been a victim of sexual abuse when he was a child. The timing and context for this confession has something to tell us about the long-lasting effects of abuse in a victim’s life.
Harris’ church was “mother ship” of the network of 80 or so churches churches of Sovereign Grace Ministries, though the congregation left the SGM family a few months ago. SGM was recently the focus of a lawsuit alleging sexual impropriety and a system of coverup lasting many years by some of its key leaders. The lawsuit was dismissed because of a technicality, though the plaintiffs’ lawyers plan to proceed with a civil suit.
Though I’ve never met Harris in person, I’ve followed him since he was a kid via the ministry of his parents, who were popular convention speakers and writers in the home school movement during the 1990’s. When young adult Josh became a mainstream voice for the movement’s emphasis on Biblical courtship with his popular book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, many homeschoolers viewed the moment as an affirmation that training a child up in the way he or she should go would net (guarantee, even!) a next generation of a family that would be willing to do hard things in life, and take strong moral stands in a decaying society. The Harris family were exemplars for many of this of this implied guarantee.
Gifted communicator Josh Harris was put on the fast track to senior leadership in the burgeoning SGM movement. More than a decade after he kissed dating goodbye, Harris did moderate some of his earlier statements in the book. His own marriage and fatherhood, and his experiences as a pastor likely burnished some of the razor edges of the all-or-nothing declarations he’d made as a much younger, single man. He learned the politics of moderation and compromise even as he preached uncompromising messages from the pulpit. He was moving in some heady circles of leadership as a young adult man. Those political skills serve organizational expediency and image, but don’t always create growing space for the messy parts of our personal stories.
While Harris’ star continued to rise within both the SGM movement and the larger conservative (neo-Reformed) camp, some serious cases of abuse appeared to be happening in the shadows to minors at the hands of a few of SGM’s leaders – and a number of other leaders agreed to cover it up. Sadly, no matter the denominiation, from Catholic to fundamentalist Baptist, there is a rotten sulfur-scented playbook from which those in power all draw in order to protect themselves and their reputations. SGM’s leadership culture already had a bit of a reputation that allowed spiritual bullies to flourish; it is not surprising that some of those bullies used their bunkered positions of power for to satiate their own warped sexual desires.
Josh Harris publicly stood shoulder-to-shoulder in support of his fellow SGM leaders for years. Last fall’s lawsuits frayed that connection to the breaking point and Harris’ congregation left SGM. For a guy who wrote a passionate book insisting that readers must commit to a local church no matter what, the process leading up to this breakup must have been an excruciating journey for him. This severing of relationship, and the results of the recent criminal lawsuit gave Harris the impetus to “come out” with a bit of his own story of his childhood sexual abuse last weekend.*
I know from personal experience that it can take years – or may never happen at all – before an abuse victim can speak about what selfish authority figures did to him or her. Shame, manipulation by abusers and confusion hold victims in a holding cell that is a house of horrors. (I’ve told a few of these stories here, here and here.)
Harris encouraged other victims to come forward and get help during a sermon last Sunday. I hope his words may have encouraged a few in his congregation to discover that they can take steps to exit the holding cell of shame and silence their abusers created for them. I pray, too, that Josh’s willingness to discuss his own experience will bring healing to him on a personal level. Victims can only speak when they feel it is safe to do so, and Josh felt safe at last to do so last Sunday.
I’ll admit to a few moments of wondering this week what the message of kissing dating goodbye might have been if the story of abuse was a part of his courtship message that made him a Christian celeb more than a decade ago. I’ve also wondered if that piece of his story might have been a klieg light in the shadowy, unhealthy SGM leader culture. (Who knows? Perhaps at some point, it was.)
But I know that speculation doesn’t facilitate healing. Only forgiveness, surrender to God and the companioning of wise counselors/friends can. So today, I offer my prayers to the One who promises that he will wipe away every tear, on behalf of the victims in this story – those abused by SGM leaders, and those, like Josh Harris, who held his own abuse close to the vest in a rotten culture that was more about constructing theological holding cells than setting captives free.
If you’ve followed the SGM case, what are your thoughts on Harris’ disclosure from the pulpit last Sunday?
* Note: Josh Harris did not spend his childhood years in a SGM church.