Authenticity as Authority

Fairplain Presbyterian Church
Fairplain Presbyterian Church
Authenticity as Authority

When the chief priests and elders ask Jesus by what authority he is doing the things he does, he inverts the relationship between authority and action. The people who have authority are those who can tell the truth about when faith doesn’t work the way we were told it was supposed to.


Sermon manuscripts represent the preacher’s plan for what the sermon is going to be before they preach them. Actual sermon content may differ from what appears below.

We’re wrestling this morning with the idea of authority: Where does it come from? Who has it? Why? To dig into that, I need to tell you about Joshua Harris.

In 1997, a 23-year-young man named Joshua Harris wrote a book that revolutionized the dating experience. He wrote all kinds of things, things that weren’t really original to him, but had come from a movement called “purity culture,” a movement that his book advanced.

The ideas were things like, dating is bad, because when you date someone you give them a piece of your heart, so you won’t have as much of your heart to give to the person you eventually marry. Yes, really. It wasn’t all original to him, but he popularized it.

Kristen and I both read this book. I heard about it on Focus on the Family, because Joshua Harris’s dad was apparently famous or something and that’s how his book got published? The same year, he became a pastoral intern.

His book made dating and romantic relationships, which was already immensely complicated, even more complicated for a lot of young people – ironically, by providing a road map for dating and relationships. One that didn’t work, but a road map nonetheless. Well, it worked for him – he got married a year later. Three years later he wrote another book about how it worked out and how he ended up getting married.

In 2004, at the ripe old age of 30, he became the senior pastor of a 3,000-member megachurch.

Over the years, lots of teens and young adults read his book, tried his tactics, and had to eventually figure out that he had led them astray, that his ideas didn’t work (my dad thought it was nonsense the first time he heard him on Focus on the Family).

Years passed. More and more people shared stories about having gotten broken hearts or broken somebody else’s heart, or stayed single longer than they wanted to… because of Joshua Harris’s book.

In 2015, he went to seminary. Almost 20 years after writing “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” 11 years after becoming a pastor. (They weren’t Presbyterian; you could just, become a pastor, in this church).

In 2016, he started rethinking his book and apologizing to people who’d been hurt by it.
In 2018, he stopped its publication.
In 2019, he and his wife separated, after 21 years.
This is what “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” was supposed to have prevented. A whole lot of people felt vindicated.

A few days after that, he posted on Instagram, “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”

Many of us in the community who had followed his advice were curious to see where this all might lead.

In 2021, he created a “Reframe Your Story” course. It included a “deconstruction starter pack.”

Deconstruction, if you don’t know, is a process of starting to ask questions about faith and shaking it down to the foundations to see if anything is there, if anything is real. Some of us came out progressive Christians; some of us came out atheist, agnostic, or joined some other faith tradition, or none at all. Some of us are still trying to figure it out, whatever “it” is.

When Joshua Harris posted that story, I’d been doing deconstruction for probably ten years. I’d seen a lot, I’d heard a lot, I’d learned a lot and grown a lot, and I’d been writing about it a lot on my blog. It wasn’t even called “deconstruction” when I started – there wasn’t a name for it.

So when he came out with a course to help with deconstruction, a lot of us who had been in the space were mad. I wrote a blog post called “The Maps Are Wrong,” a little bit about him and also about a lot of other people who were claiming authority in that space.


It reminds me of that Charles Schultz cartoon – not Peanuts, but something he did before that – featuring a kid who says “I used to consider myself an authority on the book of Revelation. Then I met someone who had actually read it.”

We’re wrestling this morning with the idea of authority: Where does it come from? Who has it? Why?

In the world of Christian deconstruction, people like Rachel Held Evans had managed to gain a level of authority without even asking for it – not by telling people she had all the right doctrine, quoting enough Bible verses or creeds or doctrinal statements, or translating them from Greek or Hebrew, but by asking honest questions and talking about her own life experience and her own questions and concerns and problems with the Christian faith.

She was an authority. Matthew Paul Turner was an authority. A whole bunch of other bloggers in that space were able to speak authoritatively about doubt and discomfort with elements of the faith that was handed down to them.

They gained credibility by being honest.

For so many of us who grew up being told what we had to believe, being told “I believed this and lived it and great things happened to me,” hearing someone say, “I believed this and lived it and it completely blew up in my face,” hearing someone tell us the truth that we had already come to know in our bones, but were never allowed to say, was so liberating.

The things that people, pastors, parents, told us were true, just didn’t work. They weren’t working. And along came these deconstruction people saying, “That’s right. They don’t work.”

They didn’t have answers, but they gave themselves and us permission to talk about the elephant in the room. About hell, about why exactly we were told men are supposed to be in charge, about what happens when people who were not named Joshua Harris tried to follow his roadmap.

They had authenticity. Their authenticity gave them authority.

