In my previous blog, “In the Wake of Ravi Zacharias’s Sexual Abuse of Women,” I quoted from the detailed investigative report from a law firm which was commissioned by Ravi Zacharias International Ministry.
I also quoted from the “Open Letter from the International Board of Directors of RZIM on the Investigation of Ravi Zacharias.” The board says they believe the investigative report to be true, and they are the ones who made it public. In their letter they apologize to the many victims and lament their own failure to believe and properly investigate the claims made against Zacharias.
In this blog, I want to address the responses to my previous article, which I think are very enlightening in evaluating our different views of the moral failures of Christian leaders.
My Friday, February 12 blog came out twelve hours after RZIM released the report from the investigators. In the first ten hours after posting, over 700 comments came in on my Facebook page. I read every one of those, including the comments on comments. The next day I read the subsequent 100 comments, and today 100 more. What I’m going to say now comes out of that.
First, I was very moved by so many who demonstrated broken-heartedness. People were so sad, as well as shocked. They expressed great concern for the victims, and empathy for Ravi’s family who will live with this for the rest of their lives.
Many also affirmed our faith should be in Jesus, not people. No one should lose their faith in Jesus, the morally perfect God-man who went to the cross for us, because anyone else, no matter how gifted and well-known, fails terribly.
A number of commenters mentioned their own abuse at the hands of Christian leaders. This ranged from sexual abuse to bullying to misappropriating funds for personal use. While we can’t know what happened in every case, we should all know such things do in fact happen, far more often than they should. When they do our hearts should be broken, and we should pray and seek to help people however we can.
Many said things such as, “These accusations only came out after he died and can no longer defend himself.” In fact, accusations go back at least several years, and Ravi did defend himself by lying about them. That is all documented. See the detailed report issued by the independent investigative firm after interviewing over fifty people and finding hundreds of inappropriate photos of women on Ravi’s devices and incriminating texts he sent to them.
This response was frequent. Maybe some just didn’t bother reading the blog or didn’t follow the links to the statement by the law firm hired to find the truth, and the apology by the RZIM board. Please, don’t make statements against what you’re unwilling to actually read.
If you did read it and still don’t believe it, then you are not believing the people who knew Ravi best, have been the most loyal to him, and once unswervingly defended him but now say the claims against him are true.
One comment simply said: “I just don’t believe it.” Legally someone is “innocent until proven guilty” but that’s not where we’re at now. It’s “seen as guilty only after having been proven guilty.” When Christians refuse to believe facts based on over 50 objectively conducted (the law firm was hired and paid by RZIM) interviews of those with direct knowledge, that’s an indication we don’t believe Jesus when He says, in a different context, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
In that same passage He says of Satan, “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). This passage pertains both when innocent people are being falsely accused and when guilty people have been proven to be guilty. In either case don’t believe the devil.
I addressed in the previous blog the viewpoint “don’t condemn a man when he’s dead, he’s not here to defend himself.” That didn’t stop people from repeatedly saying that in the comments. The truth is that Ravi did hear the accusations from Lori Anne Thompson while still alive, and over the course of years continued to deny them, including many that the investigative firm and the ministry board now affirm to have been true all along.
Some commenters, sadly, said they no longer trust any Christian leaders, including local church pastors. True, there have been many well-known and lesser known Christian leaders who have sinned sexually, financially, and through bullying those who work “for” them (that’s one of the problems—people should be viewed as servants of Jesus, not servants of Christian leaders).
I believe that while disappointment is understandable and inevitable, we should not lose trust in all pastors and Christian leaders because some or even many have abused people’s trust. Likewise, a few commenters said they have lost their trust in all men. But no matter how many men do bad, there are many men of integrity and true humility before God. I say this because I know many of them myself! Could I be wrong about some? Yes, I was wrong about Ravi. I’m sure I will be proven wrong again.
But isn’t this part of the fall and living in a world under the Curse? To recognize that some people are phonies and wolves in sheep’s clothing is simply to believe the Bible. To conclude that all are phonies and wolves makes no sense. The same Bible that shows flawed people and immoral and prideful spiritual leaders also shows people of integrity growing in grace and genuinely serving Jesus. The Bible also says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:8). So let’s look at positive spiritual outcomes and the way of life of God’s people and follow what we see in them. The negative spiritual outcomes will always be there in some, so just don’t follow those. But don’t throw out the baby of godly leaders with the bathwater of ungodly leaders!
The Holy Spirit would never have put forward the stringent character qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 if such men did not exist. They did exist, and they still do. “They are all phonies” and “you can’t trust any of them” are just more lies from Satan.
Some people have given up on churches because of their bad experiences. I understand, but I also know that God intends for us to be part of churches, and the devil doesn’t want us to be. This is based on much more than Hebrews 10:25, though it includes it: “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer” (GNT).
Find a church that includes fellowship, Bible teaching, pastoral leadership, baptism, the Lord’s supper, discipleship, evangelism, and all the things associated with being a New Testament Church. If you decide to start a church, fine, but remember that your church will be started by a sinner, and joined only by sinners. The old saying is true: “If you find a perfect church don’t join it, because then it won’t be perfect anymore.”
It’s reasonable to expect leaders should live up to biblical qualifications. If they fail morally, they should be removed from leadership. (This is in the best interests of the church, the rest of the staff and themselves.) Christ will not give up on the church, and He says ultimately the gates of Hell won’t prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Instead of giving up on church, we should help raise the bar of moral accountability. If we are in churches where we believe pastors are unqualified to lead based on biblical standards, if the leaders don’t agree and we remain convinced of it, we should find another church where leaders are character-qualified. Many such churches really do exist, believe me. (Keep looking!)
