In the Wake of Ravi Zacharias: When Spiritual Leaders Do Harm

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In recent months, news of the sexual misconduct, manipulation, and elaborate cover up schemes of Ravi Zacharias have rocked the Christian world. As a well-known Christian apologist and author of more than 30 books on the Christian faith, Mr. Zacharias was a spiritual giant and mentor to many in the Christian community.

But the results of an external investigation by Miller & Martin PLLC into his activities and behaviors have revealed that during his ministry right up until the time of his death, Mr. Zacharias was engaged in calculated and sexually predatory behaviors toward women.

In addition to using funds donated to the ministry to ingratiate women to himself, the report notes that Mr. Zacharias exploited their commitment to the Christian faith to justify his actions and silence his victims. This is all well-documented now in both the letter released by RZIM and the report of the investigation which they have made public. (https://www.rzim.org/read/rzim-updates/board-statement)

No words can adequately describe what many of us have likely felt upon learning about these revelations. Perhaps some mixture of shock, disbelief, horror, grief, nausea, and fatigue about the news of yet another Christian leader engaging in immoral behaviors that have significantly harmed people and compromised the Christian witness. 

Especially for those who have his books on their shelves or have supported his ministry, these revelations bring the additional bewilderment of now what? How are we to talk and think about the ministry of a spiritual leader who has been exposed as a sexual predator? How do we begin to process the deep chasm between his message and his behavior? 

Our initial instincts may be to try to defend the fallen leader, perhaps because we so badly don’t want it to be true or perhaps because we feel foolish for having been deceived ourselves. Over the past couple of days, for instance, I’ve heard a number of different comments that seek to diminish, justify, or excuse Mr. Zacharias. 

Take, for instance:

“There but for the grace of God go I.” 

What this statement suggests is that we ought to be empathetic toward Mr. Zacharias because this could be us. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, so who are we to judge? But while it is true that we are all sinners, it is not true that we are all involved in a lifetime of deception, manipulation, and predatory behavior. All sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad. Getting angry at my spouse or being jealous of my neighbor, while it may damage those relationships, is not equivalent to the destructive and devastating effects of Mr. Zacharias’ behavior on the many lives of those he abused. To suggest this equivalence is to diminish the severity of the trauma and harm that has resulted because of his sin.

“But he did so much good.” 

The problem with this statement is that it minimizes the offense, as if all the supposed “good ministry” Mr. Zacharias did outweighs and effectively renders inconsequential the heinous nature of his sin. Strikingly, Mr. Zacharias used similar comments to gain compliance from the women he abused, telling at least one woman that she was his “reward” for his service to God. 

In effect, he was saying that he deserved to engage in sexual misconduct because of all the good he did. I think few of us would be comfortable with that line of reasoning. We don’t earn the right to sin by doing good. Nor do our good actions cancel out our sin.Nowhere does Jesus say that our sin is okay or no big deal because we have done so much good. 

Rather, the Bible teaches that sin is something that disrupts shalom, breaks relationship, causes harm, and as a result, needs to be confessed, repented of and made amends for. This, in fact, is the heart of the gospel—repent and be saved. However, when Mr. Zacharias was confronted with his sinful behavior, there was no repentance. Instead, he lied, threatened those who might expose him, and continued to abuse and manipulate vulnerable women. 

Bottom line: No amount of good can diminish or erase his sin and if we don’t hold Mr. Zacharias accountable for that sin, we communicate that the harm that he brought about and the people that he hurt don’t matter.

“Yeah, he messed up, but his books are just excellent.” 

Mr. Zacharias’ books may have been helpful but the problem is that now all Mr. Zacharias’s work is tainted by the fact that he regularly engaged in illicit and immoral behavior that brought significant harm to others. To continue to read, quote from, and buy his books is to uphold a sexual predator as a spiritual leader and mentor. For the sake of the integrity of the gospel, we need to make a clear distinction between the work of Mr. Zacharias and the Christian faith. Given what we now know, his work simply should not/cannot/ought not be given a place of spiritual influence in our life.

In addition to what has already been said, it is worth noting that each of these statements prioritize the offender over the victim. They suggest that the victims are overreacting, that in the grand scheme of things, the pain and harm inflicted on them is of less concern than the reputation and work of Mr. Zacharias, that the victims are less important and less valuable than Mr. Zacharias and his ministry. 

The effect of these kinds of statements is that it makes the church an unsafe place for survivors of abuse. It communicates to them that we care more about safeguarding the reputation and legacy of our leaders and institutions than protecting the value and dignity of those who are the victims/survivors of abuse.

So what should we do instead? How should we talk about recent events?

