Raising Readers
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Joshua Harris and the Perils of Idolatry

Our family began homeschooling in January 1985. Our children were in the middle of third and first grade, so it was a matter of grave conviction: something we had to do as soon as possible. We were living in Vancouver, Washington, and even though those were the early days of “the movement,” the homeschooling community there was large for the time. I credit this to the presence of two well-known leaders nearby. Just up the Columbia River was Washougal, home of Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore, early homeschool advocates who often appeared on “Focus on the Family.” Across the river, in Gresham, Oregon, was author and speaker Gregg Harris. At that time their oldest son Joshua was 10. His nearest siblings, rowdy twin boys named Alex and Brett, were six or seven years younger, so Josh was in some ways an only child, and perhaps something of a homeschooling Guinea pig.

About five years later, we had moved to Johnson County, Kansas, and homeschooling had mushroomed. There were enough of us to host a seminar by Gregg Harris in the fall, where he talked about how he and his wife were training the children to be godly. But not weird; Josh was a teen by then, and sounded like a normal, healthy kid who had professed his faith in Christ and seemed to be living up to it.

But Joshua was also unusually entrepreneurial. At the age of 16 or thereabouts, he had started a magazine for homeschooled kids called New Attitude. He was speaking at teen seminars and home education conferences all over the country. My son met him at one of these, leading to the publication of one of his cartoons in New Attitude.

About three years later, Josh was writing a book. It built on the courtship model for choosing a mate, a subject that was growing more urgent for home educators as their children approached adulthood. I Kissed Dating Goodbye: a New Attitude toward Relationships and Romance (Multnomah, 1997) captured the mood of the age and encapsulated the anxious thoughts many Christian parents were having. Their kids agreed. Teens read the book eagerly and decided that this—this—was the road best taken for finding a godly mate and building a successful marriage. The book rocketed to best-sellerdom and pushed the name of Joshua Harris beyond homeschooling circles.

Ten years later, he had become one of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd, preaching classic Calvinism. Literally preaching, for after a six-year internship under C. J. Mahaney he became senior pastor—at age thirty—of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, founding congregation of Sovereign Grace Ministries. By then he was happily married to Shannon (after a courtship process detailed in his follow-up book Boy Meets Girl), and the father of three children.

But in 2015 his exemplary life hit a snag with a sexual-abuse and cover-up scandal at Covenant Life. To my knowledge, Pastor Harris had nothing to do with the scandal but felt his credibility was shattered and announced he was moving to Vancouver B. C. to attend the Regent College Graduate School of Theology.

In 2018, he renounced his views about courtship vs. dating and produced a documentary called “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” By then there had been some significant blowback from young people who had followed the model and were already divorced. Harris’ walkback made news, but on July 17, two weeks ago, Christians were stunned at the announcement that Josh and his wife Shannon were separating. Last weekend, another announcement via Instagram: “By all the measures that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” He also apologized for his views on women in the church, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and other LGBT+ issues. (See the Instagram post.)

To quote Ron Burgundy: Whoa. That escalated quickly.

But of course, it probably didn’t. This must have been a long time building, as his interview with Sojourners earlier this year indicates. The “defection” of a respected Christian leader always hits hard, but especially in this case. We sort of watched him grow up, and by all appearances, Josh Harris was not a pushy, arrogant, self-aggrandizing preacher of the sort that has beset the church throughout history. He was a proponent of “Humble Orthodoxy,” or speaking the truth in love, always conscious of one’s own sins and blind spots. He was calm, reasonable, and kind—and now, apparently, honest. He doesn’t claim to have advanced to a more tolerant level of Christianity; he’s renounced it altogether.

I would like to know what he means by “all the measures I have for defining a Christian.” Maybe we will have a better idea of that before long. I think he was made (and also made himself) a role model too soon: seminar speaker at 17, best-selling author at 21, senior pastor at 30. Out of the test tube into the spotlight. Youth isn’t a fault, but it’s a process that takes time, and Harris didn’t have time.

It was the “community,” though, that made him an exemplar, or even an idol, of the homeschooling ideal. In those early days, and maybe even today, there was great faith in Christian home education to save America. I even heard speakers suggest that, or say it outright. This is nothing but idolatry, though it may come from good motives. Of my tight circle of eight homeschooling moms, all of us have children who seriously stumbled or left the faith altogether. I don’t regret homeschooling at all, but no program or process will solve the problem of rooted sin.

Bottom line: Don’t trust anyone more than Jesus. No program, no method, no model will ensure godly offspring. Though we have every reason to hope for the salvation of our children, faith is not inherited, and each individual must own the truth of the Gospel for himself. Our hearts are so crooked even we don’t understand them. But God does, and he knows how to navigate those twisted paths. We also know he hears our prayers, and is able to call back our wayward children even after we’re no longer around to pray for them.

