Many believers were shaken last week when Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, made two big announcements. First came the announcement that he and his wife of 19 years were separating. What came next was even more surprising: an announcement from Joshua that he was “not a Christian” and was leaving behind orthodox Christianity all together, instead identifying now with the “exvangelical” movement.
What is incredibly sad about this is that what has happened with Josh and a series of others in recent years is a prime example of what can happen when we become steeped in legalism and man-made rules. For too many, when people finally leave the confines of legalism, they don’t simply throw off man-made rules and look to the Word to see what it says. Instead, they run as far as they can in the opposite direction, throwing off anything and everything that they believe is in any part associated with “legalism”, including orthodox Christian doctrine.
As sad as this announcement from Joshua is, there are at least four main lessons we can learn from what has happened:
Legalism is Dangerous
As Joshua readily admitted a couple years back when he recanted much of what he wrote in “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, he personally followed and then publicly taught legalistic rules and regulations in his book. As we have seen repeatedly, first in purity culture and then in the “exvangelical” movement of today, legalism is incredibly dangerous.
In purity culture it is dangerous because it holds up a list of man-made rules, such as it being wrong to date, and puts them on the same level of Scripture. Such legalism shames those who don’t live up to it, breeds a judgmental nature in those who do, and encourages people to find their “righteousness” in what they do or don’t do, rather than on what Christ did for them on their behalf. What we are seeing so clearly is that a list of rules will not save you. Only Christ can do that.
Walking by the Spirit is Crucial
This is where walking by the Spirit comes in. Galatians 5:16-18 makes it clear that if we want to have the fruits of the Spirit characterize our lives (Galatians 5:22-23), we must first be walking in step with the Holy Spirit. This will mean being a student of the Word, being in prayer, listening for His still, small voice and then following it, and seeking godly counsel. All of these are crucial practices, but are practices which are often forgotten when one is instead given to legalism’s teachings. When all the rules and regulations are laid out there for you, you no longer have any reason to follow the Spirit’s guidance for your every step. That is when you are in the prime place to be deceived.
We Must be Students of the Word, not Mere Students of Man
One of the many problems with legalism is that it encourages you to follow a particular man and his teachings rather than inspiring you to be a student of the Word for yourself. To be frank, this is exactly where Satan wants you. If you are in that place, you will be unable to fight back against the lies of legalism or grow in your knowledge of the truth, because you will not be daily exposing yourself to the truth.
“Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater” is a Big Mistake
What is sad about the stories of folks who have left legalism and joined the “exvangelical” movement is that they have wrongly believed that the god of legalism is the God of the Bible, and so have rejected both. But here is the truth: the god of legalism is not the God of the Bible. The god of legalism is not the God of Christianity, and we need to be better at not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I left a years-long season of legalism and, by God’s grace, came out on the other side a stronger believer than ever before. I buried my nose deep in the Word of God rather than assuming that legalism was the same thing as Christianity. And that is what I pray you will do, as well, if you currently find yourself on a journey out of legalism.
As sad as the news of Joshua Harris’ abandonment of Christianity is, however, I want to offer a word of hope here: Josh’s story isn’t over yet. God is still on the throne and Josh is still living, which means that anything is still possible. God could work in Josh’s heart, and Josh could come to Christ in an amazing way. So, while there are lessons to be learned from the “exvangelical” phenomenon, let us not be quick to assume the worst of Josh, to lambast him, or to write him off. Let us believe in the God of miracles Who still changes hearts and make it our prayer that He will do just that with Joshua Harris.