He kissed the secret of his childhood sexual abuse goodbye

He kissed the secret of his childhood sexual abuse goodbye May 24, 2013

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 Goodbyemany 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.  

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  • Tim

    “Theological holding cells” – I am so glad that Jesus can set even those captives free, Michelle. Thank you for shedding light on this darkness, and pointing people to the Reconciler and Restorer himself.


  • Jeannie Guzman

    Yes! I believe that belonging to a local Church IS important, but I don’t believe that membership in a denomination is what Christ had in mind when He commanded us “to follow Him.” The local Church should be a self-governing unit, just as it was in the Early Days of the Church. Because there was little communication between Churches, other than letters, which could take years to receive, each Church’s elders had to participate in the governance of their own, individual Church. Maybe because Josh left his denomination, because he believed that it didn’t exemplify his Christian Principles, he just might lead the way for millions of others into a new movement, against denominationalism. Being a member of the Body of Christ, should be sufficient enough for anyone.

  • snap network

    One “confesses” sins or wrongdoing. So one does not “confess” having been molested as a child. Molested kids have done nothing wrong.

    One “discloses” having suffered child sexual abuse.

    David Clohessy, Director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, (7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143), 314 566 9790 cell (SNAPclohessy@aol.com)

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Thank you for the correction, SNAP. I made the change in my article.

      Thanks, too, for your presence and your important work.

      • Sandra

        “… Harris’ pulpit confession last Sunday…”

        Reading a day later and still seeing the word “confession” in the last line.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          Downside of blogging: I’m my own editor; sometimes I miss the obvious. Thanks Sandra. I changed the final line.

          • Sandra

            No problem; I knew you’d want to change that.

  • Snap LoyolaAlum

    Fr. Thomas Smolich, the top USA Jesuit with a Stanford MBA, probably approved the recent $19 million settlement regarding Fr. Donald McGuire. Fr. Thomas Smolich also approved a $7 million sex abuse settlement to 2 disabled employees of the Jesuit Order – more than $3 million each. The alleged abuse happened next to the Jesuit, California headquarters in Los Gatos and next to the care facility for bed-ridden Jesuits.

    There were indications that Fr. Smolich sought to micro-manage a Jesuit who reported that another Jesuit sexually abused him. The Jesuit victim had a sudden death at age 56.

  • Susan Gerard

    I admire the love you show, but I pity the victims more. There were plenty of allegations of abuse in Josh’s own church. Why did it take this long for the flagship of SGM to remove itself? Why didn’t they handle their own cases with honor instead of cowardice? Why did Josh wait until now to disclose abuse? Was it too good an opportunity for sympathy to pass up? There are lots of “why’s” here, and they make me uncomfortable.

    http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/6788/a_church_group__a_lawsuit__and_a_culture_of_abuse/ and http://www.sgmsurvivors.com/2011/08/11/a-message-to-sgm-survivors-from-greg-somerville-and-covenant-life-church-pastors/

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Thanks for the links, Susan. I share your “why’s” and sense of outrage. I am disgusted with the systemic cover-up, bullying and dysfunction that flourished in the culture of PDI/SGM. I grieve for the survivors of the abuse. I wrote to try to make some sense of how a victim of abuse like Harris could get sucked up into a system that perpetuated this abuse. (It’s pretty heady stuff to be young, “Christian-famous”, and inserted into the inner circle of a seemingly-unstoppable org like SGM. And that heady stuff apparently allowed Harris to ignore/stuff his own story for years.)

      Readers, I strongly encourage you to visit both of Susan’s links, above.

      • Susan Gerard

        Ahh, Michelle, I see it more clearly now. Thanks. The cynical me is still wondering if this abuse took place, or if it was a sympathy card. I’m sorry to think this, but years of standing shoulder to shoulder with ‘great’ men in the church in silence just doesn’t make me *really desire* to give him the benefit of the doubt, as you so graciously and lovingly have. I admire you for that. I think it’s as it should be, on the condition that we investigate further and call to account the perpetrators.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          Agree. I don’t think this story is over by a long shot.

          It’s a rare thing that I give any pastor the benefit of the doubt after the crap I’ve experienced via some stunningly toxic church leaders. I hope that Josh’s story is true, and that at some point soon, he adds some detail about what motivated him to remain silent, particularly once the lawsuits were filed.

  • Mary

    I’d like to comment on one element of your post. CLC did not leave SGM because of the lawsuits–nor did the other 20-some churches that have left CLC. The conflict between SGM and many of its churches arose in the wake of a 600-page document written by Brent Detwiler in 2011, which challenged CJ Mahaney’s fitness to lead the ministry. While at least some of the lawsuit plaintiffs participated in the subsequent investigations, their experiences were not the focus of the conflict.

  • Linda Kreger

    I just finished a series of nine posts about childhood sexual abuse (www.lindasbiblestudy.wordpress.com). I work as a therapist in a Christian counseling office. Much of my practice is with adults who are finally seeking help for what happened to them in their childhoods. It literally makes my stomach churn to read articles like this and know they are just the tip of the ice berg. God forgive us for hiding, covering up, accepting such evil behavior for so many years.

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