In the meantime, we must be careful of our expectations, and periodically sweep out the idols we’ve allowed to take root. No one can save but Christ. May Josh Harris, and the young people he may have helped lead astray, and the LGBT friends he is apologizing to now, all come to know that great salvation.

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37 Comments

  1. Kellee says

    whoa. how disappointing. I was a solid personal advocate of Josh Harris’ anti-“dating” movement. I owned my own expression of his principles. It worked for me incredibly well. Lord, help us to continue in the faith that binds our love.

    • Cristy says

      Sounds like you really did catch the point of purity, Kellee. May your testimony bring glory to God, rather than Josh Harris. IJN, Cristy

      • Amylee says

        But Joshua Harris needs to hear from women whom his book helped. This may help restore a broken man’s faith.

  2. Emily Perez says

    Thanks, Janie, this was rich and insightful. We must work hard to love and obey God in life and in parenting, and we can only throw ourselves upon His mercies, which are new every morning.

  3. Terri Ely says

    Thank you for your well written and well thought out summary.

    It is sad, but refreshing.

  4. Don Rubottom says

    It is funny how our theology often follows our sexual inclinations. I pray that Joshua means he formerly measured Christianity by externals, a la Job’s three friends and the Gothardites. But he may likely transform into a widely celebrated, big selling author and advocate for unbridled sexual freedom inside the church. it makes everyone feel better, except the abandoned.
    There by for the Grace of God go we all.

    • Amylee says

      Josh Harris would never do that. U sound like the type of person who criticizes many people easily. I knew Josh Harris better than most people reading this article. The writer does an excellent job of clarifying that Harris became a type of ‘celebrity’ at too young an age,he wasnt given a chance to form his own beliefs being the child of a famous homeschooling family,& he was ‘groomed’ to be a pastor before he had the chance to blink.
      NO WONDER he is questioning things now when he is free from thousands of peoples’ expectations of him.
      Thank you for being less judgemental Don.

  5. A few corrections, if I may:

    Greg Harris should be spelled: Gregg Harris
    The church Josh pastored was Covenant Life Church, not Covenant Reformed.
    Your account of Cheryl Seelhoff is quite misleading as she was harmed by Gregg Harris and other key homeschool leaders who were court-ordered to pay her money for destroying her homeschool magazine business by spreading rumors of an affair.

    Her husband moved out of state (there was a restraining order against him filed by Cheryl). He filed for divorce and she began a relationship with another man. This was a domestic violence situation, but this article makes it sound like she went out on her husband and had an affair. That’s not an portrayal of events.

    • Janie says

      Julie,
      As to Cheryl, I wrote that part in haste and I apologize. My understanding was that she began the relationship before separating from her husband, and it was only much later that the details of a very complicated story could be sorted out. I just remember how shocking it was to my friends. It would be best, I think, to just remove that paragraph. Thank you for chiming in.

      • Diane says

        If we’re talking about Cheryl from the Gentle Spirit magazine, I was a subscriber to the magazine and in it she wrote how she had an affair and how she tried many times to end it. Her husband became more violent (he already had a violent past with her) and she filed for both a divorce and a restraining order. I was also shocked as I read it as I had just subscribed to her magazine. I remember the issue that contained her confession came many months later after a complete lapse in issues.

    • Rudy says

      You are right. I remember that verse, “If your husband is a jerk, then its okay to date other men.”

  6. Julia Fetters says

    Josh is a victim. Parents used his book , much like they did the King James Bible, to Lord this stuff over their children. There is no ONE WAY to meet your spouse and yet this was THE WAY.

    It is not Josh’s fault that parents got hold of his material and ran with it. It is sad, since much of it is good, but now it has been thrown out with the bathwater… Reactionary 30 somethings. I know. I am their parents.

    We never made our children read this book but did take from it in our raising of them. No fault of Joshua Harris. Unlike the whacked out Pearls with their terrible theology and ideology, Josh was just passing on facts he had studied and truths he or others had experienced. He cannot be held accountable or responsible for how these were used.

    Joshua could be so many of our sons. I look at him with love and grace and hope that the true Christ will be his first love.

    • Janie says

      Julia, I actually never read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and I thought the prescriptions in it were extreme–might work just fine for some, but not at all for others. At the same time I understand the fear a lot of parents had for their kids. Many of that generation had screwed up mightily during their own youth and wanted their children to avoid those mistakes. Like you, I pray that Joshua will find his way back to the love of Christ after a period of doubt and questioning that he was never, in a way, allowed to have. His upbringing laid some unrealistic expectations on him. But I wouldn’t call a 44-year-old man a “victim.” Only by owning his own mistakes can he find his way back.