Very simply, our focus should be on the victims/survivors—the women who Mr. Zacharias preyed upon. Their pain, their trauma, the damage to their lives,  and the lives of their families is unimaginable. They deserve the focus of our concern, our prayers, our laments, and our support. In a victim impact statement, Lori Anne Thompson described the experience of coming to know Mr. Zacharias as “one of the most traumatizing, soul destroying, faith crushing seasons in my life.” 

If we say anything then about the revelations of Mr. Zacharias’ conduct (and we surely should talk about this), we would do well to express how our hearts ache over the pain that the survivors experienced and how we will commit to pray for justice for them and their journey toward healing.

In addition to standing with the survivors, we ought to pray for the family. Through no fault of their own, they now live with the guilt, shame, and devastating effects of Mr. Zacharias’ sin. They also deserve our thoughts, prayers, and support.

And finally, we can pray for RZMI, the organization founded by Mr. Zacharias that also oversaw his work and ministry. While Mr. Zacharias was still alive, they denied allegations and supported Mr. Zacharias in discrediting his victims. Recent actions, however, suggest that they are seeking the truth and actively pursuing justice and compassion for the survivors. This is not an easy road but it is the right one. And those who are leading the way will need our prayers and support to follow through on this in spite of the cost to themselves and the organization.

The point is, any conversations about the recent revelations of Mr. Zacharias’ conduct should begin on our knees, lamenting the great tragedy of crushed spirits and broken lives, and praying for a healing and newness that only the Spirit of God can bring. 

Kyrie Eleison! O Lord, have mercy!

 

Editor's Note: This article is the first post in a four-part series on responding to abuse in the church. Check out part two, "When Spiritual Leaders Do Harm: Lessons to Be Learned."  Parts three and four coming soon. 

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The excuse of "but he did so much good" is certainly a feeble one but well used. Brings to mind the excusing of the actions of a recent American president just because he professed to be supportive of Christianity.

Amen! Lamenting with you "the great tragedy of crushed spirits and broken lives, and praying for a healing and newness that only the Spirit of God can bring." Thank you for posting this important piece, Amanda.

Participant

Amanda, thanks for posting this. Allow me to reflect a little.

I was a young, newly ordained Pentecostal Minister with the PAOC (Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada) and in the midst of planting a new church when the news of (for those of you who may remember) Jimmy Swaggart's downfall broke. It was the late 80's at the time. Jimmy Swaggart was one of the leaders of the Evangelical movement at its height. I had visited Swaggart's "Worldwide Ministry Centre" in Baton Rouge, Louisiana just 4 month prior to his collapse. One of my seminary professor's had been invited to teach Church History at Swaggart's seminary in Baton Rouge and during my visit there we enjoyed a marvelous meeting. I recall my former Professor saying, "I'm so excited to be working in this seminary, the heartbeat of world missions". Swaggart's seminary was the choice of Evangelicals on their "way up" in status as preachers. He was an icon of conservative Christianity at the time and was voted one of America's greatest orators by Time magazine. Myself and many of my Pentecostal ministry colleagues had built a pedestal so high for Swaggart! When I had to face my congregation the Sunday following the breaking of the scandal, I was devastated. In reality and after much prayer and reflection, I realized that this gigantic personality had insidiously risen in my own mind above the humility and beauty of my Saviour Jesus Christ. An idol in the form of a man and his ministry had taken up residence in my heart. I then made a vow, because of the hurt and misery suffered to never place any leader or personality on a pedestal ever again. That promise has served me well and has allowed me to focus on Christ himself. Of course, we do recognize those gifted as the doctors and researchers among us who lead us by the Spirit through their published works and research, but never should we elevate them to personality cult status.

Another lesson learned was that the hundreds of thousands of "ordinary", ordained pastors, evangelists, missionaries and volunteers who serve Christ faithfully day in and day out in different denominations, without recognition are the unsung heroes of the faith. Ordinary, faithful servants laboring for the Kingdom and God's glory who will hear the words, "well done good and faithful servant". Let us of course mourn the downfall of yet another "Big Name" and through it learn to support, pray for and encourage the unsung leaders of the faith. Yes, some of the ordinary leaders do and will fall, leaving messes to clean up. Let us though remember it is but a small minority of all the workers in the church that deceive the flock while the majority are faithful and true to their calling, never needing undue recognition for their work, save support, love and encouragement from their congregations.

