By now, many of you already know about the final report from RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries), detailing some of the sexual abuse committed by Christian apologist/evangelist Ravi Zacharias, through day spas he owned over a decade ago in Atlanta. It is pretty devastating.
There is the sexual abuse pattern, involving multiple reports of molestation over the years, that is of grave concern. Ravi’s victims, to varying degrees, have suffered. But there is more to it than that, as none of us are “sin-free.” Let me be clear about this up-front.
The bigger story is the utterly unrepentant attitude that Ravi apparently had, as he continued to solicit and receive photos of young, female massage therapists on his SmartPhone(s), up until a few months before his May, 2020 death. But the most egregious thing is the extreme lack of accountability that Ravi had in his ministry and personal life, a failure among even his closest friends and colleagues to ask tough questions, to speak openly and honestly, and to encourage the pursuit for truth, among others who had questions. Sadly, any attempt to question Ravi’s behavior or at least divulge more information was met with talk of “spreading rumors,” accusations that those who asked such questions were “demonized,” and even one report that Ravi went into a rage and threatened to resign, if pressed any further to provide more information. Ravi even threatened at least one victim, that if she ever told anyone what had happened, that it would put “millions of souls” in danger of eternal hell-fire.
When I became aware of the first controversy, in December, 2017, involving misleading information about Ravi’s academic credentials, I was hoping that this controversy would be the end of it. I had been given the impression by staff at RZIM that the academic credentials issue was simply a matter of confusion and cultural differences, and that there was a good explanation behind the sexting incidents involving a female friend and devotee of Ravi’s, Lori Anne Thompson.
Like many of the staff at RZIM, including the person I talked with, we all hoped that everything could be satisfactorily explained. After all, I have personally invested a lot of time and energy over the years promoting Ravi Zacharias, RZIM, and Ravi’s teaching materials. I have taught two adult Bible classes, at my church, based on Ravi’s teaching material, and co-taught another class with some friends, using Ravi material. Though my specific role was minimal, I helped to work with a team at my church for at least 5 years or more, to try to get Ravi Zacharias to come speak at my church, which eventually did happen, about a decade ago.
Ravi’s appearance at our church was the single largest event, in my church’s history. Folks came from 3 to 4 hours away to hear him speak. The place was packed. It was exciting. The atmosphere was electric.
But after what I agonized over in December, 2017, and listening to all of the accolades given at his memorial service, back in May, 2020, I started having that sickening feeling in my stomach, that something still was not right. The then Vice President Mike Pence hailed Ravi as the greatest apologist of this, the 21st century. Well, what was I to make of that?
Thankfully, it took the courage of one woman, a follower of Jesus and one of the massage therapists Ravi groped over ten years earlier, to finally speak up. The only one who would listen to her was an atheist lawyer, and that finally got the ball rolling. Other women spoke up and the story broke back in September, 2020. Still, RZIM at the time decided to double-down on the message that there was a good explanation here, and everything was still OK. Other defenders of Ravi continued to double-down and profess his innocence, explaining that the accusations were all “attacks from Satan,” intent on destroying a godly man’s reputation. Meanwhile, I have had conversations with skeptics who only look at this as simply yet another reason why Christianity can not be true.
Yet, at the same time, RZIM did agree to conduct an internal investigation, and this time, they promised complete transparency. Why did it take so long? Almost THREE YEARS LATER????
Well, we finally got the story this past week….. Thanks to the courage of that one woman who finally spoke out.
It does not roll off the tongue very well, but I propose a new “MAGA” slogan: “Make Anti-Celebrity-Christianity Great Again.”
There are several problems though, with my new slogan. First, “Anti-Celebrity-Christianity” is an almost impossible goal to achieve. It comes with the territory. After all, the Apostle Paul, and the rest of Christ’s earliest disciples, were known as pre-modern equivalents of today’s celebrities, in their own circles.
Jesus is and will always be THE reason for why we believe. Nevertheless, we simply can not separate the Christian faith completely from those who claim to represent Jesus. There is no way that any single one Christian can have complete adequate knowledge of the faith, without having a measure of trust in other Christian leaders, who know more than we do about certain aspects of Christianity, who can live as examples for us to follow.
Take Tim Keller, for example. As co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, Keller might come as close as possible to being a spokesperson for broadly-Reformed-minded evangelicalism. But he is nevertheless a celebrity. He recently was interviewed on a podcast where he talks about the dangers of celebrity Christianity. When hardly anybody knew who Tim Keller was he was a pastor of a rural church, in a town less than an hour away from me. But now he gets people asking for autographs for his books. It is pretty awful. I would encourage folks to listen to the full podcast, as Keller has some excellent observations to make about the current state of evangelicalism today.
I also remember when it came out that the famous liberal Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, had been secretly involved in numerous sexual affairs, outside of his marriage, throughout much of his adult life. His adulterous infidelities were so bad and numerous, that even his wife sought relief in her own sexual affairs, just to cope with the trauma of living with a sex addict. Tillich had sought to completely recast a vision of Christianity with a multi-religious worldview, that incorporated many non-orthodox theological perspectives. Nevertheless, he has been hailed as one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century.
It is very easy … and tempting… for an evangelical like me to dismiss Tillich out of hand, with some measure of secret pleasure over his downfall, in his reputation. But then I think of Ravi Zacharias, and I realize, yet again, that none of us are far away from missing out on what God truly seeks to purpose in our lives.
So, where do we go from here?
Practically speaking, what do I do with my Ravi Zacharias books? Well, I have never owned any Tillich books, but I have a few of Ravi’s…. and I have a few other books written by people who have gone through serious moral failures, even such failures that continued on for years.
It is important to remember that even if an author has a personal failing, that it does not necessarily invalidate the message that the author is seeking to communicate. We must evaluate the writings of a person based on the evidence, logic, and claims that the author is making, and not strictly on the character of that author.
I personally do not plan on tossing out my Ravi Zacharias collection anytime soon. But I do not feel compelled to recommend him either to others. The main reason for saying that is because I think there are a lot of other Christian apologetics authors who are just as good, if not superior to Ravi Zacharias, in making their arguments for the Christian faith.
A good example would be from Michael Licona, perhaps one of today’s most well-known defenders of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, who has produced a short video, putting the Ravi Zacharias scandal in perspective, when it comes to making good arguments for the Christian faith (see below).
But the bigger issue for me is this: How can we get away from an evangelical sub-culture that tends to idolize its celebrities? Here are my big takeaways:
- Cultivate church and ministry leadership structures where there is sufficient accountability. Do NOT promote “lone ranger” Christianity. Get into an accountability group yourself, where someone you trust (or more) can hold you accountable.
- Develop institutions centered, not around personalities, but around good, solid Scriptural doctrine.
- Invite questions, dialogue and conversation. Allow yourself and others to express their doubts, and work through them. Pray for one another. Love one another.
Those are probably some good places to start…. to start to “Make Anti-Celebrity-Christianity Great Again.”