This past July, former pastor and Christian author Josh Harris announced via Instagram that he and his wife were separating. While this may have sounded like a couple who was using temporary separation to work through some marital issues, the reality is that Josh and his wife of twenty years were getting a divorce.
A few days after the announcement, Harris, again on Instagram, claimed that he was no longer a Christian, while also making comments that suggest he has moved away from his convictions on biblical sexuality and marriage, specifically with regard to homosexuality and so-called marriage equality. Now that he has made this declaration, Harris says, “I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful.” He doesn’t seem to be looking back.
For those of you who only recently come to Christ or who have never read Harris’ most famous book, So I Kissed Dating Goodbye, this news may have not been too alarming. “Another celebrity Christian bites the dust. Oh well.” But for those who had listened to his sermons, read his books, and profited from Harris’ ministry, such news is not only deeply discouraging but incredibly frightening.
Over the past several years Harris has preached and written eloquently on some of Scripture’s most sublime truths, he has courageously voiced public concern for sin within his own denomination, and he has stood for sexual purity in a time when such ideals are usually scoffed at by the greater public. That someone could turn his back on Christ, the church, and his wife after all that should make Christians shudder in terror. Scripture is clear about what awaits those who have tasted the goodness of Christ only to finally reject him (see Heb 6:1-8).
Most recently, the popular YouTube comedy duo, Rhett and Link, publicly announced their departure from the faith. Prior to their internet stardom, Rhett and Link had been professing Christians and even served on staff with Cru, a nationwide organization that focuses on college campus evangelism. (I came to Christ the winter of 1998 due in part to the faithful ministry of a Cru—formally Campus Crusades for Christ—staff member.) With such a large and wide-reaching platform, Rhett and Link’s deconversion stories will serve to undermine the faith of many. This is also a frightening prospect for these two men (Luke 17:2).
Perhaps you haven’t had much experience with Josh Harris or Rhett and Link. But maybe you’ve had people close to you fall away from the faith: a family member, a dear friend, a relative, a colleague, a college roommate, a pastor. When these events occur, we can’t leave our questions hanging in mid-air. Unless we train our minds to go to the Bible when we hear of professing Christians denying the faith, we will be tossed to and fro by confusion, discouragement, and spiritual insecurity. With that in mind, let me offer a few urgent exhortations for the sake of your stability and perseverance in the faith.
1. Repent of your own sin. When we hear of a professing Christian who has walked away from Christ, whether they are a well-known Christian or a personal acquaintance, our response will often include anger, frustration, and disappointment. Scripture gives us room to be righteously angry over apostasy (see Ps 101:3). But anger cannot be the only emotion toward which we should gravitate; humility should follow quickly in the wake of any anger we feel. Immediately after reminding the Corinthian church of how God dealt with Israel’s sin, Paul told the Corinthians, “Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). When dealing with the sins of others, Scripture would have us quickly turn our eyes to our own weakness and propensity to evil (see Gal 6:1). Let news of a professing Christian’s departure from Christ be a means of provoking genuine self-examination and repentance in your own life.
2. Cling to Christ by faith. In using this grievous situation as an opportunity to exercise repentance in your own life, seek at the same time to cultivate a love for Christ. Make it your aim in life to treasure Christ, to stand in awe of his sacrificial and free love to you, to maintain regular fellowship with him through prayer and meditation on his word, to cut out anything in your life that dampens your spiritual zeal (Heb 12:1-2), and to worship him with all your heart. Rely continually on Christ’s promises to hold you fast (John 10:27-30; Rom 8:31-39) and pray that God will sustain your faith (Mark 9:24) and keep you from temptation (Matt 6:13). When we are near to Christ, we will be far from apostasy.
3. Beware of compromise in your own life. While the factors leading to Christian “de-conversions” are often complex, Scripture offers us the simple reminder that the road to apostasy is rarely obvious. We tend to slip off of the narrow road onto a different path because the new path appears more pleasant, less restrictive, and easier to navigate. But spiritual compromises occur precisely because they ease the friction of running against opposing traffic. It is hard work to put sin to death (Rom 8:6; Col 3:1-16), keep our life from the love of money (Matt 6:19-24; Heb 13:5), keep Christ and the gospel foremost in our mind and heart (Phil 3:8-11), guard against encroaching desires that, though perhaps good, tend to overtake our single-minded devotion to Christ (Mark 4:19), and to stand for the truth in a culture that hates our Lord and his word (John 15:18-25; 2 Tim 3:12). We must beware of our desire for ease and comfort and keep fighting the good fight of faith every single day (2 Tim 4:7).
