The messenger matters
Readers of the Standard Bearer may remember Joshua Harris and his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (published in 1997), as it was the occasion for some discussion in the pages of this magazine a number of years ago. Harris’s book became very popular as “a manual for young evangelicals looking for love.”1 There were also many Christians who were critical of Harris’s proposal to replace dating with his prescribed method of courtship. Sometime last year I discovered that Harris himself has come to disagree with “the central idea” of his book that “dating should be avoided.”2 So firm was his conviction of error that he decided the book should not be reprinted again. When I heard that Harris had changed his mind, my thought was that this illustrates how careful parents and teenagers need to be about whom they listen to when it comes to dating, marriage, and sex. Harris has shown himself to be an unstable and unreliable teacher. This is even more evident from the latest news that Harris and his wife of 20 years are separating from each other. The man to whom many looked for advice on how to begin and enjoy a relationship of purity and commitment is now divorcing his wife, and even expressing doubts about the Christian faith in general.
It is, of course, easy to look at subsequent developments in a person’s life and say, “See, we should have never listened to the man.” That is not my main point. Nor is it my point to criticize a man for changing his mind. And we may not reject the truth because of the weaknesses of the messenger. Children have to listen to imperfect parents, and congregations must receive the word that is brought to them by preachers who are earthen vessels. Yet, in the case of parents in our Christian homes and of pastors in our Reformed churches there is an official way in which God calls and sends them to act on His behalf. Children and church members must be discerning about whom they will respect and listen to. And from the time Harris’s book was published there was reason for the discerning Reformed believer to be cautious and to recognize that this man does not come with the same credentials from God as my pastor.
R. Scott Clark explains that in contrast to what he calls the “the churchly model” for training and calling ministers, Harris was selected and promoted through “the business model” that is used by “entrepreneurial North American evangelicals.” I quote from Clark at length:
Harris rose to prominence within the Sovereign Grace Ministries orbit, under the umbrella of C. J. Mahaney, …former president of Sovereign Grace Ministries…. Harris is perhaps most famous for his 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris succeeded Mahaney as pastor of the flagship congregation of the SGM movement until he resigned to move to Vancouver, BC to attend seminary at Regent College. When he became pastor of the Maryland megachurch and when he published his widely-read and influential book on dating and courtship, he had no formal theological education. Since attending Regent he has left ministry and opened a communications consulting business.
This story is symbolic of the way entrepreneurial North American evangelicals often operate. Mahaney saw a talented young man, he plucked him from obscurity, and groomed him to become his successor. This is not how a real church operates but it is the way American evangelicals often operate. Christian, you need to learn that there is a difference. In a rightly ordered church, a real church, a historic church with a church order, with genuine accountability, with historic roots in the Reformed, medieval, and Patristic church, with a public confession to which ministers and members alike are accountable, things are done differently.3
Clark explains that in a “real church” a minister must “get an education before beginning ministry, before preaching, and before writing books”; must “present himself to the churches for examination and testing” [be approved by the churches for ministry]; and is “accountable to other churches for…doctrine and life.” Clark also points out that in a real church a minister who expresses doubts about the faith would be disciplined and stripped of his ability to speak on behalf of
Christ and the church, rather than go start a new podcast for the purpose of subjecting listeners to his new ideas. The true church of Jesus Christ is careful about calling and overseeing the men whom it authorizes to preach in His name.
Far be it from me to tell the readers of the SB to stop reading books by various authors or to stop listening to various preachers on the radio or the Internet. But let’s be discerning and remember that God has determined to send us the truth mainly by means of ministers whom He has called and sent through a faithful church. The truth matters. Because the truth matters, where we seek it also matters. Clark does not explicitly state it, but the implied calling of Christians is to join a “real” church where the one who does the teaching is properly called and sent.
There were many reasons to be wary of I Kissed Dating Goodbye solely based on its content. But there were also reasons to be wary because of Harris’s credentials (or lack thereof). Now subsequent events (Harris’s own disagreement with the book, and his divorce from his wife) confirm that both the message and the messenger matter.
