Christian Leaders Need Accountability to Guard Our Lives and Ministries
My next few blogs will follow up on my three previous posts and continue to allude sometimes to what happened with Ravi Zacharias. Why? So that as Christian leaders and laypeople, we can learn from it and avoid sexual immorality ourselves.
I believe this is right despite comments on social media such as this one: “What a bunch of sanctimonious sensationalism to gain attention. Why don’t these ‘godly’ commentators lead millions to faith in Jesus Christ first and then talk about ‘living like Ravi Zacharias’? It’s the same as those who talk about King David being an adulterer and murderer and terrible father. Any of you had God call you a man after my own heart? I DON’T THINK SO!”
God doesn’t want us to look the other way when these things keep happening. I have rarely written anything about ministry sex scandals in the last ten years, but perhaps I’ve failed in that regard. I believe God desires to bring beauty out of ashes (Isaiah 61:3). He put stories in the Bible so we could learn from them, and wise people will do so. In fact, God’s Word tells us why accounts of people committing sin are recorded in Scripture:
God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Corinthians 10:5-10)
Many commenters said things like Holly did: “I personally need help processing this and you are providing sound counsel.” And Scott: “Please keep writing about this.” And Chad: “I’m grateful for careful counsel and sound biblical observations of what we believers can learn from all of this and apply to our lives.”
Those voices confirm to me that God desires for His people to learn from this, so I’m choosing to continue.
Accountability and Why We Need It
Nothing is talked about more and acted on less than being “accountable.” Some fear accountability, while others imagine they’re being accountable when all they’re really doing is eating breakfast and socializing, with an occasional spiritual discussion but no going beneath the surface.
Nothing’s wrong with a regular gathering with friends that doesn’t have an agenda. But if friends are serious followers of Christ, there’s also a need to talk about Jesus and share and encourage each other. And when people see us in a group setting, especially with our spouses, they will pick up things—perhaps that we seem to be correcting our spouse a lot in front of the group, or we seem to be nicer to someone else’s spouse than our own. We need that kind of feedback. I don’t know whether Ravi Zacharias and his wife were in groups like that.
With his travel schedule, flying from time zone to time zone to do events and meet with heads of state, I doubt if there was much time left for Ravi Zacharias to meet with regular people from whom he was receiving input rather than giving input. In retrospect, perhaps that could have served to keep him from the isolation and exhaustion that feeds vulnerability, loss of perspective, and the entitlement-based rationalization that “the rules don’t apply to me” and “God owes me something for serving him so diligently and sharing the gospel with so many, so he won’t mind if I satisfy my sexual urges.” (Never mind how doing so will hurt the victims, as well as my wife and children and my witness for Christ.)
The investigative report into the accusations against Ravi Zacharias said this:
He insisted on remaining separate from official RZIM communication platforms, and his phones were on a separate plan rather than the RZIM plan. He also used private email addresses rather than an RZIM account, and while at RZIM headquarters he used the public wireless access rather than RZIM’s virtual private network. He claimed this was for security reasons, but the end result was that no one at RZIM would have had administrative access to his devices or email communications. He also used encrypted communications platforms including BlackBerry Messenger and What’s App, from which messages are not retrievable once deleted.
For this to happen, a number of people who worked with Ravi would have had to be aware these weren’t wise choices. Who stepped forward to say, “This is wrong and extremely dangerous”? Privacy is one thing; secrecy is another. (And what in the culture of the ministry kept those who had concerns from speaking up? Understand that if this scandal were unique and other ministries and churches didn’t have these same problems, I wouldn’t be talking about it. My desire is not to beat up on one ministry, but to point out principles and practices affecting countless ministries and churches even if disaster hasn’t yet struck them. If these things aren’t corrected, it will.)
When someone close to the ministry told me Ravi traveled frequently with a female masseuse, I was stunned. Yes, he had back problems, but why not a male masseuse, and even then, during massages having a door open (gender doesn’t ensure a lack of temptation)? And why wasn’t someone else from the ministry always present in the room, even if they were just checking emails? The simple presence of a third person can head off flirting and other inappropriate behavior.
Godly people who knew his schedule were aware of all the time Ravi was spending with masseuses. But maybe they thought they had no right or ability to raise questions. I remember many years ago when a man told his teenage son that he didn’t want him to park and be alone in a car with his girlfriend after going out for dinner. His son responded, “Dad, don’t you trust me?” I’ll never forget what his dad told him: “Alone? In a car? With a girl? At night? I don’t even trust myself. Why should I trust you?”
