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.