Let me clear some things right up front.
This paper is because of the responses to my FaceBook post about the painful revelations of Ravi Zacharias’ double life. And requests for a fuller treatment. Some said, “I’m so devastated and disillusioned by all of this, how do I even begin to think about it?”
This is not to throw stones, condemn, or judge as ‘holier than thou’. Rather to grapple as honestly as we can with what happened. To confess and lament. Listen and learn. Discern and weigh matters. To help us to think through this kind of failure in leadership.
This is not to explain all that happened. Read the 12 page official investigative report by Miller & Martin PLLC and the open letter response from the International Board of Directors of RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministry). They begin: “It is with shattered hearts that we issue this statement…”, and continue in a contrite spirit, “We are shocked and grieved by Ravi’s actions.. we feel a deep need for corporate repentance.” However, this is only after RZIM’s denial from 2017 to 2020, and even alleged concealment and enabling of Ravi’s abuse as David French has laid out.
This is not to go into the details of sexual and spiritual abuse. We have to choose who and what we believe. The corroborating testimony of the victims, with evidence as stated in the report – now accepted, believed and published by RZIM? Or that Ravi was the victim of malicious false accusations and did nothing wrong, as RZIM argued till his death? There is no reasonable doubt why we shouldn’t believe the report and RZIM letter.
Either way, we must ask: how do we respond to (high profile) Christian leaders who are found out – either in their life-time, or after death – to have lived a double life of secret sin? Of predatory abuse that damages people, Christian witness, leadership integrity and public trust. And God’s credibility: we represent God. We live, teach and lead in God’s name. “Let your name be sanctified in the earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).
Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about ‘a fall’, a ‘one night stand’, ‘David’s adultery’, or ‘we all sin, no one’s perfect’. We’re talking about years of sexual and spiritual abuse of women, including a credible accusation of rape. Therefore, what do we say? How do we account for it? Why did it go so wrong? What can we learn from it? What can be done?
MY PERSONAL RESPONSE
I’m shattered, to say the least, along with many, many others. It’s time for sackcloth and ashes. I held Ravi in such high regard. When he died on 19 May 2020, I wrote a tribute on my Facebook page. Steve Baughman, an atheist blogger-lawyer, responded by saying he had researched claims against Ravi of lies and sexual impropriety, which he published in a book in December 2018. Then, on 29 September 2020 Christianity Today reported that the RZIM directors initiated an official investigation into the claims. The findings were released on 10 February 2021. The realisation that it is true is very devastating.
So, my first response is a mix of disbelief and grief. I fall on my face before God in lament and mourning, to confess Ravi’s sins, my sins, leader’s sins, our sins as Christians – as Daniel did in Daniel 9. I cry out for all those who were abused. I cry out for the Zacharias family. Because we are shamed – all of us – by what happened.
My second response is: be clear on the nature of the sin and call it for what it is. The report shows a hidden double life of sexual and spiritual abusive behaviour from 2014 to 2020. And it possibly started years earlier. This is no small thing – it’s huge – with widespread fallout.
Ravi’s international profile, great respect, believed integrity, brilliant mind… then this. I was equally devastated – if not more so due to his life of selfless service – by what we learnt after Jean Vanier’s death. The 11 page summary report by L’Arche International, of Vanier’s predatory sexual and spiritual abuse of six women over decades, is really sickening. There is, equally, no reason to doubt the investigation and findings.
There are other Christian leaders, local and international, that one can name. Again and again high profile leaders are shamefully exposed. That’s on the back of decades of widespread sexual abuse come to light in the Catholic priesthood. Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and their leaders are no better.
We dare not deny, excuse, rationalise or justify it. Nor can we disassociate ourselves from it. What happened is a shame on all who bear the name of Jesus. We must humbly face and account for it. Learn from it. But first the underlying question…
ARE WE ANY DIFFERENT TO THE WORLD?
Is there any significant moral behavioural difference between atheists and religious people – especially Christians? Research by psychologist, Will Gervais and team, say the answer is no. They find “the religious congruence fallacy”: there is regular evidential discrepancy between beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. “Studies conducted among American Christians… have found that participants donated more money to charity and even watched less porn on Sundays. However, they compensated on both accounts during the rest of the week.”
It’s like the little girl who replied to her Sunday School teacher’s question, “What is a lie?”, with, “An abomination to God and an ever-present help in times of trouble.” We may laugh, but it is tragically true. Our post-truth world of lying pastors and prophets, politicians and presidents, business and civic leaders, is witness to this reality. Truth and trust are twins. In the global pandemic of misinformation and lies, we do not know (the) truth, so we turn to people, especially leaders, we trust. If public trust in leaders is broken, then we are at the mercy of all sorts of (evil) forces, as Edleman Trust Barometer shows in a recent study.
