In the Wake of Ravi Zacharias’s Sexual Abuse of Women
A few months ago, Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM) released a statement about the external investigation into allegations against Ravi Zacharias. That preliminary statement was very disturbing, but the twelve-page final report released late yesterday, February 11, is horrific. Here is just a small sample, but there are much more graphic depictions, which I’d encourage you to ask God whether or not you should read:
She [a massage therapist] reported that he [Ravi Zacharias] made her pray with him to thank God for the “opportunity” they both received [by having sex]. She said he called her his “reward” for living a life of service to God, and he referenced the “godly men” in the Bible with more than one wife. She said he warned her not ever to speak out against him or she would be responsible for the “millions of souls” whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged.
This next quote is a small part of the response to this report by the RZIM board, also posted yesterday: “We regret that we allowed our misplaced trust in Ravi to result in him having less oversight and accountability than would have been wise and loving. We also regret the ways that many of us have publicly extolled Ravi’s character and the impact this will have had on victims of his abuse. We now know our words have been hurtful, and that causes us deep sorrow.”
They go on to say, “We are shocked and grieved by Ravi’s actions. As Ravi Zacharias was the founder of our ministry and the leader of our staff, community, and team, we also feel a deep need for corporate repentance.”
One of the saddest things I’ve ever had to do was realize in December that we should take down from our website various blogs, articles, and videos concerning Ravi Zacharias.
I didn’t know Ravi well, but as it turns out I didn’t know him even as well as I thought I did. I had two conversations with him over the years, both at a big booksellers’ convention. The second of those times, my daughter Angela was with me. Ravi stopped and talked with us, making both him and us late for radio shows, but he was so kind and gracious to my daughter that we were struck with his humility and servant-heartedness. This same character quality came out in many of his debates and Q&As—he could disagree with people while still being kind and respectful.
Because of this, I was truly shocked when I first read credible and later irrefutable evidence that Ravi had a long-term pattern of sexual immorality that involved many women. This part of Ravi, according to family and close friends, was unthinkable to them. It was invisible, and that’s the most troubling part, because sin and abuse thrive in the dark.
I am always disappointed by (but sometimes not shocked by) the moral failures of evangelical leaders. I say that with great sadness. God says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Sometimes pride is conspicuous to nearly everyone but the person guilty of it. When a Christian leader—or anyone else—often comes across as proud and arrogant it may be simply because that’s what he really is. Pride and arrogance weren’t the first things most of us saw in Ravi. What we saw was apparent humility and devotion to Jesus. When these qualities are the genuine fruit of God’s Spirit, they are beautiful; when they are not, they can become tools to manipulate others into gratifying our sinful desires.
I know enough of the ugliness of my own pride that at least I am sometimes, though regretfully not always, aware of it when it rears its ugly head.
Here are some first thoughts in response to this tragedy, actually these many tragedies, because each incident did harm to others as well as to the reputation of Christ:
- Let’s be quick to confess and repent. Most Christian leaders I know are like me, sinners saved by grace and growing in Christlikeness but nonetheless prone to sometimes dishonor God. That’s why quick and sincere confession and repentance before God and others needs to be a regular part of our lives. If we postpone repentance we will be dragged deeper into sin.
- Let’s “finish well.” My friends and I often encourage each other to do this, especially as we get closer to that finish line, which each of us do every day. Clearly Ravi did not finish well. He finished in what appears to have been grievous sin that was unconfessed and unrepented of. Of course, only God knows what happened in his final hours or minutes. But all the books and messages and debates he ever engaged in, all the good he may have done, could not begin to compensate for his disobedience. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
- Let’s not trust ourselves too much by putting ourselves into temptation: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3).
- Let’s not act as if we are spiritually or morally stronger than we are: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
- Let’s decisively run away from sexual temptation: “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
- Let’s realize Satan has targeted us for destruction. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
- Let’s lean on each other for moral strength and support. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
- Let's remember we can’t keep dark secrets from God, the Audience of One. And we can keep them from people only a short time, even if that short time is decades. “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3).
Who Can We Trust?
Many people question their faith when Christian leaders fall. When they fall to the degree Ravi did, what is a person who came to Christ hearing Ravi speak, or reading one of his books, supposed to think?
While we should all live consistently with the gospel, our obedience and virtue should never be the foundation or object of anyone else’s faith. Christian leaders are not God. They did not create you and didn’t die for your sins. If your primary faith is in Christian leaders instead of Jesus, then you need to lose that faith and replace it with Jesus alone, the only proper object of your faith. Put your ultimate and absolute faith in no man except Jesus, the God-man.
However, that previous paragraph isn’t where we should stop. As 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and other passages make clear, Christian leaders are responsible to be people of integrity. Blameless, loving what is good, upright, holy, self-controlled. In a word, trustworthy. We should be growing in Christlikeness and set an example for others in recognizing our own weaknesses, temptations, and sins. We should be examples both in living righteously and in seeking to prevent moral lapses and dealing with them decisively if they happen, in confession and repentance.
Only when this is done will people be able to trust leaders. Church and ministry boards and staff should make sure to have true accountability. So in one sense of course Jesus is the only one we ultimately and unconditionally trust. But as we become more like Jesus people should be able to trust us also!
