Recently an investigative report was released detailing Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias’s years-long history of sexually abusing massage therapists, soliciting and collecting photos of women, grooming women and exchanging sexually explicit messages with them, and deceiving ministry colleagues about his actions. These revelations have rocked the evangelical Christian world.
One of our church’s leaders shared on Facebook a post by Greg Koukl, head of Stand to Reason, a Christian apologetics organization, in which he addresses the Zacharias scandal: the post is called His purpose seems to be to comfort and encourage those who admired Zacharias and who are now shaken by the news of his double life and abusive behaviour.
Many people do feel shaken and upset by the news, so Koukl’s post will likely be of some help to them. But I can’t help feeling that his post falls short of what a Christian leader should offer. Maybe he’ll have more to say later; I don’t know. And I want to stress that I have absolutely no axe to grind with Koukl himself: I haven’t read or listened to his material before now, nor have I ever interacted with him in any way. I am really responding more to his arguments than to him as a person – because those arguments are so generically similar to others I’ve seen expressed online, mostly by men in Christian leadership, and to me they seem inadequate to the situation.
So I’m going to address all five of the pieces of advice he gives in his post and then respond to each of them with my own. Please, read Koukl’s article first.
“First, guard your own soul.” Koukl advises that we not look into the salacious details of cases like Zacharias’s: he says, “Steer clear of the details unless you have a genuine need to know … stay out of the skirmish … Let the proper people right the wrongs.” Besides the fact that this was criminal predatory behaviour, not a “skirmish,” I don’t think most people who want to know what actually happened are hoping to charge in and fix it; they simply want to know the facts and find out how this could have been allowed to go on for so long. But as for “the proper people right[ing] the wrongs,” in fact Zacharias’s own board members and friends in ministry appear to have done a very poor job of righting or preventing his wrongs. His board heard reports of misdeeds years ago – but Zacharias denied it, they didn’t believe it, and they didn’t investigate it.
I’m concerned that for anyone in Christian leadership, Koukl’s advice may come as a relief (“Whew, I didn’t want to know anyway, so I won’t bother to delve any further”), whereas what leaders should be doing is becoming aware of the patterns of deception that Zacharias engaged in so they can spot them if they occur. The suggestion that we shouldn’t worry because someone out there is taking care of this “skirmish” isn’t adequate for either the person in the pew or the Christian leader – and it doesn’t even fit well with the apologist mindset, which is to dig deeply and think clearly and knowledgeably on issues.
So my advice here is “For the average person, if hearing the details seems like it might harm you or trigger your own memories of abuse, take care; perhaps seek a counselor or therapist to help you process. But if you are in a position of spiritual leadership, don’t look away. You need to be informed. Don’t avoid the details out of a squeamish hope that someone else will take action if similar wrongdoing happens on your watch.”
“Second, do not be surprised that sinners sin.” This kind of admonition has appeared frequently since the report was released. Koukl says it is easy for a “major figure” to suffer a “major fall” if he is not vigilant and that “we’re all deeply, radically fallen, even our heroes.” I find terms like “fall” and (elsewhere in his post) “defeat” to describe what Zacharias did strange and inappropriate – but more than that, this point seems to imply that really, all sins are the same and we and Zacharias are all on the same level in the end. And that is simply not true.
I have lied. I have said mean things to my kids and thought mean things about acquaintances and strangers. I have nursed grudges, gossiped, and portrayed myself as a more faithful Bible-reader and pray-er than I am. I have avoided people God probably wanted me to give attention to. I am definitely a sinner. But I have not used power, money and global influence to purchase spas in which I could assault those hired to give me massages. I have not rented apartments overseas so that I could spend more time with the women I was grooming. I have not solicited photos from women, hired women to travel alone with me so that they could give me massages, or made threats when told I’d be exposed. I have not railed against my accusers, saying I was innocent when in fact I was guilty. I have not allowed the entire world to see me as a morally upright person when in fact I am a liar and abuser.
We should be surprised when we hear that a Christian leader has done these things, because they are not just evidence of the sin we all share in as human beings; they are heinous criminal acts. Mind you, it would also be a mistake to swing too far in the other direction and say “Zacharias’s deeds are so beyond the pale that we need not worry about anything so unimaginable ever occurring among the people we know.” But it's wrong to imply that the things he did are just the kinds of things all sinners (even saved ones) do on a regular basis.
My advice here is “Don’t engage in sin-leveling. There is the sin and weakness that all of us are prone to, and then there is predatory abuse. Don’t equalize them, and don’t let anyone guilt you into thinking you shouldn’t be angry and outraged because after all, you’re really just as bad.”