True, as Ravi painfully demonstrated, we can’t always know what people are doing in their private lives, but in the right kind of team ministry in churches and parachurch organizations, there can and should be true moral accountability and honesty. (My next blog will be devoted to that subject.)
Some commenters pointed out the Bible is full of deeply flawed people who God uses. It’s also full of genuinely godly people such as David, who committed adultery and effectively ordered the murder of a loyal friend to cover his adultery with Bathsheba and permit him to marry her. It doesn’t get much worse than that.
Read the account in 2 Samuel 7 of how Nathan boldly confronted David, who came to repentance, and was forgiven of his sin, which still bore lifelong consequences. Nathan serves as an example of what people who work around pastors and Christian leaders should do when they become aware of their sin, or are aware of leaders putting themselves in places of temptation and moving toward sin.
Those mentioning David often pointed out he is called a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). But when people compared David to Ravi, as a number of commenters did, they failed to mention that David agonized over his sins and confessed and repented of them (see Psalm 32 and 51). Had David not listened to Nathan and confessed and repented, we would not remember him as a man after God’s own heart. That’s where the comparison to Ravi breaks down, as I’ve heard no indication of confession and repentance, only of denial.
It disturbed me to see a number of people say this. Certainly, we are all guilty of our sinful choices, but that does not mean we are equally guilty. This is something I wrote years ago in Sexual Temptation, a booklet geared to pastors and Christian leaders:
Sexual involvement with one who has come to seek emotional help or spiritual guidance should not only be considered fornication or adultery—it should be considered sexual abuse. Sexual activity that comes out of a ministry context is comparable to child sexual abuse, where the supposedly mature and stable adult figure takes advantage of his or her authority and credibility to initiate or allow a sexual encounter with the immature and vulnerable. In such cases, the person in ministry is not a victim but a predator. And it is all the worse because we are trusted representatives of Christ.
When various commenters said, “These were adult women who were consenting adults,” they failed to recognize the imbalance of power between an established Christian leader with great verbal skills who is in the obvious power position and who exerts influence on someone. While it isn’t a righteous response, it’s understandable that someone could not only be flattered by the man’s interest but also reason, “I thought doing this was wrong, but he knows the Bible far better than I do, maybe it’s really okay.” Is that rationalizing? Of course. But when Jesus talked about abusive leaders being wolves among the sheep, surely He wasn’t putting equal blame on the sheep as on the wolves.
Obviously it is sin for anyone to commit adultery, either to initiate it or to voluntarily engage in it. But the greater sin is committed by the one who uses his or her power position to manipulate or seduce another. All sins are evil (James 2:10) but Jesus spoke of “greater sins” (John 19:11). All sin is wrong, but some sins are worse than others (Matthew 10:14-15).
By analogy, the people who deliberately ended their own lives by taking poison at Jonestown were guilty of suicide. But Jim Jones was even more guilty because of abusing his spiritual power to lead them into the sin. The only people who didn’t sin were the children too young to know or understand what they were doing. They were just obeying their parents who sinned in being deceived by Jones, whose greater sin was misrepresenting Jesus and misusing his position of spiritual power to become an agent of Satan instead of God.
Some comments seemed to reduce the Christian life to having the willpower to not sin. But the answer isn’t “I’ll just try harder to resist temptation”—even though indeed we must try. We need to not just say “you have to do better,” but depend on Christ and call upon His grace and strength to empower us:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-15)
Sure, we should work hard, but all that work should be empowered by Him as we yield ourselves to him: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29).
I didn’t know best how to respond to some of the comments that concerned me most. God wonderfully came to my aid when an email came in from a friend I haven’t been in touch with for many years. He read the blog and some of the comments, as well as comments on other sites. I asked his permission to share some of what he said:
Randy, I wanted to say thank you for your post on Ravi…. I knew Ravi and know those at RZIM.
I think it would be immensely helpful for the evangelical world, especially those who will post and leave footprints, to realize that the unbelieving world isn't just won over by our “positive” righteousness and our “good, virtuous” witness and testimony; but also, if not sometimes more so, by our brokenness, helplessness… and God's unilateral grace in saving us, shaping us, and loving us anyway ... despite ourselves.
In my personal experience, the air and attitude of self-righteousness has contributed far more to unbelievers’ resistance to Christianity than the sins of Christian leaders, though that can and has served to reinforce their resistance, of course. Yet, our spirit of judgment (not the righteous kind, but the Matt. 7:1 kind Jesus commanded us not to have) and its accompanying ethos have really been the biggest stench and hindrance to our testimony, in my engagement with unbelievers. We could be technically and propositionally correct in our assessments and perspectives, but something about the evangelical spirit has also been very predatory, grooming, abusive, and downright evil, leaving so many badly hurt and repulsed…
The spirit of the posts and comments I’ve been reading by the believing world has largely been missing an awful lot in terms of spirit and attitude. It sounds and reads much like the unbelieving world in so many ways.
I was stung to see the lack of grace in a number of the comments. What are we thinking? The proper way to respond to public sin is not to point fingers at everyone else and argue over word choices, but to come with deep grief, righteous anger on behalf of victims, and self-awareness of our own sin and the danger it presents to ship-wrecking our own lives. In the following blogs I will address this and more. My hope is that our response to this terrible episode will drive us to our knees and cause us to search our hearts and examine our own lives before our God, as David did:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
See the other blogs in this series:
1) In the Wake of Ravi Zacharias’s Sexual Abuse of Women
2) Evaluating Our Responses to the Ravi Zacharias Scandal
3) What Christian Leaders and Ministries Must Realize So We Don’t End like Ravi Did
4) Christian Leaders Need Accountability to Guard Our Lives and Ministries
5) Counting Sin’s Costs Can Help Foster Sexual Purity
6) Final Thoughts on Embracing Sexual Purity and Preventing Disaster
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.