      • Amanda says

        As a 23-year-old woman, I’ve been wondering for a while if the whole “purity culture” was launched by parents who were so afraid of their kids making the same mistakes as they did, that they cocooned their kids in a bubble existence that left little room to breathe. You just confirmed my working theory, thank-you!
        As a side note, Christians probably shouldn’t read his book seriously, since he was probably never saved, this was a non-Christian when he wrote it. 😕

        • Janie says

          Amanda–thanks for your comment. I would be cautious about defining the state of someone’s soul at any stage of their life, though. The Bible contains accounts of prominent back-sliders whom the Lord brought back to faith. As Jeremiah says, “Who can understand the heart?”

        • Helen RuthDavis says

          As someone not on the anti dating bandwagon , Amanda, spot on

      • Amylee says

        Janie:
        I absolutely loved your article. It gave my hurting soul,(as I listened to Josh Harris’s amazing preaching & prayed w/ him for 7 years), understanding, comfort & clarity.

        I just want to say he already has owned some of his mistakes. I dont think of him as a victim either. I just wish he’d find some way to apologize to his congregation who loved ( not idolized) him so dearly! Josh Harris must have an idea how this may be affecting us. We sent him off with such love even though we were all deeply saddened he was leaving. Josh doesnt have to say he’s done anything wrong, he hasn’t, however he could at least acknowledge us as his church family. He’s apologized to the LGBT community & others several times ,why not us, many of whom have had our own faith shaken by this. Thank you for listening.

    • Cristy S. says

      I was reminded of the Scripture, 1 Cor 13:7, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Josh is indeed a man, and we should not lean back to his upbringing as the cause of his apostasy. He has made his decision. It is all his own.

      I do like, and can agree with you in prayer, that
      “Joshua could be so many of our sons. I look at him with love and grace and hope that the true Christ will be his first love.”

  7. KenMac55 says

    Josh pastored Covenant Life Church, not Reformed. And the description of his activity surrounding a child abuse scandal and “coverup” that predated him is borderline libel. Be more careful.

  8. Christ's servant says

    What stories like this and the like make me realize that the best thing we can do as parents is to pray like crazy and ask the Lord to take our hearts and the hearts of our kids, which are both “prone to wander, prone to the leave the God I love,” and seal them for His courts above as the great hymn states. We’ve all known of amazing Christian parents who seem to do everything “right” by our standards but whose kids fall to the lies of the enemy. We’ve also known those who were raised with terrible or apathetic or atheistic parents who come running to God in surrender to Him. This is why we do our part to show them God’s Word and who He is, but ultimately we surrender our kids over to Him and ask for His grace and salvation in their lives.

  9. Jamie says

    Well said. I think you said it all with your bottom line, “don’t trust anyone more than Jesus,” or, don’t trust someone just because they claim to be a Christian. Is this an instance of 1 John 2:19? So sad.

  10. Cristy S says

    All I can do is pray for him. I am sad for his children, as well.

  11. Joseph Dooley says

    “apologized for his views on women in the church, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and other LGBT+ issues.”

    So he now worships the god of the Sexual Revolution. At least he recognizes you cannot worship both that pagan god and God the Father.

  12. cindy blandin says

    I was just recounting Josh Harris’ renouncing of the Christian faith with a friend. We both homeschooled. I told her that one day I wanted to write a book titled “The Idolatry of the Christian Homeschool Movement,” or something to that effect. But who would want to read it, I wondered. She found your website and here I am.

    “In the meantime, we must be careful of our expectations, and periodically sweep out the idols we’ve allowed to take root. No one can save but Christ.”

    Amen and amen, let it be so!

    • MrsMc says

      I didn’t realize homeschooling did have some idolatry until I was on the other side of it and we had completed all 12 years. I’m not sure it is 100% idolatry in the sense that when parents want the very best for their children in their relationship to the Lord. Janey writes that as good motives. I cannot believe it was wrong to want that.

      However to follow a formula, whether we think we are or not, can become idolatry. I would read your book Cindy!

      Janie writes about how in her group of 8 homeschooling moms that all have had some of their children stumble or leave the faith. Thank you for writing that! We do not have a large family and one of ours has probably left the faith and is definitely estranged from us. We do not know why – that’s the awful thing. We were not strict in the sense that we followed any of these (now fallen) leaders who wrote their books and legalistic formulas for things. And we actually did not force homeschooling on ours; from what I recall they had choices of their own.

