I was greatly humbled about a year ago when I was invited to write an article about the late Ravi Zacharias’s impact on my journey. I still stand behind every word of that piece, published in last November’s Christian Standard, a few months after Zacharias’s death. However, just prior to that issue’s cover date, apparent confirmation of Zacharias’s alleged infidelity and sexual misconduct surfaced. And I, like most people blessed by his ministry, was shocked and brokenhearted.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for me was in the fact that prior to this alarming development, there were no shortage of testimonies regarding his outstanding character. Jeff Vines, lead pastor with ONE&ALL Church in San Dimas, California, said,
Ravi mentored me for over 20 years. I . . . recently [had been] in Sri Lanka with Ravi and Louie Giglio. I knew him very well. I never saw any impropriety in Ravi. In fact, I even looked for it. You want a level of purity in the life of mentors that catalyzes a degree of confidence, trust, and integrity. When leaders fall, one often says, “I saw that coming.” There are some people who, [when] you get into their inner circle and begin to see red flags, you say, “No, this is not a person whose lead I want to follow.” With Ravi, the more intimate you were with him the more you saw the “above reproach” life. Consequently, I was heartbroken, and suspicious, when the investigative report highlighted so many alleged failures. Moreover, Ravi was so peaceful about dying. His last days were spent on his knees in prayer. This was not a man fearful of meeting his maker.
In the wake of misconduct reports are many questions. How does the church recover from such an apparent betrayal? What precautions should Christian leaders take to guard their moral integrity?
Ironically, as I started work on this follow-up article, a very comprehensive blog by Zacharias’s son that refutes the allegations (defendingravi.com) emerged. As I combed through this thorough rejoinder, I was starkly reminded of several key biblical principles.
First, we must keep in mind that although absolute certainty is impossible regarding all that happened behind the scenes, our heavenly Father—all-knowing and all-loving as he is—will not make any mistakes on Judgment Day or via his continued providence (1 Samuel 16:7; 2 Chronicles 16:9). In spite of our moral failures, God remains holy—that is a foundational biblical truth for all humanity.
Second, we must continue to defend the cause of those victimized in such situations.
Third, such empathy for victims must be equally balanced with Paul’s instruction to Timothy not to “receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). Nonetheless, as David Faust emphasized to me, “If the charges turn out to be true, leaders responsible for God’s flock must deal with the situation firmly and fairly.”
The limited nature of our judgments brings us face-to-face with the modern-postmodern divide. The truth is out there, and yet we filter all information through our personal interpretive paradigms, and we often arrive at conclusions before the heavenly jury is out. Some antagonists revel in the fall of Christian leaders. Nevertheless, the reality of moral failure of our leaders knocks at the doors of our hearts. A good dose of critical realism is necessary. Whether a living or deceased leader is (or was) truly guilty or truly innocent, it is daunting to write a delicate piece such as this in a fair and balanced way. I see no other option but to frame the following in hypothetical “if-then” terms: “If (or when) our role-models fall, what then?”
DON’T FORGET TO GRIEVE THE LOSS
“How do we respond to disturbing news like this? First, with grief,” said Faust, senior associate minister with East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis. “May God help us if we ever become so callous that we react to moral failure with a casual shrug.
“We grieve for the victims of abuse. We grieve over the damage caused to the Lord’s church. We ache for the families and organizations that have been wounded. We wince when scandals like these disillusion new believers and give ammunition to opponents of the gospel. And we grieve over our own feelings of loss and disappointment. It hurts when a role model we respected proves unfaithful and a voice we trusted falls silent.”
‘DISTINGUISH THE PRODUCT FROM THE SOURCE’
When a cherished Christian voice is discovered to have committed any form of moral impropriety, we naturally wrestle with whether to cite their works. The results of Ravi Zachiarias International Ministry’s investigation—RZIM reported there was convincing and credible evidence that Ravi Zacharias “engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of many years”—produced a wide variety of responses on social media. I read comments ranging from disappointment to heartbreak and from disbelief to rage. Several commenters threatened to purge all of Zacharias’s works from their private collections. (RZIM, in fact, has wiped all trace of Ravi Zacharias content from its website and social media platforms.)
I recently faced this troublesome conundrum when invited to participate in several days of Christian apologetic talks with Valley Christian Church of Fargo, North Dakota. My Friday-evening defense of Jesus among the skeptics included a brief description of our current Western society that was properly credited to Zacharias. I felt obligated to ask Valley’s preacher, Brent Captain, as to whether he found the quote appropriate in light of these allegations. Captain wisely encouraged me to keep it in the presentation, though I admit to removing a picture of Zacharias from my PowerPoint slides.