“Third, remember truth is still true.” This comment has appeared a lot too since the scandal broke, and it bothers me. It seems to suggest “Don’t worry, the fact that Jesus died on the cross for your sins and rose again from the dead on the third day remains factually true despite the terrible actions of Ravi Zacharias who preached about those things.” And fair enough! But who was disputing that in the first place? Who was suggesting that since Ravi Zacharias was an abuser, Jesus might not have risen from the dead and therefore I might not really be saved? It’s a straw man which, in my view, evades the real question of what we mean by “truth.” Truth is not just statements of fact or doctrine that we assent to. Truth is also personal integrity, a coherence between our words and our actions. Not perfection, of course – but wholeness. Ravi Zacharias was not living a life of wholeness, and he was manifestly not a truthful person. In fact, he used the gospel message (“the truth”) to manipulate some of his victims, telling them that if they exposed him, people would go to hell because they would not be able to hear the gospel from him.
So when Koukl says, “If you benefited from a hero who later fell, take heart. God uses even the worst of men to help the rest of us,” he fails to account for the way Zacharias weaponized the gospel for self-serving, abusive ends. The Lord Jesus, in sharp contrast, said it would be better for a man to have a millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea than to draw others into sin (Matt.18:6). He didn’t tell us to be glad that at least His Father could use the millstone-wearer's message for good.
My advice here is “Remember that truth can’t be boiled down to factual statements and points of doctrine – however much our faith rests on such proclamations. If love is not present, truth is not present. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s inappropriate to question the teachings of a deceitful teacher, or that the message -- however vital we consider it -- is more important than persons made in the image of God.”
“Fourth, do not become cynical.” Hmmm … I don’t know. While it’s not healthy to become so hard-hearted that we can’t see any good anywhere, perhaps a little cynicism might not go amiss right now. Koukl says, “Trust everyone you have no reason to mistrust, which is most people you know.” But for many years Zacharias’s fans and colleagues thought they had no reason to mistrust him. His board members didn’t investigate the accusations against him because those accusations did not fit with the man they thought they knew – which we now know simply means Zacharias was extremely successful in deceiving people. He was allowed to continue his abuses because people in leadership trusted him too much and didn’t ask the questions they should have.
Also, under point two above (don’t be surprised when sinners sin) Koukl quotes from Scripture, “Jesus did not entrust himself to those who believed in him since he knew what was in man”; it seems a little strange for him now to tell us that our default should be to trust everyone unless we have specific reasons not to.
My advice here is “It’s OK to be wary, especially if you’ve been hurt before. Don’t let anyone in leadership – anyone at all, really – make you feel that you owe them your trust. And don’t let anyone guilt you into thinking that anger and lament over injustice are signs of cynicism.”
“Fifth, firmly resolve to finish well.” Koukl says it should be our goal to hear God’s “Well done” of approval at our death. He says it is the Holy Spirit’s job to make us holy, but our part “is to be vigilant and to fight sin to [our] last breath.” And he mentions letting trusted friends know about our struggles so they can support and correct us. That’s all good advice on the individual level. But I think it’s dangerous to imply that a scandal like this could be prevented with personal vigilance and an accountability partner. It sounds as if Ravi Zacharias not only did not reveal his secret life to those closest to him, but also used those people as cover for his actions. As Tanya Marlow says in her excellent article , Zacharias groomed both his victims and his environment, creating a system in which sexual abuse could thrive undetected and uninvestigated.
So I think we need to focus more on the kind of culture we are creating and not just on personal piety and accountability. Our task is not only to be vigilant so that we as individuals don’t do something as bad as Ravi Zacharias did, but also to participate in making our world (and that includes our Christian environment) safe for women and other vulnerable people.
My advice here is “Remember that the Christian life is not just about me getting God’s seal of approval at the end; it’s also about what I will do now to cooperate with God in seeking justice for the oppressed and victimized.”
I am not a spiritual leader. I’m an ordinary person who heard about the Zacharias revelations like everyone else. And frankly, as an ordinary person, I need more from people who are Christian leaders, especially men. I need more than just platitudes that put my mind at ease. I need to hear things like
- “This is what our church/organization is doing, or commits to do, to ensure that such a scandal will not happen in our midst.”
- “This is what we are doing, or commit to do, to ensure that women are valued, respected, and listened to.”
- “This is what we are doing, or commit to do, to ensure that accusations of wrongdoing, even against people we hold in high esteem, are not hushed up or swept under the carpet, but are investigated and dealt with.”
- “This is what we are doing, or commit to do, to show every person we work with, interact with, and preach to that they are a valued person in the eyes of God and that there are no special, entitled people who are beyond correction or questioning.”
This is what Christian leaders need to be saying.
And they need to say what I as an ordinary person also feel confident saying:
Jesus is a friend to the hurt and abused. His heart is broken when their hearts are broken. As the words of a well-known carol put it, “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found” – not to establish a movement in which the strong are given free rein to prey on the weak. He cares for the oppressed, and He is always, always on their side. So if we want to follow Him, we must also be on their side.
“A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.”