The point is not to be legalistic and allow rule-keeping to obscure the grace-driven desire to honor God. But if it takes rules and guidelines to reduce temptation and help us avoid sin, isn’t that better than the sin? God says, “Run from sexual sin!” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Not “stay in the same place and try to fight it,” but RUN!
Several staff at RZIM have spoken out that part of the ministry culture was to never question Ravi because everyone should trust him, and it was considered disloyal to ask questions:
RZIM’s public relations manager Ruth Malhotra has shared a 26-page letter she wrote to the board chairman earlier this month. Journalist David French, a longtime friend of Malhotra’s, reports on the missive, saying it reveals the “withering internal resistance” Malhotra and other concerned RZIM employees faced when they pursued answers about the unfolding scandal. (See RZIM PR Manager Says She Was Shunned For Asking Questions)
Unfortunately, one of the ways once trustworthy people become untrustworthy is by being blindly trusted, even when they are doing something that is at best unwise, if not downright immoral. Perhaps Ravi was once a man of integrity, but since he wasn’t accountable, he gradually slid into his double life. Living a double life required friends, family, and coworkers to be kept in the dark. Someone needed to help him put guardrails in his life, but it sounds like he pushed back on attempts to do that. If a pastor or Christian leader isn’t open to dialogue or correction, someone must challenge him and insist that he do the wise thing for the sake of the ministry that other staff members invest their lives in and countless people financially support. (Still other victims of this meltdown are the many faithful Christ-centered employees and supporters of RZIM who were not in the inner circles and had no clue about the lack of accountability.)
My Experience with Accountability
Many years ago, in 1986, when I was still a pastor, our church had seven full-time and several part-time pastors. Realizing that we were too busy going over agendas and not staying in touch with each other’s spiritual lives, we started committing the first two hours of our weekly staff meeting to sharing personal struggles and joys. In the process we often told each other where our spiritual lives were at and the areas where we needed prayer and help. We made sure no one was left out. We asked each person “How are you doing?” and if the answers were vague or something seemed wrong, we probed deeper. If someone didn’t feel like talking sometimes it was fine, but other times we could see he was the one who most needed to talk. Those closest to him would often reach out to him afterward, one on one.
This is risky—it involves entrusting our reputation to others and opening ourselves to examination and even criticism (though, in fact, what comes out is usually positive encouragement). But the risks are small compared to the rewards. After working at it, eventually we no longer felt alone in pastoral ministry. We learned each other’s imperfections, and gradually had less to prove to each other. These hours of honesty and accountability became weekly therapy, and no matter how full the agenda, we committed ourselves to keeping in touch with each other’s inner lives.
After several years of doing this, though, I realized that for me it just wasn’t enough, partly because often urgent agenda items pushed aside personal sharing. Our staff meetings were large enough that we could fake it or slip through the cracks. Consequently, I started two accountability groups—one with three other pastors and another with four laymen. We began each week with a passage of Scripture we’d memorized. Then each of us in turn answered several key questions:
- How are you doing with God?
- With your spouse or the person you’re dating?
- With your children?
- What temptations are you facing, and how are you dealing with them?
- How has your thought life been this week, in terms of sexual purity?
- Are you consistently living for Christ in your workplace?
- Have you been spending regular time in the Word and prayer?
- Who have you been sharing the gospel with?
- How can we pray for you and help you?
After just a few of these meetings, men in both groups expressed that this was the most meaningful 90 minutes of their week. For some it was the first time a brother in Christ had ever asked them these questions. One said, “Why, for so many years, have we talked about sports and hunting and business and everything else under the sun, and not talked about the most important part of our lives?” Another said, “I’ve gotten to know you men in one month in a way I don’t know people I’ve been with for ten years.” Our key verse was Proverbs 27:17 (“As iron sharpens irons, so one man sharpens another”), and we saw its reality over and over again.
It’s now 35 years later, and though we haven’t been on the same staff together for 30 years, I still get together with one of those same pastors every week. While we are less structured in our get-togethers, we still talk openly and honestly about how we’re doing with Jesus, in our ministries, and in our marriages. We know how to pray with each other, and do it both in person and over the phone.
Every accountability group has its own personality and will sometimes make changes to avoid stagnancy. There is no magic formula, but the key is always to get back to the basic questions. You or your group may wish to come up with some of your own. Often the best questions to ask in an accountability group are the very questions we least want to answer! Write those questions down and put them on the top of the agenda each time you meet. Howard Hendricks suggested that the last question on the list be this: “In your answers to any of the previous questions, have you lied?”