Another irrelevant debate and decision in the PCA
Interesting is perhaps one way to describe the debate regarding the Presbyterian Church in America’s General Assembly decision to “affirm the Nashville Statement and launch its own study committee on sexuality.” Have you ever heard of a distinction between a “Side A” and “Side B” Christian/church? If you are interested, I suggest reading Andy Webb’s article “Has the PCA Become A De Facto ‘Side B’ Church?” If you are interested in hearing different sides of the debate, I suggest spending some time on Youtube where you can watch various men speak for and against affirming the Nashville Statement. To hear the “pro” side you may want to listen to Kevin DeYoung’s speech first (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QW2h5HEDLA). DeYoung makes some important points about using Scripture as the only standard for evaluating the Nashville Statement. For the “contra” position on the Nashville Statement, I suggest starting with Greg Johnson’s speech (www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkWdMBQyVkc). Johnson identifies himself as a celibate gay Christian pastor and argues passionately against the Nashville Statement, especially the seventh article of the statement. Article 7 states, “WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture. WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.” Interesting is also perhaps a good way to describe the analysis and debate taking place after the General Assembly’s decision. For a good explanation of why identifying as gay is sinful and should not be allowed in the church of Christ, I suggest R. Scott Clark’s article “Revoice, Nashville, and the Therapeutic Revolution.” And for an explanation of where things stand in the PCA regarding homosexuality, I point the reader to Bill Peacock’s article, “Where Does the PCA Stand on Revoice? A Look at the Numbers.”5 Peacock’s article provides interesting statistics, such as that 40% of the 541 delegates who voted against affirming the Nashville Statement did so because they see nothing wrong with someone identifying as a gay Christian. The article also includes a tweet (yes, Twitter has now come to the SB) from Greg Johnson. Johnson tweeted,
Last night NS [Nashville Statement] won the battle, but they will lose the war. 1. We had a seat at the table. That’s new. 2. Notice the average age of the proponents and opponents. Big shift. 3. About 40% of the PCA leaders rejected NS. 4. We got a study committee whose report will supersede NS in PCA.
Yes, there is much that is interesting in all the above for those who are concerned about the spiritual welfare of the PCA. However, Johnson is almost certainly correct in his analysis that the debate and the decisions that occurred at the PCA’s General Assembly are toothless and irrelevant if the goal is that the PCA rid itself of the presence and influence of those who embrace unbiblical positions regarding human sexuality. I suppose that you could say that those who have this goal have a battle plan (although they do not have any stomach for actual battle). That plan seems to be: 1) affirm the Nashville Statement; 2) write a position paper on human sexuality that condemns unbiblical views; and 3) hope that the finished position paper will rid the PCA of the presence and influence of those who hold to the unbiblical views. Sadly this is a replay of an already failed battle plan used by the PCA to address the Federal Vision. The PCA commissioned a report condemning the Federal Vision (presented to the General Assembly in 2007). But, alas, this report has not rid the PCA of those who identify with and promote the FV. Jeff Meyers, Mark Horne, Rob Rayburn, and others continue to reside comfortably in the PCA.
Why do these men not repent or leave? The same reason that Greg Johnson is unlikely to repent or leave—the PCA has chosen to hold debates and make toothless reports rather than exercise the key of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus Christ has given to the church to address impenitent sin—Christian discipline. Greg Johnson should not have been given a place at the table for debate. It is not an act of love to waive the Nashville Statement or a report on human sexuality at Greg Johnson. Christian love for Greg Johnson requires that he be “brotherly admonished to renounce his errors and wicked course of life, and if he despises his admonition, he is to be forbidden the use of the sacraments and excluded from the Christian church; and he is to be received again as a member of Christ and His church only if he promises and shows real amendment of life” (a paraphrase of A. 85 of the Heidelberg Catechism).
5 Revoice is the name of a conference that met last year and this year to “support, encourage, and empower gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians” (see, purpose of Revoice).