Just because famous Christians have failed to count the cost of following Christ, doesn’t take away from the faith of those they’ve left behind.
This summer Josh Harris and Marty Sampson — two “famous” Christians — have renounced their faith, both making their announcements on Instagram. In July, Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and longtime pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, wrote on the social networking site, “By all the measurements I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
Last week, Sampson, a songwriter who wrote for and played with the ultra-popular Australia-based Hillsong United, made his announcement by questioning why no one talks about some of the more challenging aspects of Christianity. Wrote Sampson,
“How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it.”
His announcement has come under criticism from evangelicals for seeming disingenuous. David French noted how Sampson’s words didn’t reflect reality, “you simply cannot grow up in an Evangelical church without discussing many of these topics incessantly.”
This critique was a part of French’s larger case that those who are falling away from Christianity today are doing so
“not because they’re ignorant of its key tenets and lack the necessary intellectual, theological depth but rather because the adversity of adherence to increasingly countercultural doctrine grows too great.”
Indeed, Jesus himself had something to say on this topic. In Luke 14, Jesus, in very plain language, explicitly declared the high earthly cost of being his disciple. It involves picking up and carrying one’s own cross. He then mentioned a king preparing for battle and a man preparing to build a tower. Both of these endeavors require forethought and planning. Following Christ for life requires the same.
In the face of mounting pressure to adhere to cultural norms that are out of step with orthodox Christianity, Harris and Sampson are only the first of what will surely be many famous Christians who won’t have the moral audacity to walk with Christ for life.
We are entering an era of Instagram Christian influencer apostasy. Men and women who have been thrust into the spotlight or positions of prominence without first counting the cost will continue to renounce the faith in spectacular, public fashion, “lob[ing] grenades back at the church as [they] leave.”
While it is disappointing to see Harris and Sampson go, it would be tragic if their falling away opens the floodgate of apostasy — especially among their followers and those who have been influenced or encouraged by them. Perhaps at this time, those who were influenced by I Kissed Dating Goodbye or discipled by Harris, or those who have grown in their faith through the music of Hillsong, feel confused, unsure what this means for their faith and walk with the Lord.
To this point, church history is not without some guidance and encouragement. In the 3rd Century a dispute raged among church fathers in regards to baptism performed by heretical sects. Some bishops, such as St. Cyprian, held that men and women baptized by heretical leaders needed to be re-baptized upon entering the Catholic church. The pope at the time, St. Stephen, disagreed and proclaimed that baptism done properly, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — regardless of who administered it — was valid.
Another church father, Opatus of Milevus, put it succinctly in his treatise, Against the Donatists, writing, “the validity of Baptism does not depend upon the character of the man who has been chosen to baptize.”
If baptism is valid regardless of the spiritual state or character of the one who administers it, then so is the faith of those who have been encouraged by leaders who later fall away. The apostasy of Harris and Sampson takes nothing away from the spiritual growth others have experienced from their ministries.
While Harris’ book has come under some measure of scrutiny for being legalistic, it is important to remember that purity is still a distinctly Christian virtue because it is an explicitly biblical theme. Those who benefitted spiritually from Harris’ book or ministry need not look on those gains as a sham. They are real.
In regards to Sampson, anyone who has drawn or is still drawing near to Christ in worship by singing the songs written by someone who has fallen away need not be dismayed. Those songs and that worship are not tainted by his renunciation of faith.
As we continue on in the era of Instagram Christian influencer apostasy don’t be alarmed when more men and women walk away from the faith. Their apostasy isn’t because of some kind of lack in Christianity, but because they failed to count the cost of following Christ in a culture where everyone wants to do what is right in their own eyes. Nor do those left behind by apostates need to feel as though their faith is in anyway diminished by the failures of their leaders. Our faith is in Christ, not in the influencers who may or may not walk away from him.
John Thomas is a freelance writer. His writing has appeared at The Public Discourse, The American Conservative, and The Federalist. He writes regularly at medium.com/soli-deo-gloria.