Joshua Harris wrote the book (literally) for purity culture and Marty Sampson was at the cutting edge of modern worship music. Now they say they’re leaving the faith.
For info on Joshua Harris see: https://time.com/5639876/joshua-harris-christian-divorce-apology/
For info on Marty Sampson see: https://www.christianpost.com/news/hillsong-writer-reveals-hes-no-longer-a-christian-im-genuinely-losing-my-faith.html
The question I hear from many Christians is this: It’s so sad so many Christian leaders are turning away from the faith: How could they turn away when they had such a clear understanding of Christian faith? Why is their faith going up in flames?
I say let it burn.
Not the people: the faith. If the collection of beliefs we call faith can burn, we should go ahead and let it.
We need to seriously examine why the very people who set the standards of Christian expression of culture find themselves in this place. We must do so honestly, without skipping over their struggle or story. If the ones who set these standards are leaving them behind, what does that mean for everyone still embracing those standards? Is Christian faith simply a collection of right beliefs or could it be something else?
Suspicious Beliefs or People?
I grew up around people who loved to use the story of Charles Darwin renouncing evolution. While on his deathbed, an urban legend says on his deathbed Darwin “accepted Jesus” and admitted he made up evolution and actually believed in the Bible’s 6 day creation account. His “testimony” (which truly is a legend with no supporting evidence) was used multiple times during my childhood to enforce a literalist interpretation of Genesis and cast a strong shadow of suspicion on evolution.
Funny how no one does this little flip of logic now that Joshua Harris or Marty Sampson are renouncing their former beliefs. The beliefs they practically defined are maintained as the standard while they themselves are quickly discounted as “backsliders.” Leaving the faith is not the type of testimony we like.
What if these standards, these beliefs many Christians held as self evident, aren’t actually essential to Christian faith?
I thought cognitive dissonance was evidence of faith.
I assumed the beliefs I held were based on absolute truth and that “real” Christians (not the “religious” or “dead religion” Christians) believed the things I believed. When I said I believed something even if I didn’t, I was praised for having strong faith. Beliefs that didn’t make sense to me meant that I was the problem; I didn’t understand them correctly. Leaving the faith meant not believing the beliefs.
Heroes of the Faith
I gravitated towards charismatic Christians who could explain how I could believe what I was told I should believe. I ate up what they taught, craving certainty and correctness. I was a living game of Faith Tetris- always hoping someone who knew better than me would drop a block of insight that would fit perfectly and make everything fall into place.
Enter the Guides.
Joshua Harris was a shoe-in as an influence on Christian purity culture. I already knew abstinence before marriage was the ONLY option for a good Christian girl. After reading his book I worked hard to value sexual purity even more in my life, wearing a purity ring and for a great portion of my teen years. OF COURSE I didn’t date. First of all I was already awkward and unsure of what to do with any romantic feelings. Second, literally every adult in my life totally approved and confirmed it is the most pure and Christian thing to do.
Marty Sampson was practically a worship hero. He wrote the song “All I want is You” and I mean if someone only wants God that is the ultimate Christian desire right? Desire in general always felt sinful and dangerous and pairing that with sexual desire- whew. Desire only felt safe when it’s directed towards God. Vague, yes, but much easier to deal with than specific desires. So when Marty wrote a song for us all to join in together, a song we wanted to be true, it felt meaningful and right. Purity culture was the place where desire and faith could reside (even if it couldn’t reside in me).
I was so pure I side hugged dating goodbye.
If sexual purity is evidence of my faith then I would prove how strong of a faith I had by avoiding any hint of sexual physical affection. This includes avoiding “full frontal hugs” as we used to call them. If musical worship was pleasing to God then I would raise my hands the highest, losing myself in the emotional highs of strumming guitars and vocal repetitions for hours. If it was dating then I would only date someone who was as committed as I was.
Hardly anybody fell into this category so I was equally desperately ashamed and prideful about my pure but still desirous faithful self. Even though my Faith Tetris screen continued to fill, enough of my beliefs made sense for me to stay in the game.
Who is More Right?
When I encountered other Christians who thought about faith differently I would react with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. What exactly were they saying that was different? Who told them about that difference? Was what they believed more right than what I believe?
Holier than Thou
I valued being the most right, the most holy, the best, especially when it came to people who thought differently. I would completely ignore what they had to say and skip to whatever would make me feel superior to them. After all, I was the one with the purest intentions, wanting to be the most right. If someone came to different conclusions it was obvious to me it was because they were coming up with excuses to be ok with sin.
Which Fruit is Forbidden?
I really thought other expressions of faith understood a lesser form of truth designed to trick me into believing something that wasn’t as correct as what I already believed. You know, modern-day serpents whispering offers of inferior fruit. I would hear about someone in the youth group dating and think, “Sure, you can date- but I’m going to go the extra mile and avoid it completely.” Or “Sure, you can skip the worship meeting on Friday for that new movie coming out, but I’m more faithful so I’ll be there.”
I thought pure faith meant faith without any personal desire. Withholding desire felt more pure, more godly. Holiness meant denying any desire other than desire for God. I was so busy being concerned with believing the right way that I ignored many things that don’t make sense in any context outside the ideal Christian life I had imagined existed. It is easier to say the forbidden fruit is sexual desire than it is to understand and exercise the freedom of a sexual Christian ethic.
In my fervor I substituted sexual purity for holiness.
I sacrificed my desire to a God who prefers mercy.
Beliefs worth believing can handle testing.
If something doesn’t make sense, go ahead and hold it to the fire. Don’t be afraid. God is with you. If a belief is easily deconstructed, it wouldn’t have lasted anyway. If science or reason or experience can tear apart a belief, then that belief wasn’t meant to be yours first place.
You might be surprised what you find in the ashes of all your discarded beliefs. You might find God. You might even find yourself.
Leaving what exactly?
I don’t think Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson or anyone else “leaving the faith” are any further from God than before. In fact, I think they are probably closer. Closer to who God actually is and who they really are. (Those aren’t different directions, by the way.)
Maybe they’re not so different from the two guys walking on the Emmaus road. They left Jerusalem because they thought they understood what following Jesus meant and what that looked like. Their faith was in their beliefs, not in Jesus.
What were they leaving behind? Incorrect beliefs about Jesus.
Who shows up when we we finally let go of faith in beliefs? Jesus.
Don’t be afraid. God is with you. And as you journey you will find a whole bunch of us are out here with you too. Maybe even Jesus.