Captain’s advice was wise because, as sinners, we are all in the same boat. If we start canceling quotes due to the moral imperfection of an author, when and where should we stop? While we never want to gloss over a person’s moral failures, we must ask ourselves where to draw the line of which sins or what number of sins relegate a voice to being unworthy of reference. In reality, none of us is worthy of reference.
Christian theologian, philosopher, and author Jack Cottrell told me, “We can rightly judge [Zacharias’s] actions (if the allegations stand), many of which seem very unholy, but only God can judge his eternal destiny. I believe we must find a way to separate his positive works for God’s kingdom from the sinful (even hypocritical) works of his personal life. This is very difficult, I know, but he has written some very useful books which cannot just be ‘cancelled’ because their source was imperfect. We must try to distinguish the product from the source.”
DEPEND COMPLETELY ON GOD’S GRACE
Skeptics accurately point out that all Christ followers regularly engage in hypocrisy. As Christians, we should never deny this. Nevertheless, as painful as this reality may be, such hypocrisy does not undermine the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and Scripture, but rather, it confirms it. True sin and hypocrisy rightly conjure up moral judgments (John 7:24). Our immediate awareness of moral facts points to a transcendent moral standard; and the presence of such a transcendent moral standard, against which all humanity fails to measure up, opens the door for God’s abundant grace (Romans 5:20).
In a way, our skeptic friends inadvertently highlight the veracity of God’s moral standard as revealed in both Scripture and nature (Romans 1:19-20) when they point out our moral failures as Jesus’ disciples. Moral relativism has no basis for transcendent right and wrong; it must borrow from moral absolutism—such as Christian theism—to fault anyone for things such as sexual impropriety. And when our Christian leaders do stumble and fall, we believers are reminded to bend our knees and bow our heads in repentance, confessing our utter dependence upon the grace of our heavenly Father. That grace was poured out in Jesus Christ when he stood face-to-face with our individual and collective sins (Philippians 2:9-11; Ephesians 2:8-9).
CURB YOUR DEPENDENCE ON CELEBRITY STATUS WITHIN GOD’S KINGDOM
The Western church is currently overrun by mass reversions (or “deconversions”) as the authentic self becomes more important than the denied self (Matthew 16:24). Celebrity status can be a dangerous temptation; it is best avoided by the Christ follower. Not only does it place individuals on unrealistic pedestals, but it also attracts Satan to easy targets as people cash in Spirit-filled service for prestige.
If Satan was willing to go after Jesus in the desert, is it not easier for him to attack Christians in the spotlight? As servants in God’s kingdom, our focus must be on impact rather than accolades, on discipleship rather than on gathering a crowd, and on evangelism rather than merely winning arguments.
We need to ask ourselves, What is our reputation actually worth? While we shouldn’t aspire to have poor reputations (John 13:35; Romans 12:18), we must never forget that our Lord and Savior began his movement in the depths of embarrassment and shame. The humble origins of Jesus of Nazareth, coupled with the scorn of the Roman cross and Jewish claims of blasphemy, seemed to set the world against him. Yet Christ prevailed! These continue as some of the strongest circumstantial evidences for the veracity and exponential spread of early Christianity—that its source is God and not man.
We mustn’t forget that popularity as an obstacle and temptation is not something unique to our current context. Paul warned the Corinthians against such (1 Corinthians 1:12-13) and James staunchly challenged favoritism (James 2).
Jeff Vines continues to view the allegations against Zacharias with suspicion, but he shared thoughts he feels he must consider when a well-respected Christian leader like Zacharias falls:
I’m hurt and I’m wounded, but my faith is in Jesus Christ alone! My advice to the world [is this]: If you’re putting so much stock into a man or woman that his or her failure leads to disbelief in the Christian gospel, then back away for a moment, reflect and realize that we are culpable. It is possible for a fall to happen in anybody’s life, anywhere, and anytime. The effectiveness of any leader should be measured by how successful they are in drawing you toward Jesus, helping you fall in love with him.
To this day, I believe Zacharias’s ministry helped me fall more deeply in love with Jesus. This will never change, regardless of the extent of Zacharias’s personal failings.
PROCLAIM THE GOSPEL
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, New American Standard Bible, emphasis mine). In reality, our only hope and way forward remains the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is good news! This is why the Lord’s grace will forever remain amazing, unparalleled throughout human history. Yet our calling to chase after God’s holiness remains (1 Peter 1:16).
The Lord is not done with our sanctification. We will continue to confess our sins to God as we mature until the day of Christ’s return (1 John 1:9). We grieve when our spiritual role models fall. We are starkly reminded of our need for accountability and to resist the temptation of worldly accolades and notoriety. Yet we can place our confidence in God’s moral goodness as opposed to human fabrications.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we must continue to lovingly proclaim the gospel as the only way of salvation for mankind (Acts 4:12). The true church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). And this foundation can weather any storm.