Anyone who pays any attention to apologetics has probably heard of Ravi Zacharias. Before his death last year, he traveled the world for decades as an evangelist and apologist. He spoke at secular universities and challenged non-Christian thinkers and leaders to consider Christian claims and the gospel worldview.
He was a winsome and charming speaker, erudite and polished. He toured the greatest institutions of higher learned on multiple continents and engaged people of all religions and atheists alike in deep conversations on the truth of the Gospel.
His organization, RZIM, boasted top notch Christian thinkers who contributed to the worldwide apologetics ministry. Sam Allberry, Amy Orr-Ewing, Abdu Murray, Nabeel Qureshi, and others were a formidable group of Christian apologists. Ravi Zacharias was greatly loved and much admired for his debonair, sharp-witted oratory and ability to answer people who challenged Christian thinking in public arenas.
I listened to him often and enjoyed his approach and insight. Thus, when a scandal erupted about the credentials on which he identified himself as “doctor”, I was quick to dismiss it. The accusation came from Steve Baughman, an atheist, charging Ravi Zacharias with falsely using the title, “Dr.”, and embellishing his connections to Oxford and Cambridge universities.[i]
Baughman seemed to “have it out” for Ravi Zacharias. He created a website, Ravi Watch[ii], in which he doggedly investigated the apologist and purported to document a number of false claims made by Ravi Zacharias. He was an atheist, so it was easy for Christians to dismiss his claims. Ravi Zacharias did have three honorary degrees, so the confusion about whether he earned a Ph.D seemed overblown.
Around the same time, though, some other allegations were emerging. A woman in Canada, who was a large donor to RZIM, went public with accusations that Ravi Zacharias developed a long-distance relationship with her, requesting nude photos from her and “sexting” with her. Ravi Zacharias strongly denied the claims, but he settled a lawsuit with the accuser for which the parties signed a non-disclosure agreement.[iii]
Most of the Christian world, including me, believed that Ravi Zacharias was being unfairly targeted by people who opposed his worldview and had an axe to grind. The allegations seemed out of character to the man we “knew” from his public ministry. The charges seemed wholly incongruent.
The charges, however, were true.
Sometime after his death on May 19, 2020, additional allegations began to emerge. They came from other sources, other women.
To its credit, RZIM hired an independent firm to investigate the charges. On February 9, 2021, a 12-page report was released from the investigation by RZIM.[iv]
The investigation confirmed allegations and disclosed many more. The report ends with these words:
“Our investigation was limited to Mr. Zacharias’s sexual misconduct, and even as to that issue it was not exhaustive. We acknowledge that we have not spoken to all individuals who may have relevant information to provide. We strived to balance the need for completeness with the need for expediency, and we are confident that we uncovered sufficient evidence to conclude that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct.” (emphasis added)
The release of the report was followed by an apology from the leaders at RZIM and shock from the rest of the Christian world.[v]
In the weeks that followed, the world of Christian apologists and the church have been wrestling with these disclosures. Everyone is talking about it. People are asking: How did it happen? What can we learn about it? What can we do to prevent this from happening again?
Like most shocking events or discoveries, the furor will die down, and we will go back to our daily lives after we have exhausted our initial angst.
We won’t really know the longstanding effects of this scandal for years. Even then, the ripples of this scandal in the Christian world will largely merge into the ether of all the happenings in the world, good and bad, that affect the way people see things and respond to them.
It will be remembered by many as a reason why they no longer believe, or never believed in the first place. The hopes and faith of many people have been affected. Some will find a way to move on, but others will be dogged by it and a million other doubts. Many will be tempted to categorize it as an aberration, and for many nothing will change.
I didn’t plan on writing about the Ravi Zacharias scandal. I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to what has already been said. I am skeptical of the real, long-term benefits of the hand-wringing exercises we do when these things occur. We go through the exercises, but we go back to our regular routines as quickly as we are done, and the change we think we are accomplishing isn’t realized.
Not that I have the answers. I have a hard enough time with long-term change in myself from the besetting sins of my youth that haunt me in middle age, and I am in no place of influence.
Yet, we must try. The Christian life is nothing if not a continual posture of repentance, turning to God to receive forgiveness, and desiring to do better. We would truly be doomed if not for a God who forgives us more than seventy times seven. So, we must turn to the Author and Perfecter of our faith – again, and again – for our answers.
The fact that we go on sinning despite our desires and intentions not to sin anymore should eliminate any surprise when our beloved and trusted leaders “fail us” by falling to their own humanity and sinful tendencies. We hope, though; we hope for ourselves to overcome sin, and we want to believe that our leaders have done so (overcoming sin), to substantiate that hope for ourselves (that we can overcome).
Maybe this is part of the reason we are caught so off guard when a Christian leader’s sinful humanity is exposed.
We shouldn’t be. Scripture gives us no reason for such hope. “All have sinned and fallen short” (Romans 3:23); and “the heart is deceitfully wicked” (Jer. 17:9). The nation of Israel had God’s very presence with them in a cloud by day and fire by night, yet they continually turned from God to their own devices.
While the Israelites waited at the base of Mount Sinai for Moses to return from meeting with God who shook the mountain so ominously that the people dared not approach it, they prevailed upon Aaron to make them a golden calf and were worshiping it when Moses returned.
We are tempted to ask, incredulously, “How could they turn overnight from such a display of God’s might and glory to worship a golden calf?”
