Ravi Zacharias was one of the “good ones”, I thought. When he died, I celebrated the fact that a man had completed a life’s work for the gospel without scandal. He died a champion for the faith—or so I believed. I cried through the memorial video released by RZIM, but at the time, they were tears of joy for the legacy I believed Ravi had.
A few weeks later, I ran across the initial report that he was being investigated. I encountered for the first time the news of his sexual abuse and read with a sinking spirit the testimony of women manipulated through his position of power. I followed the investigation as things came forward, and only a few days ago read the final report from the investigation firm detailing exactly what Ravi had done.
I did not know the full story of Lori Anne Thompson until that report, which spurred me to dig deeper into the story.
And now, with reports confirmed, the church is reeling. What makes this time so different? Perhaps the amount of women (one should be enough to cause such a response, but this was dozens*)? Perhaps his charisma and logical ability, and how they acted as a smoke screen for his true actions?
My inbox was a mix of denial and distress. The denial—from Christians who followed and trusted him—confused me the most. There was an incredulity that Ravi could have done wrong. “It’s just people fabricating this to slander him.” I was told. “This is just meant to give the atheists more ammunition against us.” But why would an atheist need this as ammunition? The atheist has all the ammunition he needs in his own worldview. Denial, particularly in light of the investigation results, is the same thought process that protected Ravi in the first place.
Then there were the messages of distress. “My faith is so shaken.” I had to admit: Mine was too. How could someone who seemed to know the gospel SO WELL fail so miserably? How could he use the gospel to abuse women? And how—it chills me to write this—how could he use “winning souls” as an excuse to degrade the very soul in front of him?
It’s lonely at the top
It’s become abundantly clear that RZIM, as a ministry, ignored—and increased—Lori Anne’s victimhood due to their exaltation of Ravi, a fact they acknowledge in their recent statement. When we look out at the Christian landscape and watch leaders fall, we have to ask: from whence are they falling, and how did they get up there in the first place?
I once read an article by a pastor’s wife who lost her husband to suicide. In the article, she quoted him as saying—before he died—“It’s lonely at the top.” It was a grievous, heartbreaking story and I do not mention it lightly. But it brought my attention to a recurring problem in the western church.
What is “the top,” how do you get there, and is there supposed to be a “top” at all?
Freelance apostleship and its problems
Celebrity pastors are not new. Skilled speakers and preachers have drawn crowds since the early church. Now, our crowds are online, liking and commenting and following. Spurgeon was known to draw such a crowd people would stand in the streets to listen; he was called “the Prince of Preachers.” John Wesley also was a persuasive and motivating speaker. Jonathan Edwards moved hundreds with his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It may have looked different then, but helpful, clear, and motivating preachers of the Word have always drawn a crowd, and that in itself is not a bad thing.
The problem is when those preachers and teachers become “freelance apostles,” divorced from the accountability of the church eldership and congregation. Rather than be one spiritual gift—teaching—alongside other gifts, all holding the Teacher accountable, we have exalted and separated the Teacher from his or her community. The Teacher is now separate, better, distinct. He, or she, is at the top.
We will talk about the personal responsibility portion in a moment, but I wanted to begin with these observations about church structure and accountability. For Christian leaders of ANY kind (I am thinking of myself here) there must be some kind of attachment to a local church, a board of (non-family) elders, or some kind of publicly acknowledged accountability to ensure that leaders are seen for what they are: flawed humans, prone to sin, who can only do their best work in context of community. The alternative? This parade of Elmer Gantrys whose charisma blinds followers to a complete lack of personal integrity.
A displaced Christ
We’re still stuck on the question—how do Christian leaders get “to the top”?
I think it’s because we put them there. We put them there in our minds and hearts, then we put them there with money and fame. We find them so helpful, so genuine, we start to believe they can’t possibly give into the sins of us plebeian averages down below. We forget that blog posts and tweets and Insta quotes are only a tiny piece of the picture (same as pamphlets and books of yesteryear). We forget that everyone is still being sanctified this side of heaven, and in choosing to believe the best about our favorite leaders, we stop being like the Bereans. We stop critically thinking, checking what they say against the Word “to see if it is so” (Acts 17:11). And not just what they say—but how they live.
When we allow leaders such implicit trust, followers can exchange the leader’s role with God’s. We depend on these “great teachers” to interpret the Bible for us, and in doing so are in grave danger of idolatry. When we make a Christian leader the mediator between Christ and us, we displace Christ from the center of the gospel.
I could say more here, but I think this article says it better.
Do not deceive yourselves
When I read through the report, grieving over the dozens of women who are traumatized for life because of Ravi’s actions, I kept hearing the same phrase in my mind: Do not be deceived. More specifically, do not deceive yourselves. Paul gives this warning multiple times in the New Testament, indicating that it is possible to know Christ, to be a believer (in word at least), and to so completely deceive oneself you not only stop reflecting Christ’s character, you directly oppose it.
You become a servant of two masters. You become two-faced. Double-minded.
James said this:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)
As someone who works in apologetics and theology, I know all too well how this can occur. You get too close to the concepts. God becomes “work.” You know the answers, and you forget the relationship. You can argue beautifully for the gospel, but its truths stop sinking into your soul. You begin to think you deserve your position, something you “earned” through eloquence and labor. You stop seeing ministry as the product of God’s grace and start seeing it as your own accomplishment.
Oh, so easy. So subtle. And so fast.
When this happens without accountability, or when the people you choose to hold you “accountable” have an unrealistic/idolatrous view of your character, it’s only a matter of time before the double life begins.