The Church of Jesus Christ supposed to be a transforming model of God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth, yet we are a conforming copy, if not a mirror image, of broken sinful society. Is there no real difference between Christians and people in general – in life, in marriage, in attitudes, morality and behaviour?
I don’t buy all that the research says – the reality is more nuanced. My experience tells me it’s “yes” and “no”. However, it does call us to face the moral bankruptcy of Christianity. Ruthless honesty is required to find and live the reversal of Gervais’ phrase and findings, “the Christian congruence truth”: that there is, and can be, consistent integrity between true Christian beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. That the biblical gospel of Jesus and his Kingdom, rightly taught, believed and lived, really does have the power to transform people in their moral character, with growing integrity in Christlikeness.
It raises the question, what is the gospel we preach and believe? Is it “a different gospel” about “another Jesus” that imparts “a different spirit” that does not have the power to transform (2 Corinthians 11:4)? The kind of gospel we preach is the kind of Jesus we really believe, which is the kind of (S)spirit we receive and impart. Does it transform us?
Also, it’s not what we say we believe, it’s what we live that reveals what we actually believe. Otherwise, we are what Jesus called “hypocrites”: play-actors with masks, who believe and say one thing and do the opposite. The “religious congruence fallacy”. Jesus publicly rebuked such hypocrites, especially leaders, saying they were blind leaders of the blind, white-washed on the outside but rotten on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28).
This raises another question beyond the gospel: do we make converts-believers or disciples-apprentices of Jesus? It’s what I call the salvation/sanctification gap: we get people ‘saved’ by faith and baptism in Christ, but we do not “teach (train) them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Little or no spiritual formation in the character of Christ. Also called the authority/power gap: by believing in Jesus we claim God’s authority as his children (John 1:12), but evidence of its transforming power is lacking, or absent.
The result is the integrity/credibility gap: who we really are before God (who God knows us to be) and how others see and believe we are, grows further and further apart. Till the chasm of guilt and shame swallows us, eventually exposing us publicly. Both the ‘ordinary Christian’ and the ‘greatest leader’ can have these gaps, and suffer the consequences.
MORAL CHARACTER IN LEADERS, CHRISTIANS, AND PEOPLE IN GENERAL
The scandal of flawed moral character in spiritual leaders and believers. Biblically, leaders represent – are representative of – their people. They are meant to be an embodied example of who their people are to be and become – as Jesus was/is for his followers.
For example, the rabbis teach that God created the priesthood to be a living representation of what God intended all Israel to be and become. God’s purpose for Israel was to be “a holy nation of royal priests” (Exodus 19:5-6), ministering to God on behalf of the nations, and ministering to the nations on behalf of God. The idolatrous nations exiled/scattered at Babel (Genesis 11), in contrast to God’s holy nation, called and chosen to bless, redeem and reconcile the nations (Genesis 12:1-3).
Therefore, the way of the priests = the way of Israel = the way of the nations. Hopefully for the better! But the way of the nations, became the way of Israel (“we want a king like the other nations”), became the way of the priesthood (corrupt and immoral). So, God brought the nations to Israel in judgement: they destroyed the Temple and priesthood, and exiled Israel into the nations, to be ruled by their gods. God’s ultimate discipline is to hand us over to our lusts, our sinful desires, to our demons, the gods we secretly worship.
Similarly in the new covenant: the way of Christian leaders = the way of Christians/church = the way of society. We’re God’s salt of the earth and light to the nations (Matthew 5:13-16). We lead in the Name of Jesus. Spiritual leaders are to be living examples of Christ’s character, which our people follow and become. As Paul says, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
To the degree that moral character is qualitatively different, people who don’t know Jesus see and believe, and want to follow Jesus. Then there’s no integrity/credibility gap. There is, rather, “the Christian congruence truth” of authentic consistency in belief, attitude and behaviour – the fruit of ongoing formation in Christ’s character.
Then “even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity” (Ephesians 5:3) will be distasteful because of the kind of person we will have become. The titillation of lust and sexual fantasy, let alone pornography, will have lost its appeal. And the idea of acting it out in secret ways, even if we can get away with it, will be naturally repulsive to our sexual character. Not to even mention acts of sexual and spiritual abuse.
Then we will have and exercise, in real terms, the same spiritual authority that Jesus had, evidenced by God backing us up in power: the Holy Spirit in and through us making the difference in our world that Jesus made in his world.