We shouldn’t be so incredulous! Such is the human tendency. Such is the tendency in all of us left unchecked. Our very unwillingness to accept and face the power of sin over us – in us – can be our downfall.
Why do think we should be so trusting and confident in the church and its leaders? Scripture certainly doesn’t justify the trusting naivete Christians often demonstrate toward their leaders.
Scripture does compel us to honor and respect authority, and especially those who are spiritual leaders in our families and churches. Most of us do respect and honor the authorities that are in place, but maybe we take it too far. “No one is above the law” and “no one is perfect” are two axioms that come to mind, and for good reason.
When I say, “take it too far”, I don’t mean that we should not respect authority when we are under authority. I mean that we sometimes put our leaders and favorite sons on a pedestal, and we don’t expect or demand accountability in our power structures.
Even as I say, “power structures”, I don’t really mean it. We shouldn’t think in terms of “power structures”. Maybe this is part of our problem. We look and operate, sometimes, too much like the rest of the world.
In the kingdom of God, the greatest among us should be the servants of all. Our leadership should look and act differently in the church and quasi-church organizations than “the world” because of the example Jesus clearly established for us. His example was to wash his disciples feet, to serve them, to die for them and for all of us.
If our church leaders don’t exhibit the same kind of servant leadership, we know a problem exists.
We haven’t embraced authentic New Testament living if the church has power structures like we see outside the church. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have hierarchies of leaders; it means that the culture of our leadership must be dynamically different.
This means that Christian leaders need to take the example of Jesus seriously and walk as he did. It means that people in the body of Christ, collectively, should expect something different from our leaders – not in a blind, naïve, wishful thinking way. We should hold our leaders accountable. For the sake of the body and for the protection of the leaders themselves.
When we put our leaders up on a pedestal, they have a long way to fall. The repercussions of the fall of a leader who has been put up on a pedestal are great.
We shouldn’t do that. They are men and women, like us. We need to set parameters for them, and for us, that protect our leaders from the great human tendency toward sin. No one is above the power of sin, and takes opportunity when we are isolated and insulated from our vital connection in the body of Christ.
Our leaders can be the most isolated and insulated people in our churches when they are unapproachable and unaccountable.
One story that has emerged about Ravi Zacharias a warning he gave to to a women he raped that she mustn’t tell anyone because it would jeopardize the faith of millions of people. Aside from the ugliness of the manipulation of this woman’s faith, another story needs to be understood: the story of a man who thought so highly of himself that he felt he could not confess his sin and repent to anyone without jeopardizing the faith of millions of people.
Such is the deceitfulness of sin and it’s power on the human heart.
None of us are indispensable to God. None of us are irreplaceable. God’s kingdom does not rest on the shoulders of any one person, group of people or even the Church as a whole. God’s word does not go out and come back void; God is faithful and true to accomplish His purpose – with us or without us.
Ravi Zacharias was a “victim” of his own gifting and success. It stood in the way of confession and repentance. The effects of his indiscretions would have been far less – for him and for the world – if he had bowed in humility to confess and repent of his sin.
We tend to be very much like the people of Israel who wanted a king (like the other nations). God gave them King Saul, but their insistent demand for a King was, at the heart of it, a rejection of God as their King.
God warned them through the Prophet, Samuel, it wouldn’t go well for the, and it didn’t. We need to resist the temptation to want an earthly king. Our desire for strong leaders can be – at the heart of it – a desire for an earthly king rather than rely on our heavenly King.
After feeding the 5000 people, when the people wanted to make “take him by force to make him king”, Jesus withdrew (some translations say he fled) to the mountain. Jesus fled the insistence (and the temptation) of him being made a king!
That was the example of God who became man and walked among us. If Jesus fled the very thought of being made an earthly king, how much more should we reject that desire for an earthly king!
That is not how God’s kingdom is ordered. Only the Lord God, Himself is King. We should not make kings of men. Our leaders should demonstrate service above all others. In God’s kingdom, the first are last, and the last are first. Our greatest leaders are those who are servants of all.
I dare say, this tendency to exalt gifted people with strong and charismatic personalities is a great weakness of the church. We succumb to it easily. This weakness is a breach in the sheepfold that allows room for a wolf in sheep’s clothing to sneak in.
When the disciples argued over who was greatest among them on multiple occasions, Jesus was always quick and adamant to stop them. I see some poignant principals in these stories, but they will have to wait for another article, as this one is long already. In the meantime, we need understand that any thinking about greatness is dangerous thinking for the church and its leaders.
[i] See Ravi Zacharias Lied About His Credentials, and It’s All Your Fault, by Hemant Mehta, the “friendly atheist”, at Patheos.com, December 4, 2017. (Some Christian sources took Zacharias to task for the exaggeration as well: See, for instance, What We Can Learn From the Ravi Zacharias Credential Controversy, by Stephen J. Bedard for ChristianWeek, December 7, 2017; and Ravi Zacharias Faces Criticism for Exaggerated Credentials and Settling Lawsuit, by the editors at MinstryWatch November 27, 2017.
[iii] See Ravi Zacharias Faces Criticism, MinstryWatch November 27, 2017; and Ravi Zacharias Responds to Sexting Allegations, Credentials Critique, by Kate Shellnut and Sarah Eekhoff-Zylstra, Christianity Today, December 3, 2017.
[iv] See Report of Independent Investigation into Sexual Misconduct of Ravi Zacharias, by Lynsey M. Barron and William P. Eiselstein of Miller & Martin PLLC, February 9, 2021.