Kelly,  thanks for these comments.  I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability in being willing to share the story about Jimmy Swaggart.  And I would agree with both your comments.  Our propensity to celebritize and idolize prominent preachers, teachers, and evangelists is deeply problematic and fosters cultures which lack accountability, transparency, and attentiveness to the way power is being used or abused.  And second, that there are many unsung heroes that are faithfully doing the work of the Lord who also deserve our support, encouragement, and prayers.  

Thank you for your helpful comments!

 

Thank you so much Amanda for your insightful and clear analysis of this sad situation. Thanks for asking prayers for the Zacharias' family as well. How devastated they must be!

My wife and I finished one of RZIM's online apologetics course several months before all this broke. We were extremely blessed by all the presenters including Ravi. This news which we have been following for several months now was devastating.

I was also heartbroken to read about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s affairs up to the night before his assassination as sorrowfully revealed by his best friend. Still, I printed his "Letters from a Birmingham Jail" just recently and think it is one of the most powerful letters ever written. But I agree with you, no matter what they have said or written, character does matter. I will quit reading RZ's stuff for a while, but I am going to continue to ponder Dr. King's. Great men, great evil? Or...portrayed themselves as great men, but were evil???  

Not sure what to say...but we can weep.

As you said, O Lord, have mercy. 

One difference between MLK and RZ is the matter of consent. I imagine that MLK's extramarital sexual relationship was consensual. And it is likely that RZ's sexual relationships with scores of women were not consensual. This makes them categorically different in the level of damage done to the women and communities.  Most societies see this distinction, criminalizing nonconsensual sexual interaction but not extramarital sexual affairs (except in places where the women is blamed, and that's not the model we strive for.) Also, it's hard to quantify the deception and betrayal undertaken by these two men, but I'd say that is probably different, too.  So let's not pretend MLK is perfect, but let's keep reading his letter from the Birmingham Jail, even for guidance in knowing how to respond to the injustice of sexual abuse in our society.

thanks Amanda for an insightful article that can certainly help guide our discussions and responses to those most commonly heard comments.  The reminder you give in the below statement  

"each of these statements prioritize the offender over the victim....that in the grand scheme of things, the pain and harm inflicted on them is of less concern than the reputation and work of Mr. Zacharias, that the victims are less important and less valuable than Mr. Zacharias and his ministry" 

is very important for us to absorb/understand and remember when we wrestle through the conversations about leadership abuse and abuse of power.  

The following distinction made in this article is also particularly helpful as a guide for our conversations. 

“There but for the grace of God go I.” 

But while it is true that we are all sinners, it is not true that we are all involved in a lifetime of deception, manipulation, and predatory behavior. All sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad. Getting angry at my spouse or being jealous of my neighbor, while it may damage those relationships, is not equivalent to the destructive and devastating effects of Mr. Zacharias’ behavior on the many lives of those he abused. To suggest this equivalence is to diminish the severity of the trauma and harm that has resulted because of his sin."

My take away from this article is that leaders can benefit from becoming empowered to be able guide discussions around these comments in more helpful ways.  I pray many will share this article with fellow leaders to encourage healthy discussions around the very real issue of leadership conduct and I am proceeding to share it with many colleagues and friends. 

Participant

Faye, thanks for your carefully worded response!

It is certainly true that the preeminent side-effects of denial, cover-up and victim blaming result from the exposure and accusation of a leader's sin, the victims are treated and remain to be blamed for having instigated an "affair", aka the Jezebel factor.

Victim impact from clergy abuse of power is misunderstood in our denomination and ongoing education on victim impact is needed in our congregations and in seminary as a part of leadership training. Victims are mistreated, ostracized and marginalized for having attempted to bring sin to light. Most victims of clergy sexual abuse, including adult victims lose their faith permanently, take their own lives or become abusers themselves. How our Lord must weep as his innocents are lost to such evil! Thankfully, the predators among us are a very small minority of ordained clergy, about 1.5% across all denominations including the CRC, according to the most recent research at Baylor. That's not many, but enough to destroy  many lives permanently, if the situation is not addressed through ongoing education at the congregational and especially the leadership levels. Protecting the predator by moving an offending leader to another Classis or congregation only serves to enable serial predatory behaviour. 
No one wants to see the mighty fallen, far fewer want to heal the victims...

Thank you Amanda, for this excellent piece, which unfortunately is still so desperately needed in many denominational (and non-denominational) faith communities.  I would suggest one final, and perhaps most critical thing the body of Christ needs to do -- beyond lament, standing with survivors, prayer for all involved and for RZIM --  the creation of consistent and rigorous structures of prevention, transparency and accountability regarding conduct of all church leadership.  This needs to be a collaborative effort of both male and female church executives, but female leaders need to run point on this, for obvious reasons.  Thank you again.