What do the repeated shameful revelations of our leaders tell us about ourselves? At times I think it’s so bad that, if Christianity is really going to enter and live the Kingdom of God, it needs to be born again, again. Is God giving us over to our lusts? To the secret gods we worship? “It is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).
Because of all the above, leaders and teachers are always held to a higher standard of judgement and character accountability (James 3:1). More so for international leaders.
WHY AND HOW DID THIS HAPPEN WITH RAVI ZACHARIAS?
Having laid the foundation, let me try to account for what happened. There are always multiple factors, never only one or two.
The first factor, personal responsibility, is primary, especially in this case. Let me explain the root of what happened and why it went so wrong, as I understand it.
We must start with ourselves and not blame others for our actions and behaviour. We are never victims if we do no wrong. If others unjustly victimize us for doing wrong when we have not, we answer in the gentle Spirit of Jesus and trust God to vindicate us – as in 1 Peter 3:9-17; 4:12-19. Peter prefaces it by saying, “abstain from sinful desires which wage war against you” (2:11-12), “get rid of” them (2:1). In other words, do not live in unresolved wrongdoing, living out sinful desires and corrupted appetites.Then we are vulnerable to accusation – evil gains leverage and has “a hold over” us (John 14:30).
When we do wrong, the Holy Spirit graciously comes in various ways to convict us of sin. We confess, repent and receive forgiveness (1 John 1:8-10). If we don’t respond to the Spirit’s conviction and harden our hearts, continuing in the same way, it becomes a “besetting sin” (KJV) that “entangles us” (NIV) in our Christian journey (Hebrews 12:1). If not decisively dealt with, “put to death with Christ” (Colossians 3:5-10), it will eventually “disqualify us for the prize”. After having preached and led others in what we believe but do not live, we ourselves will be “cast-away” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
I’ve seen this often with leaders. God takes the wraps off us sooner or later. In our life-time, a merciful discipline for our repentance. Or after death, a revealed judgement of our legacy. Either way, be sure your (unresolved) sin will find you out. That’s what Paul means in 1 Timothy 5:24-25. “The sins of some” leaders “are obvious” and can be judged – the leader can repent. But “the sins of others trail behind”, are hidden, only revealed later – even after death. But definitely at Christ’s judgement seat (2 Corinthians 5:10). Paul’s point is: do not lay hands on leaders (publicly recognising them) prematurely, thereby sharing in their sins (1 Timothy 5:22). Carefully test their character first. Else we later have to lay hands off leaders – remove them from leadership – always a painful process!
Existing long-term credible leaders can develop a double life of secret sin if they are not vigilant to “catch the little foxes that spoil the vine”. We must guard our heart and watch and pray till our last breath. Demons don’t give up. The longer we lead, the higher our profile, the greater our effectiveness in God’s Kingdom, the more they oppose us and work our case. That’s why, among other reasons, Paul instructs us to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3). C.S. Lewis’ Screw Tape Letters shows how demons study us to find our weak spot, our uncrucified flesh, to gain a hold and ready us to sin, given the opportunity.
What happened to Ravi Zacharias was not overnight. It’s a slow character malformation over years by one or more of the vices (‘seven deadly sins’), that we don’t decisively put to death in Christ – by getting help, prayer and counsel. We begin accommodating it. And separate it from the whole of us. We rationalise and justify our guilt and shame, eventually searing our conscience. Then that separated ‘part’ increasingly drives us to act out its sinful desire(s), which has to be covered up, ever more cleverly hidden. So, other evil spirits enter: more lies, more deceit, more secrets, more manipulation and control, and so on.
The devil binds us to silence with the threat of utter shame, personal disqualification, if we are found out. Let alone if we’re willing to break its power by bringing it to the light of confession – getting help. We use the same demonic tactic over those we damage and abuse: “if you tell anyone, then…” Spiritual abuse. The truth is: we are as sick as the darkest secret we keep, both the perpetrator and, tragically, the victim.
In short, this progressive spiritual malformation prepares and conditions us to sin, to do evil when the opportunity presents. We are willing to do good but ready to do evil. Eventually, we are not only sin-filled opportunists, but scheming evil-doers. Until we are caught, found out and unmasked, which is a judgement from God called severe mercy.
God gave Ravi opportunity to repent when Lori Anne Thompson began accusing him from 2016 onwards (see here). He denied all accusations, saying the victim was the perpetrator. The common tactic of abusers. Then he settled out of court, but insisted on a non-disclosure agreement. Why do that if he genuinely did nothing wrong? Where there is smoke there is fire. The report, sadly, confirms that there was a serious fire.