Paul said, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Churches and ministries desperately need these kind of leaders! And they should do all they can to cultivate and find them.
A dear friend wrote, “My prayer now is that everyone hearing of Ravi’s sins will be driven to the Savior. That we will each confess our own sins and pray for our brothers and sisters in the Lord as waves of abuse roll over the church and Christian ministries. I pray that each one will remember that God cannot fail, no matter what men do. I pray that new safeguards will be put in place by Christian ministries to minimize the chance of such a thing happening again.”
Why Talk about a Man Who’s Dead and Can’t Defend Himself?
Part of the answer is that, as the report shows, Ravi consistently covered up and lied and manipulated to protect himself so that he wasn’t caught when he was alive.
“Let him rest in peace” isn’t a good response. We can’t let something like this rest by covering it up and therefore making the next abuser think he can get away. Suppose U.S. Olympic team doctor Larry Nasser had died prior to U.S. gymnast Rachael Denhollander accusing him of sexual assault. Should she have not spoken up if he’d already died? Should the other 155 women who came forward have remained silent if he’d died? Many of these women testify to the beginning of healing because they spoke up, and in their case testified against a sexual predator at his trial. And they sent the message to the victims “speak up” and to the victimizer “you won’t get away with it.”
What I Regret: Not Believing Lori Anne Thompson
When I first heard of the woman who accused Ravi a few years ago, based on the information given by the ministry, I thought that a false accusation was possible. I was told it was motivated by financial gain and that this couple had done the same thing before. I have often said to pastor friends how careful we have to be because a single false accusation that we could not disprove—and in many cases it’s impossible to prove innocence—would take us down and ruin our reputations forever even if there wasn’t a shred of truth in it. That’s why innocent until proven guilty is my assumption.
In Ravi’s case it turned out, as the new report verifies, there was a lot of contrary evidence that was silenced when they settled out of court with a nondisclosure agreement. I remember my first reactions when I heard about that agreement. Do innocent people actually pay to silence evidence from being made public? Why would Ravi agree to that if he were innocent? When I was told Ravi confessed he was unwise, that he should never have texted with her in the first place so she couldn’t send those inappropriate photos to him, I chose to give the benefit of my doubt to Ravi, who I thought I knew, instead of to people who I didn’t know and heard weren’t credible. That is a big regret. I should never have made the assumption I did.
Lori Anne Thompson, this woman I didn’t know, earlier this week posted a video on her webpage, describing her relationship with Ravi Zacharias as "the most traumatizing, soul destroying, faith crushing season in my life.” Watching this sixteen-minute video by Lori Anne was painful in the extreme, though any pain on my part of course is the tiniest fraction of her and her husband’s pain. She says, “I knew the world to be an unsafe place before I met Ravi Zacharias—but I yet had hope that there were some safe and sacred spaces. I no longer live with that hope. I trusted him. I trusted Christendom. That trust is irreparably and catastrophically shattered.”
Let the weight of that dear woman’s pain fall on you as it did on me. Of course we can say others have been abused by people and still trust Jesus, but when someone seems to be the voice of Jesus in your life and then treats you so horribly, it can close up your heart.
After watching her video, I asked God’s forgiveness for believing the statements by RZIM in which they characterized her and her husband as extortionists attacking a character qualified Christian leader. When you have to ask God’s forgiveness for believing a Christian leader and a Christian ministry, it means something has gone terribly wrong. I pray for Lori Anne Thompson and her husband now. I think if you watch that video, she may be on your prayer list too. What a picture of the consequences of a Christian leader’s sin!
In their statement issued yesterday, to their credit the board of RZIM apologized to the Thompsons. “We believe Lori Anne Thompson has told the truth about the nature of her relationship with Ravi Zacharias,” the board said. “It is with profound grief that we recognize that because we did not believe the Thompsons and both privately and publicly perpetuated a false narrative, they were slandered for years and their suffering was greatly prolonged and intensified. This leaves us heartbroken and ashamed.”
Broken Hearts and Tragic Consequences
I have never enjoyed working on a blog less than this one. My heart is broken, and I ache for the victims of Ravi Zacharias. I ache for seekers who had been influenced by Ravi’s words and now will dismiss them. I ache for younger people in our churches, and older ones too, who keep seeing and hearing story after story of Christian leaders being bullies, money-lovers, and adulterers. And in this case, a sexual predator. If it breaks my heart this much, what does it do to the heart of Jesus? Surely it also stirs his anger, and unlike ours, righteous anger is the only kind he has. “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31, CSB). Perhaps there is no more tragic consequence to the sexual sin of Christians than its effect on non-Christians. Nathan said to David, in the wake of his sexual sin, “by doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt . . .” (2 Samuel 12:14).
Let’s all pray for Ravi’s wife, daughters, and son. I can’t imagine the depths of their grief. They lost him in death less than a year ago. Now they are losing him again in a way far more difficult than death.
There is more to be learned from this great tragedy, including the need to wake up and take precautions, to change structures and cultures in ministries and churches, and to foster mutual moral and spiritual accountability. And the need to recognize Satan’s power and plans to deceive and destroy us and our service for Jesus through sexual immorality. I’ll address all that in an upcoming blog.
See the other blogs in this series: