What Christian Leaders and Ministries Must Realize So We Don’t End like Ravi Did
I continue to receive comments on my previous blogs such as, “Let it go. The man is dead, and he’s already been called accountable for his sins.” And “I am so disappointed in you right now, Randy. I’m grievously saddened that you’ve jumped on the media band wagon to further bury Ravi which further discounts the mighty ways God used him. ...I wonder if Jesus were standing here as all these stones are being thrown in the name of righteousness, would He also be throwing one? Would He be publicizing the sin?”
What people don’t seem to understand is that everyone in the secular media, in nearly every outlet, is talking about this. The sin has already been publicized. For every Christian article about it there are easily fifty secular articles or newscasts. The difference is, they are not bringing a biblical perspective, nor should we expect them to. If we fail to address this head on, the only viewpoints God’s people will hear are ungodly ones.
It is hopelessly naïve to think that if only we don’t talk about it, somehow it will just go away. That’s why I will continue to write about it as a segue into dealing with issues of pride, sin, secrecy, and lack of accountability in our lives, churches, and ministries. (As to the charge that we shouldn’t talk about this on Facebook, the reality is that social media is where many people go to get information and interact. Our ministry has always shared links to my blog posts on social media.)
Scripture directly addresses sins and in a number of cases, calls out people by name. In this case, we are not calling out Ravi, as he has already been called out. This is not about punishing Ravi or throwing stones. He will not stand before our judgment seat. We’re trying to address how we should view this and process the lessons God has for us. Respectfully, if you don’t want to read it, just don’t. But also, don’t be upset that some of us believe we need to learn what God may wish to teach us.
Many people in their comments have quoted Matthew 7:1, “Don’t judge.” The context Jesus said this in, and many other things He said, show that it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use moral and spiritual discernment. (See my further thoughts on this. Jon Bloom has some great insights on Jesus telling us not to judge and also, with a different meaning, telling us to judge.)
It is certainly true that there’s nothing we can do about Ravi’s life now. That is done. But there’s a lot we can and should do about our lives. And families. And churches. And ministries. That’s the whole point: not to wallow in what Ravi did, but to ask ourselves what we can do so that at the end our lives, God can say to us, flawed though we be, “Well done.”
What Lessons Can We Learn?
Journalist David French has written a significant article as a believer in Christ with far more knowledge of RZIM than most journalists. In fact, he wrote a tribute to Ravi Zacharias after his death, as did I and countless others. French laments his failure to carefully investigate the initial claims of sexual abuse. His article covers a lot of ground, but these paragraphs stood out to me and should speak to every Christian ministry, including the one I founded and direct, and every church, including the one I once pastored and still attend:
What are the lessons we can learn? …When family members of founders occupy the controlling heights of an organization, they are placed under immense strain and face an obvious conflict of interest when their father is accused of misconduct. Rigorous, independent investigations should be mandatory when accusers come forward. Compliance with reasonable investigatory requests (such as turning over phones and other communications equipment) must be required. Governing boards should be powerful, independent, and transparent.
…Nondisclosure agreements—especially in Christian ministries—are poisonous and enable additional abuse. Do not trust instincts over evidence. Never say, “I know this man, and he would never do anything like this.” The goal of any organization facing claims of abuse should be discerning truth, not discrediting accusers. All accusers should be treated immediately—publicly and privately—with dignity and respect.
But it goes even deeper. Christian ministries are populated by leadership teams who derive not just their paychecks but also their own public reputations from their affiliation with the famous founder. They’re admired in part because the founder is admired. They have influence in part because the founder has influence. When the founder fails, they lose more than a paycheck. There is powerful personal incentive to circle the wagons and to defend the ministry, even when that defense destroys lives.
The zeal to protect the leader and punish or discredit the accuser can also rest in a particular brand of arrogance. “My ministry is necessary.” “Souls are at stake.” “Look at all the good we’re doing.” In reality, God will accomplish His purposes, with or without any of us, regardless of our gifts or talents.
We have seen the same story again and again. A pastor is accused of sexual immorality or financial impropriety or leadership by bullying, and typically the church board defends him and says it isn’t true. Finally it’s no longer possible to deny the pastor’s sin, but the board members have lost all credibility. By the time leaders resign and the church tries to start over, the most principled staff and many of the core people have already left. The same happens with Christian ministries.
Coming to grips with the realities of what French wrote could save church and ministry boards from having to say what Ravi Zacharias’s ministry said last week.
Thirty years ago I wrote my booklet Sexual Temptation for pastors and Christian leaders, as well as the churches and ministries they serve. Sadly, it has proven to be timeless because immorality has continued. The booklet contains clear, preventive guidelines we can follow to avoid immorality. If I could get one main message from that booklet to Christian leaders right now, it would be this: ministry is not just a task. It is a sacred trust between the under-shepherd and the flock (or the parachurch minister and the larger Christian community) which has been entrusted to him by God. To misuse and violate that trust to achieve sexual conquest, or even emotional dependence, is a deplorable behavior. It is using spiritual authority and power to exploit another person.
Even the secular counseling profession considers it the highest breach of ethics to enter into a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a client. Indeed, 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.
How much has our reputation as Christ’s servants suffered? How much credibility have we lost because of the highly publicized immoral exploits of those in ministry? After hearing of yet another fallen Christian leader, years ago a committed Christian woman told me in tears, “Every time I listen to a Christian leader now, I can’t shake the thought that he’s likely living in immorality.”
Here are three critical facts we must understand:
Critical Fact #1: We are targeted for sexual immorality.
Some years ago, there were weighty rumors about an international “hit list,” a calculated plan for paid assassins to murder strategic world leaders. A terrifying thought, isn’t it? Yet I’m convinced that the enemy, Satan, has maintained such a hit list throughout the millennia. And there’s every reason to believe that mature Christians are at the very top of it.
If you have a ministry of any sort—public or private—as a teacher, preacher, leader, helper, or as any kind of salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16)—then take heed: you are a targeted man, a marked woman. The forces of evil have taken out a contract on you. There is a price on your head. Satan is out to get you. Why? Because he wants to nullify your ministry. Because you bear on your shoulders the reputation of Christ.
Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the invisible realm (Ephesians 6:12). These desperately evil beings have vested interests in our moral collapse. They will do everything in their power to strike out at Christ and His church. “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Critical fact #2: We are vulnerable to sexual immorality.
In the early 1980’s, while still in my late twenties, I began researching my first book Christians in the Wake of the Sexual Revolution, which was released in 1985. I was alarmed at the degree of sexual immorality I knew of already as a young pastor. Sadly, this wasn’t just among sheep but among shepherds (who, by the way, are first and foremost sheep and should be viewed as sheep by themselves and others, even as they lead as shepherds). When the book was first released, many critics expressed skepticism that immorality in the ministry was as widespread as I indicated, and expressed it wasn’t helpful to talk about it. A few years later the dramatic moral falls of Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, and others changed some people’s minds.
All Christians are susceptible to sexual sin. The myth that we are morally invulnerable dies slowly, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. There is not and never has been some mystical antibody that makes us immune to sexual sin.
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). What level of pride is required to believe that sexual sin could overtake Lot, Samson, David (“a man after God’s own heart”), Solomon, the Corinthians, and many Christian leaders today, but not me? Paul’s warnings deserve a prominent place on our mirrors, dashboards, desktops, and computers: “But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1); “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
In response to my first blog about Ravi Zacharias, where I quoted from both the investigative report and the open letter from RZIM, many responded by saying, “I don’t believe this is real.” One elaborated, “This is part of the cancel culture. Can’t you see? They had to have a valid reason to pull his books and declare him ungodly and untrustworthy because his teachings are sound and many seekers like listening to him. In order for the great reset to happen they have must get rid of America and Christianity.”
Why is it impossible for some to believe that a Christian leader can be guilty as charged? Partly because we kid ourselves into thinking it just can’t happen. What’s the result? Not taking action to prevent it. If you’re sure you won’t be robbed, you will leave your cash on the windowsill and the window open. Why not?