I reference this to say that, in my view, what I have described above was the lonely, dark, tormented, secret journey of Ravi Zacharias. Similarly, with all such leaders of broken character who live a double life, to a lessor or greater degree, whether pastors or politicians, Christian apologists or self-identifying atheists.
OTHER CONTRIBUTORY FACTORS
In a helpful article, Mike Bird says, “This happened – this keeps happening – because of
(1) Evangelical celebrity culture; (2) Big platforms with big donors and a fear of it all disappearing; (3) A lack of oversight and accountability; and (4) A refusal to take women’s accusations seriously.” I will pick up on these and others, with brief comments.
1. Lonely leaders with no real personal friends:
Men are the perpetrators of almost all sexual and spiritual abuse in leadership. Men, generally, do not have real male friends, safe places to be ourself and off-load. “Faithful is a friend who wounds you” in love with truth and trust (Proverbs 27:6). That’s limited by our so-called ‘male inability’ to be emotionally vulnerable and disclose. Our tendency to perform and compete means we find identity in what we do. Thus, we commonly relate via a ‘ministry persona’, not the real me; a role-play with little or no transparency. Consequently, we can be drawn, unchecked, into wrong ways.
Who is responsible for this? You! The leader. We can’t blame anyone else for not having genuine mutual male friends. We either make those safe places or avoid them.
2. The deeper issue of broken, even toxic, masculinity in leadership:
Do we have enough godly sexual character and healthy masculine formation to lead from a critical mass of wholeness? Have we faced our deep conditioning as men? The toxic stereotypes and models of broken masculinity that have formed us from birth – unconsciously and consciously – by our fathers, brothers and men in society. That is part of the way we lead. Ingrained sexist attitudes towards women… to sex, money, power, success. The spirit and structures of systemic sexism continue to advantage men at the expense of women. How aware are we of this? How free are we from it? This is a core contributory cause to developing a double life of abusive leadership.
Who is responsible to address this? You. The leader. We need to get help.
3. Underlying evangelical theology of male sexuality and headship:
This goes to the heart of male sexuality and masculine spirituality. Where they meet and unite in the core of who we are, that’s who we become: healthy masculine men. Are our sexuality and spirituality friends or foes? Separated by guilt? Even shame-full enemies at war with each other? If so, lust-driven sexuality becomes and abusively uses broken toxic masculinity. AND vice versa. Popular evangelical theology on sexuality and leadership (male headship in the home and church) does not address this. Instead, many marriage books further male cultural stereotypes of leadership and sexuality, as in “men are simply sexually driven”, “God made them that way”, “they can’t help it”, “wives, give it to them or they’ll look elsewhere”. This feeds male entitlement and contributes to sexual AND spiritual abuse of women. We need women voices and theologians who are free from sexist stereotypes and cultural male-conditioned theology and praxis.
4. Refusal to take women’s accusations seriously:
A natural follow-on from the above three. Why? Because the vast majority of Christian leaders are (still) men. Let’s be honest, men, we just don’t take women’s accusations seriously, because most of them are personal. This includes organisational boards. They close ranks. What happened at RZIM happened at Willow Creek: the accusations against Bill Hybels by women victims were dismissed. They were cast as trouble-makers and ‘gaslighted’. Further abuse. The minority of false accusations is no reason to not listen empathetically; instead, to listen with prejudice: “emotional”, “broken”, “manipulative”, “needy”, “temptress”, “Jezebel spirit”. As a man I know what men think even if they don’t say it. History has been so lopsided in favour of male ego and dominance, that if we err we should do so on the side of women dignity, and take them seriously.
Who’s responsible for this? We are. Leaders. We must own this and change it.
5. Organisational culture and celebrity status:
For decades we’ve imported business models of organisational leadership into church, at great cost. Pastors are CEOs and elders are a board of directors. However, both church and corporates have a culture that we develop for better or worse. Either a healthy or dysfunctional ethos, to the degree 1) our values, policies and practices determine, or do not, how 2) we lead and 3) relate to our staff and people. Too many cultures prioritise charismatic over character leadership, allowing, and even enabling celebrity status. And more so as we excuse violations of core godly values.
Unresolved ego-needs also contribute. Vulnerable to admiration, we believe our own publicity. From good to great! The narcissistic ego on display of many (charismatic) leaders is nauseating! We feel invincible, then think we can get away with things. This leads to abuse. So, we overcoming our conscience to groom our victims.