      I would not ever recommend homeschooling in high school. I think they (especially boys) need to know what the world is like while they are at home where what is happening can be discussed through a Scriptural grid Even though we think we are getting our homeschooled high schoolers out there with other activities like sports and community events and organizations it’s not enough with the way our world is now.

      Again, thank you Janie, and Cindy for sharing.

    • Rudy says

      What does “Idolatry of the Christian Homeschool Movement” mean? It sounds like a non-sense phrase.

      • Janie says

        I’ll answer that because it was my phrase. ANYthing can become an idol when we put our faith in it rather than in Christ alone. Homeschooling is a good thing and a noble aim, but when we look to a particular educational model to “save America,” we’ve taken our eyes of Christ and are looking to something else or someone else for any form of salvation, we’ve set up an idol.

  13. Rachel Carroll says

    Amen, Janie. as usual, you’re spot on. Only Christ.
    Homeschooling is no silver bullet to sin nature, and we must be careful not make it an idol.

  14. Kristina says

    Thank you for an article that did not point fingers, but instead called for introspection, repentance, and trust. I became acquainted with Joshua through reading his first book as a homeschooler starting college. I Kissed Dating Goodbye did not seem as prescriptive to me as some seem to think it (and if some people want a list of prescriptions rather than a relationship with God, that is not an author’s fault). I will continue to appreciate the book for its presentation of the gospel to many who would not have listened to a preacher or gone to church, but would pick up a book on relationships.
    Later, as a member of Covenant Life, I knew Josh as a preacher and leader, and I served with Shannon and their kids. I am extremely grateful for Josh’s pastoral heart and humble ministry, so I would caution anyone who assumes he wasn’t truly a Christian to be very careful. We don’t need to make that judgment. It is possible for once-leaders to “make shipwreck of their faith,” as Paul says in 1 Timothy. But this is not the end of the story! God can take the most horrific news and turn it to His glory. That is my prayer now, for the Harrises. For my family and others, I pray our method of education or relationship building will not be what defines, but rather, WHO we follow.

  15. Jimi says

    I just learned of Joshua Harris’ stance yesterday. It was shocking. My oldest daughter read his book when she was a teen, right at the time it was published. She’s about 5 year’s younger than Joshua. She wasn’t harmed by it. It had many good things in it. This article by you Janie is fabulous. Very tender and so truthful. I was a scared parent in the 80’s & 90’s. Made a lot of mistakes with our kids. We have 6. Wanted so badly for them to love & serve God and not make the same mistakes that my husband & I made. Some strayed and it was horrifying and painful. But I learned that I serve a God who is so much bigger than that!! In due time, with much prayer, with much learning of the meaning of grace, and many hard knocks for the kids who strayed (2 never strayed), I can testify for the Glory of God that each one has returned on their own to love and serve the living God and Jesus Christ their Savior! I homeschooled on & off for several years, until I realized one day that it had a very prideful taste in my mouth. It was as if you weren’t a good parent if you didn’t homeschool. I didn’t recognize it as idolatry but you’re right…. that’s exactly what it was! What I also failed to realize was that homeschooling was not giving them the opportunity to live their faith before the world. Or should I say to choose to live their faith. It also didn’t allow our faith to be tested and how were we going to deal with our children hearing opposing views. What was even worse was that at different times we put our kids in Christian schools which can be more confusing than public school. At least public schools are black & white. Christian schools can be so mixed! But the point is that God is so much greater than all our mistakes as parents and as people. “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness”. That is Truth! When I owned up to my mistakes as a parent, God brought redemption to our children. Yes they had choices but I also needed to acknowledge my wrongs in their upbringing.
    I certainly hope that Joshua Harris is not going to condone premarital sex, homosexuality and other things he seems to be confused about. And if he thinks that going to a Bible College is going to make things clearer, he’s definitely on the wrong tract. He needs to spend time developing his relationship with Jesus Christ through reading/studying the Bible (not commentaries) and through prayer and fasting. Letting the Holy Spirit guide him into all truth. It appears that he has led a hard, fast life of commercial Christianity. Christians today don’t want to allow time for God to work in our lives, to speak to us, to guide and direct us. Concerning Jesus associating with sinners….When Jesus dealt with sinners it’s true that He always had compassion on them and didn’t condemn them, but He ALWAYS left them with “Go and sin no more!” To say that homosexuality and same sex marriage is ok and should be accepted in the church is not being like Jesus. That’s a complete deception from the devil. I pray that Joshua, as well as others who are confused, will seek the Living God for the truth that they are so desperately wanting. Thank you Janie for your fantastic article!! It brought clarity and peace to my soul.

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