Disheartening Defections

It happened again recently, twice actually. Two prominent Christians renounced their faith publicly. Whenever this occurs, and it seems to be happening with greater frequency, many Christians are affected adversely. Reactions range from simple discouragement and sorrow, to self-questioning, and doubts. “If such well-known Christian leaders no longer believe the gospel, how can I be certain it’s true?”

First it was Joshua Harris, author of the best seller, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and more recently, lead pastor from 2004 to 2015 of Covenant Life Church, the megachurch founded by C. J. MaHaney in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In July, 2019, Josh announced that he and his wife, Shannon, were separating due to “significant changes that have taken place in both of us,” and shortly afterward, he publicly announced that he no longer considered himself a Christian. Since then, Harris has marched in several Gay Pride parades. It is all very sad, but unfortunately, true.

This departure was soon followed by Marty Sampson, an original band member for more than twenty years with Hillsong United, a contemporary Christian group affiliated with Hillsong Church Australia. Sampson posted on his Instagram account, “I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing.” He says he wants “genuine” truth that doesn’t rely on platitudes like, “I just believe it.” Although Sampson’s retreat is not quite as thundering as Harris’s, he states that he is no longer certain about historic Christian doctrine, and is exploring alternative religions, including atheism. Thus Christians are left to ponder a defection by one of the most popular contemporary Christian musicians of our day. Many young people who have been listening to Sampson’s music for years are now wondering if the Christian faith is tenable.

What Does Scripture Teach?

Should we be shocked by defections like these? Actually, no. Saddened, burdened, prayerful, but not surprised. The reality of departures is documented throughout the New Testament Scriptures. We could begin with Judas, one of Christ’s twelve apostles, or we might consider Demas, who labored faithfully with the Apostle Paul for an extended period before we read, “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10). Several passages warn about defections and prepare us to realize that they are more common than we might expect. Consider Christ’s parable of the soils. Three out of four produced Christian professions, but two of these three defected with the passing of time. Only one produced lasting fruit. That is a sobering reality. Yes, the Bible tells us to expect Christian defections. They are real, certain, and numerous. Why, therefore, should we be surprised when they occur?

Consider this statement by the Apostle John. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19). Defectors who depart from Christian fellowship and renounce the Christian faith were never true believers in the first place. Whatever their interest in Christ, it was not the result of a regenerating work of God’s Spirit in the new birth. Their eventual departure simply manifested their true condition all along.

What’s Different About These Two Cases?

Josh Harris was Reformed, Marty Sampson embraced classic Pentecostal theology. Harris was a pastor and author, Sampson a musician and composer. Harris was American, Sampson, Australian. This ought to especially humble Reformed Christians as they are again reminded that sound theology is no barrier to apostasy. After all, if Judas, who was taught by Jesus Himself, could defect, then surely anyone can. It is a solemn warning to all who profess to know the Lord.

What’s Similar About These Two?

They were both leaders who attained celebrity status among evangelical Christians when they were quite young, still in their twenties. They were both contemporary Christians, by which I mean they practiced a contemporary style of Christian worship. They both utilized contemporary Christian music and casual styles of dress. They employed a platform approach to worship performed on a stage more like a popular music concert than a traditional church. In addition, they were both Charismatics. It may surprise you to learn that someone with Reformed theology, like Joshua Harris, could also be Charismatic, but that is more common today than many realize.

What Can We Learn?

First, we should view these sad episodes as sober warnings. What happened to them can happen to anyone who identifies as a Christian. The Bible exhorts, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). It is wonderful to know that a true believer can never lose his salvation. It is sobering to realize that some who give impressive evidence of faith for a while, can actually be counterfeit Christians who fall away from their profession and are forever lost. That is why we should never be presumptuous or careless. We should regularly examine ourselves to see if we are indeed in the faith, and continually make our calling and election sure (2 Corinthians 13:5, 2 Peter 1:10).

Celebrity Christianity

We should be wary of the modern trend toward celebrity driven Christianity. Hero worship is endemic in the world, but has no place in Biblical Christianity. This is one of many worldly practices that have penetrated the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Celebrity adulation is dangerous enough for worshipping Christians, but is probably even more dangerous for the celebrities who lead them. If leaders like Harris and Sampson can gain such a huge following among Christians when they, from present evidence, are not even true believers, what does that say about the health of contemporary Christianity? If you don’t see the spiritual danger in this, you aren’t paying attention.

Qualifications for Ministry

By nearly any standard of evaluation, both Harris and Sampson were novices when they were placed into ministry leadership. Sampson was not serving as a pastor, but was writing lyrics used regularly in church worship. Clearly, his doctrinal understanding was weak. Shouldn’t we be more careful about who is writing the songs we employ in worship and listen to throughout the week to make certain the lyrics reflect sound theology? Too often, the primary qualifications for ministry seems to be a dynamic personality and ability to attract a crowd rather than doctrinal grounding and sterling character.

Contemporary Style Worship

This should prod us to ask some hard questions about the contemporary style of Christian worship so popular today. Maybe those who have been urging caution are not simply out of touch with the real world after all. It is unquestionably true that the Bible prescribes no regulations for styles of dress, music, or architecture in worship. But is it possible that the contemporary approach sends a subtle message that is largely antithetical to Biblical Christianity?

There are legitimate reasons to be wary of the “cool” approach to the Christian faith. Are we commanded to be cool, or committed? Popular, or despised by the world? Should we endeavor to turn church into a rousing rock concert, or be willing to take up our cross daily and follow Christ? Are we signaling that becoming a follower of Jesus Christ is fun and games, that sacrifice for the sake of Christ is unnecessary? If so, we shouldn’t be surprised if many are attracted by the popular appeal who by-pass any serious consideration of either doctrine or cross bearing.