Who is responsible? The leader. We cannot blame people, or our team, for putting us on a pedestal. That is “subtle victim-blaming of both the secondary victims and direct victims” of abuse, as Tanya Marlow says in her insightful article on five things we must stop saying about sexual and spiritual abusers.
Leadership teams/boards are equally culpable – often as enablers. Some teach a ‘culture of honour’ that gives, among other things, loud standing ovations to speakers, with long intros of Apostle this and Prophet that. I’ve been in two such conferences. I cringed. It’s far from Spirit of Jesus in his humble servanthood. I had the privilege of introducing Dallas Willard at some conferences in South Africa. Each time he would gently bind me to a short intro like, “This is my friend Dallas Willard”! It was his spiritual discipline for God’s glory. We should always and only receive any praise as a pane of glass receives light: the brighter the lighter the more invisible the glass.
6. Lack of oversight and accountability
Follows on from point 5. Leaders are never ‘lone ranger’ heroes of God! Biblically, leadership is in, with, and through team. We lead by being led. The leader who doesn’t submit to being led should not be followed. God requires proper spiritual formation and radical life accountability to other leaders who hold us to The Light without fear or favour. If we walk in the light as God is Light, any shadow that appears in us, or between any leaders, no matter how spiritual, senior or powerful they may be, we confront the shadow. Then we save ourselves and our people. Leaders hold themselves accountable, we don’t wait to be held accountable. We live a disclosed life. When a leader is called to account and they react defensively/emotionally, something is up. Diligent oversight saves us from our ‘unsanctified parts’, our deceitful hearts. The need for consistent ethical oversight of leaders and corporate governance is greater than ever because of character-less leadership in a post-truth world.
7. Big platforms with big donor money and fear of it all disappearing:
With growing celebrity status, the platforms get bigger and the donor money flows more freely. We build churches and ministry organisations dependent on donor money, based on the founder-leader’s charisma and reputation. There’s a point where, no matter what happens, we need to keep the show on the road. If the money doesn’t come in, we go down. So, keep things under wraps to keep the donors happy and giving. The bigger the platforms, the more the money, the greater pressure to perform. The stress and loneliness can lead to erosion of integrity. And we ‘escape’ into a double life.
CONCLUDING RESPONSES AND LESSONS FROM THIS STORY
‘It’s terrible, but… there but for the grace of God go I’. No! We all sin, we all do wrong. But, we’re not all sexually tempted to abuse women, to rape, to damage people for life. This response, Tanya says, “minimises and normalises crimes that should fill us with horror”.
‘God uses broken people, even sexual abusers. It’s not all bad, he did lots of good’. King David is cited. But what Ravi did is of a different order of abuse to what David did. And David repented, Ravi did not. This also minimises the crimes and retraumatises the victims, making God, by implication, the abuser. For the victim, it’s a further spiritual abuse.
‘Jesus forgave the adulterous woman: “I don’t condemn you. Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” Don’t condemn Ravi’. This is complete ignorance of the story. She was a victim, not a perpetrator. This is not comparable with what Ravi did. Jesus said, “go and sin no more”. Ravi refused every opportunity to repent, continuing in abusive sin.
Should we no longer read Ravi’s books or listen to him on YouTube? In one sense, truth is truth and it stands, no matter who said it. So, if I read Ravi’s works, or refer to him, I will do so with discernment and disclaimers because of what I now know. However, we can learn all that Ravi taught from other authors and apologists who have not been sexual and spiritual abusers, who have not brought God’s name and Christian faith into such disrepute.
This story is a sober warning and wake-up call for us. Especially for leaders. It should put the fear of God into us, in a healthy way! Let me close with some personal words.
In regard to victims, as Tanya says, we must learn “to listen carefully to their story and echo the horror of it truthfully, without seeking to paper over any cracks… to honour them and apologise to them and lament with them and ask for their forgiveness… to earn back the trust in order to be a place of healing… to ask what they need and learn from them.”
In regard to leaders, as Solomon says, above all things, guard your heart, because all of your life flows from it (Proverbs 4:23). Live and lead from the easy yoke of Jesus, from rest, by keeping to your daily, weekly and monthly rhythms of spiritual disciplines, for the protection and health of your heart. Those who think they stand, take heed lest you fall.
And if you have any hidden history of unresolved sin, if you’re living a double life in any way, GET HELP RIGHT NOW… for God’s sake, for your people’s sake, for your own sake… in that order. Save your people from yourself, and go get help!
God have mercy on us leaders.
God have mercy on the people we lead.