In Galatians 6, Paul issues a warning to leaders in the church. The warning is about correcting a disciple who sins:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. (Gal. 6:1-4)
This warning works two ways: It works toward the leader, who needs to be in a context where Galatians 6 correction can happen for him. But it also applies to the teacher who is leading and restoring other believers. “Watch yourself, or you may also be tempted.” I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Paul follows this warning with a statement about pride:
If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.
So if you merely listen to the Word and don’t act on its truth, you deceive yourself.
And if you think you’re something more than you are—a sinner saved by grace—you deceive yourself.
Two letters by two different apostles to two different churches with an undeniable link. If we want to remain alert, aware, and honest about our sin, we must obey the Word of God. We must be open and honest about our sin, keeping short accounts with those in our communities, with those we have hurt, and with the Lord. Only those who look at their reflection in the Word and allow God to expose that sin in community will remain single-minded for the gospel. The Word is our hope. The church is our anchor.
So what now?
Do we read anything Ravi wrote? Do we support what he did? Knowing what we know, I can’t in good conscience read his work. And I certainly can’t share it, just as I said when I talked about John Crist. Knowing the hurt inflicted upon these women, particularly Lori Anne, makes his work—however orthodox or intellectually accurate —like a clanging gong (1 Cor. 13). Worse yet: bitter water, a poisoned well (James 3). To the women who suffered at Ravi’s hands—if you saw me share his work, unknowingly though it was, I apologize for the pain it caused. I did not know, and wish I had.
Some of you reading this are deeply shaken by his fall. Perhaps you are asking, Who can I trust? How do we know whose life is consistent with what they teach and whose is a facade? Here are a few thoughts.
1. Look for a Titus 2 model. Titus 2 is more often cited in regard to gender roles than it is in regard to its actual point: accountability for good character. Titus’ job was to see to it that his people were walking in the doctrines of the Christian faith, not undermining them with double-mindedness. No one in the church was exempt:
You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. (Titus 2:7-8)
2. Look for humility, but also look for vulnerability. Ravi was known for his humble and kind way of interacting with people of opposing views. His “humility” made many believe he couldn’t possibly be at fault in Lori Anne’s case. A pattern I have noted in the repeated “falls from grace” is a lack of vulnerability. Image-management leaves no room for this. By vulnerability, I do not mean dumping all personal struggles on the public or processing the most intimate issues online (readers know I have strong boundaries with this). But I do think that honest Christian leaders are not afraid to say: I struggle in this area, and this is what I am doing about it. Or—much more rare and just as necessary—I am struggling too much in this area to lead right now, so I am stepping away/delegating until I can.
3. Do not permit any leader to become sinless in your eyes. Recognize them for what they are: sinners with a specific gifting, but sinners all the same. They are not Christ. Do not let them replace Christ for you. Do not let them mediate between you and Christ, or between you and the Word. This is why it is SO VITAL that Christians arm themselves with biblical literacy. The more equipped you are to study on your own, to “be a Berean,” the easier it is to see leaders with realistic eyes.
4. I think you have the right to ask leaders, pastors and organizations what accountability looks like for them. I think leaders have a responsibility to share this. This situation with Ravi has grieved me in many ways. It has also made me even more passionate about transparency and accountability (see end of the post for more on that).
All this to say: If you are shaken, that feeling is merited. How could someone be so close to the Word that condemns abuse and commands care for the widow and orphan abuse, manipulate and wound the vulnerable? I myself want to resist this shaking, but I think the American church needs it. As a friend of mine said: God is cleansing His Bride. The false and the shallow and the sinister are being removed. The façade is being seen for what it is: a faint echo of true Christianity.
As I said in a post about a different abuser:
It is blinding pride that leads to a false sense of security. So often sin presents itself to us clothed in trust and goodness; not quite bad, but just enough to ‘loosen up’. Sin makes us think our faith is law and our relationship is rules and tells us to take a break from it all because we deserve it. We’ve been good pilgrims thus far; why not take a jaunt down another path?
But it isn’t safe. And as soon as I think it is, I’m in the gravest danger.
However, there is hope:
“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.” (Prov. 14:6)
Isn’t it like the Lord to provide the way out? As we reverence Him we are preserved within that very relationship, with strong confidence of our standing. Not only is this promise to us – today – but to our children, in the future. His people are shielded by the righteousness Christ gave to us when we accepted His gift of salvation. The shield of perfection that marked his earthly life was placed around us so the condemnation we deserved would pin Him to the cross in our stead. It is out of gratitude for Grace that we are a moral people.
But the moment I remove the shield of righteousness from hedging my heart, I am open to every kind of failure.
What we can do? We can learn from this example. We aren’t safe in our ‘little sins’. In fact, we are dangerously numbed by them, little by little, with each successive acceptance of the lesser. I know from example, and I know from experience.
I want to be preserved from this kind of fall, but I know I have all the potential for it. The solution?
I’m only as safe from sin as I am close to Christ.
As we reel from Ravi’s fall, let us keep a right perspective of future leaders we look up to. Let us keep a close eye on our own propensities to sin—and the excuses we make for it.
As we reel from Ravi’s fall, let us pray for justice for his victims. Pray for their comfort and their peace. Pray for RZIM and how they will move forward; for Ravi’s widow and his family. Rachael Denhollander has been hired as a consultant for these cases; pray for her and her organization (I also encourage reading her book).
As we reel from Ravi’s fall, let us invite the love and justice of God—those united, indispensable virtues of righteousness and grace—to do their work. In the wake of the pain and sadness, I have great hope for change in the church. I have hope for a body of Christ who practices what they preach, who holds leaders accountable, and is made up of genuine believers who do not merely listen to the Word, but do what it says.
Phylicia Masonheimer is a blogger, author, speaker and podcast host teaching Christians how to know what they believe and live it boldly. This article was first published at phyliciamasonheimer.com.