These two highly publicized defections should cause sober evaluation among serious-minded Christians. May our Lord help us to absorb lessons that will strengthen our churches for the good of Christ’s sheep and the glory of God.

Greg Barkman 2018 bio


G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and nine grandchildren.

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Mark_Smith's picture

I started a Sunday PM sermon/Bible study series on this topic. Sampson in particular outlined several reasons why he was loosing his faith.

1-As a Pentecostal, if God is a God of miracles, why doesn't he see more

2-The Bible has many contradictions (my series focuses mainly on this- looking at supposed contradictions in the Bible and providing explanation for them)

3- This one is MOST IMPORTANT for millennials. If God is a God of love, how could "4 billion people go to that place". That is what he said (from my memory so not perfect quote). First, he could not type "hell." Second, his number implies 3.7 billion are Christians (way over counting in my estimation). Third, many people throw the slogan "God loves you around" in a careless way... it is catching up with us. We need to be more careful about how we say "God loves you" to unbelievers or even to believers. They here it and think God's wrath is done away with. But the same chapter that has John 3:16 has John 3:36! You'll notice in John 3:36 the wrath of God abides on those who "do not obey the Son". Belief and obedience are parallel ideas here. Without preaching too much more, an entire generation has been told God is a God of love, and he cares for you etc independent of faith and obedience. And it is leading to things like what happened to Sampson and Harris. It is happening to how many others whose names we do not know.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Brother Barkman,

I agree with much of your article (very timely), and it makes many valid points.   Yet  I take exception to some of the logic in a couple of cases:

 If leaders like Harris and Sampson can gain such a huge following among Christians when they, from present evidence, are not even true believers, what does that say about the health of contemporary Christianity? 

I might remind you that the apostles made Judas their treasurer.  And King Saul  and King Solomon were God's choices and yet went bad.  Don't get me wrong -- many Christians are naive in who they follow (even Jack Hyles, IMO, was not worthy of gaining the following he had).  I think the two situations are different.  Harris had more doctrinal depth than Sampson.

Your argument that:

 Shouldn’t we be more careful about who is writing the songs we employ in worship and listen to throughout the week

is valid concern, but unevenly applied.  Many of our great hymns were written by people we would not invite to our pulpits. Consider sources like St. Francis of Assisi, Longfellow, or one of my favorites written by a man who fell away, Come Thou Fount.  

 

As far as contemporary worship goes, I think you are confusing cause with correlation.  The big name celebrity pastors these days are involved with contemporary worship because that is what tends to grow churches (particularly in the suburban north).  People SAY they chose churches with doctrine in view, but my experience says youth groups/stuff for kids, programs, and music are the draw (in reality).

I think the concern should be more content based, IMO, not source based.  7-11 songs (seven words repeated 11 times) are pretty shallow, IMO, and more like trying to work people up into a state of obliviousness (sometimes considered "worship").  

When revivalistic preaching was popular 40 years ago, it was those churches that drew the crowds -- and the celebrity pastors were a mix of good names and bad. 

Christians may make shallow decisions when choosing a church, but I think the problem is indexed to what is popular and the fad (be it stomping snorting preaching or contemporary music), not what we might call "true spirituality."

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

....if Harris defected at all. I'm not an expert on him, though a friend I respect does note that Harris was deep into the more legalistic or rules based side of things (that could be an interesting correlation here, no?).  Even apart from doctrines like "perseverance of the saints", I have to wonder whether he ever had a good understanding of the Gospel.

On the flip side, I sat next to a Presbyterian pastor one time on a plane who believed Harris was the real deal--he wasn't as enamored of CJ and others.  So I just have to wonder and don't know for sure.

One thing that I can endorse fully, though, is the notion that our culture of celebrity (and that is HUGE in various genre of music, too) gets us into trouble.  We see someone with oratorical gifts and a charismatic personality as somehow indispensable until....suddenly we find that he is not.  Harris, Hyles, Schaap, etc..

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Ed, I'm not ignoring your comments.  I find them worth considering alongside what I wrote.  Thanks for taking time to add your thoughts.  I haven't responded because I really do not disagree.

Bert, your comments are a bit of a puzzle.  I wonder if you actually read the article.  I think there is no question about Joshua Harris's utter renunciation of the Christian faith.  Unless he has publicly renounced his previous public renunciation, he is an openly declared apostate.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

....is that in light of (alleged I admit) works-righteousness in his upbringing, did Harris ever really understand the Gospel?  Can you defect from what you never really understood or endorsed?  Is it apostasy, or is it "never was a member of the club"?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Harris embraced the gospel and preached the gospel.  Whenever anyone defects it can be said that they probably never really understood it.  To truly understand it is to believe it.  To renounce it is to reveal that you never truly believed it.  Bert, by your definition, it would be difficult to ever pronounce anyone an apostate.  No apostate was "ever a member of the club" in the sense of possessing true saving faith in the gospel.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

GN, you're asserting as incontestable fact the very question which I'm disputing.  I'm not giving, by the way, carte blanche to doubt anyone's salvation if they seem to become apostate.  What I'm saying is that in cases like that of Harris--where his first big book more or less said "do X, Y, and Z and you'll have a lifetime of great marital sex"--there are indeed strong hints of semi-Pelagianism that ought to lead us to at least ask the question.

Now if you're strongly acquainted with Harris' other work and can speak to that, that's great, but from my humble perspective, I think it's reasonable to ask the question.  Put in other terms, there are reasons--not just suppression of reports of sexual abuse at SGM--that Harris stepped down to go to seminary, and reasons that he stepped away from seminary to start a marketing business.  A lack of understanding of the Gospel would seem to fit that.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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