Last July the evangelical world received the sad news that Joshua Harris, the author of the best-selling book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye and the former lead pastor of Covenant Life Church and the founding church of Sovereign Grace Ministries in Gaithersburg, Maryland, announced that he and his wife Shannon Harris were getting a divorce after more than twenty years of marriage. They were married in 1998. Joshua and Shannon have three children.
In the statement in which he made public his decision to abandon the Christian faith, Harris said, “I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is deconstruction, the biblical phrase is falling away. By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.” In announcing Harris’ decision, The Wall Street Journal had the following headline: “Joshua Harris Kisses Christianity Goodbye.” And according to CBN News, “After Kissing Christianity Goodbye, Joshua Harris Joins Vancouver’s LGBTQ Pride Parade.”
Then, at the beginning of August, a famous Australian songwriter, Marty Sampson, announced: “I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me.” According to a deleted post published in the Christian Post, Sampson said that the church had failed him.
It is difficult to understand how people can make a decision to leave the Christian faith and depart from their fellowship with Christ. On one occasion when many of Jesus’ disciples quit following him and left, “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:67-68).
Scot McKnight wrote an excellent post in which he seeks to explain why people depart from the faith. In one section of his post, Scot writes,
Theoretically speaking, all conversions are apostasies and all apostasies are therefore conversions. Everyone who converts leaves a former faith, even if that faith is ill-defined. Everyone who leaves the orthodox Christian faith converts to a different faith, even if that new faith is as ill-defined as a kind of agnosticism or personal theism or even gentler forms of atheism. Those who study conversions often observe that a conversion to something means a conversion from something else.
Scot McKnight and Al Mohler have given different explanations of why people leave the faith. Their posts are worth reading. In this present post I want to take a different approach to why people leave the Christian faith.
Over the years I have received many emails and comments from people who once were Christians but now call themselves “ex-Christians.” People who call themselves “ex-Christians” are people who for one reason or another gave up their faith and stropped believing in God.
The statements by Harris and Sampson made me think about the reasons people leave the faith. Like Harris and Sampson, there are many others who have made similar decisions to abandon their faith and stop calling themselves Christians.
Harris’ and Sampson’s decisions to abandon the Christian faith prompted me to ask myself: “Why am I a Christian?” In an attempt to answer that question, I had to understand some of the possible reasons people stop believing in God and leave Christianity.
Why am I a Christian? The first reason I am a Christian is because I know whom I have believed, not what I have believed, the what being the Bible.
Christianity is focused on Jesus Christ, who he is, how he lived, what he did, how and why he died, and the fact that he rose again. Without Christ there is no Christianity. Christ is the foundation upon which faith is built.
The Apostle Paul wrote: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). As Christians, we have to believe in Christ and also be convinced that he is able to keep us faithful until the final day.
However, in the Christian life, many people put their faith in the Bible. They say: “I believe in the Bible.” Some believe that the King James Version is the only version God has inspired, and when the King James is criticized, that criticism becomes an attack on their faith.
Some people have problems with the God of the Old Testament. They focus on divine violence, the killing of the Canaanites, the actions of some people in the Old Testament, and some practices that are unacceptable by today’s standards. These people leave the faith because they cannot reconcile their morals with the morals of the people of the Old Testament.
Some people are shocked about the fact that the final verses of Mark may not be genuine or that the Trinity verse in 1 John 5:7 in the King James is not original to the letter of John. Some people are concerned about the veracity of some biblical passages and when they discover that some passages in the New Testament are not genuine, they stop believing the Bible and leave the church and their faith.
The Bible is very important to Christians, but faith in Jesus Christ is not destroyed because a verse is corrupt or because a passage has been added to or deleted from the Gospel. One must remember that people believed in Christ even before there was a New Testament. In the life of the early church, faith in Christ preceded faith in the Bible.
The second reason I am a Christian is because I know whom I have believed, not what I have believed, the what being the church. The Apostle’s Creed says in part: “I believe in . . . Jesus Christ . . . I believe in the holy catholic church.”
The problem is, believing in Christ and believing in the church are two different things. Faith in Christ is faith in a person: “I know whom I have believed.” When we put faith in Christ, we know that he is Truth and that he will never disappoint us. But the same cannot be said of the church.
In the history of Christianity we read about the many evils committed by the church. The church has made many mistakes and has perpetrated many atrocities that shock believers and non-believers alike.
In a lecture delivered to the National Secular Society on March 6, 1927 titled “Why I Am Not A Christian,” Bertrand Russell gave many reasons why he was not a Christian, one of them was that the church “inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering.”
Those who put their faith in the church will be disappointed because the church, sooner or later, will fail them, and out of disgust or unhappiness, they may stop believing in the church. But Jesus never fails because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
The third reason why I am a Christian is because I know whom I have believed, not what I have believed, the what being dogmas and creeds. Christian denominations are separated because of doctrines. Doctrines about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, justification, and a host of other doctrinal positions divide believers, but none of these saves; Jesus saves.
Unable to distinguish which doctrine is correct or which view is better, some people give up on Christ and stop believing altogether. The fact is, that doctrine separates but Christ unites. If people would put their faith in Christ rather than dogmas or creeds, there would be no reason to abandon the One who remains constant in the lives of believers.
In the fallible world in which we live, one can find many reasons to leave the church or abandon one’s faith. Church members are human, and they fail us and God. We may give up on them, but God never does. The church is not perfect because it is composed of imperfect human beings. We may give up on the church, but God never does for, as Paul said, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
To be continued tomorrow. Tomorrow I will discuss what happens when people abandon God.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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