What Christians should ask themselves when their leaders recant their faith

What Christians should ask themselves when their leaders recant their faith August 19, 2019
Photo Credit: WallyCassidy Flickr via Compfight cc

Christians get nervous when their leaders express certain doubts or recant their profession of faith. This is especially true when it happens in the public eye.

Like Rob Bell — you remember him, right?

Anyway, this happened again recently when Joshua Harris, former pastor and best-selling author of the cult classic, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, took to Instagram to inform his followers that by every standard of measurement he possessed, he was no longer a Christian.

Then came Hillsong worship leader Marty Sampson, who claimed that he was “genuinely losing” his faith. Although Sampson later clarified that he hasn’t exactly renounced Christianity, he did assure readers of the Christian Post that his faith is on “incredibly shaky ground.”

Ok, fair enough. Thanks for letting us know.

The thing is, people freak out when this stuff happens. Especially evangelical Christians, who live in a world where doubt is given a very small seat at the end of the table — that is, if it’s even allowed a place at all. At worst, doubt is often considered anathema among evangelicals. They won’t admit this fact in public, of course, but it’s pretty much true. In the evangelical world, faith = certainty.

The problem, of course, is that this equation sets people up for all kinds of trouble. It’s the kind you see when Christian leaders recant or otherwise deconstruct their faith in the public eye.

What usually happens when Christian leaders “fall away”

From a sociological and psychological standpoint, it’s interesting to observe the general reaction among Christians when their leaders recant their faith and “fall away.” I think it demonstrates many things, including but not limited to:

-Our desperately felt need for certainty
-Our dependence on authority
-Our fear of change
-Our tribal mentality
-Our reluctance to accept diverse experience

When a popular Christian leader denounces his or her former faith in some way, shape, or form, there will inevitably be those who either 1) regard that person as a champion of genuine faith, or 2) regard them as an apostate to be denounced by all “genuine” Christians.

All such presumptions are an exercise in futility, however, because at the end of the day, no one really knows what all has transpired in that person’s life to bring them to where they are.

Yes, that goes for the Gospel Coalition too. Sorry, guys.

What should happen when Christian leaders “fall away”

Nevertheless, there are some underlying assumptions that need to be explored during these times. Indeed, Christians should ask themselves a few specific questions when their leaders recant their faith. For instance: Why does their new position bother you so much? And, do you truly care about their well-being or merely how their decision makes you feel?

Let’s be honest here. We’ve all seen the fallout that occurs when a popular Christian leader leaves the faith. We’ve seen the pretentious well-wishing from former devotees, the arrogant quotations of Scripture (“he went out from us because he was never one of us”), and the superficial promises to pray for that person and their family. We’ve seen the farewell tweets and the letters of excommunication.

The truth is, it’s pretty much all a game. It’s a religious game played by religious people to cover up the way they feel inside and to protect themselves from any honest self-inquiry.

Don’t believe me? Than ask yourself, if you dare: Why do you feel such an overwhelming need for certainty? Why must you always be right, and on the side of those who are right?

Why do you depend so much on authority that someone else’s departure from the faith is so personally devastating to you?

Why are you afraid of change? What is it about accepting change in other people that disquiets you so deeply?

I could go on, but you probably get the point. In conclusion, I’ll just say this:

If it’s that important to you what so-and-so thinks about the existence of God or about the apparent contradictions of scripture, go ahead and mull it over. But take care to ask the right questions and try to be honest about your conclusions. Ultimately, you can only answer for yourself.

About Joshua Lawson
Josh Lawson is a pastor, writer, and small business owner. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and kids and their cat Gryffin, which is short for Gryffindor. He loves strong coffee and good books. If you'd like, you can support his work at www.patreon.com/JoshuaLawson. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mr. James Parson

    I must have wandered onto an atheist site by accident. (BTW I am an atheist)

    … the general reaction among Christians when their leaders recant their faith and “fall away.” I think it demonstrates many things, including but not limited to:

    -Our desperately felt need for certainty
    -Our dependence on authority
    -Our fear of change
    -Our tribal mentality
    -Our reluctance to accept diverse experience

    These are the exact points that I make as an atheist. Here is how I would say them:

    – “I don’t know” is acceptable answer. It may be the best answer
    – I don’t want to be a sheep
    – Most sects of christianity talk up what they fear
    – They want to be in their club as if they needed to be in a club
    – So many things to try. Try some of them

  • Appreciate your thoughts, James. I’m not an atheist, and I’ve only been blogging on Patheos for a short time now, but I’m amazed at how many atheists seem to visit the Progressive Christian channel.

  • Patrick

    Far too many Christians pay far too much attention to the faith proclamations of popular and well known Christians. It often seems that American evangelical Christianity is a cult of personality(s).

  • Indeed, it does.

  • Mr. James Parson

    I can’t speak of every atheist, but I like hearing and understanding what others think. I especially like hearing something new. This article definitely gave me something to think about.

  • chemical

    Progressive Christians and atheists have a lot in common.

    Also, something to consider: Us atheists have no church, so Patheos kind of became our community. The atheist subsection of Patheos is the busiest, and with the noisiest commenters.

    Unrelated, this is solid gold, and I think it displays a lot of wisdom on your part:

    Let’s be honest here. We’ve all seen the fallout that occurs when a popular Christian leader leaves the faith. We’ve seen the pretentious well-wishing from former devotees, the arrogant quotations of Scripture …, and the superficial promises to pray for that person and their family. We’ve seen the farewell tweets and the letters of excommunication.

    The truth is, it’s pretty much all a game. It’s a religious game played by religious people to cover up the way they feel inside and to protect themselves from any honest self-inquiry.

  • fractal

    Amen, Joshua!

  • soter phile

    Follow me as I follow Christ. (1 Cor.11:1)

  • soter phile

    Gresham Machen wrote a book about it years ago (Christianity & Liberalism) in which he pointed out that such ‘Christian’ liberalism jettisons the core tenets of the faith that make one a Christian.

  • soter phile

    If the article was describing Anthony Flew’s movement from atheism to theism, would you feel the same way? And wasn’t the response among his former colleagues very comparable?

  • soter phile

    Judas, Demas, Hebrews’ warnings (Heb.3,6,10) & John’s concern (1 Jn.2:19)…
    Biblical authors are grieved by such “falling away”. Why wouldn’t Christians also be?

  • Mr. James Parson

    Before you mention Anthony Flew, I was not familiar with him. But I did look him up and it looks like he went to Deism. I don’t know how Anthony argued for Deism, but in general Deistic arguments tend to be an argument from ignorance. If someone had something new, I would want to hear it.

  • It really depends on the person and their motivation. That was my point here. I know some Christians whose view of God is to toxic that the best thing for them would be to deconstruct their faith. I’ve known others for whom atheism was a genuine step on their way to wholeness. You can’t pass judgment on someone’s experience, especially when you don’t even know them personally.

  • blogcom

    Apostates are not looked on favorably in any religion so don’t know why it comes as a surprise.
    The difference is ‘the others’ don’t advertise their apostacy as some type of virtue, the reason for the perplexity.

  • Fair enough.