4. Grieve, but don’t be surprised. When these evangelical deconversions occur, we should be grieved, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Does this sound jaded? It shouldn’t. Scripture prepares us for such events so that when they happen, we won’t be thrown for a spiritual loop and lose our footing. Yes, those who depart from Christ will often become a stumbling block to many Christians, but they don’t have to be.
Paul spoke often of those who gave convincing evidence that they were believers, only to eventually leave the faith (see 1 Tim 1:19-20; 2 Tim 4:9). John reminds us that the departure of professing Christians from the fold isn’t a sign that they lost their salvation, but that they never had it (1 John 2:19). The latter days, the Spirit tells us, will be characterized by apostasy (1 Tim 4:1-5; 2 Tim 3:1-9). The fact that we hear of more and more “exvangelicals,” as they are calling themselves, is only more proof that Scripture is true. Neither Josh Harris or Rhett and Link will be the last high profile Christians you hear of abandoning the faith, I assure you of that.
5. Leave the final judgment to God. It may be tempting to render the final judgment on Joshua Harris and those like him. I have several friends from college who have walked away from Christ after demonstrating seemingly remarkable signs they were genuine believers. Some of them are now agnostic. Others are now professing atheists. How do I think about their spiritual condition? I used to consider their situation irreparable and their soul irretrievable. I based this conviction on Hebrews 6:4-6 which says that it is impossible to renew to repentance those who fall away after they had previously tasted of the Holy Spirit, the good word of God, and the power of the age to come. I concluded, therefore, that those among my friends who once appeared to walk with Christ only to depart from him were in a situation in which they could no longer repent. This conclusion, however, was grounded on a faulty assumption.
I presumed to know for certain that these friends had crossed the line that Hebrews 6:4-6 mentions. I’ve come to realize, however, that because I am not God and I do not have access to the inner-workings of my friends’ spiritual lives, I cannot say for sure that they have stepped over to the point of no return. Only God knows such things.
Even Paul, when discussing the spiritual condition of those who had departed from Christ, never appears to render a final judgment on their eternal state. Hymenaeus and Alexander, for example, had made a “shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim 1:19). Paul, therefore, “handed them over to Satan so that they would learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). The “handing over to Satan” is the same language Paul uses to describe what he did to the unrepentant brother in Corinth (see 1 Cor 5:5).
Such “handing over” however, had a redemptive aim: repentance and restoration. In the case of the Corinthian brother, it seems to have worked (see 2 Cor 2:7-8). In the case of Hymenaeus and Alexander, Paul’s hope was that they would “learn not to blaspheme.” This must refer to repentance because those who finally enter into eternal judgment will forever blaspheme God (see Rev 22:11). Paul mentioned that Demas had deserted him because Demas had fallen in love with this present world (Col 4:9). This is a serious charge, but also rather reserved if we consider that Paul has no problem leveling eternal damnation on people (see Gal 1:8-9). In both of these circumstances, Paul describes what was presently being evidenced by these men—shipwrecked faith, desertion, love for the world—but he leaves their eternal state to God and the final judgment.
Let’s be absolutely clear: the situation for Josh Harris and those like him is perilous. They are in danger of eternal damnation (Heb 10:26-31). But it is not our job to render a final judgment on their souls and assume we know exactly what has transpired between them and God. Rather, we are to pray fervently for former Christians who are now on the precipice of judgment and hope for their recovery, for “love hopes all things” (1 Cor 13:7).
It is never pleasant to hear of a professing Christian walk away from the faith. But God has given us everything we need to endure these declarations of deconversion. May such reports be for us a means for repentance, a closer walk with God, and diligent prayer for our souls and the souls of others.
3 thoughts on “What to Do When Professing Christians Leave the Faith”
Every bit of this is sincere, and yet wrong. Naive, too. There’s no need to try and sway you, but if anyone takes this seriously, I’m an ex-pastor who spent all of their young adulthood in ministry and leaving Christianity is absolutely one of the best choices I’ve made in my life. Clinging to a faith so many good and rational people are leaving should give you pause.
Many of us leave because the theology is psychologically harmful. I’m an incest survivor who had to recover from within the Christian worldview and found it nearly impossible. I’m happy to discuss this further. Maybe really trying to listen and extend love would be better than letting everyone know that we are certainly damned. I’m not feeling the love there.
I am a former believer, and I could not be happier with the way I live my life now. I can tell you sincerely care for those who have left the faith. I would encourage you to spend more time asking them questions about their experience than trying to tell them things they are usually very familiar with, like the threat of eternal damnation.