Even simple and spontaneous attempts at accountability can produce amazing results. Once I was undergoing hours of sexual temptation, and finally called a brother I was scheduled to have breakfast with the next morning. I said, “Please pray for me, and promise to ask me tomorrow morning what I did.” He agreed. The moment I put down the phone, the temptation was gone. Why? I’d like to say it was because I was so spiritual, that the fact that I knew God was there with me was enough to overcome temptation, but the truth is there was no way I was going to face my friend the next morning and have to tell him I’d sinned! If this is a crutch, OK, sometimes I need a crutch. When it comes to battling temptation, I’ll take all the help I can get!
Of course, it’s not just accountability to people that keeps us from sin. Our primary accountability is to the Lord whose judgment seat is the only one we will stand before. Praise God He sees us not just as servants but friends (John 15:15). Paul prays “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (Ephesians 3:16).
The Holy Spirit guards and empowers us. But God chooses to use His people in each other’s lives as instruments of grace and truth. We need each other! To keep us from buying into “the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming,” we’re told, “ Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15-16).
Steps That Can Help Us Save Each Other from Sin and Save the Church from Scandal
- If pastors, support staff, or parachurch co-workers have questions or doubts about the ethics or practices of someone in your ministry, including those in authority above you, go to the person directly and make them known. (Pastoral staffs and elders should call upon their co-workers to do this for the glory of Christ and good of the ministry; it should never jeopardize their position.)
- If leaders in authority positions will not allow people to speak into their lives, and if they get defensive and expect people to blindly trust them despite their questionable actions, they may be demanding respect, but they aren’t earning it. If you reject respectful accountability, you are not qualified to serve.
- Don’t name a ministry or a church after a man, unless it is the God-man, Jesus Christ. Yes, I know there are good ministries that have been named after wonderful founders, such as Billy Graham and Josh McDowell. There are churches named after the men who founded them, and there’s less probability of a scandal coming out years later, but it’s still possible.
- Call upon your church leaders and the ministries you support to have true accountability. Not to be legalistic, but to be full of grace and truth.
- Remember that “Smart people can fool smart people.” A friend of mine who was also a friend of Ravi’s said this to me a few weeks ago. I’ve seen it to be true. The smarter you are, the better you are with words, the more you can justify your actions and win arguments that you should lose. Don’t let a smart, articulate person lower the standards of your organization, and ultimately bring shame to Christ and the ministry.
- Recognize that your problem is your sin nature, lust, and habits of thought—not women (though of course they have their own thought life and habits they must deal with). Melissa Kruger says, “It’s good to have accountability. Have people in your life who will ask you tough questions. Put protective software on your electronic devices. Avoid shows and songs that stir up wrong desires. Be careful, though, that you don’t communicate to women that they are the problem.”
- By all means, use resources that help you and your children avoid viewing impure images, but realize they aren’t infallible. Tech savvy people can get around the accountability software and anyone can access pornography elsewhere. We love VidAngel, use it frequently, and highly recommend it. If you use services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, it allows you to check boxes that will remove sex scenes, the f-word, blasphemy, etc. However, I was watching a movie recently when the editing didn’t work and suddenly I was seeing people have sex. I scrambled for the remote and turned it off quickly, but it was too late to unsee what I never should have seen in the first place. It’s up to us, not software or a device, to guard our minds! “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).
I honestly don’t know whether Ravi Zacharias regularly met with a group that asked direct, probing questions of each other. Being head of a large ministry and a man of great intellect, likely few of the people around him thought of themselves as his peers. If he did something that seemed questionable, like traveling with a female masseuse, maybe people felt like they had no right to suggest he shouldn’t.
If Ravi had been required to be part of an accountability group, it might have changed him. God might have used those guardrails to keep him from going off a cliff. Would it really have made a difference? Maybe not, because we can always lie and fake it. But if he knew he would have to look into the eyes of a band of brothers week after week and answer the question, “How has your thought life and sexual purity been this week?” I wonder if that might have helped keep him off the path of destruction.
It’s too late to help Ravi, and now it’s time to help his many victims, who certainly need and deserve support. But it’s not too late for us who are still here to raise the bar of sexual purity in mind and body. To stop tolerating inappropriate jokes and sexual comments and innuendos. To determine that we be held accountable to higher standards and greater transparency with the right people (not the wrong ones). This could save our marriages, our witness for Christ, our spiritual lives from ruin, and our churches and ministries from shame and self-destruction.
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.