One of several friends who knew Ravi well emailed me about the apologist’s international travel schedule that left him utterly exhausted, crossing time zones like they were mile markers. I think of how exhaustion has sometimes fed my own vulnerability to wrong thinking and makes it easier to be tempted toward impatience, anger, or lust. Perhaps Ravi’s schedule and the expectations he and others put on him turned his “ministry” into a set-up for burnout, rationalizations, and patterns of grievous sin.
To be clear, that absolutely doesn’t in any way justify his abuse of women, but it could be part of the explanation of how his life was derailed, and as another friend who knew him well put it, led to him “living a double life.”
Perhaps instead of flying around the world at the pace he did, he could have spoken half as often and not become exhausted and given in to impulses that I hope at one point in his life he viewed as forbidden by God. Retrospect is always easier, but I suspect now that his family and friends and board wish they would have insisted he speak and travel less, and rest more and commune with God and have ongoing accountability with godly men. One commenter on Facebook wisely wrote, “I am beginning to think that those in ministry, especially those leading ministries, need to have a couple of weeks at least twice a year to sit with accountability partners and talk through their struggles. They also need time to be encouraged by others and have time to allow the Holy Spirit to speak into their lives both encouragement and correction.”
Speaking of flying, I’ve long been struck by the spiritual application when flight crews announce, “If you’re traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, in the case of an emergency, secure your own oxygen mask first before helping the other person.” Those instructions apply to everyone in Christian ministry. In order to tend to anyone else’s spiritual lives, we need to first tend to our own relationship with Christ.
Perhaps the rationale was, push yourself to the limits so you can reach as many people with the message as possible. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Because only a tiny percentage of the millions who would have read his books and watched his messages for at least generation or two will do so now. Doing more, or appearing to do more, for God’s kingdom then without proper spiritual growth, accountability, and rest nullified his future ministry.
(Many have commented that Ravi’s books, videos, and insights are just as true and needed now as ever. However, separating a man’s life message from his patterns of abuse is difficult, isn’t it? Will anyone ever get the same good feelings from The Cosby Show that they once did? Will others recommend and watch it, no matter how good it once was? At least one of Ravi’s publishers has already stopped selling his books. A builder can commit murder, but his buildings will still stand. Not so with the messages of a man who wasn’t just imperfect but betrayed the most basic beliefs he advocated. Fortunately, there are other defenders of the faith who are addressing the same questions Ravi did, though his gifts and communicative skills and manner were remarkable.)
Critical fact #3: We are fully responsible for our moral choices.
It’s often said that people “fall” into immorality. That expression is as revealing as it is faulty and dangerous. The very term fall betrays a victim mentality. It sounds as if we were walking down a street and someone tripped us. It implies that moral collapse comes out of nowhere, that there is little or nothing we could have done to prevent what happened.
We do not fall into immorality. We walk into it. Indeed, sometimes we run headlong into it. We must realize from the beginning that immorality is a choice. It is not something that happens to people. It is something that people make happen.
We may do everything in our power to achieve physical health, yet we can still get cancer. But this is not true of immorality. If we depend on our Savior and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, and take deliberate and ongoing steps to cultivate purity and avoid immorality, we can avoid it. It does not choose us. We choose it—or we choose to avoid it. That’s why God says this to us: “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way” (Proverbs 4:14-15)
Is Immorality Inevitable?
One woman in ministry said to me, “There’s so much immorality among Christians now that I’m living in constant fear. It’s happened to those more godly than I, so I keep thinking that it’s probably going to happen to me. It almost seems inevitable.”
God does not want us to be presumptuous, but neither does He want us to be paranoid. We do not have to live each day teetering on the edge of immorality or paralyzed by the fear of a sudden fall. In the context of resisting sexual temptation, the wise man says this to his son:
My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight;
they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.
Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble;
when you lie down you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked,
for the LORD will be your confidence
And will keep your foot from being snared.
If we walk daily with Christ, being alert to what’s happening in our minds and implementing steps of righteousness and wisdom, only then we can go our way “in safety” and “not be afraid.”
See the other blogs in this series:
Browse more resources on the topic of purity, and see Randy's book The Purity Principle and his booklet Sexual Temptation.