They told their stories, stories, not about faith, but about doubt; not about faithfulness, but about screwing up and being beloved anyway.

I think maybe Brennan Manning, a lapsed Catholic priest and alcoholic who wrote a book called Ragamuffin Gospel, was probably up to his elbows in this when Rachel Held Evans and I were in diapers, talking about the messy and uncomfortable truths of his life and his alcoholism as it met up with the inevitable love of God.

Authenticity granted them authority.

So when Joshua Harris walked into that room and announced, “I’ve just deconstructed and I’m not a Christian by any standard I have for being a Christian. Who wants to buy a course for $275 about how you can do it too?” people came for him. To his credit, he offered it for free to anyone who had been harmed by his book, but those of us who had been in the space for a long time were stunned. We wanted to hear the story, but he had come out with a way to turn the story into a way to make money via an electronic course, as though he was somehow an “authority” on deconstruction and life-reframing now.

We saw right through it. To his credit, it didn’t take long before he pulled the whole thing.

The kids these days.. they just want to be treated with respect. They want adults with authenticity, who say things that are true, who are willing to step up and fight climate change and other things they see as threats to their future. You don’t have to know all the slang; older people talking like today’s youths is cringe anyway. The way to get the W (that’s gen z for ‘Win’) is authenticity and listening and learning and justice.

That’s what my generation wanted. That’s what the next one wants. I don’t know a lot about the generations before ours, but I expect truth-telling is appreciated in every generation.

If you can tell the truth in a world committed to lies – and by “the truth” I don’t mean the “truth” of “God hates gay people” or whatever randomly selected made-up doctrine based on out-of-context verses and not on the love of God that it’s become popular to try to foist on the world in the name of “speaking truth to political correctness;” if you can tell truth to a world committed to half-truths, if you can say “Christians don’t have to be happy all the time,” or “I’m a Christian, and I’m gay, and I don’t know what that means,” if you can say “I can’t prove Christianity, but (as Rachel Held Evans put it) this is the story I’m willing to be wrong about…” That’s powerful.

There’s a line from the movie Walk the Line, which is absolutely a product of its time when it came out in 2005, where the producer, Sam Philips, interrupts Johnny Cash and his band’s performance and asks him,

If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song… You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.

No cap.

I think Jesus was able to speak to the people because it was clear that his experience of God was genuine and had a truth they hadn’t heard before but that resonated, and he spoke for truth and justice.

Maybe he was saying things about God that resonated with them, things they’d always felt were true but never had anyone say out loud before, or he put things in a way that made them reconsider their reality because they hadn’t thought about it like that before.

Maybe that’s why he told stories.

The story he told in today’s reading was of two sons, one who said he wouldn’t do what he was told, then did it, and another who said he would, but didn’t.

Which son did what his father asked? The first.

It’s what we do that gives us our authority.

They ask him where he gets his authority from, and so he asks where John got his from, knowing their answer already.

Then he tells a story that inverts the authority – doing causal chain:
They want to know
where his authority comes from to do the things.
Jesus tells them, through this story,
that his authority is revealed in doing those things.

The authority is revealed in the doing,
not the doing from the authority.

When I started blogging about faith, I didn’t have a master of divinity. I just had my computer, a WordPress site, and a whole bunch of nagging questions. A bunch of nagging questions that a lot of other people had, too.

I wrote them. I joined a blogging collective, and Kristen, who wasn’t quite in the same place I was at the time spiritually, started reading the articles that showed up on my Facebook feed, because they spoke a truth that wasn’t allowed to be said by the people on her Facebook news feed.

It’s not that she thought it was right; it’s that it was more interesting.

Nobody on her feed was asking those questions.

The thing about Moses is, he doesn’t get his authority from believing he believes the right stuff. He got his authority from doing stuff. Doing what God said to do. And it got results. You might not think Moses was God’s dude, but it’s hard to argue with the water coming out of the rock when you’re thirsty.

Moses strikes the rock, and water comes out, and people’s thirst is quenched. I spent more time than I should have this past week trying to figure out why he struck the rock. What was it supposed to do? Why? What was the meaning of striking the rock? I found nothing.

A couple months ago, Joshua Harris put out a statement on “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” He apologized for the harm it had done to people, said the things he’d written aren’t in the Bible, and that he’s sincerely sorry. He’s still working on stuff, he’s still doing public speaking and writing and helping people with brand management, but I think maybe – maybe – he’s growing.

So where does this leave us?

I think this leaves us with a calling to listen to the stories of others, and to tell our stories, that is, to tell the truth, even when it isn’t pretty, in a way that is respectful of others who have different experiences.

And not just to do lipservice, but to do the work of justice as much as we can, as we are called to.

And when we come with our full, authentic selves, or even if we try, as Bono said, “come to God wearing sunglasses,” Jesus beckons us welcome to his table.